Catholic Tradition and Mental Models in Ministry

Misunderstanding the Catholic meaning of “Tradition” can stifle inklings of innovation, creativity, and new design in our mental models as we minister. Let’s start from the beginning…

What is Tradition in Catholicism?

Three powerful points on the meaning of “capital-T” Tradition in the Catholic faith:

Para. 78 This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition…Through Tradition, “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.”
Para. 79 The Father’s self-communication made through his Word in the Holy Spirit, remains present and active in the Church: “God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the Spouse of his beloved Son. And the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church – and through her in the world – leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.”

Para. 83 Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed.

Insights from David Fagerberg

Through the lens of liturgy, Catholic theologian David Fagerberg offers insights with application to decision-making and planning in a ministry or parish. Three key points:

  1. Tradition is Something More than History.
  2. The love of tradition in Roman Catholicism came to be identified, as was natural, with conservatism, but conservatism proves itself to be inadequate.
  3. Tradition is a capacity, a faculty.

Fagerberg’s synopsis of Church teaching is, “The pure notion of Tradition can then be defined by saying that it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, communicating to each member of the Body of Christ the faculty of hearing, of receiving, of knowing the truth in the light which belongs to it and not according to the light of human reason” (Fagerberg, “The Cost of Understanding Schmemann in the West”).

Pondering Church teaching, he emphasizes that Tradition would therefore seem to be both how something is delivered, and what is delivered. By an action called tradition (a verb), a content called tradition (a noun) is delivered. A thin sense of tradition is merely precedence. By this definition anything can become traditional if given enough time. Do it more than once and it becomes a tradition. In this thin sense, everything was “untraditional” the first time it was done (Fagerberg, “Two Centuries”). 

Fagerberg continues:

Under a more complete grammar, the thick meaning for which I am searching, something could be said to be Traditional the first time it was done. A sacramentary in Latin, the iconostasis, Gothic architecture, the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the term homoousios—all these were Traditional the first time they appeared.

Patristic theologian, Jarislov Pelican, captures this contrast between a Tradition alive in the Holy Spirit, and tradition as “dead,” unmoving custom or convention, writing:

Tradition is the living faith of the dead;
traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.

On Common Mental Errors in Ministerial Leadership

As leaders in ministry, how does this apply to us? Mistaking traditions for Tradition limits our openness to God’s spirit and curtails brainstorming before it even begins.

Pope Francis reflects:

 I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. (Evangelii Gaudium27)

Without an accurate and deep appreciation for Tradition, we can find it difficult to imagine, dream, or renew–difficult to brainstorm about “transforming everything” when it comes to customs, schedules, structures, etc. for the sake of the Church’s preeminent evangelizing mission.

Phrases That Hint at Our Self-Imposed Limits

When our minds (or mouths!) say…

  • Tradition is something we stick to…
  • Tradition ignores changes in culture…
  • Tradition prevents us from ______________…

Or, when we generally scapegoat our own strategic choices or decisions on “Tradition”–in all of these cases we’re turning the Great Tradition into a dead traditionalism. When others hear us do this or see it in our actions, to put it bluntly, we are reflecting poorly on the beauty and fullness of what the Church proclaims Tradition to be, we’re not making the fullness of our Catholic faith seem very appealing. 

Typical versus Normal

In our modern use of English, “typical” and “normal” are often used as synonyms. But, when we examine them with more precision, they have different meanings.

Typical is what is characteristically most common. What’s usual. Happens the most. Normal, on the other hand, is what conforms to a particular, pre-determined standard. The baseline for deriving or assessing other related things.

For us in ministry and in the Church, what’s typical in our current, cultural/historical setting is not necessarily what’s normal in the richness of Church teaching. For example, in parts of the United States, it’s much more typical for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) to be used with baptized Christians seeking full communion with the Church. However, this is not normal based on what the RCIA tells us, the “standard” from which various Appendixes are derived for the baptized, is the un-baptized.

In the Church, what’s normal per Tradition as seen in liturgical rites, Church teaching documents, etc. may not be what’s the most popular, commonly done, or typical in one’s ministry setting.

Tradition Matters

Praying for wisdom in the Spirit and a deepening appreciation for the richness and living vitality of Tradition can prevent us from short-circuiting our mental models in ministry, stopping good ideas before we even begin to discern them. As ministry leaders, Tradition is never a scapegoat, but a Spirit-inspired richness that renews in and through us.

