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.

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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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The Necessary Discomfort

The intersection of organizational health and redemptive suffering is an uncomfortable one.

We need healthy parishes, “The parish is where the Church lives” (USCCB, Communities of Salt and Light, p. 1). The concrete community where Jesus comes in Word and Sacrament is the embodied local center of a growing, evangelistic Church, not an appendage to be merely tolerated while movements and apostolates substitute in the “real” evangelization. Being a healthy organization as a parish takes leaders dedicated to people, more than programs, buildings, a new technology, or the latest “silver bullet” solution. As Patrick Lencioni, a leading proponent of the value of organizational health and co-founder of Amazing Parish explains:

the biggest reason that organizational health remains untapped is that it requires courage.  Leaders must be willing to confront themselves, their peers, and the dysfunction within their organization with an uncommon level of honesty and persistence.  They must be prepared to walk straight into uncomfortable situations and address issues that prevent them from realizing the potential that eludes them (“The Last Competitive Advantage”).

The core of a healthy ministry starts at the top. If leaders aren’t functioning in a healthy way, then the newest members of the parish won’t be functioning in an organizationally healthy way either (though the signs would be less obvious, as the parishioner can simply disengage from the parish as an organization with a mission, a relate to it simply as a place for private liturgical matters). Healthy ministerial leadership means not relying on authoritarian, restrictive, command-and-control leadership, but instead earning and attracting courageous, disciplined, entrepreneurial, proactive followers through our clear message of the Gospel, lived out here and now.

Paul understood this well, and wrote to one of his trusted leaders, Philemon, “although I have the full right  in Christ to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love” (Philemon 8-9). This is the essence of a healthy organization, when we in the local Body of Christ are not ordered, guilt-ed, or commanded, but are encouraged and respond out of love, because the Gospel of God and our actions in response have been put forth so compellingly that we begin to take the initiative, to move in and toward the Kingdom of God in an uncontrollable number of ways that, though diverse, tend toward the same goal, the same end because of the clarity of the Gospel message for our unique here for our unique now.

There’s a wonderful detail in Acts of the Apostles that shows the possibilities of empowered, proactive followers, we hear that it’s the vast number of ordinary believers, especially Greek-speaking Jews, scattered and pushed out of Jerusalem who first bring the Gospel of salvation to Judea and Samaria (8:1). It’s not the Apostles, who are able to safely remain in Jerusalem. This is a sign of organizational health, that clarity of communication from the Apostles, while all were in Jerusalem was such that these scattered, Greek-speaking Jews could run with it, and be running in the right direction, without the need for the Jerusalem leaders to dictate and carefully control every step of the plan.

Organizational health reflects how we’re called to relate in imitation of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. By knowing each other’s unique strengths and weaknesses, we acknowledge the beauty and dignity of being created so differently, yet each in the image of God. By committing to a new, relevant direction together and wholeheartedly supporting one another, we live out the reality that God shares his divine life and mission with us–that we are co-workers with a God who is Love, larger than our wildest human dreams. By manifesting the courage to confront another, to hold each other accountable, and engage in constructive conflict, we witness to the reality that sharing in God’s work matters–we are compelled in joy to strive for excellence, strive for the best, for the sake of the Gospel, in response to God who poured out salvation in His Son for us in a way we can’t repay in the slightest.

But what of redemptive suffering?

As Lencioni emphasizes, leadership to grow a healthy organization inspires us to, “walk straight into uncomfortable situations,” rather than letting them fester, rather than allowing suffering to simply take its course. This creates a theological tension as we labor in the vineyards of our local parishes.

For example, in the customary “Morning Offering,” we offer Jesus our prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of the day. Our suffering means something, does something. As Paul wrote to the Colossians, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (1:24). An unhealthy organization of divisiveness, factions, and secrecy generally leads to low morale. Believers don’t find the local church to be a place where their unique spiritual gifts contribute to a mission bigger than themselves. In an unhealthy parish, parishioners aren’t inspired to take ownership, to walk toward a common vision of the Gospel here and now. This creates a suffering in the Body of Christ. In suffering in and with the Body we are uniquely conformed to Jesus our Lord, who–even in his resurrected glory–has wounds (John 20:27). Christ’s wounds are a substantial, undeniable, unchanging element of His glory. This is Jesus’ obedience, even unto death, that leads to the greatest exaltation possible, the “foolish” logic of the Cross (Phil 2:8-9, 1 Cor 1:18).

Is striving for organizational health ignoring this? Is taking the steps to be a healthy parish organization, where people don’t experience as much of this suffering in the Body of Christ, avoiding this part of our faith?

The answer is no–all because of that core Lencoin emphasis on people. A healthy organization builds up leaders, gifts, and responsibilities at every level–from the Pastor’s closest advisers to the newly registered members of the parish. Paul’s work in ministry reveals how striving for health requires the suffering that comes with sacrifice, with giving oneself.

