Father Bob Stagg
Pastor of Church of the Presentation, Upper Saddle River, N.J.
The Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River, N.J. is a welcoming parish community that leads its people to spiritual growth in the Lord. Father Bob Stagg is the pastor of this charitable parish located in Northern Bergen County, with over 4,700 families and 100 ministries. Volunteerism and community service are hallmarks - as diverse as growing a parish garden for soup kitchens in Newark and New York City, to the funding of a fully-staffed health clinic in Haiti. Father Bob is the best example of how great preaching inspires and helps forward a cooperative model of pastoral leadership.
Runtime: 26 mins, 02 secs
America Magazine Video
Runtime: 7 mins, 47 secs
Episode transcript and study guide.
Q: Pre-written question
R1: Father Mike Russo
I1: Father Bob Stagg
I1: When I come through the doors in the morning, I am obviously thinking about the day ahead, but when I come through the welcoming area with all the glass and the light shining through, I know we are a place of great welcoming and that is the foundation upon which worship and liturgy and our relations with the Lord begins. I walk into the rest of the church and I move under the parish stained glass logo, which is Isaiah’s quote; “I have called you by name.” I can then swing by then over in front of the blessed sacrament in the window and thank God for the gift of another day. R1: Today we are meeting with Father Bob Stagg here at the Church of the Presentation at Upper Saddle River, New Jersey in North Bergen County. Father Bob has been a friend of mine since our days in the seminary. His gift for preaching forwards pastoral leadership. Let’s meet Father Bob Stagg. I am delighted to be here with Bob Stagg. Your leadership is so evident at Presentation. You have been here a number of years. Its 12 by now? I1: 13. R1: 13? I1: Yes. R1: In so many ways you are the adaptive leader. You have been able to motivate and give great momentum to this parish. Let’s talk about leadership because that is something you are particularly good at. Let me give you this one quote. It comes from a Chinese philosopher, Lau Tzu who took a stand at trying to define leadership. He says; “A leader is best when barely people know he exists. When his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will say we did it ourselves.” In so many ways, this parish is a testimony to your ability to generate great energy and talent from the people that are here. I1: Mike, I think parish’s operate best when they are staff led. I think high performing staffs mean high performing parishes. When I heard that quote, it sounds a little bit like the woman at the well. You know, who was you know, who the Lord spoke to and then she became the missionary and she went back and told people about it and then they said well we don’t need you anymore. You know? We met Jesus ourselves, but she was the instrument that got them there. But, once they got there, like a good umpire, you know you are better—you know—better seen and not heard. If an umpire is in the middle of a ball game I think you are in a lot of trouble. R1: Now, in so many ways, this particular church has had a history of great leadership, particularly laity were definitely involved in the day to day work here. Can you explain? I1: It’s—so I am the fifth pastor here, and the third pastor here, when this place developed and went from a little bungalow community and it became a very—fairly affluent suburban neighborhood in the center of this bi-county area—people started to move in and the third pastor laid down a wonderful footprint which the fourth pastor and myself took full advantage of. R1: Let’s describe this community of Upper Saddle River. We are in northern Bergen County, next door to the state of New York. I1: Right. So, the parish here is at 40% New York, Rockland, and Orange Counties. On the other side, 60% Bergen County. So, the town of Upper Saddle River is a very tiny town. The parish is one of the largest in the state of New Jersey, but we would be one of the smallest if it was just the people in Upper Saddle River. R1: Let’s talk about leadership and you have written a lot about it. You have taught homiletics. So, the relationship between being a great pastoral leader and preaching you have reflected on this a lot. I1: I have, and I have to tell you when I was first ordained, I was hesitant to preach. Now, it’s probably my most favorite thing to do and I often wonder like if I was like a Walter Ciszek, the old Jesuit who was in jail for years and I was deprived of the Eucharist or preaching, what would I miss the most? I like it a great deal. I speak in short bursts. Most of my homilies I like to speak to a lot of different groups in the parish. I like teaching. Then I like getting out of the way. Most of the staff they all run their own operations and then they invite me in at the last minute to kick the field goal, but they put the ball on the tee and off I go. So, it’s a great place to work. R1: Now you prepare carefully, plus on Thursday you send out an all-points bulletin telling people here is a preview of what I am going to be doing on Sunday. How does that work? I1: So, we use constant contact. I have some of my—one of my communications staff person sits down with me and she has got a lightening quick skillset at the keyboard and as I fumble through my thoughts, she kind of helps me put it together. We try to do two or three paragraphs anticipating usually the Gospel. The coming Sunday. So, we call it “Peeking at Sunday” then we have bullets for all the activities that are going on around the parish for the weekend or the next week. So, it comes out on Thursday’s. She tells me the open it about 29%, which I thought was terrible. I’d like to know who those other 70% are, but she said it’s a decent number to open up. R1: Preaching is an art form. Something that we have to pay great attention to, as you have. Certainly, Pope Francis has brought this front and center as a pastoral goal for all priests, deacons, lay witnesses, youth ministers, that’s why I think we are doing the job we are doing. Any practical suggestions? I1: Well whatever you do, don’t be boring. It just—you know this week’s three readings mean boom. I think you have got about 30 seconds to open a homily