Depths
“Depths” by Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
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Church Culture: How to Assess it and Keep it Moving in the Right Direction

Culture is the social norms found in any group. You might think, “nah, my church is normal…we don’t have any special culture”–but you’d be wrong. Like it or not, there are norms of behavior that predominate in any group. The real question is, is your culture helping or hurting the mission and vision you understand your local church serving in the world? 

Peter Drucker famously quipped, “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” meaning that culture isn’t just a side issue or one-time initiative, but something so important to success that it must be cultivated continuously to ensure a healthy and flourishing organization.

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Source: Twitter, Divine Renovation (@DivReno) January 15, 2018

 

How Do We Know How We’re Doing on Culture?

As the adage goes, “never accept a story without data, nor data without a story.” In church world, we lean a bit more toward accepting stories without data, so it’s important for us to seek out metrics for keeping a continuous pulse on how we’re doing on growing a healthy culture in our churches.

How to do this will vary from church to church, but a “scoreboard” or “scorecard” is a must-have. Whatever you call this, it’s something that’s concise–can be read/understood in 1-4 minutes, usually 1 page or smaller–that provides a “snapshot” of indicators of culture at the present moment. When teams of leaders at various levels review this regularly, it helps unite everyone around the common goal, see how different initiatives that each might be working on interconnect, and collaborate to make changes on the fly, for the sake of continuous improvement. Worrisome indicators can be addressed before they become huge “implosions” of negative culture (and really 🙂 everyone wants a more peaceful and relaxed life, right?).

What to Include on a “Scorecard” or “Scoreboard”?

Brainstorm about…

  • physical environment, aesthetics, and facilities
  • customs and habits
  • values and attitudes
  • structure/organization
  • resource use
  • process/program outcomes
  • leaders

…and see if there are quantitative or qualitative indicators related to any of these. Commit to a mix of both–50/50 discipline if this is a challenge for you! (And it is for most ministries). Keep a special mental “eye” out for leading indicators, meaning, indicators that give you a “heads up” on some larger, future goal, rather than the “lag” indicator that’s available, say, only after that big Christmas outreach has passed, for example.

Sample Church Scoreboards / Scorecards

There’s no one right format for any church. Here’s a very basic example of something that’s 1 page, can be read in <5 minutes, and incorporates both qualitative/subjective assessments of specific actions that are in-progress and quantitative lead indicators.

Sample Scorecard

A scorecard/scoreboard like this should be updated every time it’s viewed, and the Actions should change once completed. The lead indicators, if well chosen, should be relevant for many months (and even years), though as situational understanding evolves, you’re likely to discover that new ones emerge and some become less relevant.

Additional resources I recommend taking a look at:

Amazing Parish Thematic Goals — While the examples given are not about organizational culture specifically, they do show how to break down the goal of a healthy organizational culture into sub-goals. Why I wouldn’t recommend copying this example precisely, is the lack of quantitative measures. Assessing indicators as red/amber/green based on progress can be highly subjective, vague, and thus reduce the effectiveness of a scorecard/board as a tool for spurring collaborative action. [Note: some organizations do assign specific quantifiable metrics to red/amber/green, however, it can be a bit more confusing as it forces readers to reference a “key” to explain the colors.]

First West Church Scoreboards — These examples show various “scoreboards” for different areas within a church, in a form that includes plenty of quantitative leading indicators.

Now time for you to share! Do you have a great example of an assessment tool for culture? Tell us about it in the Comment Box. 

 

 

 

 

Outsiders First: A Culture Change

I have visited my share of congregations over the years and all of them claim to be the friendliest church. Yet, what I observe and what I am sure others experience is that people in these churches are friendly — but they are friendly to each other. Often, during the passing of the peace or congregational greeting time, parishioners greet one another warmly, but guests are left feeling like outsiders. It is not that people are not speaking to them, but that people are brushing past them quickly, so they can connect with those they know in the congregation. When this happens over and over again, it makes a visitor feel like an intruder and not a guest.

–Doug Powe, “4 Reasons Visitors Do Not Return”

Helping a church community grow into a culture that is truly welcoming and hospitable to all–a place where everyone can belong, not merely “extra belonging for those who already belong”–is one of the toughest shifts any group can make. As Fr. James Mallon has explained, culture is like an iceberg…there’s lots below the surface and it’s hard to turn/move it. But, it’s the most important change a leader can cultivate.

