Welcome to another Missionary Discipleship newsletter. Recently, I was blessed to interview Mary Guilfoyle, the former Director of Evangelization and Discipleship at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, MI. She is now the Associate Director of Parish Renewal for ACTS XXIX (https://actsxxix.org)
In the following Q and A, I asked Mary to flesh out what ACTS XXIX is. She was gracious and eloquent in her Holy Spirit-driven and Gospel-centered replies:
What is Acts XXIX?
Almost everyone involved in parish ministry is painfully aware that something is broken. Something is not right. Priests and lay leaders are often exhausted, discouraged, overworked, and spent much of the day. I know this. I've been in parish life for years putting out fires and playing whack a mole, the game where you're taking a mallet and you're just going after whatever is most urgent in the moment.
These realities that contribute to staff tension, disfunction and little time for energy to make the changes that bring about lasting, great transformation because the fires in parish life continue to rage all around them. We were blessed, our team, to experience God do something that changed everything for us. Acts XXIX are itinerant missionaries who partner with pastors and their teams to help address this crisis that I just fleshed out that we all know so well. We don't claim to have the answer to the crisis, but we would say we have some answers from the work God has allowed us to be a part of in renewing a parish.
We would say that we're convinced this culture change has to happen. We believe it can happen anywhere. St. Paul, one of my heroes, says that "freely we have received, so freely we are to give." Our conviction, my conviction, what God did for us wasn't simply for us, but for others who find themselves in a similar place and a similar experience. We eagerly want others in parish life to experience that same transformation, to be renewed in hope and to be encouraged that the Holy Spirit brought it back in us.
What are the origins of Acts XXIX?
The candid answer, quite frankly, is we feel very much called by God to this mission. Confirmation of this came from Archbishop Allen Vigneron who is the ordinary of our Archdiocese of Detroit. He gave approval [so] a successor of the Apostles confirmed that this movement, this mission, was of God. So we feel very confident that this is an apostolic call that God has put in our hearts.
What are your credentials for doing this?
We've all served in parishes, or dioceses, and been part of the large renewal that God is doing in the Church. Our "credentials" for the new mission is, simply, that God called us to it. In St. Paul's Letter to the Corinthians, he said, "Who of us is qualified to do this?” It's more to do with God and Him wanting us to do this, than it has to do with us and what we've done before. In saying this, we hope that others are provoked to understand that we all have a calling to mission and God wants to do something absolutely extraordinary through them, as well.
What is God's desire for the world?
God wants His world back. God created us out of His love, and, even when it went off the rails, He remains faithful to us and out of His love He sent His son, Jesus Christ, to do nothing less than to re-create it and to re-create us (2nd Corinthians 5:17).
He wants this world, which is His, He wants it back. This re-creation has, in fact, already begun in the Resurrection of the Jesus Christ, no matter how it may appear to us many days. Just how as He poured out His spirit on Pentecost into the heart, to collaborate with Him in His work of re-creation, so, in all humility, our confidence is Him. So, in all humility, we feel God called us to be an instrument in that work of re-creation.
Why is this work so urgent right now?
First, the state of the world. Second, the sickness within the Church. There are a number of studies from a number of fields out there that already showing that our culture is riddled with despair, isolation and loneliness on a level that we have never seen in our world. It seems like every day you can go to the news, and there is another headline.
For instance, there was one a couple of weeks ago that spoke of the loneliness of millennials. You have that crisis of friendship. Studies have recently shown that, for the last three years in a row, life expectancy in our nation has declined. That is the first time since 1918 that that has happened – since the end of World War I and the Spanish Flu.
The decline today is not due to a world war or a pandemic; they are calling it “deaths of despair.” In essence, we're simply losing the will to live. Suicide, the opioid crisis, and other deaths relating to despair are taking lives on unprecedented levels. The solution isn't better health care or interventions from science or technology, as important as they are. We have all of that. The solution is hope.
