Last week I did a short Facebook Live video on our diocesan Office of Catechesis page:
An apprentice is a novice student who learns under the tutelage of a master of an art or craft such as painting, carpentry, or baking. The novice works closely with the master over long periods of time to learn the techniques, skills, and knowledge needed to become a craftsman. In medieval times the novice might even live with the master in order to soak in his lifestyle and daily routine.
Like medieval craftsmen, catechists are called to be formed in their craft. But instead of buildings, bread, or paintings, catechists are crafting disciples of Jesus Christ! Even so, the Church recognizes the links between faith formation and an apprenticeship model.
Last week at a diocesan meeting for DREs I gave a short presentation on adaptive leadership and it’s implications for ministry:
The scenarios I gave to the groups to discuss were:
- Your parish’s Altar and Rosary Society approaches you about helping them recruit young women. (The average age of the Society is 68.) They meet every Wednesday morning after the 8a Mass and are responsible for keeping the church clean and organizing the biannual parish rummage sale, which supports the parish school.
- Your parish is building a new church hall; the pastor asks you to find out what kind of space various groups need and make recommendations to him for how the building should be set up.
- Attendance at the annual parish picnic in your rural committee has been declining over the last 10 years. Your pastor asks you to come up with a marketing plan to get more people to attend this year.
- The evangelization committee at your suburban parish is concerned about the number of non-practicing Catholics in the area. They ask for your help in organizing a “welcome back” event with the goal of getting these Catholics to return and volunteer in a ministry.
- Your rural community has seen an increase in the number of people coming to the parish office looking for assistance with rent, utilities, etc. Your pastor asks you to put together a committee to find ways to get these people the help they need.
- Your pastor asks you to review and recommend some DVD programs for adult faith formation in your parish.
Colleen Reiss Vermuelen posted a great reflection on her blog last week (responding to a dynamite piece by Tim O’Malley) about the need for the Church to find new ways to recruit young Catholic leaders in her ministries:
Despite popular perceptions, the Catholic Church’s organizational structure is extremely decentralized. Canonically, every parish can stand alone in many aspects of administration/management. Every diocese can adopt different priorities. We have to take ownership of this challenge. Those who work in parishes, those who work in dioceses, young adults, those who know young adults, etc. It’s everyone’s problem when perception may be all that’s blocking us from moving toward more optimal ministerial hires.
In additional to (perceived) organizational obstacles, there are also some significant cultural obstacles to reaching potential young leaders, embodied in some persistent and deep-rooted attitudes among those currently in leadership. Overcoming these will require shifting the ways in which we think about young adults and their role in Catholic ministry:
“Come and tell us about yourself.” vs. “Let us come and learn from you.”
As I alluded a few months ago, many young adults in the Church are made to feel as outsiders — novices who must earn their way into the conversation. The assumption is that young Catholics are looking to find their place in existing structures and we must be invited in, at which point we become either items for study or pupils to be taught.
The reality: Young Catholic leaders are creating their own spaces, apart from existing organizations, in which to serve, share formation, and build one another up. These include ministry centers focused around small but vibrant educational institutions (such as the summer programs at the Franciscan University of Steubenville); more informal online venues such as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs; and by cultivating relationships on the peripheries of formal organizations (through hallway meetings and Tweet-Ups).
When current ministerial leaders adopt a “come to us” approach they send the impression that the structure or organization is more important than the ministry — that it is only though an “official” connection that ministers gain legitimacy. Ministerial leaders should be closing the gap by going outside their own comfort zones to the places where young ministers are gathering (physically or virtually) and interacting with them on their own turf.
“You’re not what we’re looking for.” vs. “What gifts do you bring to ministry?”
This is a common trap of leadership, but it is particularly detrimental at this moment in the Church. When looking for successors we often look for people with the same education, experience, and skills that we possess. The assumption behind this bias is that we should be looking for people who will be able to carry on the ministry as it is by doing what we do.
The reality: We are in a rapidly changing cultural, technological, and religious landscape. It is a common saying in education that we are teaching students for jobs that don’t exist yet. The same thing is true in ministry. The ministries the Church will need in 10 years do not currently exist in 99% of parishes (a result in part, I would argue, of our cookie-cutter model of church life).
Instead of looking for someone with what we think are the right skills and education, we should be asking what particular gifts young ministers bring to the Church and help them to cultivate those charisms for the good of the People of God. While a particular job applicant may not have the necessary “5 years parish experience” or exact theological education, many have skills gained in other jobs that are transferable to ministry. Likewise, many young Catholics have engaged in self-education in the faith that, while incomplete, can be easily supplemented.
“That won’t work.” vs. “Go and show us what you can do.”
One of my great frustrations as a young adult working in the Church is the pace at which ministry occurs. In this I know I am not alone — I have seen the enthusiasm of young ministers for a new project or approach returned with immediate dismissals such as “That would be too expensive” or “We tried that 20 years ago and it didn’t work.”
The reality: This isn’t 20 years ago, and the tools now available to us — many of them ridiculously inexpensive, if not free — are vast. Inspired by companies such as Google, many young ministers embrace a “fail cheap and fast” mentality that values quick iteration and experimentation over months of planning and consultation.
