parishes that make a difference

blktwn_p_059The last month has been tremendously rewarding with the launch of the Parramatta pastoral plan, Faith in Our Future, and meetings with parish pastoral councils, welcome teams, parish ministry groups and other faith groups across the Diocese and beyond who have begun using the plan as the basis of their pastoral life. The Spirit and Bride are truly at work.

It has been a deep joy to see two years’ worth of work come to life in local communities of faith though it has demanded some quick learning and flexibility as each parish is unique in its potential and needs. What our parishes share, however, is a common recognition that planning for evangelisation and renewal is a part of the ‘new norm’ for our Church. It is a delight to support parishes in that effort.

Several insights have surfaced these past weeks which I hope will be of interest to anyone involved in ministry, planning or leadership within the Church. I’ll be elaborating on many of these in the Dioceses of Townsville and Bathurst in coming weeks, dioceses which, like Parramatta, are exploring not only the ingredients of evangelising parishes but Catholic schools as partners in this common mission.

Parish leaders matter

If a parish is to grow and not simply subsist, the leadership of the parish must be capable of leading others towards a goal. This not only assumes that parish leadership has a vision of growth for the community (not always a given I’m afraid) but that others are willing to follow that leader towards a preferred future. As they say, if no one is prepared to follow you, you are not leading – you are just a talking a walk! Parish leaders have to be people of vision and credibility, people who bring the future of a community into the present in such a way that others want to be part of it, passionately and prayerfully.

bibleIn facilitating the process of change within parishes, it has also become clear that while leaders must set a vision for the community, go out in front to provide direction and hope, they must always and constantly ‘double back’ and collect the rest of the group, taking others with them on the journey. If this does not happen, the risk is that leaders can be so far ahead from the rest of the community that the majority simply do not feel engaged or a part of the new direction at all!

To make this concrete, in meeting with parish pastoral councils and encouraging them to articulate a vision for their communities, I have underlined that the conversation must certainly start with them but then go beyond this select group to include collect others and invite their engagement. A parish council might set three goals for the next year, but then these three goals have to be taken to ministry group leaders for their feedback, and then ultimately shared with the whole community to invite their thoughts about the communal vision in development. It is only by this ever-expanding circle of discernment and conversation that the whole community will take ownership of the parish plan and its priorities. So leading change demands both determination and patience. There is little point in writing even the best parish plan overnight if no one is with you the next day to put it into practice.

Ministries exist for growth

God calls the Church and our parishes to grow. However, today many of our parishes assume that their current members are growing and new disciples are being made, despite much evidence to the contrary (e.g. diminishing Mass attendance, complacency among parishioners, a lack of missionary outreach, falling contributions). In other words, our parishes can be more hopeful than honest.

In seeking renewal, parishes can ask of their ministry groups, ‘Are you making disciples and what evidence is there that people are actually growing in their faith?’

baby_plant.28104733To highlight the importance of growth, consider the education sector which exists to grow student performance. We know that a lack of academic opportunity is transmitted from generation to generation and, as such, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds often do not perform as well as they could. However, some education systems (e.g. those in Shanghai and Korea but sadly not Australia) are able to lift these students well beyond their statistical likelihood of poor academic performance, enabling these young people to perform and excel at their full potential. Quite simply, good schools and teachers make a difference.

In a similar way, we know that ignorance of the faith is transmitted from generation to generation, and that many of our people start their journey in the Church ‘disadvantaged’ by low religious literacy and low or no commitment to practice, including little enthusiasm for proclamation or evangelisation. The aim of good parishes and ministries is to lift people out of this religious rut, and support them to grow in faith and discipleship above and beyond what their religious background might have equipped them for. Parishes must make a difference and be recognised for this potential – as schools of holiness and understanding in which disciples can flourish beyond all expectation.

How well are our parishes and ministry groups equipped to be a ‘circuit breaker’ in the story of low religious literacy, practice and understanding of faith that marks our Church and world? How do they imprint the living Gospel and urgent mission of God in the hearts of those whom they serve?

Good parishes stop giving people what they want

While the above headline might defy the logic of market economics – which suggests we should keep the customer happy for the right price – the economy of the Church is rather different for the Church and its parishes have always been about more than comfort or self-satisfaction.

sbTo provide a concrete example of this need to challenge rather than merely comfort our people, take these results from the National Church Life Survey, one of the best qualitative surveys on Catholic life not only in Australia but in the world. The NCLS revealed that Australian Catholics valued “community life” as one of the most valued aspects of parish life. However, at the very bottom of this scale was “small groups” and “reaching out to others”. And yet, it is precisely by small groups and the invitation of others that most Catholics find their way into the heart of the Church as a community of faith. In short, the results of the NCLS survey suggest to me the importance of changing perceptions of our people rather than simply feeding them what they want.

Our parishes need small groups whether they think they do or not because the weekly Mass rarely provides sufficient intimacy or a sense of belonging nor has it proved convincing or supportive enough for people to stay (and then there is just the plain size of our Catholic congregations which are behemoths compared to Protestant communities such as the Baptists). I do think it is true for us that whereas once small groups (study groups, meditation groups or even pilgrimage groups) were ‘optional extras’ for those already entrenched in Catholic life, now it is frequently the reverse: people are now first drawn to a small group, perhaps a pilgrimage, a meditation group or prayer circle and then later, if they move along the appropriate course, find themselves embedded in ordinary practice. Small groups provide a way of people enjoining the community life that we all value with the practical support of others.