We would say that the Church is supposed to be that herald of hope, that is found in Jesus Christ. The Church herself right now isn't healthy as the almost daily headlines testify. The abuse crisis. The decline in priestly vocations. The forgotten, or the loss of confidence, that the Gospel is power. ACTS XXIX wants to a play a part in helping the rescuers get healthy as to rescue others. There's a great line: rescued people rescue people. We want to help the rescuers – the pastors and their parishes – get healthy so that they be on the same rescue mission that those around us desperately need and are looking for.
The culture, by and large, doesn't know how bad the bad news is and unless we appreciate how bad the bad news is, the Good News won't resonate with them. It's my hope that, if you click on any news aggregate, you listen to the news. We should all be painfully aware the world has gone off the rails. Hopefully, that heightens the hunger and thirst for the Good News
What is the work of ACTS XXIX and how do you accomplish it?
We would say that our methodology falls under three principles. Each requires effort, but the transformation will be amazing. The first phase we would describe as requiring a Biblical world view. That world view, which comes from Scripture and Tradition, enables us to see accurately God and His relationship to the world that He created, that He loves and that He’s rescued in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, it's imperative to get that world view correct. It's imperative to understand that, even now, regardless of how it appears in the Church, our world, our country, those headlines we just talked about, that Jesus is truly Lord. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Him.
To prayerfully soak in that world view is to experience utter and profound healing on a multitude of levels and that brings extraordinary confidence in the power of the Gospel, and it’s restorative for priests and the people that they serve. I think pastors have forgotten that the Gospel is power.
It's from this world view that we would say the third principle flows. (I know I’ve skipped a principle, but I’ll get back to that in a minute.) This phase involves walking with a parish to discern what and how God, the Master Architect, is asking you and your parish to build.
We are increasingly of the mind that God already has a blueprint for every parish out there. And it's not our work to create something on our own but to prayerfully discern that blueprint that He already has in His heart and His mind.
Think about passages like Psalm 127: “Unless the Builder builds, in vain do the laborers labor.” Or the instructions to Moses in the Exodus: “Build according to the pattern.” Those two passages shows that to be very appropriate for us here. This ensures that a parish doesn't simply need to replicate what’s working in other parishes. That's the knee jerk reaction. Let's do what Holy Family did or what Mater Dei did or what Our Lady of Good Counsel did. That's not the answer.
We're only going to arrive at the plan that God has for us in our own unique particular circumstances if we prayerfully connected with the Architect, the Master Builder, to know what He is asking us to build. In order to prayerfully discern that and to construct God’s blueprint for the parish, a pastor and his staff has to transition from merely being a staff to a healthy team and ultimately a family.
There are a bunch of staffs out there, but I would say there are a few parishes that they would describe themselves as a team. A healthy team would describe themselves as a team. A staff, necessarily, who hasn't gone through the process of organizational health, wouldn't appreciate that they're a team now. We would say that a pastor and his leadership team, or his entire staff, needs to move from merely being a staff to being a healthy team and ultimately a family. That's the second principle. That requires an enormous investment of time and work and energy, but it's worth it.
Our team has drawn from the work of Pat Lencioni. We're convinced that without this work it's not possible for a parish to be all that God intends it to be.
That's our three principles: acquiring a Biblical world view, consulting the Architect, and moving from being a staff to a team and, ultimately, a family.
Here's the reality: The Gospel is healing. The word of God is healing. It's alive. We believe in order for this to happen we want to pour into pastors to help bring about that priestly renewal and healing to help them recover their identity as a beloved son of the Father but also a priest of Jesus Christ. In order to create and build and renew healthy parishes, we have to pour into our pastors like crazy.
Have you seen this approach bear fruit in a parish?
All of these principles sound great but are they fruitful? Have we seen God bless what He's given us. Our team has been abundantly privileged to be part of God's remarkable work in a large suburban parish in the Archdiocese of Detroit over the last 12 years.