Customer Service for Missionary Disciples

Customer Service on Day 357
Manchester City Library via Flickr; CC BY-SA 2.0

As leaders, evangelists, and/or missionary disciples, we’re all in customer service.

Now this is strictly a metaphor, because as Christians we’ve got nothing to sell (in fact, we’re sharing the free gift of God in Jesus Christ) and aim to foster, not consumers, but empowered, Spirit-filled Christ-followers. To use the metaphor, how’s your customer service?

Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the habit in ministerial leadership or evangelism of thinking only of the “big wins.” But what of the small, everyday victories of a person satisfied, known, heard, and loved? These too are vitally important, as these moments reveal the fruits of the Holy Spirit in us, our ability to participate in God’s self-giving love, and our growth in virtue.

How does Jesus model this for us?

Example 1: Jesus’ Public Preaching Debut (Lk 4:16-30)

Not long after his baptism in the Jordan and temptation in the wilderness, Jesus is given the opportunity for some liturgical preaching in the local synagogue. After the proclamation of the Scripture (which turns out to be from the prophet Isaiah), he declares: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). The assembly hears “gracious words” and Luke reports (literally, in the Greek) that they “witnessed him [Jesus]”–they fully experienced the moment (Lk 4:22). Many English translations give it a positive spin (i.e. “they spoke well of him [Jesus]”), but we see this isn’t quite the case since the hearers want to get rid of Jesus by throwing him off a cliff, and Jesus himself turns to the proverbial wisdom, “no prophet is acceptable in his own country” (Lk 4:23-24).

What can we learn about Jesus’ “customer service”? His hopes for communication here? His heart and concern for the people and situation he enters into?

First, Jesus has Good News. Jesus has a Yes–glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind (Lk 4:1819; Is 61:12; Is 58:6).

But, even when we have a new yes to share, we shouldn’t expect to immediately please everyone. Sometimes in ministry, this can throw us for a loop, causing us to become defensive, cynical, or disheartened–because we’ve got something good, something needed, something that should bring joy and excitement–yet we experience rejection or discord.

Take-away #1: Jesus doesn’t change or soft-pedal his Good News. Though his “gracious” words aren’t well received (because they are grace for the “wrong people,” you know–those outsider, non-believers with a totally different culture) he still shares them.

Take-away #2: Jesus is okay with the fact that his communication for the better leads to “wondering,” confusion, and/or uncertainty. In ministry, we’re being unrealistic if we expect simple agree or disagree responses from those we communicate with. Those who wonder or express confusion aren’t enemies of the cause–they might be in transition, or on the way, if we as communicators continue to reach out to them. If we avoid setting fixed boundaries of “supporters” and “road-blockers” within our organizations.

Take-away #3: Jesus doesn’t verbally, personally confront those who disagree. He expresses the reality of the situation–that challenging words are generally not well received close to home, to those with the greatest perception of “loss” from a change of the status quo–but does not attack anyone personally. Jesus’ heart is for the future conversion, in purely human images, a “customer service” oriented toward the long-term.

Those who heard Jesus’ sermon that day, they might not have been ready for Jesus’ love for them. Yet, Jesus’ interactions with them reveal that he wants to hear them, nonetheless. Jesus wants them to experience being known, even if they’re not ready to accept or agree. It’s a level of “customer service” (to put it mildly!) we can all aim for as we communicate vision, strategy, and more in our ministries.

Why Ministries Need Learning Cultures

Why does ministry inherently lend itself to a learning culture? As Tim Shapiro, president of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, explains:

For a congregation to achieve or accomplish something new, it’s not just a matter of doing something. It’s almost always a matter of learning to do something new. There are many things that happen in a faith community in which something new doesn’t have to be learned. If it’s summertime and the air conditioners need new filters, chances are somebody has done that before. You just have the volunteer do it or call the air conditioning company. The congregation has achieved an objective, as simple as it might be, but they haven’t had to learn to do something new.

If it’s a matter of consequence, congregations don’t just do new things. They learn to do new things — learning that is a durable change of behavior or attitudes or ways of thinking.

