By Rhen Hoehn, St. Albert the Great University Parish Development Director, Houghton, Michigan
I grew up in a Catholic family that practiced the faith. While I was preparing for confirmation, I went on a NET (National Evangelization Team) retreat. This retreat plus the grace of the sacrament energized me even more to be a better Catholic.
After I started college at Michigan Technological University, I became very involved with St. Albert the Great University Parish. I attended Mass, and Catholics in my dorm invited me to parish activities and events. For three year I was a “chapel rat,” one of a group of six students who, in exchange for an apartment, did maintenance chores around the parish. Houghton is in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. With an annual average snowfall of more than 200 inches, that involved a lot of shoveling!
My first development experience was a job to help raise money to fix the church’s leaking roof. I took the job because I needed one and I cared about the parish, not because I saw fundraising as a future career path.
When I graduated in 2009 with a degree in civil engineering, the Great Recession was on. Because I couldn’t find a job, I went on to get an MBA. Fortunately my wife, with her biomedical engineering degree, got a job in St. Paul. We moved there, and I worked in retail management. However, city life was not for us. We missed the woods, nature and even the snow in Houghton.
I love St. Al’s, and when the parish was looking for a development director, I applied. We had visited the year before and noticed many more students attending Mass and participating in parish life. The Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) had just finished their first year ministering on campus. The results were amazing! When we were students, 12-15 attended daily Mass. After FOCUS came to campus, the numbers grew to 60-70.
One benefactor was supporting the cost of bringing FOCUS to campus. While that was a great start, more money brings more mission, and I wanted to be part this transformation! So, I became St. Al’s first (and so far only) development director. I’ve been here for six years, and I’m grateful that I can be part of this dynamic ministry.
When I started, I had almost no knowledge of fundraising. Like many new to development, I thought it was “sales.” You asked for a gift. The person said either “yes” or “no.” When you heard a “no,” you hoped that with persistence, you could turn them around.
BUT I quickly learned that development is a ministry. My job, rather my mission, is to connect potential benefactors to something that offers meaning and purpose in their own lives. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve talked to a potential benefactor and they ended up crying. They see hope for the Church, and they want to empower that hope.
This connection can come in surprising ways. Once I met with a couple who told me up front that they would not be making a gift. We talked about the ministry, and as I was leaving, I handed them some catechetical books that we give to students. They thanked me for the gift and said that THIS was something they wanted to be part of. They ended up underwriting the expenses of these books for students.
That experience shifted my mentality! Development isn’t sales. Development offers others the opportunity to share what is meaningful to them. For this couple, it was good Catholic reading.
I’ve also learned that development, like any ministry, is about building relationships. These relationships go both ways. I remember asking a current benefactor to consider doubling his gift, and he said “no.” I knew I would see him the next night at an alumni event and wondered if it would be awkward. It wasn’t. He greeted me as a friend. I now understood that his “no” wasn’t a personal reflection on me, but was motivated by other factors. Two years later this benefactor was very generous in our capital campaign, and gave even more than what I had asked for earlier.
Trust is key in finding fulfillment and enjoying the ministry of development. The first year and a half was tough. It was overwhelming, and I often wondered if I was the right person for the job. I learned that you have to believe in your vision, discern that God shares this vision too, and trust that you are going to help the ministry get where it needs to be.
Beyond our parish, our family’s personal giving centers around campus ministry. We have seen the transformation that FOCUS brought to St. Al’s and believe college is a crucial and formative time in lives of young adults. When I was in college, most of the students came from families that attended church, Catholic or otherwise. Today, that’s less likely. That’s the bad news. The good news is that as a result, students are seeking, open, and curious. Raising funds through the ministry of development ensures that the Church is THERE and EMPOWERED during this influential time.
How do you understand the ministry of development?
The Beautiful Hoehn Kiddos