In recalling his ministry in Thessaloniki, Paul portrays his work like that of a nursing mother, a father teaching his children, and a true sharing of his very self  (1 Thes 2:7, 8, 11). A nursing mother accepts some suffering–lack of nighttime sleep, physical discomfort, challenges in a baby’s “latch,” anxieties about insufficient weight gain–yet this is all on a trajectory, toward a specific purpose, the child’s growth and development to the point where nursing is no longer needed.

Suffering in parishes to become and remain healthy organizations is like Paul ministering as a nursing mother. It’s suffering that contributes to an end, the clear message of the Gospel taking hold and growing here and now–whatever your parish’s unique here and now is. Transformative change takes courage and commitment. No parish organization can undergo the transformative change to become a healthy organization without accepting, in Christ, the redemptive power of suffering. At the same time, no parish organization should be content to dwell in suffering, or embrace suffering flowing from unhealthy organizational relationship as a spiritual discipline, as dutiful conformity to Christ. No, Christ’s suffering was redemptive. Our Savior lives–He did not remain in the grave. He did not remain on the Cross. Evidence of past suffering marks his Glorified Risen Body, yet the victory has come.

The suffering in a parish organization journeying to become truly healthy should be the suffering of confronting situations, exposing unhealthy relationships and assumptions, of mutual openness among leaders, of facing difficult situations head on. This suffering is not weakly accepting unhealthiness in the Body, but boldly, in the Spirit pursuing the ultimate good for the glory of God. Becoming a healthy parish organization means walking in the Spirit to distinguish the suffering of dysfunction and the suffering of transformation, so that we can flee the former and embrace the latter.

I’ve been writing less this Lent as an opportunity to engage in different forms of prayer and almsgiving. In this “thick” space of tension today, with you all, awaiting Hope, living redemptive suffering, I pray that the eternal Spirit–at work in even the darkest of times–will lift each of us up, as we live the mystery of the Body of Christ in our here and now.

Image Credit: John Grantner (CC by NC ND 2.0)

Vision in a Homily

So your parish has a vision, and maybe even a catchy vision statement–now what?

Vision that’s not communicated broadly falls flat. Because the point of vision is that it guides everyone. Not just the elite. Not just leaders. Everyone.

VISION
How to communicate broadly in a Catholic parish?
The Sunday Homily.

I can hear the mental excuses now. All the reasons why your parish can’t communicate vision in homilies, how the people won’t like it, how it can’t be planned, there’s not enough time, etc. But, none of the excuses override the critical importance of preaching the vision, frequently and repeatedly, to the broadest parish audience.

As Fr. James Mallon, author of Divine Renovation and The Divine Renovation Guidebook, explains:

I remember catching myself saying once, ‘But I spoke about that in a homily last year.’ It is foolish for us preachers to think that most parishioners are going to remember something we said two weeks before, never mind a year before. In truth, if the sign on the bus is to be plainly recognized, we must speak about vision over and over again. In the last three years, I have committed myself to preaching some form of visioning homily at all the weekend Masses every three weeks. I am convinced that this is necessary (Divine Renovation, 255).

Sometimes it can be tempting to think, it’s in the bulletin right? We’ve got a sign up? The staff knows? It’s on the website? But that’s not enough, “there are no shortcuts when it comes to communicating vision: it takes time and intentionality” (DR Guidebook, 60).

Let’s start with the practical: what is a visioning homily?

  • not simply information, but the inspiration and motivation “to desire that preferred future and be wiling to make the changes necessary” (DR Guidebook, 60)
  • “A homily that attempts, in some way, to address the question of why are we here, where are we going and why we do the things we do, or are trying to do the things we are trying to do” (DR Guidebook, 62)
  • “Preaching about the mission of the Church and the future of your parish in a way that all your parishioners can hear and understand” (DR Guidebook, 62)

Does it really need to be repeated so often?

Answer: Yes. Here’s why: “If a parish is becoming truly missional and is innovating, there will be ongoing change within the parish. Change must always be explained in light of the vision” (Divine Renovation, 256). Most people don’t love change. By communicating the vision frequently (as Fr. James Mallon does, roughly every 3 weeks) the parish helps each and every person know and understand how concrete changes and decisions fit into the big picture, and help guide the efforts.

Okay, I’m ready. But what goes into a visioning homily?

Drawing from Divine Renovation (pg. 256-257), here are the key elements in a visioning homily, with examples from a visioning homily (Groundbreaking 05: Vision, April 24, 2016) at Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD.