For instance, imagine a congregation is seeking to start a new Wednesday evening program. This new program is designed not only for the elementary school children in their congregation but the elementary school children who go to the school two blocks away. It’s the first time the church has reached out to that school. So the congregation is going to need to learn durable new ways of behaving, thinking and feeling about such an endeavor.

howyourcongregationlearns_coverThis idea of behaviors, values, and ways of thinking–that’s culture in a nutshell. This means, to do something new, something of new or great vision, we need the right culture. We can’t avoid it:

Congregations, like most human communities, need to learn how to do new things, just as a family learns new things when an infant enters that system, and corporations that are trying to earn profits have to learn new things to keep up with the markets. Read the rest, here…

Is Your “Church” the Same Age as Your “Parish”?

Torrance CA
What’s the average age of those attending your church?

Is it the same as the average age within your parish ? (Remember, a parish is generally a geographic area–it’s not simply those who attend, but all within a designated area. Think of it as your pre-defined mission field!)

If not, what do you make of this divergence between “registered” or “attending” parishioners and the rest of the parish? For example:

  • Is it good for church attendees to be demographically quite different from those in their surrounding neighborhoods?
  • Is the difference a cause for alarm?
  • Does it evoke a response of hopefulness and opportunity, or defensiveness and fait accompli?

Lee Kricher suggests some basic steps if your registered parishioners are aging way faster than the rest of your geographic parish (and, these would also be useful if, say, your Mass attendees are ethnically, racially, or linguistically different than your parish neighborhoods):

  • Take key staff or lay leaders on “field trips” to healthy churches that have every generation well represented
  • Regularly weave into weekend messages the importance of reaching the next generation
  • Proactively engage church members in one-on-one discussions and conversations in small groups about the importance of becoming agents of change instead of blockers of change
  • Make a commitment to develop young leaders [paraphrase]

What have you seen work (or not work) in terms of practices and spirituality as your church has adapted to and with the parish area surrounding it?

Silos, Sacred Cows, and Ministries Without Alignment for a Vision

Great analysis from Thom Rainer of how we in parish life become too busy, without growing more missionary:

  1. Activities became synonymous with ministry. I am familiar with a missions support group in a church. It includes over 30 people, representing over 20 percent of the weekly worship attendance. The group is very active with fellowships, meetings, and speaker events. But the missions support group has never supported missions, nor have they ever been involved in missions. But they sure are busy.
  2. Programs and ministries are added regularly, but few or none are ever deleted. This reality is glaringly obvious at a church in the Southeast with an average attendance of 60. The church has 15 committees and nearly 30 different programs and ministries throughout the year. They almost have one ministry or program for every member. They add some activity every year, but they never delete the dead or useless activities.
  3. Programs and ministries become sacred cows. They were once the pet project of a particular member or a group of members, alive or deceased. The thought of eliminating the non-functional ministry started by Sister Harriett or Brother Frank 35 years ago is deemed blasphemous.
  4. The alignment question is not asked on the front end. Even a good ministry may not be the best use of time for a church. In one church, the membership voted to initiate a ministry because one person had become a believer through the ministry in another church over a two-year period. But the church members never considered if there might be other ministries that could be more effective and better aligned with the direction of the church.
  5. Silo behavior among the different ministries of the church. A worship ministry in the church began a new ministry that required extensive volunteer help. But the leaders never considered they were hurting other ministries in the church. Members don’t have unlimited time; they have to make choices.
  6. Lack of an evaluation process. Most churches have an annual budgetary process. That is an ideal time to ask tough questions about existing ministries and programs. Very few church leaders take that opportunity.
  7. Ministry becomes facility-centered. In other words, if it’s not happening in the church facilities, it’s not “real” ministry. As a consequence, we keep our members too busy to do ministry outside the walls of the church.
  8. Lack of courageous leadership. It takes courage for a leader to look at the busyness of a church and say “no” or “enough.” Some leaders would rather not rock the boat and, as a consequence, lead a church toward mediocrity and malaise.

Here’s the challenge.

Make a change.

Take up one of these eight “how” statements, and imagine how you could shift your process, re-think assumptions, adjust decision-making structures, communicate with the parish, or whatever it takes, so that all aspects of your ministry are fully aligned with your vision.

Barn and Silos
Silos: Quaint on the horizon, but really, not how we want parish life to be organized. Image: Michael Hart Photography, CC BY ND 2.0

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