We have also been involved in accompanying, mentoring and coaching many other parishes across the country for the last six years. Let me give you some examples of that fruit. With regard to that first principle, there's an awful lot to be shared.
Let me share one example. Father John Riccardo’s experience as a priest is that many people in the pews hadn't heard this story of salvation in a compelling way, so they, in other words, haven't encountered what St. Paul calls the power of the Gospels. So mistakenly, they think the Gospel is just news. When, in fact it's extraordinary news. It's the only news that can rescue us from that despair and the loneliness that's plaguing the world and gives ultimate meaning to your life and mind.
He needed to do something, to build something, to address that. But it had to be done on Sundays. Because Sundays is the only time when the entire parish family is present, right? So God inspired him, together with our team, and I was a part of that team, to build something to enable people to hear the Gospel in a radically new way and to respond to it as if for the very first time. And to experience that healing and that freedom and to bring this extraordinary news into a lonely and despairing world with confidence and with joy.
So as a result of that, more and more of the folks sitting in the pews came to the conviction that Jesus is Lord of this world. This is one of my favorite lines, because it's so powerful and so true: the folks in our parish came to realize that they've been rescued and now it's their task to go out and rescue others.
As to that second point, Father John was a pastor for nine years when he came across the work of Pat Lencioni. He shared what he read with us. The staff. We all came to the conclusion that we were an excellent staff, but we were a lousy team. We didn't self-identify as a team. As I said earlier, if a team is a team, they'll call themselves that. But we didn't. By many accounts, we were already a thriving and successful parish. We all worked hard and did some really good things. But that didn't mean we had trust and vulnerability that we needed to accomplish the mission that God had set before us.
We would say we were good but not great. But honestly, we operated in silos and tolerated in unhealthy behaviors amongst ourselves. We often would leave the meeting and go have another meeting after the meeting, which is so unhealthy, and, we, more or less, resigned ourselves to thinking that this is how parish life is and nothing could be done about it.
And that transformation that took place was simply amazing. Silos were knocked down. They disappeared, and this is one of the most crucial things. There's so much great fruit from having organizational health on a team, but we began to pray together every day as a team. So every day, at 11:30, we were praying together. On Tuesday, we had a Holy Hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament. And every other day that week, we met at 11:30 to pray and it was transformative. And we also agreed on values that held us accountable to one another. The other piece is that Father John would say that he didn't feel like he was carrying the load any more by himself and that's important that pastors know that they're not alone. That it's not all on them.
A leadership team was born out of that work. What that meant was, because we had a healthy team, when we talked about whack a mole and putting out fires, one of those fires oftentimes can be personnel issues. When we're not putting out fires with personnel issues, we're laser focused on mission. Everyone is healthy. We have the right people on the bus and in the right seats, and now we can be laser focused on mission.
Everyone got on board with mission, and as a result we became a healthy team. The parish as a whole became healthier and the net result of that was more people in our community had a life-changing encounter with Jesus and became disciples and that was our vision in our parish, which was to create an opportunity for every person to have a life-changing encounter with Jesus, and now, all of a sudden, folks are all in. In short, one of my friends said this, I thought this was so powerful: We went from climbing mountains to moving mountains. That could only happen because of God's grace.
When you partner with a parish, what do you actually do?
At the heart of our work our team goes on site for several visits to work with the pastor and his team. Over the course of those visits, we unpack in greater detail through a retreat-like experience, and through workshops and conversations with key players and stakeholders, the work of those three principles at the heart to our mission.
What’s next for a pastor interested in partnering with Acts XXIX?
All of our work starts with and is centered on the parish. If the pastor is not engaged, this can't happen. Given that, we want to stress this is a process we want to discern with the pastor, together. That transition from good to great requires an abundance of work, enormous energy, and the first step is for the pastor to recognize that he shares the same convictions about pastoring the parish in the 21st century and to personally reach out to us. Once he has read a summary of how it is we work, if that resonates with him, then we would mutually discern if that's a good fit for him and mutually begin the intake process.
