One 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.
All 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.