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.

4 thoughts on “dilemmas in planning

  1. “Defining the problem and priorities” – I think this is often where I have seen the wheels fall off the cart. For example, take the “problem” of reaching out to youth. I feel that the priorities are often not understood, even when the “problem” is recognised. Lets say that we’ve found an engagement model that really speaks to the subculture and enables individuals within it to really initiate a relationship with Christ. Perhaps we can even help provide some mechanisms for support in that in the early stages. But what then? How do we manage things beyond that honeymoon stage when the emotional connection is there?

    I’ve recently reconnected with a girl who was a teen when I was involved in youth ministry. At the time I had recognised that she was a deep thinker and an intense and beautiful person who had a good grasp of the basic tenets of her faith and appeared to have a solid prayer life, perhaps a depth and maturity beyond her years. Now? Post-university, as a young professional? She maintains that God exists, but beyond that she doesn’t know what she thinks beyond that anymore. This is one example among many.

    We “get” them, and then we fail them. Something in the concept of youth ministry is missing in that we don’t provide ongoing support/formation for any serious deepening in relationship with God! Perhaps some places do this better than others – but I have noted an overall weakness in this area across the four intersecting dioceses of the broader Sydney region. So this is one example where the initial problem is well understood but the priorities for giving it real and sustainable attention are NOT.

    I truly hope that in your role you are able to work with people in ministry and planning alike to help them more critically and thoughtfully consider situations such as the one I’ve mentioned and provide more effective support for growth in faith communities. Thanks for this blog!

    • Hi Bek, many thanks for your comments and sharing your experience. The problems you refer to are acute and shared by many parishes and dioceses I suspect. I have written elsewhere on this blog about the need for youth ministry to be complemented, or even better, integrated, into a vision of adult faith formation. This recognises young people will need ongoing opportunities to reflect on their faith and also transition into an adult experience of their discipleship. I suspect that the lack of resources often given to youth ministry is connected to a lack of spiritual ‘ambitiousness’ or vision among the adult members of the community. If they are not active learners and practitioners of the faith, then there is little incentive for them to extend this possibility to others. How we imagine and support others often reveals much about our own self-understanding as ‘Church’.

      Having said all this, I do also think that though many parishes may have smaller youth groups and lack the ‘critical mass’ that we observe in other churches and on a diocesan level, we need to reverence and be supportive of those few young people engaged in their parochial communities. This can be an important time in their identity formation and development, as they bring together the culture of the wider community with a faith tradition, and vice versa.

      As I tried to convey in this last post, there will always be disappointment in church planning as the ‘problems’ of communities are not discrete, nor are the ‘priorities’ as there will always be more to do. As an ‘open’ system in which people plan, remember also that young people are subject not only to church programs but wider cultural influences that are beyond our control. Often times it is not simply Church that is ‘failing’ young people but the broader community, and that has an impact on faith. Thank you for your comments.

  2. Excellent blog Daniel. You raise some excellent points. Like you say, constant communication and consultation are the key in getting the Parish as a whole to take ownership of the vision.

  3. Pingback: towards a planning culture in our church | timeofthechurch

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