Spiritual Multiplication: The Missing Ingredient in Most Parishes Today
I had a somewhat magical season of my life that has left lasting memories for me. I was only eleven or twelve. Up until that time, life had been marked by a lot of tragedy. My dad had been injured and left paralyzed, one of my sisters had tragically died, my mom had even suffered a nervous breakdown and was away from us for several months. But then all that changed. My dad was miraculously healed after nine years of suffering – that’s an article for another day! After his healing the whole family went up into the mountains of Arizona and lived there for a couple of years. During that time, we camped, and fished, and hiked. My dad had bought a couple of minibikes, and our favorite pastime was driving those things all over the trails and streams around our mountain cabin. But always with a fishing rod, and over time learning where all the best spots were to fish. Sure, we had to go to school . . . but then we’d go back to playing right afterward.
The greatest memories that stand out to me from those years are all the fishing outings and navigating the river. My brother and I got incredibly good at getting around. We learned all the best spots to fish, and we learned how to get across the river when needed. There were times when we even placed strategic rocks to help us get across a wider area – something just under the surface of the water that we could use as a steppingstone. At times during those couple years, other friends from Phoenix with kids our ages would come up to visit us. My brother and I would take them out adventuring and fishing but would soon realize that they couldn’t go near as fast as we could. We had to teach them how to navigate the river and get from one side to the other. We had to show them where the narrow sections were that would allow you to cross, and where the steppingstones were.
There were also great dangers with the river. Some of the families that had lived in the mountains their whole life would tell stories of the tragic drownings, kids who had gotten caught in the rapids or in a particularly deep area and couldn’t get free of the current. They told us the places to avoid and where to be on guard for rough rapids. When our “city friends” would come up to visit, we wouldn’t even take them to those places.
Spiritual Multiplication – Invest in a Few
It’s funny how experiences like this can leave such a lasting impression. I still tell stories about those days, especially to my kids. You may be wondering though what this all has to do with spiritual multiplication. I actually look at spiritual multiplication a lot like crossing that river. I have gotten pretty good at it over the years that I know where the best places to cross are, I know where the steppingstones are, and I know where the danger areas are. I’ve been back-and-forth across the river so many times that I can even do it in the dark – my brother and I mastered that skill as well. When you become familiar with something, and do it over and over again, it starts to become natural to you.
When thinking about conversion and spiritual multiplication, I think you have to step back from the big picture to the individual person. Parish staff, Catechetical Leaders, RCIA Coordinators, Youth Ministers – we are often thinking about the big picture: our whole class, the big group and the overall schedule from September to May. We get locked into curriculums and weekly planning in a way that can cause us to lose sight of the individual needs of the people we are serving. The goal is to get them “across the river”, navigating the steps along the path of conversion. There are many different articulations of that path, and all have certain merits. Focus uses the very simple Win-Build-Send model. The US Bishops have articulated a four step Encounter-Accompany-Community-Send model in their booklet Living as Missionary Disciples. Sherry Weddell provides some great clarity to the early steps with her five “thresholds of conversion.” My purpose here is not to define those steps. I think the others that I mentioned have done that quite well. My point is that YOU need to know them, become so familiar with them that you can navigate them, backward and forward, even in the dark. And most importantly, that you can LEAD someone else across that pathway. THAT is real spiritual multiplication!
In my days of parish ministry, I always had a tendency to pursue some key relationships with two-three individuals. I’m actually still doing the same today. I invest in them, cultivate a relationship, and over time walk them through the stages of conversion. It typically takes a year or two depending on the person. Sometimes it works to invite them into a larger parish ministry, which establishes them in other relationships that support them in their growth. Helping a few individuals navigate conversion always informed and inspired my other ministry. Every time I helped one more person navigate that path, I grew in my ability to steer the other ministry I was doing for the parish. And as I grew in knowledge and understanding of the pathway, I could teach other volunteers to do the same.
Now I was a parish youth minister during those times, but you don’t have to be in a ministry position to understand how to navigate this path. In fact, if only paid parish staff were assisting others on the path of conversion the Church would NEVER get evangelized. My encouragement, to anyone and everyone, is to invest time in a few, build a relationship with them, and over time help them navigate the path of conversion. It’s like the old Cursillo slogan if you’ve ever heard it – make a friend, be a friend, bring a friend to Jesus. The more you do this, the more familiar you will get with the path, and the more deftly you will be able to get across those waters.
 Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, Sherry A. Weddell, Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2017, pp. 127-128; 129-130