Retreat Centers and Parishes Can Be Partners

During this economic downturn, parishes struggle to afford the lay ministry staff they need to address the various needs of their parishioners. They can rely on volunteers, but even the best volunteer doesn’t last forever.

Large wealthy suburban parishes might be able to afford large pastoral teams, but professionally trained lay ecclesial ministers are generally out of reach for smaller parishes. Where can an overworked priest find the assistance he needs for his one, two, or three parishes?

No Competition, but Mutual Support:

The local retreat center and the parish can forge new friendships and work collaboratively. Although they have been spinning in separate universes for years, they need not. They are not competing entities; both have evangelization and spiritual enrichment as their common goal. They are on the same team, but too often ignore each other.

The retreat center might already have a staff member (or two) that can be of great assistance to the parish. Most are trained in ministry or spiritual direction, and can deliver formal presentations. By being a presence in the parish, the retreat center staff can encourage parishioners to seek respite and care for their souls with time away. Everybody wins.

The Missionary Benedictine Sisters in Norfolk, Nebraska, recently refurbished their monastery and retreat center. The sisters held a “visioning night” at the local parish to ask for input. Parishioners attended and told them what programs they’d like to see offered at the center. As local Catholics would be their primary constituents, this was a “no-brainer.” Input, as well as planning assistance from parishioners, is essential. Otherwise, a moms retreat might mistakenly be planned for first communion weekend! Good ministry involves careful planning that doesn’t waste energy.

The parish priest might even suggest to the retreat center a topic that he feels would benefit his parishioners, and the retreat center should be quick to consider his request. Spiritual enrichment, not competition, is the goal. When the parish is no longer pressured to provide every single spiritual activity under the sun, the overworked priest can take a breath.

Exposure to Consecrated Life:

As most retreat centers are operated by religious orders, Catholics and non-Catholics alike get exposure to those in consecrated life when they visit. Some retreat centers connected to a monastery or religious community also offer associate or oblate programs that offer lay Catholics an even closer connection to a religious community. Surely that can foster an appreciation of religious life or maybe even spark a religious vocation.

Outreach On the Parish Property:

Could a retreat center actually provide a program at a local parish?

The Benedictine monastery where I work is dedicated to serving the needs of the local rural Catholic population. Once I asked two overworked young priests how the retreat center could be of assistance to them. They drew a blank at first.

Then, I suggested that the retreat center could buy a collection of acclaimed Catholic educational DVDs (that the parish could not afford) and send a staff member to the parish on Wednesday nights to show the DVDs and facilitate discussion following the viewing. The evening would end with a piece of pie or cake. “How does that sound?” I asked the young priests.

After the “deer in the headlights” look had passed, they wanted to sign up immediately. They were desperate to offer something that was catechetically sound and easy to organize. Neither priest had any staff members besides part-time secretaries. They had five parishes between them!

Place of Community Enrichment:

The retreat center can be a gathering place for the regional secular community too. Attending educational events together in a welcoming and respectful environment can enhance community spirit. A retreat center can offer ecumenical prayer services, public health information, citizenship classes and GED and ESL classes. It can host AA and NA meetings and marriage and engaged encounters. In rural areas, meetings to discuss agribusiness and agronomy can be held; in the city, urban planning.

Having a place for dialogue and community enrichment is no small opportunity. Some of the biggest events we have held at Immaculata Monastery and Spirituality Center were those that offered continuing education units (CEU’s) for health professionals on aspects of rural public health. Activities that enrich the community at large have positive ripple effects in the parish. 

We’re All In This Together:

The parish and the retreat center should not spin in separate universes. The first hurdle in the forging of friendships is to abandon the words “mine” and “ours.” We have to start with “us.” New relationships can be created; new ways of serving a region can be embraced. No Catholic institution is an island unto itself. We are all on the journey together.

Mary Eileen Andreasen is the program coordinator for Immaculata Monastery & Spirituality Center in Norfolk, Neb.