Skills Building

Year Published
  • 2023
  • English

Therese Gustaitis, Director of Parish Social Ministry, Catholic Charities, West Tennessee reflects on key skill areas for social ministry leaders in parishes and other faith communities. 

The following is excerpted from the Catholic Charities USA Parish Social Ministry Tool Kit: Getting Going, Ongoing, and Going Further.” In Chapter 6 of the Toolkit, Therese Gustaitis, Director of Parish Social Ministry, Catholic Charities, West Tennessee reflects on key skill areas for social ministry leaders in parishes. These areas are relevant for disciples in other kinds of faith communities as well.

Elevating Parishioners from Passive "Comfort Zone" Conversations to Courageous Action-Oriented Dialogue

How do social ministry leaders stimulate Gospel thinking that leads to conversion and ultimately to action? In parish life, it is fairly easy to recruit support for the “feel good” ministries: purchasing a gift for a child at Christmas, donating some used clothes, or bringing canned food for the pantry. While these are good and necessary, it is a sign of maturity when a parish moves beyond the world of the “feel good” to the unknown of the courageous-action thinkers. This shift does not happen overnight.

There are steps that can be catalysts to getting started. There are basic concepts to guide this process. Pray throughout the process to discern God’s will; engage the pastor or parish executive for his or her support before moving forward; develop relationships with those who are served--remember that all are brothers and sisters.  Social justice builds synergy and connectedness in the faith community and breaks down siloes of worship, catechesis, and other parish organizations


Formation helps to build the concepts in the minds and hearts of parishioners. Opportunities range from “on-the-go” PowerPoint presentations on Catholic social teaching, one day retreats, weekly presentations between the Sunday Masses, using established curriculum from sources (such as JustFaith Ministries), conferences, workshops, and institutes. Catholic Charities USA holds regional weekend trainings four to six times a year; email psm@catholiccharitiesusa.orgor call (703) 549-1390 for more information.

[Leaders] can use a variety of communication tools: quotes on social justice issues for church bulletins, homilies with a social justice focus, or parish events that highlight and celebrate special themes, such as Earth Day, human torture, and the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.


Gather the people--give parishioners a sense that they are part of a community of believers.  Bring groups of pastors and social justice advocates from several churches for discussions; organize regional interfaith programs that host hunger banquets, poverty simulations, food stamps challenges, etc.; set up fair trade sales in churches during Christmas, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day.

Move the people--give parishioners a fresh outlook through venue changes.  See the face of Jesus in the poor in soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and bus stations. Or bring two parish groups to one location in order to build relationships on neutral turf, such as the social justice and respect life groups.

Move the mindset by intentionally helping people gently shift from charity initiatives to advocacy.  Help parishioners speak for those not invited to the table.  Prayer and reflection leads to action and public witness.  Contribute to organizations fighting injustice.  Identify sinful structures in the realms of greed, racism, violence, militarism, or torture.   Promote “simple living” through actions that lower the human footprint while assisting others in need; introduce faith groups to community organizing.

Grant Writing Basics

Do the words “Social ministers can get some grant funding for that” fall on deaf ears? Grant funding may be easier than one might think. Because of the nature of social ministry, securing funding for ministries and projects is always an issue.  

A grant is a request for money for a specific need. Organizations and foundations give grants to groups that they believe will perform programs which address the interests of the foundation.  Descriptions of grant sources might be found in the diocesan or local Catholic Charities development office or from Catholic Charities USA.  Periodically, offices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops accept funding proposals for parish based programs.  Many local public libraries have specific sections for grant funding research. 

Develop your [social ministry] initiative by providing a clear description, community needs assessment, listing of the parish’s strengths that will meet these community needs, desired outcomes, and a budget.  Different funders have different request forms, but if these elements are well articulated, they can be adapted to different funding applications.  Many funders simply request a letter; others have more complex applications forms.  Follow the funder’s guidelines as literally as possible.  Consider seeking the help of an experienced grant writer; some gain this experience within the context of their job or other volunteer assignments.  Many communities also have freelance grant writing professionals who might be contracted for major grants.

Running an Effective Meeting

Most things that happen in social ministry will have one or more meetings. In addition to running effective meetings, what is different about meetings in the world of parish social ministry? For example, is there a way to engage all meeting participants vs. a few vocal people carrying the entire meeting?

Planning and Organizing

Planning is critical! Do not skip any of the following questions:  Would a written report/memo be more useful than a meeting? Is a group meeting necessary?  What are the objectives of the meeting?  Who are needed at the table?

