Pastoral Planning Without Losing Sight of Discipleship — A Recommendation for “Simple Church”

Over at A Shepherd’s Post, Fr. David Barnes highlights what I think is a real temptation in pastoral planning, the error of adopting what he calls a “corporate” approach. By this, I think he means, a focus on structural organization and programs that neglects the fundamental, personal aspects of evangelization and discipleship. A “corporate” approach might also include an intense focus on metrics that are not in line with the process of discipleship (e.g. tracking activity levels of parishioners vs. actual signs of growth).

However, strategic planning is extremely important. We can’t shy away from it, just because there are ways of erring. Here’s why: certain conditions help cultivate the settings where personal discipling and sharing the Gospel can take place on a regular, ordinary basis. Having a good process and conditions that set the stage for evangelization and discipleship can be thought of as an invisible program, there’s no specific name, but there is a strategic and plan for making every condition right to foster spiritual growth in the parish.

One of the best books for grounding pastoral planning in this way is Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples by Eric Geiger and Thom Rainer. They explore this basic observation:

The healthiest churches in America tended to have a simple process for making disciples. They had clarity about the process. They moved Christians intentionally through the process. They were focused on the elements of the process. And they aligned their entire congregation to this process (ix).

Now, simple does not preclude pastoral planning. Strategy and leadership come in because, “simple church design” does not imply easy. “Simple is basic, uncomplicated, and fundamental. Easy is effortless.” A simple process is not easy to implement or maintain. Leadership is challenging, but the strategy doesn’t need to be complex.

Rainer and Geiger come up with this basic definition of a “simple church”:

A simple church is designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth. The leadership and the church are clear about the process (clarity) and are committed to executing it. The process flows logically (movement) and is implemented in each area of the church (alignment). The church abandons everything that is not in the process (focus). 

This is allows pastoral planning to all about discipleship. It focuses on spiritual growth, rather than a plethora of programs. When applied correctly, it makes it easy for the personal encounters Fr. Barnes highlights to happen, and sets the conditions for them to happen more and more frequently. For example, the Evangelical Catholic ministry incorporates the principles of clarity, alignment, movement, and focus into its strategic planning (here’s a recorded webinar on the topic from EC).

If you’re struggling with how to be strategic and plan, without becoming too “corporate” (as Fr. Barnes describes), I highly recommend you give Simple Church a read and examine how it might apply to your Catholic ministry setting. Simple Church is a short read and it won’t give you answers (especially for a Catholic parish), but it’s thought-provoking, and a valuable check to keep any parish council or ministerial staff centered on the real purpose of planing.

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