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)

Christian Unity: The Unbusy Pastor

Christian unity means that we can look outside the “visible bounds” of Church to develop ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ. We can expect to find the life of grace worth sharing from outside our full, visible earthly communion (Decree on Ecumenism, para. 3).

For anyone in any level of leadership, I think this classic, written in 1981 (lest anyone think the temptation to busy-ness is something new or merely internet-driven) is one of the most important pieces for any ministry leader to consider when it comes to spirituality, work, discipleship, ministry, and ultimately glorifying God with one’s life.

On this Sabbath Day of the Lord, a practical, pastoral favorite from Eugene Patterson:

The one piece of mail certain to go unread into my wastebasket is the one addressed “to the busy pastor.” Not that the phrase doesn’t describe me at times, but I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me.

I’m not arguing the accuracy of the adjective; I am, though, contesting the way in which it is used to flatter and express sympathy. “The poor pastor,” we say. “So devoted to his flock; the work is endless and he sacrifices himself so unstintingly.” But the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife, or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront. Hilary of Tours diagnosed pastoral busyness as “irreligiosa solicitudo pro Deo,” a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him. Read more…

Calendar

Apprenticeship in Work and Faith

Is “parish” all too synonymous with a building [set of buildings] or a group of people who have voluntarily registered? Yes.

But how do we change that mis-perception? Actions speak louder than words. To see the parish as the full geographic entity that it is–a collection of baptized, non-baptized, de-Churched, and more–we need to do the parish well beyond the walls of the church in a way that’s intentional.

Jonathan Sullivan (building on James Pauley) kicked off some practical, catechetical reflections on what apprenticeship has to do with forming disciples and creating a more authentic manifestation of “parish life” in our communities. Christian apprenticeship is this:

something that happens outside the immediate orbit of the parish…It could center on a stable, long-term group or activity. It could involve strangers coming together for a short time…What distinguishes apprenticeship from other pious activity is a desire to come together as followers of Jesus Christ with the aim to grow in holiness through specific, intentional acts of faith

By way of example, taking teens to serve at a soup kitchen could be an act of Christian apprenticeship if it is more than just a “service trip” — that is, if it integrates various facets of Christian living, including prayer, fellowship, and theological reflection.

One I’ve been thinking about is something picking up on the Center for Faith and Work initiative of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC. When we think about what occupies a significant portion of time of any person–especially single people–one’s job often comes to mind. And this work, regardless of its essentially secular character, in most cases, is still part of our Christian lives. It spiritually forms us (for better or worse). It enables us to integrate our works of creation, service, etc. with how God models this.

But, it’s awfully hard to do this alone.

While the work itself is likely not an intentional act of faith, the decision to meet, pray, and talk with others seeking to integrate faith and work would be an act of faith. And, as Zach Yenter suggests, this may be especially important for Millennial generation adults.

The Bible and Church teachings offer a wealth of passages worth pondering in mentoring pairs or groups of those who work in similar fields/industries. Not to mention questions of discernment or particular intercessory prayers that may be relevant to specific sectors of employment. And, the common bond of a particular field of labor can help build community and affinity for actually being intentional off-parish-grounds about meeting, praying, and sharing life.

Check out Jonathan Sullivan’s recent blog posts on this topic, how could you imagine “apprenticeship” re-shaping catechesis in your parish? 

Witness to the Good Life as Pre-Evangelization

The desire to live better, to live more deeply. To live in a way that is satisfying beyond wealth or material goods. This is a longing that has always existed, yet in our current cultural setting, is being spoken aloud and taken seriously with increasing frequency.

Consider, for example:

  • A recent study revealed that the Millennial generation places family and personal interests well above career or technology as “central to who they are” (this is, notably, a shift from the Boomer generation, that placed career as most central to identity).
  • Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek–a book that challenges cultural assumptions about “work for work’s sake” and deferring the “good life” until retirement, and instead suggests living more and working less–has spent seven years on the New York Times bestseller list.
  • TED talk phenom, Brené Brown’s popular message to embrace research that points to “wholehearted living” by cultivating play and rest, and “letting go” of exhaustion as a status-symbol and productivity as self-worth.
  • The gap between the actual hours spent by Americans on “leisure” activities, and our pervasive sense of feeling as if we lack free time.
  • Acknowledgement in business circles that “work-life balance” isn’t the real goal; instead, work-life integration or effectiveness is what more of us actually desire.
  • The New York Times defending the need for people to take enough time to enter into “the space to be still”

Taken as a whole, modern-day Western society is interested–really interested–in the deeper meaning of life. In a meaning that goes beyond work-productivity and wealth at any cost. Our society wants to know, how to live well? How to live the “good life”?