and if you open it poorly, I think people are gone. You know, you clearly want to take the Lord’s message with the events of the day and have something to say to that. People don’t come on Sunday mornings to find out what happened to the Jebusites. You know? They are here, so they clearly want—they are hungry, and I think it’s important we deliver in a timely fashion. R1: So, with the events of the day, can be pretty discouraging if you follow Twitter, if you follow the news, if you follow any number of the social media. How do you make it such that it’s not a repeat of cable news? You understand? I1: I do. I probably am a lot more simple than that. I use some current events, but probably my best technique I think is on Sunday nights I read the scriptures for the following—the next Sunday. Then it’s kind of like the coat rack in your house that gathers everything during the week. People throw everything on the coat rack. So, all week long as I am looking and looking, this week coming it would be Lazarus and the rich man. So, if I meet somebody at the supermarket, if I am playing golf with somebody, if I am grabbing a cup of coffee down the street. The other day I was talking to—I was doing some evaluations with my early childhood team and my leader of the early childhood section was telling me about it’s a three, four, and five year old program on Sunday morning for their worship experience. She was telling me—all year long she starts with creation and she goes through Noah and Moses and maybe a couple of prophets with the little ones. They have arts and crafts and music and their own liturgy. Then they get into Advent and the Christmas cycle and they explain a little bit about Jesus’ travels and then they got to Holy Week. Well, this little boy on Easter we don’t run this because it’s way too crowded for us to do that. Little boy was sick for two weekends after that and he came back and he is listening and this was a three year old who was in this group for the first time and he is listening intently and he has been on spot all year long and there are talking about the apostle’s talking about him as if he is dead. He goes; he died? He died? He was into it. But that is a great story for a preacher. R1: Yes. You use humor very well as evidenced by mass. How—there is a certain level of appropriateness for humor. You do bring it in, particularly with your life experiences. I1: Yes, I think we stumble through life a lot and I don’t think we should be afraid of making an ass out of ourselves because there are plenty of opportunities to do that. I think you can have a lot of fun with it. R1: Now, this parish is known obviously for many things, but you also have a tremendous social justice and community outreach to Newark, to New York City, even in Haiti. How do these stories from witnesses here in the parish find its way into their preaching and their—just their lives? I1: So, our formula here is usually to make a retreat and we have got seven or eight retreats a year that we go through and then— R1: This is called a cornerstone. I1: A cornerstone which originated here probably 37 or 38 years ago and it’s probably in seven or eight states and all over New York and New Jersey, but it’s a real quick 26 hour program. One night’s sleeping here in the parish center. Then after that, usually people go into an SCC, a Small Christian Community, and then they are into a service project with their SCC. So, it’s incumbent upon us to open up a lot of service opportunities for soup kitchens, Haiti—we ended up buying 12 acres down there about 12 years ago. That’s more of a medical mission but we are in Newark helping teach, we are in Patterson with a basketball league. So, we are always looking for opportunities and those stories come back so a lot of the SCCs as they continue they preach to each other and they tell their own story about what went on in their mission. R1: When I see this lush place, and you have appointed it so well, I am reminded of a quote from Daniel Burnam, the great American architect once said; “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Well that was 100 or more years ago, but right here, you were just adept at building this parish, your previous parish, how do you get this campaign rolling and create a worship space that is so attractive to so many? I1: When I look back at the effort, sometimes you think what are you, nuts? People have been good. We had needs, so we follow the needs of the community and we were originally a little country parish back in 1964 and we got very successful and the numbers increased dramatically, and we built sideways into an L shape room and auditorium. So, the celebrant was always right here at the nexus of the two buildings. I lived with it for a while, and eventually we went into this capital campaign to put a third building in and knock down all the walls and get to the crescent shaped building that we currently have. It meets our needs beautifully. I think a lot of the people who have been here a long time were fine with the old configuration and sitting on plastic and steel chairs, but I think as we go forward I think the next generations following us would look for a little bit more like clearly when you buy a home if you are in the kitchen from 1950s, you are in trouble and you would like to update it. We needed some updating, and this is clearly the face of the Catholics to the community. We want to let them know we are not going anywhere. R1: There is a certain bonus to the plan in the sense that you have got to be out there making the case for this particular renewal. I1: Yes, so we kind of see this as parish—as retreat center. So, when you drive in, there’s a labyrinth on the one end of the campus and then you come by a tabernacle, which is in our front window. It used to be the entrance of the church and now we use it as the repository for the blessed sacrament and people can visit the blessed sacrament either outside or inside. We have people driving down the road blessing themselves because the tabernacle is there. Then you come by the narthex and the crucifix and there’s statues of the presentation and Simian and the Holy Family and Simian grabbing the Christ child. Then if you circle to the other side there’s Mary’s Grotto over here. So, it’s really a lovely spot to spend any time. There are