towards a planning culture in our church

plannerA fortnight ago I was in Brisbane for a meeting of the executive of the National Pastoral Planners Network (NPPN). It is a privilege to hear and share the concerns and aspirations that are shaping our dioceses around the country as well as in New Zealand. The network and its members offer a unique insight into the backstories shaping ecclesial culture and decision-making in our midst.

To put the network in context, the NPPN is a professional pastoral planning body that promotes and advocates a culture of planning within the Catholic Church in Oceania. It promotes consultation, facilitates the exchange of knowledge, provision of resources as well as training among pastoral planners. It is entering a new phase of life with a new executive and a developing focus on education and increased communication with the wider Church.

While the importance and rationale of pastoral planning is obvious to those of us involved – and indeed noticeable in dioceses when absent – there remains a need to promote with greater vigour a planning culture in our parish and diocesan communities. This advocacy is especially important at a time when the ecclesial, political and social landscape is more complex than ever, when there is division within the communion of faith, when the need for best practice in the Catholic Church is indisputable given our past and present, and when new generations await a compelling invitation from the Church to embrace the Gospel and the mission it entails.

collaborationWhile pastoral planners offer no ‘silver bullet’ for the many challenges of the Church (if we did, we would sell it to the world!), we provide advice to bishops and diocesan curia, collaborate with business managers, church agencies, clergy and local communities in a variety of circumstances. As pointed out in a previous post, dioceses in Australia are at varying phases of progress and idleness in terms of a more strategic approach to their pastoral life and this is not without consequence for their vitality.

In order to promote a culture of planning in our Church, an advocacy that I believe is critical to our future, it is important to name and address the scepticism and even resistance that can exist toward pastoral planning at a diocesan and parish level. If we truly believe planning is essential to the Church’s life, then we need to tackle objections to it for the good of our Church and its mission.

A central objection that can be expressed and calls for specific response is the view that pastoral planning takes a rather bureaucratic and functional approach to the Church. With talk of community engagement and stakeholders, strategic plans, policy development and the like, pastoral planning can appear to be driven by principles more commonly found in the Business Review Weekly than the Gospel. Some would view the enterprise of planning for the Church to be Pelagian in spirit for it suggests a lack of faith in the capacity of God to lead us to greener pastures.

336280_lowHowever, I believe that position not only misrepresents how pastoral planning is actually exercised in the Church (operating as it does from ecclesiological and missionary principles not management techniques) but it also tends to abstract the Church out of history with an opposite tendency toward fideism. It fails to appreciate that the Church’s mission is not only a gift but a task, a mission exercised in history and that calls for human decision and agency as well as the graces we implore from God. (At the time of the last conclave, I reflected on the interaction of the Spirit and human decision-making here).

Indeed, pastoral planning, properly understood, is a response of faith to the mission with which we have been entrusted. It recognises as well the very sacramental nature of the Church – Christ present in and through the community of those who believe in Him – and values practices of consultation, discernment and prioritisation as a means of making the most of the faith, gifts and resources given to us as stewards of the Kingdom.

As intimated previously, planning can take on a determinative or self-satisfied spirit but only when it fails to acknowledges its own limits within an ‘open’ system such as the community of the Church. It is worth repeating that addressing pastoral dilemmas within a diocese 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 cases, it is clear when the problem has been resolved – the equation is solved or checkmate is declared.

For Church planners, however, the dilemmas never end because there is always something more that could be done in the name of Christ and his mission. More realistically, church leaders and planners will say, ‘that’s good enough’ or ‘this is the best we can do for now’ before reassessing priorities and remedies and/or any adjustments that need be made in subsequent phases of ecclesial life.

This ever changing and fluid nature of our dioceses and our parishes is more of a reason to plan than an excuse not to. Planning is an appropriate response to change and takes a pro-active stance towards the future rather than letting the Church be shaped passively by external forces which has been the reality in past stages of its history.

consultationUltimately, a planning culture will be fostered in our Church by dioceses and church organisations witnessing to the benefits of planning and consultation, as well as serious reflection on the consequences of not doing either. A refrain of this blog and the project in my own Diocese of Parramatta is that a failure to plan does not leave communities where they are but can actually speed their decline. Churches and parishes that grow are communities that plan, that express an intentionality about their life, have a clear Gospel vision and commit themselves to actions appropriate to context. We cannot rely on the charismatic fact that things will simply fall together; organisation and planning is indispensable for persons to do things together.