This is a moment, an opportunity for pre-evangelization, our Christian witness and dialogue (General Directory for Catechesis,§47-48) that doesn’t explicitly proclaim the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ, but reveals how our basic human longings to live well, to live somehow better than what the status quo seems to offer, actually connect to our desire for right relationship with each other and with God, a longing for the transcendent–for something more. Pre-evangelization highlights and awakens these needs which may lie dormant or unnamed among those we meet, and through this the unevangelized become curious, open, or at least mildly interested in the ways of God.

By cultivating our own witness as Christians in this area, we have plenty to offer.

But that’s the tough part. Witness often speaks louder than words in pre-evangelization. We can’t convincingly talk about living the more authentic life God invites us to, unless we’re actually doing it.

By witnessing to the good life–satisfied, full of the peace only God can give, and in touch with our deepest longings as human beings–we can pre-evangelize the world around us, attracting and interesting others in that “something” that sets us apart as Christians.

Now, when it comes to living “good,” many think of material possessions, wealth, status, prestigue, or something along those lines. But, if you really sat down and talked with most modern-day Americans you’d find that a longing for something deeper, better is already present. As discussed in Part 1, our culture longs for something beyond the material, an integrated, fruitful use (or non-use) of time. This is where the long history of Christian discipleship enters in. Though the desire to live in “right relationship with time,” as Ann Garrido puts it, is relevant to us today–it’s a question and pull felt by believers throughout all ages (Redeeming Administration, p. 188).

Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia [aka Norcia], a man of the early 6th century who sought integration in his life–not merely a “balance” or “divide” between the spiritual life, labors of work, and relationships with others–but an effective and fruitful integration. Reinforcement, not contradiction, in one’s life.

A mere 1500 years later 😉 Pope St. John Paul the Great would reflect on this same question of right relationship with time, in his 1998 letter Dies Domini, asserting that the intersection between the spiritual life and time isn’t merely on Sunday (though this does have a singular place, too). Instead, he explained:

Time and space belong to him. He is not the God of one day alone, but the God of all the days of humanity…All human life, and therefore all human time, must become praise of the Creator and thanksgiving to him (para. 14-15).

Challenging words, indeed!

Where to start? How to begin living in a way that witnesses this truth to the world? Garrido suggests praying with your calendar. Really. Pray with your calendar.

Here’s the thing, as Thomas Merton wrote:

“The spiritual life is not so much about choosing between good and evil, but discerning which particular good is meant for me.”

Meant for me. Now. In this season of my life. See, even work for “good” can be in opposition to our longing to live in right relationship with time. In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Joseph Pieper observed:

“We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence…[and then] the world of work begins to become – threatens to become – our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.”

We become busy. Yet, imagine if more Christian disciples lived un-busy lives. Un-busy lives that inspired interest, attraction, or at least curiosity from the world. Writing in 1981 (if you notice the trend, the question of time it not something new, not a temptation inaugurated by social media or e-mail) Rev. Eugene Patterson made this bold assertion with regards to Christian ministers:

The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife, or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.

The same is most likely true for us as Evangelizers!

As evangelists we are called to not be caught up in a “rat race”–be it for a secular job, children’s hobbies, household concerns, or even parish activities. Integration is our goal, a life that resonates with the peace of the Holy Spirit, the fruitfulness of the “good life,” and a satisfaction that is beautiful, appealing, and even mysterious to the world around us in a way that gently, yet profoundly, introduces the Gospel.

Let us humbly ask that the Holy Spirit would guide us and embolden us to, as the Entrance Antiphon for today’s Mass proclaims, seek out “the habit of holy living” for our settings, as St. Benedict did in his age.

A version of this post originally appeared as part of a two part series at NewEvangelizers.com.

Leaders Cultivate Holy Humor

Today is the feast day of St. Thomas More, commonly known for his refusal to approve Henry VIII of England’s divorce and remarriage (and establishment of the Church of England).

St Thomas More

In Redeeming Administration, Ann Garrido connects his life, witness, and noted humor to the spirituality of administration.  Garrido asserts that for an administrative leader, humor is not merely a coincidental (or random!) personality trait, but cultivated in the process of leading and managing. How so? Well, to put it bluntly, it’s because leading places us in an “increased number of absurd situations” (123). 

I’ve found this to be quite true in my life. As an Army officer, early on in my career I noticed just how much the extreme scope and scale of seemingly-absurd situations created an environment where humor was a part of daily life.

But how should we as ministerial leaders view humor, is it virtuous? A temptation? Something else?

Garrido offers two guideposts for discerning how humor functions in our spirituality of work and administration.

First Cautionary Guidepost: Avoid Humor as a Defense Mechanism

For some ministerial leaders, humor is a defense. A way of avoiding acknowledging other feelings, and/or avoiding addressing situations that should be addressed (125). While we as leaders can be tempted to laugh somethings off as a quick morale-booster, this is a way of avoiding actual leadership. Of failing to “confront the brutal facts“–a necessary step in effectively leading any organization. 

