“For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment and will not disappoint” (Habakkuk 2:3)
At a recent gathering I was asked what I did for work. I shared something of my role as a pastoral planner for the Catholic Church to which they responded with detached interest, “Oh I guess they would have to plan wouldn’t they”.
I suspect that many Catholics would be just as surprised that pastoral planning goes in the Church. And yet it is nothing new to us. From the very beginning of our history as disciples planning has been a common part of our life. In the Acts of the Apostles, for example, we see the community organising itself – identifying, preparing for and responding to the pastoral needs of their fellow believers and those beyond the nascent community. This includes providing for the care of Greek widows (6:1-6) and addressing the need to catechise the great numbers in Antioch (11:19-26). Hence, from the outset, the community and its leaders discovered particular pastoral needs, discerned ways to address them, and then selected one of the possible options. These activities constitute the essence of ‘pastoral planning.’
Many dioceses are dedicating considerable resources to ‘planners’ among the people of God and some parishes have also begun to take a more strategic approach to their life though these are fewer in number than is called for. Much work remains to be done here.
Pastoral planning, for instance, is the reason for which pastoral councils exist (see Canon 536 §1 and Ecclesiae Imago n.204) . However in my experience these still too often get bogged down in ‘maintenance mode’ or end up acting like corporate management and so fail to achieve their potential as a body of prayerful discernment and missionary initiative (and this phenomenon deserves a blog all of its own).
So why is church planning indispensable and why does it need to be a priority for your faith community or ministry group? There are many reasons that could be raised. Below I list only a few to spark your own thinking about a more planned approach to mission.
- The need to develop, articulate and promote a clearly owned vision within and beyond your group (i.e. ‘what are we about?’). Without such a vision, resources can be misdirected and significant energy can be lost; people have no way of engaging with a future approach. What is your community’s vision for making disciples?
- The need to identify spiritual and social needs as well as gifts within the group so that the mission of Christ and the Church can be fulfilled. Intentional planning provides an opportunity to get to know the members of the group or community more intimately and engage their abilities toward the common good;
- The opportunity to consult community members and listen intently to their faith, viewpoints and experience of the past and present with a view to the future. No one has a comprehensive view or can experience all of the Church’s life; as a communion of faith we depend on each other for the best view of things. St Paulinus of Nola reminds us, ‘Let us listen to what all the faithful say, because in every one of them the Spirit of God breathes';
- The need to match our structures with our mission, particularly in light of limited resources and increasing need. All structures and persons are at the service of, and therefore accountable to, the mission given to us by the Gospel in our particular context. We need to match the faith that we live with the mission we seek to fulfil;
- To enable your faith community or group to respond effectively and proactively to change and to not be passively shaped by external forces. Intentional planning actually enables adaptability, flexibility and resourcefulness in the midst of changing circumstance.
Without the discipline of planning for the future life of your community or faith group it is unlikely to realise its greatest potential. When exercised well pastoral planning can move communities beyond complacency, from merely existing to communities of genuine missionary intent. It can forge a more united and creative vision and raise a self-awareness within the community that it does not exist for itself but for the greater purpose of mission. On the other hand, a lack of planning does not simply leave communities where they are but actually risks their diminishment. So start planning to be a better Church; it’s never too late to begin.