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Forming Intentional Disciples - Introduction

  • SHERRY WEDDELL

"Sherry Weddell has supplied us with one amazing resource — "Forming Intentional Disciples" — which is must-reading for any Catholic who wants to be realistically, honestly and effectively engaged in the drama of making disciples." - Father Thomas Berg 


weddellIn 1997, Father Michael Sweeney, O.P., and I founded the Catherine of Siena Institute, a ministry of the Western Dominican Province.  Our mission is to equip parishes to form lay apostles.  Our working assumption at that time was that most Catholics just needed solid apostolic formation in order to discern and answer God's call.  We used the Called & Gifted discernment process I had developed as a way to introduce Catholics to the idea that they were apostles with a mission by virtue of their baptism.  Over 65,000 Catholics — priests, seminarians, religious, and lay — have gone through the Called & Gifted process to date, in hundreds of parishes in 105 dioceses on 5 continents.

In many ways, however, this book began to take shape in 1993, when, as a volunteer, I taught the very first Called & Gifted Workshop to twenty handpicked people in Seattle.  From the beginning, I offered what I call "gifts interviews": private, one-hour, one-on-one sessions that help individuals recognize consistent patterns of giftedness.  I would listen as Catholics told their stories of being used by God for others.  In the early days, I did a considerable amount of nodding and making encouraging sounds, since I had very little idea of what I was supposed to be listening for.  But I learned through experience and have since trained thousands of pastoral leaders to conduct these gifts discernment interviews.

One of these gifts interviews was remarkable for the fact that it drew the Institute into direct involvement with evangelization.  In 2004, Dominican Father Mike Fones and I were teaching in a large Canadian city, where a pastor had asked us to interview a few of his leaders.  I subsequently found myself listening to a woman who was president of the local Catholic women's group, but I wasn't getting anywhere.  Her stories were so vague that I wasn't hearing any evidence of how God might be using her.  Since charisms do not manifest until one's faith becomes personal, I reasoned that if she could tell me about a spiritual turning point in her life, I would be able to focus on the years since that turning point.  So I asked her a question that I had never asked before: Could you briefly describe to me your lived relationship with God to this point in your life?

Her answer stunned me.  My first thoughts were, "That's not possible.  You're a leader in the parish.  You wouldn't do that without some kind of relationship with God.  I must have asked the wrong question." 

After thinking carefully for a few moments, she responded briskly, "I don't have a relationship with God."  Her answer stunned me.  My first thoughts were, "That's not possible.  You're a leader in the parish.  You wouldn't do that without some kind of relationship with God.  I must have asked the wrong question."  So I spent the rest of the hour approaching the issue of relationship with God from every perspective I could think of.  By the end of the interview, I realized that she had accurately described her spiritual reality in the first place.  While God had a relationship with her (or she would not exist!), she did not have a conscious relationship with God.  No wonder she struggled to discern her charisms! Her parish involvement was devoid of spiritual motivation.

I thought long and hard about that interview.  I later told Father Mike, "That's the most amazing interview I've ever done.  Maybe we should ask that question more often."  And so the two of us started routinely asking the "Describe your lived relationship with God" question in the course of our gifts interviews.  The answers we received — from hundreds of ordinary Catholics and parish leaders all over the world — were consistently revealing and often astounding.  And we have learned a great deal more by listening to over 1,600 diocesan and parish leaders from 60 dioceses who have attended our evangelization seminar, Making Disciples, over the past eight years.

What have we learned?  We learned that there is a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between the Church's sophisticated theology of the lay apostolate and the lived spiritual experience of the majority of our people.  And this chasm has a name: discipleship.  We learned that the majority of even "active" American Catholics are still at an early, essentially passive stage of spiritual development.  We learned that our first need at the parish level isn't catechetical.  Rather, our fundamental problem is that most of our people are not yet disciples.  They will never be apostles until they have begun to follow Jesus Christ in the midst of his Church.

We learned that at the parochial level, we have accepted this chasm between the Church's teaching and Catholics' lived relationship with God as normative, and this has shaped our community culture, our pastoral assumptions, and our pastoral practices with devastating results.  We discovered, to our surprise and dismay, that many pastoral leaders do not even possess a conceptual category for discipleship.  As long as this holds true, the theology of the laity and the Church's teaching on social justice and evangelization will remain beautiful ideals that are, practically speaking, dead letters for the vast majority of Catholics.

Finally, we learned that God, in his providence, has already given us all the resources we need — theological, pastoral, and practical — to move into the new century empowered to meet this challenge and the host of other challenges that face us.  This book, like all the work of the Catherine of Siena Institute, is ordered toward helping the Church accomplish just that.

Almost all of the Institute's work has been done within the parochial system, and not with ecclesial movements or other specialized groups.  I have tremendous admiration for these movements, but they ultimately touch, at most, only 1 to 2 percent of the Church's membership.  The only contact that most Catholics have with the Church is through their local parish or mission, which is why we have focused on equipping parishes.  If life at the parish level changes, the life of the whole Church will change.

At the seminary and graduate-school level, there is currently very little formation in practical evangelization available for Catholics, especially as regards effective evangelization at the parish level in the postmodern West.

At the seminary and graduate-school level, there is currently very little formation in practical evangelization available for Catholics, especially as regards effective evangelization at the parish level in the postmodern West.  Most of the evangelizing parishes that we have encountered are only two to five years into the process.  The parish that we have worked with the longest has only been evangelizing for fifteen years.  I have only been listening to Catholics tell me their stories for eighteen years.  We are all pioneers in this area, and we are all on a steep learning curve.

The good news is that we have met many amazing, creative pastoral leaders who are deliberately calling Catholic men and women to make the journey to intentional discipleship, and are beginning to see the extraordinary fruit and cultural changes that follow.  Whatever wisdom and insight this book contains comes from the tens of thousands of Catholic men and women around the world who have honored us with their stories.  I am also drawing upon the experiences of a network of pioneering evangelizers and pastoral collaborators.

I can only share in this book what we know from the Church's teaching and have witnessed God do among his people to this point.  That means that there are many gaps in our understanding, and that there are many questions we have yet to answer.  But I believe that there is a definite trajectory to this learning experience, and that the implications are very exciting and hopeful.  

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Acknowledgement

weddellSherry Weddell. "Forming Intentional Disciples - Introduction." Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012) 9-14.

Published by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., Huntington, IN, www.osv.com, 1-800-348-2440. Used with permission of Our Sunday Visitor.

The Author

weddella1weddellaSherry Weddell, the co-founder of the Catherine of Siena Institute, with Fr. Michael Sweeney, O.P., is a Christ-centered disciple maker who works to equip Catholic parishes to form lay Catholics for mission in the world. Sherry has been responsible for forming over 85,000 lay, religious and ordained Catholics in 105 dioceses in the art of evangelizing postmoderns, in gaining a better understanding of their spiritual gifts and vocational discernment and in understanding the theology and mission of the laity. She is the author of Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, and Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples.  

Copyright © 2012 Our Sunday Visitor
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