Second Cautionary Guidepost: Avoid Humor as Scapegoating

Sometimes, laughter or joking indicates an “everyone minus one” mentality. A type of scapegoating process, whereby a group [seemingly ] “bonds” over the exclusion or marginalization of one (or a few) members of the organization or team. This can be an enticing temptation, I mean, who doesn’t think “teamwork” is a good thing? But, the reality is that a team with unity flowing from humorous scapegoating can only go so far. Vision. Mission. Clarity. These are the real elements of teamwork–not joking about “the problem” or scapegoating an individual, rather than working towards real solutions and changes. 

Instead, Growing Holy Humor

So, what sense of humor should administrators seek to grow? Jesus used humor, not to attack persons, but to call attention to circumstances or situations that were not being seen or understood correctly (127). Holy humor is “laughing with” rather than “laughing at”–calling attention to, not attacking (127). 

This humor that helps us grow in holiness as leaders resists cynicism. As Garrido explains:

Cynicism is the sign of too narrow a worldview, a constriction of vision that only notes the negative absurdities of life, whereas the most mature, holy administrators that I have known are people who have the capacity to also see and draw attention to the infinite positive absurdities of life. (128) 

Not only is cynicism too narrow, but it resists hope. Even when cloaked in humor, cynicism prevents us from leading with vision in ministry as administrators.

Ultimately, St. Thomas More faced a choice of  “mitigating bad effects or going along”; of “laugh[ing] it off or taking a stand” (133). As we remember him, let our laughter be holy–drawing attention to things that need changing, yet never providing an excuse for inaction or tolerance of what should not be tolerated. 

Note: This post is part of a year long series. To learn more about the saints who illuminate this spirituality of administration, of work–check out this free small group guide from Ave Maria Press. 

Image Credit: Fr. Lawrence Pew, O.P. via Flickr, CC BY NC ND 2.0

The Call, The Loss, and a Disciple’s Vocational Integration

Fr. Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, on the essential relationship of connection between loss and response to a call, to any true vocation:

Grief and loss are inseparable from the call.

If we accept the call but not the loss
we will live in a contradiction.

When people make a decision, for example to live in l’Arche,
but do not fully accept the consequences of their decision,
it is a cause of great distress.

They constantly feel sorry for themselves,
sorry that they do not have a  higher salary,
or more time for themselves,
shorter working hours, etc.

There is the call
and there is the loss.
But who wants loss?

When I left the navy more than fifty years ago,
I sold everything I had,
which wasn’t much, and gave it to the poor.

Today I do not have much to sell
and I doubt if anyone would want what I have!
But the call and loss continue.

Excerpts from Vanier’s Befriending the Stranger (2001), p. 20

Living this Paschal Mystery (h/t Joyce Donahue) is part of any healthy discernment of a call to a particular form of work, life, or oftentimes–both. As Vanier alludes to, if we as disciples seeking to follow Jesus in the Holy Spirit fail to integrate loss and call early on, the effects will linger. “Distress” will simmer beneath the surface, negatively impacting our relationships with God and others.

The degree to which this “distress” appears outwardly negative will vary by individual and situation. I know that I have been guilty of making decisions about following the call without fully accepting the consequences–and yes, this led to interior self-pity, to regret–even as my life was filled with genuine joy. It can be an odd mix sometimes.

But, a healthy, wholesome integrated life of discipleship avoids this temptation, as this temptation ultimately harms our relationship with God. We can be joyful for a time, but it is difficult to authentically sustain this joy from the Source if we have not fully accepted the consequences of our calls as disciples.

Vocation. Integration. Combination.

Patrick Didonato on work, ministry, and personal integration:

For the lay disciple, what is the difference between being just a great [insert a job title here] and working for the Church full-time?

It’s not just one or the other, but rather, audaciously fusing the two in every aspect of our lives.

That’s our mission as intentional disciples.

Why is this so important?

Because becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ and following Him means recognizing that God cares what we do with our time. Yet, this doesn’t mean that every single person who calls Jesus Lord is called to work (paid or volunteer) “full-time” in the Church. Church work is not, by default, better than secular work–or not working for pay, etc. This would fail to acknowledge that as Christians, we are not of the world–yet still in the world–and called to bring the Gospel into all spheres of society.

Failure to fuse or integrate the two ideas also reveals some real human resources issues in our design of “jobs” in ministry, i.e. treating full-time work as “better” or “more significant” than part-time work, rather than looking at actual outcomes; of thinking “more hours” is better (when this may prevent healthy integration of ministry and human formation/needs); and closing out many potential candidates for ministry work due to our own inability to recognize the evolution in more flexible work policies, and more.

To work “in the Church” or not is a false, humanly constrained set of choices. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we must pursue something more–“audaciously fusing” and integrating our lives in a way that opens us the most to follow the Holy Spirit and embrace the renewed life offered to us in communion with Jesus Christ.