For those of you who are Star Trek fans, the term “first contact” has a special meaning—it’s that moment when the Federation (typically humans) encounter an alien race for the first time. In the Star Trek universe, how well that “first contact” goes can have repercussions for generations, be it the positive relationship that developed with the Vulcans or the negative relationships that developed with the Romulans and the Klingons. Put another way, first impressions matter, and a bad first impression can be difficult to recover from.
These same “first contact” issues apply to our seekers.
For me there’s nothing more exciting in this ministry than when a seeker first reaches out to us. If properly approached, it can be an almost magical, even a mystagogical, moment for both the seeker and us.
The trouble is, that the first person the seeker encounters in our parish isn’t always me or one of our initiation catechists. In fact, in most parishes, many times it’s someone else—the parish secretary, the formation director, the priest after Mass, even fellow parishioners.
How these first contact situations go can make or break the experience for the seeker. They can make the difference between that seeker developing a relationship with Christ in your parish, or developing that relationship somewhere else, or worse, just walking away altogether.
Therefore, good “first contact” protocols are not just important for those working in adult initiation ministry, they are vital for everyone in the parish!
Whenever talking with a seeker, be like Christ. It’s an overused phrase, but when approaching someone you don’t know, ask yourself, “what would Jesus do?”
Know where information is available
Everyone in the parish should know who to contact when they encounter a seeker. This should be more than just directing them to the parish website or parish bulletin or the parish office. Take an active role and exchange contact information with them so that you can then pass this on to your initiation team, and let seeker know that someone will get back with them very soon.
Everyone who meets with a seeker needs to understand that this is the Holy Spirit at work. Regardless of their situation or circumstances the Sprit has chosen this moment to bring this soul to us. And there is no right or wrong time for the Spirit to lead them to us. Our job is to hear them out and guide them to the right people to begin the inquiry process as soon as possible. As I have often said, if the Holy Spirit is bringing them to my door right now, who am I to tell them to come back later?
Don’t make any assumptions
This can be difficult, especially for initiation catechists, when meeting a seeker for the first time. During this first encounter it is far too early to determine what their actual sacramental needs may be or what challenges they may face (particularly with marriage issues). The goal is to get them in contact with the initiation team so they can start reviewing their situation in more detail.
Don’t “register” them yet
Very often the parish’s first instinct is to get them “registered” for the parish and the process. First contact is not the time for paperwork. You certainly should exchange contact information (name, phone number, email address) so that you or someone on the initiation team can contact them but avoid the term “registration.” If the seeker brings it up, let them know that this will be done later.
Be alert to any preconceived notions they may have
Oftentimes seekers have done some research about becoming Catholic or the RCIA process. Or they may have talked with friends who are Catholic or with others about the Church. More often than not much of this information is dated, misguided, or just flat out wrong. First contact is not necessarily the time to start getting into the weeds about these particulars. If necessary, simply reassure the seekers that all may not be as they think and that everything will be made clear once they’ve talked with the initiation catechist.
What to say when asked “how long does it take?”
This is perhaps the number-one question seekers will ask, and our gut reaction is to give them a short direct answer. Don’t do it! Steer away from any schedules or timelines. Instead tell them that their journey through the initiation process is an individual one, and that one’s time through the process depends on many different factors. You can assure them that once they’ve talked with an initiation catechist that they will be reviewing all these different factors in order to customize a process that will address their needs.
Most importantly, everyone in the parish—not just secretaries and ministers and catechists—everybody in the parish needs to understand their duties when it comes to a first contact situation with a seeker. As Catholics we are all members of the Body of Christ and we are all called to evangelize. So make sure everyone knows how to welcome a new seeker just like Christ.
How have you designed your first contact with new seekers? What does this welcome feel like to a seeker? How can you tell? Share your thoughts in the comments below.