getting started in ministry

planningLast week I met with a diocesan youth minister who was seeking advice on planning for parish communities and better coordinating their activities toward a unified mission. For me it was an opportunity to learn more about the organisation of other dioceses and their parishes which differ quite considerably across the country.

One of the recommendations that I made was that whether you are working within the context of a parish ministry, a religious order, or for a diocese it is essential to put aside some specific time for planning rather than jumping headfirst into frenetic activity.

Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth century Cappadocian Father, warned that the mere appearance of Christian activity and practice does not mean any genuine progress is being made. He likened directionless activity to

. . . those who toil endlessly as they climb uphill in sand. Even though they take long steps, their footing in the sand always slips downhill, so that, although there is much motion, no progress results from it. (The Life of Moses)

Genuine progress demands beginning on firm ground, including the effort to plan, otherwise we risk expending a lot of energy in ministries that make little progress or have little impact. As it has been put, without proper planning, direction and goals, we can be ‘paying people to be nice’.

Here are a few pointers which may be helpful for those just beginning in ministry as well as those further along in experience. These can assist both lay and ordained ministers to make the most of their opportunities and reduce the amount of energy lost to initiatives that are uncoordinated or ill-conceived from the start:

  • windowUnderstand the ecclesial context, history and organisational structure. One of the first things I did, and found helpful, was to request an organisational map of the diocese before all else. One of the advantages of working within the Catholic Church is that there will be a relatively firm structure, that is for sure! A map of these structures and relevant organisations within your diocese, parish, or religious network will help you identify who the stakeholders are, to identify those who link with your work and help you to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes! It is also important to quickly become familiar with the history of the context you are working in. This helps you understand people’s attitudes, opinions and actions in the present. All of this takes time, though after a year or so you should be picking up the ‘lay of the land’. If you don’t have a clear picture of the ecclesial landscape and dynamics you are working in it can be difficult to make genuine progress. After all, you can’t do it alone and need to collaborate with others.
  • Ensure ownership of your ministry by those you report to, as well as the provision of adequate resources to fulfil your ministry. This includes the need for your own ongoing formation. Accountability and governance are not only important dimensions of the Church as a human organisation but a part of the Church’s self-understanding as a theological reality. The Church is structured in such a way as to not only safeguard but to strengthen an apostolic proclamation from generation to generation. This means that those you report to, often an ordained minister, a vicar, a head of a religious institute or perhaps even a bishop, need to exercise oversight and take ownership of the work you have undertaken. Sometimes a helpful distinction is made between ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’ – you may be responsible for a particular work but someone ‘higher up the chain’ will be ultimately accountable for it. So regular meetings with your superior are a must. Your overseer also has responsibilities and they should support you not only in rhetoric but also in practical resources. All church organisations should be resourcing their people to succeed, not to fail, so it is important to ask for a budget that allows you to get the job done. If they could have done it for less or without expense, they would not have employed you in the first place! Finally, securing resources for your ministry also means ensuring you are not working in isolation and that you have opportunities to network with others and receive formation and/or supervision of some kind. Working in the Church means working with people and there is nothing more rewarding and challenging than that. Good supervision, networking with others and ongoing formation are essential for your longevity as a leader.
  • Establish a coherent framework for your ministry. Take youth ministry in a diocese for example. Is your ministry going to be parish-based, diocesan events-based, or a combination of these and in what proportion? No one can ‘do it all’ so what will your approach be, your principle message for young people, and what are the three goals you seek to achieve in the first year? Clarifying these basic goals and approaches to your ministry are important. It strikes me that in speaking of a ‘framework’ for your ministry those who take up an existing role often feel an expectation to simply duplicate what was before. However, again, if what had gone before was so successful or sustainable, it is doubtful that your predecessor would have moved on or that the organisation would have employed you to take it up. Once you familiarise yourself with the context and history, have the courage to begin to shape the goals that you discern as critical to the life of your community. You, also, need to own the work if you are to carry it out not only with competence but personal passion.
  • Build a reliable team throughout the planning process yet still assert leadership. As I’ve mentioned before, often Church organisations have strategic plans that no one really cares about other than its authors. No one else feels invested in the plan and so few are likely to respond to its initiatives. When you start out in your ministry, start collecting names and remembering profiles of good people with a proven record for getting things done. Remember, these may not be the people recommended to you by predecessors or the people currently in place! Ask the skilled and capable people you have identified for their views as you plan for your ministry. Not only are you getting wise advice from a gifted cohort but they may also form a future team that can help you turn the vision of your ministry into a reality. By having their say, people become genuine owners of a plan and you are on your way to building and nurturing a reliable team. Keep in mind this does not mean handing everything over to committee – it remains important to lead from the front and it is indeed an old saying that ‘if you want to kill something off send it to committee’. Work towards a style of leadership that is genuinely consultative but is unafraid to make decisions and exercise leadership when called for.