To make the point a different way, no one knew they needed an iPhone until Steve Jobs invented one. Parishes are similarly challenged to give and offer a hungry people what they never knew they needed, whether that be a small group of prayer and reflection, Scripture study or missionary outreach which develops their personal relationship with Jesus in the midst of others. We are not artisans of our own holiness – we come imprinted with the marks of all those who have nurtured and sustained our faith in a variety of ways. We need the support of fellow disciples to grow in faith and yet small groups remain strangely anathema in the mind of the average Catholic parish.

Conclusion

There is nothing harder than institutionalising vision, whether that is across a diocese or in the local parish. To make a vision come to life there is a need for effective leadership and bold witnesses to hope, ministries that seek to grow and not simply sustain their people, and small groups and other entryways into the heart of the Church. Our parishes can still make a difference but they can only do so if they refuse to remain the same.

social media in the Church

social-mediaIn the light of two conferences of significance for the Australian Church this week – the inaugural Catholic New Media Conference and that of the Australasian Catholic Press Association – I thought I would offer a few remarks about the role of social media within the Church’s mission.

Many Catholics, including older generations, would readily agree that the Church’s embrace of social media is important, even necessary. Consulting 2,000 Catholics last year, there was a palpable enthusiasm and agreement that the Church as a whole commit itself to this technology. However, I suspect there is not always a great degree of clarity on why this is so other than reference to motives that are ambiguous to say the least (e.g. ‘relevance’).

It is important to articulate the reasons for social media as a normal part of the Church’s mission because diocesan bishops, parish priests, parish councils, heads of religious institutes, boards of management and other forms of Church leadership need to be convinced of its value if they are going to make an investment in that direction (our own Diocese of Parramatta has employed a Social Media Coordinator, @socialmediaparra, and I am aware that other dioceses are on the way to doing the same or similar).

And it is an investment. Consider your typical dioceses with its various church agencies – adult education centres, liturgical office, youth ministries and the like. While a Facebook page or a Twitter account is not difficult to establish with appropriate disclaimers, considerable thought needs to be given to message, audience and integration of that media within the ordinary work of that agency and the diocese or parish as a whole. This often requires the training of staff in the effective use of this media and time dedicated to the maintenance and driving of its message in public space. Unfortunately in the province of the profane, ‘time is money’ and so churches and agencies need to budget for that time and work if it is to be an ongoing concern. Helpfully, budgeting for the use of such media sends a signal to stewards of church finance that ‘this things matters’.

As well, my learning from a past life as a media buyer for Mitchell & Partners is that content is expensive to generate and it is important for the Church to recognise time and resources are needed to deliver this proclamation and foster dialogue in the digital realm.

542379_lowWhile the ‘content’ of Catholic media is perennial and freely given – the revelation of Jesus Christ made known by Scripture and Tradition and declared by Church teaching, liturgy, and the Church Fathers – it is not sufficient for Church media to tweet from Proverbs or even the Gospel alone. Social media in the Church, indeed communications more generally, consists not only in the confession of faith – that basic affirmation of St Peter at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ” (Mk 8:29) – it also calls for testimony that communicates the witness of Christian lives.

The reason to consider the role of social media in the Church in the context of testimony is this. Most of people’s beliefs about the world depend on the testimony of others. For instance, I have never been to South America but trust that it exists on the basis of the testimony of others who have. In fact, most of our beliefs of the world are formed on the basis of testimony because our experience of the world is inevitably limited. However, it is testimony that may draw us to travel to Rio de Janeiro if we believe in the credibility of the pilgrim that has returned from that destination.

pewsThe testimony of discipleship is what social media offers the Church’s mission. As Sherry Weddell recognises in her fine work Forming Intentional Disciples, it is not merely a curiosity but truly frightening to acknowledge that Catholics have come to regard it as normal (even deeply Catholic!) not to talk about discipleship. Indeed, for too long the cultural pressure within our parishes and communities works against the overt expression of discipleship, including an account of a personal relationship with Jesus, which can be viewed, absurdly, as Protestant rather than the foundation stone of Catholic identity (see pages 56-70). For existing and new generations of Catholic believers, social media is one vehicle that provides for Christian testimony with credibility, an opportunity to give witness to a journey travelled.

While we have come some way in past decades – moved past the prayer card, sent by email and complete with kittens, butterflies and trivial uplifting thoughts – there is some way to go to embed social media within the ordinary life of the Church’s mission and outreach. The very fact of separate conferences in Melbourne this week – one for new media and one for press – speaks to the integration that still awaits to take place in the Church’s communications effort and its self-understanding and organisation as bearer of the Word.

Of course, there is a risk that individuals and organisations, in their embrace of new media, develop an obsession with novelty which distracts rather than deepens. In a populist and throwaway culture, and given the Church’s insecurity amid current challenges and a devastating loss of public credibility, we can risk becoming eccentric faddists who are in love with anything just because it is new.

gospel of markHowever, it is the work of those leaders in social media who are emerging in the Church to school themselves not only in algorithms of rank and filter but the theology of revelation, missiology, and ecclesiology that will underpin, extend and even challenge their work. Documents such as Dei Verbum (1965), Inter Mirifica (1963), Redemptoris Missio (1990), and Pope Benedict XVI’s messages for World Communications Day in 2010, 2011 and 2013 are good starting points in this direction, underscoring that the authentic development of humanity and human culture is not a technological achievement but one that stands in relation to what has been revealed, the one who, in revealing God, has revealed us to ourselves.

start planning to be a better church

“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”.

loaves and fish mosaicI 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.

startplanning2Pastoral 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.