What do you hope happens after you've worked with a parish?
As a pastor and his team, what we like to see is a pastor and his team are all operating from a Biblical world view and the renewed unshakeable confidence of the Lordship of Jesus Christ that flows from Him. In other words, the staff has become a team and a family. The pastor no longer feels that isolation that he feels earlier. Together, they’ve seen the blueprint that God has for their parish, and they're filled with hope and are beginning to build with the Architect's plan. We also want that pastor and other lay leaders to be better equipped to raise up disciples of Jesus who understand, and I think this is a key point that we so often miss: We would like to see lay leaders and the pastor raise up disciples who understand that discipleship is not about their own personal salvation but also becoming instrument in God's hands, leading less to nothing less than the re-creation of His world in and by the power of the Holy Spirit. We say it again, the God who made us for abundant life wants His world back. If they get that, that parish is going to move. That's a parish renewed; that's a parish on mission.
Do you have anything to offer a diocese?
We think that what God has put in our hearts about a pastor and his team can also be shared at the diocesan level, especially at clergy and other parish leadership events. Our team has been invited to other diocese: the Diocese of Winona, the Diocese of Green Bay, and also some other diocese across the country. It gives us an opportunity to cast a vision for these principles, and so we're excited about that, absolutely.
What does ACTS want to say to the Church?
We're convinced we're not alive by chance, that this moment God has chosen for some reason that you and I are alive now with all that is going on in the Church, the world and our country. And God has made you and me for this moment, whether you are a pastor, a member of a parish or simply you are reading this interview right now. I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes, she said, “I'm not afraid; God is with me. I was born for this." I think her words resonate or should resonate with all of us now. We are here, and God's got work for us to do.
Who is on the ACTS team?
We're a pastor and his leadership team who has experienced a transformed parish. We have also experienced being rescued by God's saving love and by His mercy, and while we are not impressed at the least by ourselves, we do feel called by God in this mission, and we have the utmost confidence in His power, who is able to work through very broken vessels. So that the glory of God belongs only to Him. If God can use human broken and men and women, and God does amazing things through us, that it's clearly God who needs to be praised and glorified.
Do you envision growing or expanding?
Our sense right now is God may want to raise up other "chapters” of ACTS in various places across the country. We wouldn't at all be surprised if pastors and some of their lay leaders are given permission by their bishops to start these successive chapters and partner with us, and this is how we would see that mission expand.
What's unique about ACTS?
We rejoice that God is raising up a number of extraordinary movements in the Church; that space is being filled with some great men and women who are trying to bring about renewal as well. Blessed by God! We do believe that there are some things, taken as a whole, are very unique to us. We don't charge for our work: only our travel and lodging. We physically come to the parish. All of our work is centered on the heart of the pastor. We offer practical but not prescriptive coaching. We’re not going to come in and say you need to do x, y or z. That is to refer to the Architect's plan. We’re convinced that there is not a singular approach that fits every parish. We lead with the power of the Gospel to bring healing and transformation and confidence among the team. We have a former pastor on our team, Fr. John Riccardo, and several others who are instrumental in bringing about parish renewal. Perhaps most especially we're not particularly interested in working with a large number of parishes. We are convinced that God already has on His heart strategic locations and pastors and parishes for us to partner with in order for us to do our part in the world.
Do you have anything to offer parishes who aren’t partnered with you?
We’re creating what we call a warehouse of online materials that we will make available to anyone. So in that warehouse we'll have podcasts, videos and written materials where it’s our hope to share the insights we feel we have received from the Lord. We hope to be opening that soon. What we want to do is to give away the store. This is His work. We are instruments in His hands. If God wants His world back, what He has done through a set of us in a parish we believe God wants to do similar things. It's the message; it's the Gospel.