Talking about Missionary Discipleship
Several members of the diocesan Curia, including Drew Isbell, the director of evangelization (on the right in the photo above), and Ryan Purcell, the director of youth formation (on the left in the photo above), are part of the Missionary Discipleship Team, which formed after Bishop Emeritus’ R. Daniel Conlon’s pastoral letter was published in November 2018. Recently, Carlos Briceño interviewed them for their thoughts on how people and parishes in the diocese are trying to move from maintenance to mission, with the end goal of forming missionary disciples.
What have you learned about missionary discipleship?
Drew: It's a lot harder than I thought it was at this level. It takes a great deal of time and intentionality that we've had to really carve out amongst our team. We have also needed to be very invitational with others that we want to invite into missionary discipleship. Discipleship is based on a relationship with Jesus, and if we don’t have a relationship of authentic friendship with someone we are trying to help walk into a relationship with Jesus, it will be very difficult.
Ryan: I would say that it’s easier said than done – and more difficult than many of us think. Missionary Discipleship IS simple, but not easy.
What changes have you seen in people working throughout the diocese as they deepen their lives as missionary disciples? Give me examples.
Drew: We had several virtual meetings with deans and priest deaneries shortly after the shutdown around outreach and missionary discipleship, especially during this time. One specific time, I was very moved to see a priest who really responded in that moment. He wanted us to teach him about missionary discipleship, and just his openness to it and understanding the necessity of it, as we continued to explain to him what the vision is. He had a recognition and desire for fraternity and relationships that are deeper than just professional relationships in his ministry in order to be truly effective.
Ryan: The foundation of discipleship is a deepening relationship with our Lord. I am a disciple of Jesus, but none of us are meant to be lone rangers. We thrive in discipleship when we are running closely with one or two others who are in the race too. Too often, this is relationship is overlooked or left untried.
The biggest change that I have witnessed is an overall willingness to try. Many have not experienced the kind of discipleship that Jesus lived with the Twelve, but they are boldly stepping out, while not knowing exactly what this “discipleship thing” looks like.
Do you have an example of this?
Ryan: Yeah, I’m really inspired by a pastor in our diocese who wants to see his parish alive with missionary disciples. He is convinced that it all starts with him.
You know, I tend to immediately think, “Priests are way too busy. Pastors just don’t have the time.” … Well, they might think that too, but this pastor is prioritizing the time, he has called his twelve and he’s doing it. Not perfectly, but discipleship is an art, and you just learn by doing. I see great fruit through Father’s initiative… and tremendous potential as we look forward with him.
What are some of the obstacles?
Drew: Carving out the time for relational ministry. It's difficult. Like Ryan was speaking to, our priests are overburdened a lot of times. They have this huge responsibility of administration at the parish. Just trying to balance that effectively. Everything they must do on a broader level at the parish, but also trying to minister to individuals at a deeper level, investing in a few at a deeper level, rather than ministering to every person's needs because we know that they often feel stretched. Giving themselves permission to go deeper with a few can be hard. It is also causing skepticism for some: “Does this really work?”
Do you see that in your lives? Difficulties?
Ryan: As a father of a domestic Church, my family, I know can't be all things to all people, but I can be everything to a few. My intentionality and my time spent with my wife and two kids – that's going to bear the greatest fruit. I look at our pastors and look at the burdens of responsibility that they have, and it's not too dissimilar from mine. As a father, I have burdens and responsibilities as well, but I'm called to draw them closer to our Lord, to invest deeply, and to lead.
What changes have you started to see in parishes that are trying to become more missionary?
Ryan: I wish there were more change, honestly. It’s the whole good versus the great. We have so many parishes and so many people doing so much good, but disciples aren’t made by accident. If we are going to prioritize missionary discipleship at the parish level, we must be willing to say no to some of the good things we do.
How do you do that?
Ryan: That’s the million-dollar question. I mean, I struggle with this more than I’d care to admit. We’re all busy, right? Jesus was too. He taught, healed, preached, and travelled from town to town, but He didn’t allow all the good He did to overtake the great.
Drew: Those pastors who are interested in missionary discipleship, there's such a roadblock in that they know the fight they're going to have to battle if they introduce that to the parish or committee. While they might have that desire, are they willing to actually bring that up to their staff and create that vision going forward if they know it's going to be super difficult? Where does the missionary disciple, or team, come alongside a pastor in that way? Those are the things we continue to discern.
What are some of the plans you have going forward?
Drew: Recently, we recommitted, or are in the process of recommitting, to do missionary discipleship with each other in our team. Making that space and time to really go deep in our relationships on the team to pray together and to keep each other accountable in really doing discipleship outside of the Missionary Discipleship Team as well. That unwavering commitment to run in discipleship with one another. We really believe the fruit of that fraternal connection will bear fruit across our offices and into the diocese.
Ryan: Right. I mean we want to transform every parish and the entire diocese. We want to run with parish leaders and make lasting impact, but we really found ourselves going immediately into that mission without explicitly living this together. We know that we can’t overlook this, and we want to be able to live and witness to missionary discipleship as a team.
Would you agree with that, Drew?
Drew: Yeah, absolutely. We haven't been intentional about making the space for intentional prayer around a subject or action item the way we think we should. It was more objective. That’s a change we really want to see within our team.
Ryan: In a life of discipleship, we don't just commit once. We commit and re-commit daily. A missionary disciple is a follower of Jesus who has taken on the mission to make other disciples. To witness and to share Jesus who we know and love. If we're not doing this at the core of our diocese, if we're not doing it as a core at our parishes, we're putting the cart before the horse. This lived experience of discipleship drives our mission, whether in a parish or in a diocese.