The premise of the show is that successful and famously foul-mouthed chef Gordon Ramsay is called in to a restaurant on the brink of shutting its doors forever, helping the owners to diagnose the problems and develop solutions. You realize after just a few shows that the common thread in all these situations is people who are blind to their own failings; who got into their bind not all at once, but over a long period of time; and yet are highly resistant to changes that might save them and their business. You also find that while Ramsay often finds awful food, poor service, and a lack of hygiene, those are usually just symptoms of the deeper problems which have nothing to do with food and everything to do with relationship problems or internal problems of the chef or owner.
In episode after episode, we see owners who think everything is fine when to an outsider’s eyes–whether Ramsay’s or a regular customer’s–they are clearly not. When asked to rate the food, they consistently give themselves high marks, but when Ramsay is served, it’s often barely edible. And it’s not like they don’t know they’re cooking for him! Likewise, the kitchens are often a dirty mess and the walk-in fridges and freezers are full of rotting food and are ground zero for cross-contamination. Yet it’s only after Ramsay points out the problems that they suddenly see it. I can sympathize. When things begin to slide, it’s easy not to notice. There are times when I step back to look at my home office, for example, and wonder how did it get to be such a mess. I just didn’t notice it happening.
Meanwhile, when Ramsay begins to make changes to the decor, to the service, to the menu, many owners and chefs balk at them. “We can’t alienate our customers,” they say. “These are popular dishes.” To which, I always want to respond, “What customers?” If those customers were so valuable then why is the restaurant so empty all the time? Maybe it’s time to find new customers. Maybe the old customers will like something new. Maybe the dishes will be better for those customers.
Think about the struggling parishes you may know. In my long experience I’ve seen a number of them and they all seem to share characteristics like these. Mass attendance is a tiny fraction of what it once was, but nobody seems to notice or act very concerned. The same small handful of people come to everything, volunteer for everything. The financial health of the parish is dependent on a shrinking pool of people who are being asked to carry more and more of the burden. The programs being offered by the parish, whether liturgical or formational or social, lack a sense of passion from those who prepare them. And the parish itself is showing evidence of a lack of passion or concern, whether it’s the decay of the physical plant or decay of the outward facing aspects like the parish web site or bulletin. A real attempt at evangelization of the community around it hasn’t occurred in ages, if ever.
In “nightmare parishes”, the pastoral ministers are happy to run the same programs over and over for the same small groups of people, regardless of whether they’re actually making a difference. and yet, when asked to evaluate themselves or their parish, you hear lots of happy talk. We have X number of programs and Y group did that, and we have raised Z dollars. Sure, but have you made any disciples of Christ? Not just baptized kids and run them through the sacraments of initiation, but created disciples who have a personal and intentional relationship with God, seeking to do His will and establish His Kingdom? This isn’t limited to parishes either. I’ve seen this at every level: happy talk about program after program from people who rarely leave their offices.
But it wasn’t always this way. In the restaurants, Ramsay always tries to find the spark from the owners and chefs that got them involved in the restaurant in the first place, the passion that drove them to take on something as monumental and all-encompassing as a career in the food service industry. Likewise, priests and lay ministers alike entered into ministry out of a sense of passion for the Lord; they certainly didn’t do it for the pay! But somewhere along the way, they got waylaid or had it ground out of them or pressed out by bureaucracy or limited success or the demands of a need that surpasses their ability to supply what is necessary.
So what do we do? Ramsay’s formula is essentially the same from restaurant to restaurant: Simplify, get back to basics, start something new, stay within your abilities, get back to what you’re passionate about. It’s the same with parishes.
Let’s get back to basics. We need to evangelize. That’s our first priority.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19–20a)
Evangelize your neighborhoods, bring the Gospel to the people, show them the beauty of Christ. Energize the parishioners you have left. Priests, rediscover your passion for preaching, for teaching. Laity, rediscover your passion for gathering together in a community of joy and faith and hope. Don’t settle for mediocrity, for good enough. Become intentional disciples of Christ, ones who actively seek out the Lord’s will for them, rather than accidental disciples, who are Catholic because our parents baptized us or we feel a sense of obligation.
Husbands and wives: Is it enough to be passionate, to be fully in love with your spouse for one hour a week? Then how can it be enough to be passionate, to be fully in love with God for one hour a week? How can you make God the center of your life? How can you make your parish the center of your family’s, your community’s life? Because if you do, then others will see it and find it attractive. The best marketing plan is happy customers. The best evangelization plan is engaged and faithful parishioners.
Of course, all analogies limp and this one does too. For one thing, a restaurant or any business for that matter can decide that it no longer wishes to serve a particular segment of the population. Or they may decide to completely switch their product offerings. In high-tech, this is called a pivot. Parishes can’t “pivot”. They can’t stop offering orthodox Catholicism. They can’t decide to stop serving the people in their parish because most parishes (apart from a few specialized parishes designed to serve groups with special needs like immigrants from a certain nation) have a mission to all people within a particular area.
But the larger point remains. We need to break out of the complacency and blindness which hampers the success of the Gospel. We need to rediscover our passion and re-light it in our brethren. We need to evangelize our communities. Gordon Ramsay won’t be showing up to give us a kick in the behind, take our blinders off, and show us the way. Instead we have the Holy Spirit to do it. We just need to start praying for His help and be open to the way He points us to.
- To be clear, not even just to all the Catholics in the area, but everyone. That too is part of the Great Commission of Matthew 28. ↩
- kitchen-nightmares: 20th Century Fox | Copyright by owner. Used under Fair Use doctrine