Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: A Story from the USA

“…it's exciting to be part of a team!” - Jim Fish

Jacqueline Marie | July 12, 2022

“I, at one time, referred to St. Mary’s as Our Lady of the Comatose…We were the typical parish in the mushy middle,” states longtime St. Mary’s parishioner Dwain Robbins. 

He continues, “People came, checked off, ‘I went to Mass.’ They tried to be the first out of the parking lot; there was relatively little interaction.” Ten years ago if you tried to talk about evangelization “people’s eyes glazed over.” 

Located in the Lower Blackstone Valley in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, St. Mary’s has not been immune to the problems facing the Church.  

But if you were to walk into St. Mary’s today you would not find a sleepy parish, as Dwain beams “I can’t say that anymore; we are anything but.”

Diane Moriarty, who has been at the parish since birth says, “I have seen St. Mary’s blossom, all right, it’s amazing.”  

Jim Fish came to the parish with his wife 20 years ago. He says, “ it’s now an engaged parish.”   

Dwain says the culture has changed: “I’ll give you a specific. If you showed up at St. Mary’s on Sunday morning at 9:55am and watched people come and go out the back, there’s several things that we did not have before: first of all, there’s a high noise level. People are interacting and laughing. They give the distinct impression that they like each other.” Diane feels, “now I can honestly say when I come to church I feel like I know everybody, and it just is such a family community.” 

Dwain says the shift from maintenance to mission means moving people into discipleship rather than membership. He uses a baseball reference: “to use an analogy, a member is someone sitting and watching a ball game; a disciple is someone who’s on the field actually playing.” 

Dwain, Jim and Diane are three of the six members of the leadership team at St. Mary’s. United and driven, their leadership supports their pastor, throws open the church doors, and leads people on mission.  

Yet none of them are new to the church. In fact, between the three of them, they have well over a century of membership years accumulated at St. Mary’s. 

They were all already there. 

“ ...a member is someone sitting and watching a ball game; a disciple is someone who’s on the field actually playing.”

— Dwain Robbins

Sometimes the problems of parish leadership can feel like a lack of the right people, but the giftings, the vision and the faith were all present in this team, they just needed the opportunity to use it. 

Father Nick came to St. Mary’s in 2013. “It became really clear that the Parish Council didn’t really have a good understanding of what the Church’s mission is, so we kind of did have to do some work on that, but what emerged were some people, some parishioners in the parish who were really thoughtful, energetic, passionate —called to do the same kind of work that that I was getting passionate about as I was reading Divine Renovation.”

“What emerged were some people, some parishioners in the parish who were really thoughtful, energetic, passionate, called to do the same kind of work that I was getting passionate about as I was reading Divine Renovation. ”

St. Mary’s Church in Uxbridge, MA (Web)

He recalls being handed the book, Divine Renovation: from a Maintenance to a Missional Parish at the chancery. He was asked to read it to see what he thought of it. Father Nick formed a small group which he called “the vision team” from out of the parish council. Together they read through the book, then they went on to go through the guidebook.  Dwain, Jim and Diane “read it with me and then begin to do the work of envisioning.” 

“They’ve been phenomenal.” 

Father Nick raves about Diane, who is now the Pastoral Associate at the parish.

“She came on as part of my leadership team. And then we were able to create a position for her in the parish and now she’s empowering other people to use their gifts and abilities, for service and ministry. And she’s so good at it.”  

This team in turn encouraged Father Nick to enter group coaching with DR, something they all continue to see fruit from.  

As Jim relates, “We have a leader, a pastor, who is willing to pivot and work with us to change. So it’s exciting to be part of a team… we have our direction, our strength, we know where we’re going but perfectly open to thinking outside of the traditional box. Father Nick is able to work with us to utilize all the gifts and talents of people that are in the parish to maximize our potential.” 

The vision of St. Mary’s Parish is “to form disciples who joyfully live out the mission of our Lord Jesus Christ”(Web). 

That vision is key. It informs the pursuit of evangelization (St. Mary’s uses “Light of the World Evangelization Ministry”) which has not only brought new people in, but as Dwain puts, changed how parishioners talk about their faith with one another :“And again we didn’t do that before. We have shared faith personally – it changes people.” 

“We pay close attention to the life of the parish. But I think we really do offer the invitation, that radical hospitality, and we often hear that people decide to come to our parish, because of the fact they felt so welcome here.” says Diane.  

Diane has found, “the work to form disciples…It’s that walking with one person. Taking the time to accompany one person. Let them learn to trust you, and if the Holy Spirit calls them then they want to become a disciple.”

Jim found it took vulnerability to start that conversation with another parishioner. However, Jim found “as soon as you go, yeah, I’m as naive as you are. Let’s all explore together and let’s all learn how to have a closer encounter with Christ in an adult way rather than in a young adult way” it completely opened people up.

“The Assumption of Our Lady” Stained Glass at St. Mary’s (Photographer: Dennis Smith)

Diane, also notes the importance of prayer: “We begin everything with prayer. If there’s a new initiative, if there’s a new idea, we always put a prayer team together and have people praying. So I really feel we’re led by the Holy Spirit here.” 

The stakes for the Church to move from maintenance to mission are high. Dwain points out, “the Church is hemorrhaging people and especially young people; the numbers are scary.”  Diane says the solution is “now we have to reach beyond the walls of our church.”  Dwain adds, that as the Church reaches out, “It’s much more convincing to tell your faith story than cite theology.” 

Jim finishes “one of the things that I think has helped us, is that we’ve been intentional and purposeful about the way in which we went about what we’re doing… drive a stake in the ground and say this is where we’re going and we are going together.”