also stations of the cross that go up through the woods and they are so operated and there is a St. Francis area by it. So, it really lends itself to doing retreats here and days of recollection or just coming and spending a little bit of time here. R1: So, this Sunday there was a picnic which happens every two years. It welcomes, but also affirms as kids grow up they have an opportunity to ride that pony right there on the lawn. Tell us about the picnic. I1: It is. It’s just one of our big community events that bring people together. If you are a four year old, its spectacular. Dunk tanks and bouncy-bouncies and face painting and animals and petting zoos. But, it’s a nice time for us to listen to a band, have a few beers and hamburgers and hot dogs and chicken. So, we do a number of those social events and we do a wild tailgate in the middle of the summer. We will do a concert on the lawn with different groups here through the year. A lot of interesting social events. R1: So, the picnic is kind of the kick off for the fall season here at presentation? I1: It is just that. So, people are back from the end of the summer recesses and back from beach houses and trips and school is starting and we really were looking for a vehicle to bring people together. It’s a great opportunity for people to bring the kids. It’s wonderful for Millennials and their children and it’s an opportunity for all of us to get together again and we look to provide momentum for the rest of the year. Friends, the Lord, be with you. This is a reading from the Holy Gospel as told to us by St. Luke. Jesus said to his disciples; a rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property. He summoned him and said; “What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship because you can no longer be my steward.” The steward said to himself; “What shall I do now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that when I am removed from the stewardship they may welcome me into their homes.” He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said; “How much do you owe my master?” He replied; “100 measures of oil.” He said to him; “Here is your promissory note, sit down and quickly write one for 50.” Then to another steward he said; “And you, how much do you owe?” And he replied; “100 cords of wheat.” The steward said to him; “Here is your promissory note. Write one for 80.” The master commended the dishonest steward for acting prudently. For, the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are children of light. The gospel of the Lord. I was down earlier this week—every once in a while I stop at the little coffee shop down here. It is a deli coffee shop. I went in and I usually kibitz with the owner. Always there is a group of men who sit early in the morning that sit at the coffee bar. They line up at the coffee bar. They are there to give advice to the owner of the deli. That’s the retirement plan, they show up every morning, these guys. I went in, and we were kibitzing, and the owner says; “Bob, do you have a board of directors I have?” He said; “You know what they say to me every day, the refrain?” “You know what you should have done? You know what you should have done?” He said; “On my tombstone it’s going to say, ‘You know what you should have done?’” But clearly, you know, we need periodically in our lives to act decisively. Let me share Mrs. Lizinski’s rule. So, I am a little guy, and I am living in this development. I was probably about ten years old. We lived in a lot of wooden frame homes. The house down the street from me goes up in flames one day. We all ran to watch this house burn. We heard the fire engines come in and the fire engines pulled up and the fireman got out of their trucks and they started to unpack all of their paraphernalia, their hoses, and their ladders. Mrs. Lizinski, the house next door, is over at the clothes line pulling in her wash, watching the fire and she says “Forget the ladders. Point the hose at the fire.” Well, to their credit, these firemen forgot the ladders and they turned the hose at the fire, and they put the fire out in about two minutes. Mrs. Lizinski’s law—the moral of the story for me is as a young kid was—because it’s somebody’s job, never assume that they know what they are doing. The other moral of the story is never be intimidated by somebody in a uniform or professional. So, Mrs. Lizinksi’s law—just do it. Get after it. In the Old Testament if God was on your side, it’s almost inevitable you won. So, Moses walks through the Red Sea, David defeats Goliath. Sampson beats the Philistines, Daniel walks out of the lion’s den, Noah makes a good decision and he walks over to Home Depot and he builds an ark and he and his family survives the great flood. Fast forward to the New Testament, and Jesus is telling his people; the kingdom of God doesn’t win everything. We are not necessarily always victorious. The kingdom can suffer defeats. Prayer meetings don’t always beat computers. I need intelligent followers. Simple mindedness is not a virtue. I need people who can act decisively and boldly. So, when my dashboard, the idiot button lights up, the first thing I do is I go for an oil change. The doctor tells me look, you are prediabetic well, I go home, and I start walking 10,000 steps so I get it on my Fitbit. You know, I work on it. Sometimes in matters of the spiritual life, and this is really the point of the scripture, sometimes in the spiritual life we put things on the back burner. We say well it will take care of itself, we will get to it someday, but for many of us someday never comes. Jesus is saying I need you to be quick, I need some good second hand car salesmen working in my kingdom and working on your spiritual life. You need to be bold, you need to be decisive, and I need people who can think and reason, choose and grow. God bless. R1: We have seen the beauty in this church and how the gospel can bring people home to Christ. An Irish poet, John O’Donohue writes; “The human soul is hungry for beauty. We seek it everywhere. When we experience the beautiful there is a sense of homecoming.” I want to thank Father Bob Stagg and the staff here at the Church of the Presentation for all of their assistance. In Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, and for Sunday to Sunday, I am Father Mike Russo.