There are many other dimensions of good planning in ministry and while few of us, including myself, manage to apply or appropriate them all, it is helpful to have them before us as a resource for future thinking.

greatgrace2013For those interested in further reflection on ministry, especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Sydney Archdiocese is hosting the “Great Grace” conference next month. It is well worth attending if you can. I’ll be there speaking on the subject of “co-responsibility” and you can read my abstract and those of others here.

As the landscape of ministry develops across our Church, I will be suggesting that it is indeed possible to affirm the integrity of ministry by the non-ordained and uphold the unique charism of the ordained without compromise or a diminishment of either. As so often happens in the Church, the practice of co-responsibility is outpacing the theology and Church policy in this area. Yet this does not necessarily mean a distortion is taking place. In fact, it can herald development that is authentic to our tradition, including our self-understanding as a ‘communion’.

I hope to share more reports on the Conference and reflections on ministry in posts to come.

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dilemmas in planning

consultbhOne of the best aspects of my role as a diocesan pastoral planner is the opportunity to meet with others engaged in similar projects, in parishes, ministry groups and ministry networks across Australia and abroad. This week was no different and the experiences that were shared brought home to me the very complexity of planning for church communities.

While pastoral planning sounds terribly bureaucratic and less glamorous than other aspects of ecclesial life, it is important for the reasons I’ve outlined in a previous post – to cultivate a clearly owned vision of identity and mission, to draw on the sense of faith that is given to all members, to match church structures with mission, and to enable faith communities to respond effectively and proactively to change rather than being passively shaped by outside forces.

StonesAll communities need to make plans because wanting to grow is not enough. We need to plan to grow and be explicitly organised to grow the faith of our members as well as to evangelise. Indeed, a long line of Church research reveals that making no plans for growth results in little or no growth every time. So without a commitment to planning, church communities and ministries do not grow and, in fact, risk decline.

Though the rationale for planning is clear, the reality is never so simple. Anyone who has attempted to plan for a parish, for youth leaders, youth groups or adult ministry knows how difficult it can be to cultivate ownership, engagement and commitment to a vision with even the best intentions.

So, why is planning in our church communities so difficult? Below are a few reasons that came to mind. If we can name some of these challenges upfront as we prepare to plan for our group or network, we can consider responses and adjust our strategies and expectations along the way.

  • Negotiating diversity in the group: all parishes, groups and ministry networks are marked by diversity of one form or another, whether it is ethnic background, social or economic status, education, theological literacy, or ecclesiological viewpoints to name only a few. This plurality complicates the pursuit of unitary goals within the group even while it offers a diversity of perspectives on faith and community.
  • Defining the problem and priorities: it follows from the above that achieving a consensus on the core issue or issues at the heart of the community’s life or, alternatively, the key priorities for its growth can be difficult. Even when a consensus is achieved within a group as to a decision or course of action, it can represent the ‘lowest common denominator’ that is acceptable to all members i.e. it can signify the least we can agree on. For this reason any consultation process on problems and priorities must be paired with leadership for good leaders, whether they be ordained or lay, can challenge communities to look further than they might otherwise be willing to for the sake of a stronger mission.
  • Cultivating ownership of the vision: too often the only persons truly engaged and who understand the strategic or ministry plan are its authors, usually a small group or select committee, while the community it is intended to serve may be scarcely interested or committed to its vision or contents. Planners cannot afford to be naïve to this reality, that few others are likely to regard ‘your’ plan as important as you do! However, rather than sink into resignation, this gap between the planners and the community provides you with the strongest spur to constant communication, including consultation throughout the process, the provision of regular feedback on progress and proposals, and bringing people ‘into’ the project as early as possible ahead of implementation. The bottom line is that you can never communicate enough.
  • Recognising limits of planning in an ‘open’ system: solving a problem within parish life is not the same as a problem of mathematics, such as solving an equation, nor is it the same as playing a game of chess. In the latter instances, the ‘mission’ is clear and it also clear when the problem has been resolved – the equation is solved or checkmate is declared. In planning for a church or faith group, however, the ‘problems’ never end because there is always something more that could be done in the name of the community’s life and mission. More realistically, the church leader or planner will say, ‘that’s good enough’ or ‘this is the best we can do for now.’ Those responsible for planning for church communities will tend to disappoint to the extent that they can never ‘solve the problems of the Church’, as it were, that others, somewhat naively, expect them to. Community expectations can be unrealistic and this explains the cynicism that leaders can encounter at the beginning of their planning process. Parishes and ministries are ‘open’ and complex systems, organic networks of relationships, both spiritual communions and human organisations, that are never closed, static or as ‘resolvable’ as they appear.

Before embarking on a planning process, it is good to have in view the many challenges that will arise in cultivating a common vision within a diverse and multidimensional Church. It also underscores the importance of networking with others in the field and sharing approaches in what is an intensely rewarding process that brings ecclesiology together with pastoral practice for the good of Christian faith, discipleship and mission.