Responses to pastoral planning will largely be determined by our expectations and understanding of its practice. While it has an undeserved reputation for being in the business of closing parishes and responding to diminishing numbers of clergy (again, both misapprehensions of a broader missionary reality), pastoral planning is a vital resource for the Church’s mission without which our dioceses can be left only with vague decision-making processes, a deficit of shared vision and with that a lack of common commitment. It is hoped that through witness and best practice there will be more pastoral planning in our Church in the years and indeed the generations to come.

the state of the Australian church (part II)

australia-allThe Catholic Church now takes in a quarter of the Australian population (25.3%). It includes parishes, religious institutes, ecclesial movements, schools, tertiary institutions, hospitals, aged care facilities, social support services and various other expressions of Catholic identity and mission. For those engaged in the day-to-day activities of the Church, it is obvious that there is much to celebrate about the contribution and mission of the Church in Australian society. However, as will be recognised below, it is not all good news (if it ever was) and each of us is left to engage with the work yet to be done.

As intimated in my last review of the Australian scene, while statistics should never alone determine pastoral initiatives they do provide a helpful context in which good decisions can be made for the future. Ignorance of the sociological realities of the Church can lead to planning and decision-making ‘in the air’, a choice which can exacerbate problems or else leave potential unrecognised and unfulfilled.

censusformIt won’t be a surprise that even the statistical realities of our Church can be contested. This is because there will be an element of selectivity in the data we choose to focus on and varying interpretations of that data depending even on our theological positions or presuppositions. These include the proper relation of the Church to the world, the meaning, purpose and expressions of Catholic mission, and the ultimate goal of Catholic education to name only a few.

For instance, we know from the most recent census that 52.8% of Catholic students attend Catholic schools. What does this say about ourselves, our schools and their role in the support of Catholic faith and families? What are the pastoral implications of the 10.8% of Catholics aged over 15 who are divorced or separated in our midst? Then, 35.3%, more than a third, of all Australian families have at least one Catholic within the family. Assessments about the potential or decline signalled by these statistics for our Church will be, in part, determined by our assumptions and priorities.

While some basic figures have already been outlined, below are further points of interest, some of which trace change within the Church over the past two decades or so (1991-2011). These might be of interest to priests and parishes, pastoral planners, adult educators, ministry groups and even students in their assessment of the scene here in Australia.

  • The Catholic population grew by 18.1% in the past 20 years. However, because the non-Catholic population grew even more in this period, Catholics fell from 27.3% of the general population in 1991 to 25.3% of the population in 2011.
  • Catholics are choosing to get married later. In 1991, 38% of all Catholics between 15-34 years of age were or had been married. In 2011, this had fallen to 22%.
  • In the past 20 years, the Philippines and India have risen to become major ‘source countries’ for the Catholic Church in Australia while migration from Italy and Malta has dried up almost completely. This must surely shape our activities and communication as a Church, now and in coming decades.
  • Now for the jaw-dropper of the 2011 census. Across all age groups it appears that more than 20,000 Australians every year are ceasing to identify themselves as Catholics. This growing ‘dis-identification’ in our midst is alarming and even takes into account that Catholics die, emigrate and travel overseas at about the same rate as Australians as a whole, that infants and newcomers are baptised and confirmed in the Church each year, and even compensates  for those young people at WYD Madrid at the time of the 2011 census. This dis-identification of 20,000 persons a year represents a net figure and a serious challenge for the Australian Church.
  • 61.2% of Australia’s Catholics live in NSW and Victoria (compared to 55.6% of the general population). This renders the pastoral life of dioceses and parishes within these states as vital to the future of the Church though inspiration may well come from elsewhere. (NB: for those looking for more census data and detailed analysis of the figures, see the April 2013 edition of the Australasian Catholic Record for a solid summary of the results).

SB004Effective planning in our Church can only begin with a plain recognition of the present reality and discussion about the implications of these statistics for our pastoral practice. While it is not uncommon to meet people with ‘the solution’ for all of the Church’s woes and the keys to its potential, the reality is far more complex than imagined. It follows from this that the appropriate responses will be anything but one-dimensional.

While an acknowledgement of the facts can be difficult to hear, as we know in this wintry season for the Church, they create a sense of urgency and open communities to accepting change. We cannot build a future and fulfil the mission God has given to us on the basis of illusions we hold about ourselves. As the English theologian Nicholas Lash would remark, “If you leave Calvary behind, you move, not into paradise, but fairyland.”

The contemporary statistics for the Australian Church are alarming but they are not a dead end. Instead, they invite the renewal and conversion that is the opportunity and challenge for disciples of every age.