“But now, this is what the LORD says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” Isaiah 43:1
1. Fr. Mike opens the conversation with Fr. Bob with a quote from the Chinese philosopher, Lau Tzu:
"A leader is best when barely people know he exists. When his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will say we did it ourselves.”
Fr. Bob shared with us some of the ways he strives to be an adaptive leader.
- What are the things you are currently doing that you feel are good examples of this leadership approach?
- Share a time when you had you to really rely on the talent, energy and gifts of others to achieve a goal?
- What are some ways you can do more to employ these leadership principles in your work?
2. Fr. Mike asks Fr. Bob to explain the link he sees between being a great pastoral leader and homilist. How do you see the link between these two things?
What are you currently doing to prepare to encounter Jesus in the Word? Fr. Bob shared his parish’s practice of sending a preview of the week’s homily message (“Peeking at Sunday”).
Set aside 30 minutes. Develop a preview of your homily that will jumpstart people’s reflection and pique their interest in diving deeper into the Word.
Send your preview to 3 people you trust and respect who will be listening to you homily. Ask for feed on the preview summary and for feedback on how well the summary prepared them to receive the homily’s message.
3. Fr. Bob talks about his practice of starting on Sunday to get ready for next’s homily. He starts putting the things he collects in terms of personal experience, news, and any tidbit that might help him dress the Sunday’s homily throughout the week to put on his coat rack.
In what ways are you employing this practice in your own way? Are there ways you might be more purposeful? Here a few ideas to get started:
- Personal encounters during the week (i.e. meetings, chance encounters, things I observed)…
- Stories other people shared with me…
- Things I read…
4. Fr. Bob talks about the importance of a homily’s opening. He believes he has about 30 seconds to grab people’s attention.
Take an upcoming homily. Look at how you plan to open it. What are you doing in the first 30 seconds to win a listening? Is there anything you might want to try differently?
5. Fr. Bob shares how his community has cultivated a strong social justice program through offer seven or eight opportunities through different outlets for people to take a retreat. These are called “Cornerstone.” Originated over 30 years ago, these 26 hour overnight retreats offered in about seven states feed Small Christian Communities in the parish. The communities become wonderful opportunities for people to share their stories with each other; to preach in essence among themselves. These stories percolate and find their way into the larger community. They become fertile ground for potentiating gospel themes in homilies.
How are people in your community having shared experiences that lead to rich experiences? Are there vehicles for these stories to be shared with others? How do any of these stories find their way into your homilies?
Reflecting on Fr. Bob’s Homily…
- What does he do in the first 30 seconds to grab your interest?
- Identify some of the items that you think must be from his weekly coat rack?
- How does he use humor?
- How does he make it personal and relatable to others?
- How does he tie these things back to gospel?
Father and creator blest, Rabbi and Shepherd, Spirit of Wisdom and Truth help me to encounter the Word in fresh ways. Jesus you found humble ways to purposely embedded yourself in daily comings and goings of life. Please grant me new insights into how I might collect the things you want me to put on my coat rack bring to your sheep. Guide me Spirit to find connections between the graces and blessings on my path and the message the Father wants me to bring to His children. Guide me Lord to become an adaptive leader seeking always to you your humble facilitators. Gather the gift, talents, energies, and stories of our community that your Word and Love will set us on fire to bring your Light into the world. AMEN