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)

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Millennials in Ministry: Lencioni Thinking

Too often, people in church-world speak of “reaching” Millennials as if we’re some “foreign entity” (h/t Tim O’Malley) or a group solely in need of being reached/served/ministered to, in contrast to being baptized-believers whom God is already at work in and through–right now.

Patrick Lencioni, co-founder of Amazing Parish, offers these thoughts on Millennials:

As it turns out, there is a better way to think about hiring good people than focusing on a person’s generational stereotype. It comes down to looking for three simple, timeless and observable virtues that are reliable predictors of whether someone of any age will be a good team player. Thankfully, while generations change, the nature of teamwork does not.

I agree! A healthy organization is a healthy organization not because of the particular generational identities of its members, but because of their common commitment, the way the relate, and the way they make decisions together.

Millennials are largely missing from the teams of leaders in many church ministrieswhat holds us back? Maybe, a better appreciation of what makes a healthy organization and what cultivates effective teamwork is a missing piece. We don’t know how to “talk” about being an effective ministry organization because we lack the vocabulary, and so we default to stereotypes, thinking it’s because of a person’s age, marital status, regional identity, race, gender, etc. that “we can’t work well together” or “we always communicate poorly.”

As I’ve said before, I highly recommend Lencioni’s The Advantage for anyone in ministerial leadership. And 🙂 as a Millennial, I’m looking forward to reading Lencioni’s latest book, The Ideal Team Player, to see how it connects with each of our own baptismal vocations in ministry and some of the classic scholarship on “courageous followership.”

Have you read “The Advantage” or plan on reading “The Ideal Team Player” through a ministry lens? Share your thoughts in the Comments.

Millennial Scrabble
Jeff Djevdet (Flickr), CC by 2.0

Real Leadership Teams

For decades (probably longer!) leadership gurus of all sorts have been talking about the importance of people. Now, this can seem a bit obvious to many in ministry–but in practice we often forget this. Crafting the “perfect” strategic plan or laboring over a new curriculum–all without the pivotal leadership team to implement anything fruitful, meaningful, or life-changing.

Catholic author and consultant, Patrick Lencioni, has become a leading modern-day voice for the importance of people, of crafting (as he calls it) a “real leadership team” as a foundation for leading anything. Especially anything as important as a local parish–the primary place an ordinary person will encounter God’s people as a concrete community.

Lencioni is part of the Amazing Parish conference series, meeting [here!] in Michigan today 🙂

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my own little photo of Detroit,from Belle Isle (May 2012)

If you’ve got an extra moment for prayer today, please join me in praying for the speakers, trainers, and leaders attending this conference. And, if you’re interested in growing a leadership team to help make your big ideas or needs a reality, I highly recommend Lencioni’s compilation book The Advantage and the awesome free resources (like this) available at Amazing Parish.

 

 

Pastoral Administration Book Review: “A Pastor’s Toolbox”

A Pastor’s Toolbox: Management Skills for Parish Leadership, Ed. Paul A. Holmes (Liturgical Press, 2014)

This is one of many books that aim to equip Catholic parish ministers with the leadership, managerial, and administrative skills to be successful in parish (or any) ministry.

In the Introduction, Holmes writes, “with all the requisite education in philosophy and theology that seminaries must provide future pastors, in addition to all the needed formation in spiritual and pastoral care, our seminaries can do little to prepare priests to deal with the difficult temporal issues pastors face” (p. 1). 

That’s probably the reality. Though, I’m kind of skeptical to think that seminaries can’t do a better job of this. Or, maybe dioceses have to take matters into their own hands, with in-depth pre-pastoral continuing education for new priests serving as associate pastors who don’t happen to have a pre-seminary background that prepared them for leadership of a sizable organization (like a parish). Same goes for lay ministry formation programs.

Anyhow, the problem exists. The greatest strength (and weakness) of A Pastor’s Toolbox is that it is specifically focused on priests serving as pastors. Chapters 1, 2, and 3 are specifically tailored for priestly ministry as a pastor. Chapter 2 highlights three overarching responsibilities of the pastor: 1) to be the keeper of the vision, 2) selecting a staff, and 3) assessing the needs of the parish. Great list! Helps keep the pastor focused on the big picture and setting conditions (through staff selection and needs assessments) rather than being too operations focused, and not delegating enough (p. 23). In the many parishes I’ve been a part of, there does seem to be a tendency among pastors to not delegate enough. I think this flows from their authentic love for the flock and servant leadership, which translates to not wanting to burden others. While the motivation is virtuous, it’s shortsighted and ultimately limits the mission of the parish.