Develop and use an agenda.  It helps to have the group’s mission statement on the agenda for every meeting as a reminder that the overall mission is more important than any single issue.  A timeline helps participants be aware of time constraints and also helps to prioritize agenda items.  Adhering to the timeline ensures that meeting objectives will be addressed during the allotted time.  Prepare participants by transmitting agenda and supplementary materials well ahead of time. After the meeting all participants should receive notes or minutes from the meeting which detail assignments, commitments, decisions, etc.

Church Meetings Differ from Business Meetings.

Parish social ministers begin every meeting, gathering, call, etc. by grounding the group in prayer.  Model the importance of prayer in  ministry by emphasizing it during the meeting.  See chapter 7 of this tool kits for advice on meeting prayers.  Decisions are processed by discernment that allows for the intervention of the Holy Spirit.  Model the discernment process for the committee.  Furthermore, every meeting should help foster the spirituality of the group.  This not only produces more effective meetings but produces more effective groups.

People Have Different Preferred Learning Styles.

Honor these differences when running a meeting.

Kinesthetic learners (25-30 percent of the population) prefer physical experiences during the experience: set the room wisely with appropriately shaped tables, use a white board (preferable to PowerPoints), and include colored handouts with a lot of visuals.

Logical learners need order to be engaged;   keep things sequential and include numbers, data, an analysis of an issue.   Insure that there is a good handout that they can hold in their hands.

Strategic thinkers are engaged by the big picture; include some long term goals; explore at least one new possibility; demonstrate that the items necessary to the logical learners are important and separate elements of the whole picture.

Other learners might be considered “people” persons who learn or process information by engaging others.  Have a way for them to connect to the group or team.  Allow space or opportunities for relationships and validate feelings and or emotions.

Forming a Mission Statement

How does one help every person in the organization to know, articulate, and live the mission statement?  There are four major elements of every good mission statement:

Identify by name, history, and location (“We are...”).

State a purpose that clarifies values, beliefs, and reasons for existence (“We believe…”).

State a function that describes what happens and to whom (“We are committed to…”).

Address the future by describing challenges (“We seek to become…”)

An example from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Office of Justice and Peace:  The mission of the Social Justice Committee is to serve the parish as its primary resource and catalyst for the work of social justice.

When writing the mission statement, gather a group of stakeholders that includes clients, volunteer social ministers, people who understand systemic change, those who can provide resources, and agency or church staff.  Be as inclusive as possible.  The process should be guided by prayer and discernment.

The post-writing phase is a most important aspect of the mission statement process.  Communicate the mission statement to all stakeholders and encourage all to articulate it often by repeating the statement at every employee gathering and using it at least once each day in conversation.  Make the mission statement visible to others and put it on every meeting agenda.  Display it throughout the buildings, put it on nametags, use it during employee and volunteer performance reviews, and communicate it to the media and to the wider community. . .

Effective Leadership Development

Where are all the leaders? Many will volunteer for a few hours on a ministry project if given direction, but few will volunteer to lead a project. Many people bring ideas, but only some people process ideas from a thought into a concrete ministry. People are unaware or do not understand parish social ministry. What is the best way to communicate the vision? All of these challenges address the dichotomy of leaders vs. doers. Expanding on the original question: Where are all the leaders and how are they formed? Any of the topics below would provide a starting point for a leadership workshop.

Leaders vs. Managers

Leaders are managers with a vision.  Managers plan, organize, staff, direct and control to accomplish a task. Leaders function at the macro level when envisioning a change or a new ministry; they are aware of the whole picture, think strategically, and delegate effectively. Ministry managers operate at the micro level when carrying out a specific task that is narrow in scope and is focused on doing a specific ministry and tactical activity. Leaders look at the big picture (the city, the diocese, the world, etc.) and develop a vision for the future at the macro level. Ministry volunteers typically function at the micro level by doing specific tasks within a narrow scope. Both leaders and managers are needed.

Characteristics in Leadership Development

Leaders guide, not direct, others.   They help people achieve a shared vision, and don’t “tell” people what to do.  Effective leadership development will include teaching “people skills” and providing necessary resources for outcome measurement. Leadership development should be broad in scope but narrow in purpose.  Good leadership development should include understanding when to use what style of leadership in order to achieve an objective. Effective leadership is setting the direction and persuading others to follow the path; leadership is being responsible to those being led.  Leadership tools include an understanding of other people’s strengths and skills, knowledge and understanding of servant leadership, and good relationship and communication skills.

Tips for Public Presentations, Including Use of Audiovisual and Other Technical Equipment, Speakers Style and Appearance

What is the best way to ensure a great presentation?  Great preparation. Many times new parish social ministers have no formal training for public presentations.  Also, tech support ranges from advising local professional staff to having no support (or equipment) at the site.  The effective presenter knows how to prepare and what to expect.

