Every priest needs to have a vision for his priesthood and for the parish he serves. Because today’s blog is a continuation of yesterday’s on leadership, this post will focus on the latter.
So… do you have done the hard work of discerning a vision for your parish?
Most of us haven’t. If we’re asked; “what is your vision for your parish”? We’re smart people and we have learned lots of words, and we can put something together that sounds coherent. We could even defend it with more words (to include biblical and patristic references). But it’s not really a vision, it’s just a dressed up reaction (as likely to be affected by ego and last night’s soup as anything).
Visions are not reactive; they are the result of an intentional process of discernment. It involves collecting data on the parish and the community (not just numbers, but stories and experiences); it involves serious prayer and discussions with mentors, colleagues, and elders; and it involves opening up one’s heart to the Spirit – not just in a “Magic Eight Ball” way (“Oh magic eight-ball, what is the best I can hope for when it comes to the future of this parish?”… Shake, shake, shake…), but in an iterated way over time. In short, discerning a vision for your parish involves the same kind of serious work that all spiritual discernment takes. There are no short-cuts (even if you do get a +5 roll on discernment rolls because of your long beard and advanced degree).
Instead of doing “the vision thing”, we tend to be driven by what needs to be done; and any planning we do tends to focus on developing tactics that will keep the parish solvent for another five to ten years. And this is a best-case scenario; I don’t think most of us get even this intentional about the future of our parishes. I think we mostly just think of the future as something vague that will take care of itself if we just get through the next bit of time as well as possible (and if you think I’m exagerating, talk to your brother priests about what they are doing to prepare for their retirement; different domain, same problem).
The problem is that when leaders do not provide vision for their people and when they do not frame parish experiences and aspirations in terms of that vision, it leaves a vacuum for the devil to fill.
And honestly, the devil probably won’t even waste his time as he’ll have plenty of defacto surrogates doing his work for him. At best, individuals and cliques (“I am of Apollo! I am of Paul!) will imagine the parish they want and fight to make their vision win. This is not conciliarity/sobornopravnist (the closest the Church comes to democracy), it is chaos.
Unity of will and effort is one of the traits the Church is constantly striving towards (we know this because we chant it to our people at every liturgy!), and the kind of floundering and stress that results from poor leadership undermines that effort. Nor can this unity of will be imposed; the only tyrant we allow to rule as tyrant is the Lord God Himself. It doesn’t take power, it takes leadership. The priest is the one who has the calling and the charisma to lead the parish; lay leaders are important and can help the rector develop and refine the vision, but this is not a task that cannot be delegated without repurcusions (this is what happens when a priest decides he can get by “just serving well“)
So here’s my advice:
- Do the hard work of developing/discerning a vision for your parish. Take your time. Gather data. Learn about the people you serve and those you hope to serve. Learn about your parish’s strengths and weakness. Talk about your ideas with you circle of friends, advisers, and mentors. Flesh it out in your mind; how are people in this ideal vision behaving? What does the culture value? What institutions/ministries/SOP’s are supporting those behaviors and culture? Much of the hard work has already been done: you have read about or experienced different “ideal types” of healthy parishes. FWIW, the one I use is the stewardship/lay ministry model. That’s not the only one that works. Develop a vision that is both effective (at evangelism etc.) and is meet and right for your tradition and community.
- Come up with an “elevator speech” (“always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” 1 Peter 3:15; only slightly out of context) about this vision that you can share every chance you can in whatever form is most likely to generate support. It is especially important that you share this vision regularly with your lay leaders. Council meetings, annual meetings, classes, and homilies are ideal venues for this.
- Frame (i.e. explain) all parish experiences in terms of the vision. The pejorative term for this is “spin” or “staying on message”, but it’s important. Part of leadership is reminding people who they are (even when they are not quite living up to it). For instance, if your vision is a parish that helps the community around it, instead of saying/putting in the bulletin that “God bless our youth; they collected coats for the needy last week”, you can say/write “St. Luke’s is such a compassionate and community-focused parish; how wonderful that our youth were able to collect and donate so many coats to the needy in our neighborhood!” Work these references into homilies as is appropriate (it worked for St. Paul!).
- Evaluate issues, make decisions, and come up with plans (i.e. tactics and strategies) based on the vision. You know you have momentum when others in leadership positions start doing this on their own. Be judicious in dealing with folks that are pushing decisions based on other visions (e.g. fear or the bottom line); some people who are stuck in “business as usual” may need to be compromised with at first. Lord willing, they will jump on board once the process begins to gain traction.
The beautiful thing is that when leaders lead, other things fall into place. There will be push back (there is always push-back when we do the right thing), but that’s to be expected. But anything negative will be overwhelmed by the joy that comes from actually working at the thing you have been called to do (even when it is hard) and from leading your people towards a common goal (which is itself a part of and participation in the One Goal we are truly leading them towards).
Yours in Christ,