Chapter 3 “A Six-Month Game Plan” for new pastors is especially useful as a practical guide. Focusing on priests in pastoral leadership is important because many of the other books I’ve reviewed stretch more broadly into leadership and management, and just maybe, there are some priests out there who think “this stuff is for my business manager,” and tune out. The opening chapters of this book should get every seminarian, future pastor, or pastor’s attention. This is a good thing. It makes A Pastor’s Toolbox an outstanding resource for any Pastoral Administration course that includes seminarians.

On the flip side, if you’re preparing for non-priestly leadership or management in a parish, you can probably just skip the first three chapters. It’s a nice-to-know perspective, but not something you can act on.

Some of the other best practices from the first three chapters that are most needed in parishes (and involve more than just the pastor’s initiative) include:

  • having annual study/reflection/planning days that include the whole staff stepping away (I know Church of the Nativity, aka the Rebuilt parish does this; and Patrick Lencioni explains the concept well as a quarterly meeting, and I tend to think most parishes need 2x per year or quarterly meetings for this).
  • mailing every registered parishioner a financial statement for the parish each year (so that even those who don’t attend Mass and might typically receive it in the bulletin have a chance to read it–promotes transparency)
  • keeping relationships transparent by channeling friends/parishioners who want to talk to you (the pastor) about something (i.e. why not to do a new building project) to the correct formal forum, such as setting them up for coffee with the parish council member leading investigation into a building project (p. 33-34)

The other chapters in the book focus on particular areas and would be valuable for almost any pastoral leadership/administration course (i.e. for lay persons, deacons, etc.). Chapter 5 “Developing a Comprehensive Human Resources Program,” Chapter 7 “Best Practices in Parish Internal Financial Controls,” and Chapter 12 “Parish Planning” are outstanding. These should definitely make it onto your formal (or informal 🙂 ) reading list.

Some of the best tidbits from Chapter 7 (Finance) include:

  • only 9% of parishes hold open budget meetings! (p. 79) — don’t do this, be transparent. I can certainly attest to this, of the many parishes I’ve been a part of only one was highly transparent about the annual budgeting process. In all the others, finance council meetings weren’t even announced. 😦
  • giving via EFT (electronic funds transfers) tends to increase giving by 30% (p. 82) — that’s pretty significant! I can also see how it reduces the labor needed for counting offertory collections and reduces the opportunities for fraud. So many wins. Parishes can brainstorm ways to help people switch and to continue to ritualize the spiritual act of financial offerings (since many people are just used to putting an envelope in the collection plate/basket and feel “wrong” not doing this).

All of the other chapters are simply okay. Not the most comprehensive or best chapters I’ve read on these subjects, but certainly not bad. Chapter 9 “Pastoring and Administering a Mission-Driven Church” could use a greater focus on discipleship processes, Chapter 8 “Fundraising as christian Stewardship” could use some conversation with research on Catholic giving and giving as a spiritual practice. However, on the whole, this is a solid book with some outstanding portions, it stands out as the only book I’ve seen that’s specifically tailored for the priest/pastor role. Thanks Liturgical Press for a great resource!


On a personal note, I had a little chuckle reading the forward to this book. U.S. Army Lieutenant General (Retired) James Dubik is “where the story begins” in the creation of the Toolbox for Pastoral Management program and this book. I instantly recognized that name. Lieutenant General Dubik was the commander of MNSTC-I (pronounced “minsticky”) aka, the Multi-National Security Transition Command – Iraq during the 2007 “surge,” the same time I was serving in Iraq. While I never worked directly with him, I heard him speak during vitual briefings. And, I remember being my commander’s notetaker during a trip to Baghdad to visit the MNSTC-I headquarters and engineer section. So, a small world 😉 and a laugh that out of the 168,000 or so  U.S. troops in Iraq during the “surge” there were at least 2 of us turning an eye toward Catholic parishes. 🙂

Here’s some more of Lieutenant General (Ret.) Dubik’s work through the Leadership Education programs at Duke Divinity School:

Your Job is to Develop People
Onward, Christian Soldier!
Managing the Asset of Time