Suggestions on the Environment and Supplementary Materials

Decide how to relate to the audience. Are you presenting or facilitating?

Know the audience by talking to people before starting, shaking hands, asking why they came, having the audience’s best interest at heart, and seeing the presentation as a way to serve (not to impress).

Try to make eye contact with everyone in the room rather than focusing too much on one area.  Speak simply and with conviction.  The presenter is having a conversation with the audience.  Dress appropriately--err on the side of dressing too conservatively.  Your dress should be “a little above” but also encourage approachability.

Tell a unique story based on what you know about the audience before the presentation.  The audience is more likely to remember a well scripted story than most other messages.

Begin your presentation with the end in mind. Specify what to expect and be clear about the purpose of the talk.  Structure the talk so that every example and story connects to the audience’s expectations and purpose of the talk.

Try the “Think, Pair, Share” approach. Participants think a moment about what they have heard and seen, talk to others in the room, and share thoughts with the larger group while adhering to the timeline.

At the end of the presentation, review the takeaways; specify them on the last slide or point of discussion.

In a nutshell:  begin with an attention grabbing story, rhetorical question, or statistic.  At the conclusion of the session, come full circle by returning to the attention grabber. Make contact throughout the presentation:  move away from the podium, walk into the audience and remember that smiling is important (it breaks the monotony, says that you are happy to be there and that you like your audience).  Demonstrate credibility clarity, and empathy; possess a calm and confident demeanor and create an emotionally safe environment for the participants to engage and learn.

Suggestions on the Environment and Supplementary Materials

Create an environment conducive to learning and engagement.  It is difficult to expand people’s thinking when they are sitting in a “sterile” room.  Consider bringing color and or plants into the space; arrange the seating so that people can see the speaker and each other.  The chairs should be able to be readily moved for small group discussion.

When appropriate, provide name tags, paper, pens or other supplies for the participants. Use markers that are water based and strong colors that can be read from a distance.

Consider distributing agendas and handouts; better yet, upload them to a Website to save paper (persons can be more selective in what they really wish to retain). Prepare an overall agenda which includes your desired objectives, beginning and end times, and general topics. If you are facilitating a session, introduce “operating norms” for the session in which all agree.  Make housekeeping announcements and state general rules of courtesy (i.e. turn off cell phones, give speakers undivided attention, and limit the setting to one conversation at a time).

If using PowerPoint, remember it is only an aid and not a speech.  Limit the amount of text on each slide.  Review previous slides as you refer to the current slide.  The listener should glean the message of each slide within three seconds.  Make the slides personal and use high quality graphics, at least 400 x 400 resolution; avoid clip art.  Keep the lights on in order to keep the focus on the speaker and the presentation.

Whether you bring your own equipment or use what is available at the venue, always test equipment before the presentation. Extra extension cords and a power strip come in handy in unfamiliar venues. Different hosts have different equipment, and electronics that are used today may be obsolete tomorrow.  Ask your host if there will be a technology assistant available.  Arrive at the venue early and make sure that the equipment works properly.  Ensure that the seating arrangement allows for everyone to see and hear adequately.  It is best to have an alternate plan; experienced presenters are ready and able to present if technology fails.  Always have a good handout available.

Burgo, Kimberly. “Catholic Charities Results Framework for General Disaster Response”.

Catholic Charities Community Services. Parish Social Ministry Manual. 1 September 2012

Dresser, W. Peter.“Identifying Leaders and Managers for Parish Social Ministry Assignments”.

_________________.“Identifying Leaders and Managers for Parish Social Ministry Assignments.” Leadership Workshop. Church of the Holy Spirit. 21 April 2012.

Lewis, Dr. Regina. “Power Up Your Presentation: Connecting and Holding Your Audience's Attention.” Teleseminar. Bridges out of Poverty. Aha Process, 10 May 2012.

Massingale, Fr. Bryan. “Characteristics of a Justice Seeking Parish”.

National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Communities of Salt and Light: Reflections on the Social Mission of the Parish. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1nc., 1994. Also available

Rodriguez, Cristy. “Daily Writing Tips,” 1 September 2012

Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn Office of Pastoral Planning. “Writing a Parish Mission Statement,” 1 September 2012

Stubbs, Sr. Mary Lou. “Pastors’ Letter to Generate Support for Parish Outreach at Time of Disaster,” 2 September 2012

Wallin, Betty. “Parish Social Ministry and Servant Leadership”.

______________.“Servant Leadership.” Leadership Workshop. Church of the Holy Spirit, 21 April 2012.

Used with permission. Excerpted from Parish Social Ministry Tool Kit: Getting Going, Ongoing, and Going Further”.