  • Answer: why are we here? Remind the listeners why the parish exists, what God has called you to, what your mission is. For Church of the Nativity, it’s growing disciples while growing as disciples. This gets mentioned twice in the first four minutes (at 1:50-2:08 and 3:50-4:04).
  • Name: what’s not right at the gut level. Scratch the point of dissatisfaction that people are experiencing. Help everyone feel the need. For Church of the Nativity, it’s that it’s “hard to invite people to come people to church when there’s no place to park and no place to sit” (4:30-4:45). This is something tangible. Lots of people in the parish may have experienced this…tentatively thinking about inviting a friend to Mass, but wary of doing so because of the seemingly crowded experience.
  • Explain: why the current situation or past models won’t work. This might include some transparency or vulnerability. Or showing how the parish has “done its homework” in trying to address the point of dissatisfaction in the past. Aim to be clear and honest about how a particular [old] way of doing things isn’t working, but without blaming people, staff, specific groups, etc. Since Church of the Nativity is addressing how to accommodate growth, the leaders share what they’ve done in the past or tried (different times, off-campus sites, etc), and how these solutions don’t effectively lead toward the parish’s vision (1:00-1:22).
  • Inspire: capture imaginations, invite people to dream. Encourage everyone listening to join in the “imagine if…” for the parish. What could it be? This is a time, not for information, but to make our hearts leap, make even the most change-averse person in the pew have a momentary optimism about the future. In the example from Church of the Nativity, Brian Cook reminds the community of pieces of plywood the parish had “filled with the names of all your friends, family members, co-workers…people you’re praying for, that one day they’ll come to church and meet their Heavenly Father…this project is about making room for them, all of them” (5:30-6:00) and continues to spur the imagination as to the wider significance of the parish’s direction, that “This new building can stand as a hopeful sign that intentional growth is still possible…that God is still using the local church to change lives” (6:10-6:41).
  • Share: the plan for how we’re getting to where we’re going. This part is the most intuitive. We like to talk about what we’re doing. But remember, this is just one of five key elements. Without the other pieces, this part of a visioning homily can quickly become a litany of information, rather than the transformation that’s at the heart of vision and change leadership. Church of the Nativity puts it concisely: it’s about “creating empty seats at optimal times” and that phrase is used at least four times in the 7-minute vision-casting portion of the Sunday message (remember, repetition works!). The “how” is that as the parish responds to the call to “invest your treasure in the Church” this will result in hearts “connected to the Church” and the “growth in faith that comes somewhere outside of your comfort zone.”

A well-crafted visioning homily weaves these elements together, independent threads yet repeated and interrelated. There’s a logical flow from reminding who we are, to identifying and understanding the “situation” (Name & Explain), to inspiring, and only then speaking the plan.

A visioning homily doesn’t need to take a lot of time. While this entire message from Church of the Nativity is “long” (20 minutes in total) by most Catholic standards, the vision casting portion is solidly within the first 7 minutes. Visioning homilies can be done in any Catholic parish on a regular basis.

The other lesson from the Church of the Nativity example is that a parish need not have a singularly incredible, awesome, best-preacher-ever to communicate vision. Brian Cook, Tom Corcoran, and Fr. Michael White (the 3 speakers in the Church of the Nativity message) are ordinary folks, just like you. They stumble on their words (as we all do). It’s not always the most beautiful language. And think about it–if you’re preaching on vision once every three weeks, not every one is going to be your personal best. The point is, they commit. They do it. One doesn’t have to be an especially-gifted dynamic preacher to communicate vision. Check out their book, Rebuilding Your Message (and related podcasts) for practical tips on how any disciple of Jesus Christ can grow as a communicator.

Do you have a great visioning homily to share? Post a link in the Comment section to help us all grow in this essential area of parish ministry.

p.s. Download the “Groundbreaking 05: Vision” example I used here. All vision casting elements are present within the first 7 minutes. I’m not sure how long beyond March 2017 the download will be available, but all key excerpts are in this post–viewing is optional 🙂

Christian Unity: Understanding Our World

Looking to those outside the visible bounds of the Church can be tremendously helpful for evangelization leaders. It’s kind of like the canary in a coal mine metaphor, as there are some trends that Catholic parishes are often buffeted from due to cultural tendencies. Attendance is certainly one of these areas.

For some Catholics, the word “obligation” is a powerful and motivating one. It implies responsibility, a solemn privilege, an honor. Thus the obligation to worship on Sundays results in attending Mass at a local parish. However, that particular cultural lens on obligation has shifted. For more and more Americans, obligation carries connotations of being forced to do something undesirable, being compelled to choose what is obviously not wanted.

Yet, for our nondenominational brothers and sisters in Christ, obligation has never been an operative part of why people attend Sunday services. Now, this isn’t true for all of our Protestant brothers and sisters, as most historical denominations have had attendance policies and culturally enforced “norms” of attendance.  But by definition, a nondenominational church is outside of denominational assemblies, policies, and the like.

Empty SeatsSo, when a vibrant church leader (Carey Nieuwhof) from this sphere shares insights on why even nondenominational church attenders are attending less and less often, as an evangelizer, I’m interested.
Understanding this trend, Nieuwhof observes, “probably marks a seismic shift in how the church will do ministry in the future”–and I think he’s right. It doesn’t mean timeless truths change, but it means we change our how, just as St. Paul changed his how in different ministry contexts in Acts of the Apostles. It means pre-evangelization, not just the initial proclamation of the Gospel, becomes more and more essential (hint: it’s already essential 🙂 ).

Check out Nieuwhof’s 10 Reasons behind this trend of less frequent attendance, and consider how your ministry can respond, adapt, and be prepared for our continuously changing cultural landscape.