Rather than dismissing new ideas (or even ideas that have been tried and failed) leaders should be asking “How would you do that?” Even better, leaders should be inviting young Catholics to try their ideas. Most don’t need a great investment of money or other resources — they just want “permission” to try something on behalf of a parish or school so that they can get others excited, too.
What other shifts do we need to make ministerial leadership welcoming and attainable for young Catholics?
Last year, during a presentation on the New Evangelization to a group of catechetical leaders in our diocese I’ve spoken to before, a startling realization hit me: they were attentive, engaged, and interested in a way I had not seen before.
“Well,” I laughed to myself, “that only took six years. Now to get to work on the catechists they lead!”
I was making a (silent) joke, but upon reflection I realized there was a sizable grain of truth: ministerial leadership is always a marathon, never a sprint, and we shouldn’t be discouraged or disappointed when our efforts don’t produce immediate tangible results. Too often we measure the results of our ministry in the short-term. But our faith reminds us to take a more sustained perspective and aim not just for the immediate, but for the long-term.
Indeed, Sacred Scripture is full of examples of the “long view” of leadership and ministry:
- Abraham was 100 years old when the Lord’s promise of a son was fulfilled.
- Joseph endured two years in prison, despite his pleas to be remembered by the pharaoh, before he was released and successfully interpreted the pharaoh’s dreams.
- Moses tried ten times (and went through ten plagues!) before God’s command to pharaoh to free the Jews was answered.
- Similarly, Moses had to lead a (at times disgruntled and obstinate) people for 40 years through the desert to reach the Promised Land.
- The parable of the sower contrasts the seeds that fell on rocky soil and sprang up immediately (but ultimately withered) with the seed that fell on good soil and developed deeper roots.
- Jesus formed the Twelve Apostles for three years, and they still abandoned him when he was arrested!
In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins writes
No matter how dramatic the end result, the good-to-great transformations never happened in one fell swoop. There was no single defining action, no grand program, no on killer innovation, no solitary luck break, no wrenching revolution. Good to great comes about by a cumulative process — step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel — that adds up to sustained and spectacular results.
We in ministry would do well to remember this and work on cultivating seeds that will have deep, abiding roots in our ministry.
How have you taken the long view in your ministry? How can you build your ministry step-by-step instead of shooting for instant results?
Image by familymwr under a CC-By license.
I recently called someone and reached their voicemail. As part of their greeting they let me know what their office’s normal hours were. “I don’t care about your hours,” I thought to myself, “I want to know when you’ll get back to me!”
The truth is that, when someone calls and reaches your voicemail, they want to know two things:
- Did they reach the right voicemail?
- When will you be available to get back to them?
I have found that the most effective way to do this is to change my voicemail introduction every week, first thing on Monday. In the intro I state who I am and what days that week I will be in and out of the office. This accomplishes both the tasks set forth above.
As an example, here’s the script of my voicemail introduction a few weeks ago:
Hi, you’ve reached Jonathan Sullivan, director of catechetical services for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. This is the week of May 10th. I’ll be in the office on Monday and Tuesday. I will be out of the office Wednesday and Thursday attending a curia workshop. Our offices are closed on Fridays. Please leave your name, phone number, and a brief message and I’ll return your call as soon as I can. Thank you, and God bless.
Using this system it is clear that, if someone leaves a voicemail on Wednesday, they probably shouldn’t expect a response until the following Monday. On the other hand, if all I had was an evergreen message stating the curia office hours, they might expect a return call much sooner. (And grower frustrated while they wait until Monday!)
This goes back to a fundamental principal about leadership: anticipating what people need, not what we think they need. The more we practice this principal, the more effective we can be in our ministry.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to record a video session for the USCCB’s Diocesan Educational and Catechetical Leadership Institute. The video, “Forming Intentional Disciples in the Parish,” is now available.
The session includes a few handouts to download; you can access the slides and discussion questions as a PDF file. The other handouts are available in the video session.
Thank you to Michael Steier and the Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis for the invitation to record this video session. It was a lot of fun to produce!
I recently read Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, one of the founders and president of Pixar Animation. The book is a wonderful lesson in the business of creativity, told through the history of Pixar’s rise as the most respected animation company in the world.
In the fifth chapter Catmull talks about the Pixar “Braintrust,” a group of “funny, focused, smart, and relentlessly candid” leaders within Pixar who come together on a regular basis to offer honest, constructive feedback on various projects related to the work of the company. These meetings involve a lot of frank talk about what is working — and what isn’t working — in any given Pixar movie during the course of its production. Anyone in the Braintrust, regardless of their official position within the company, is expected to contribute with their honest opinions.
Catmull discusses the need for this kind of candid conversation, unencumbered by ego or territoriality, in any creative endeavor. I would argue that it is also necessary for the work of ministry.
Everyone who works for the Church — and especially those of us in leadership positions — should be about one thing: building up the Kingdom of God. What that means will depend on what ministry we are engaged in, but the bottom line is that if we aren’t going about our Father’s work, then we aren’t being effective in our ministry.
Unfortunately, as fallen human beings, we sometimes (often?) fail to maintain a relentless focus on the things of God and instead put our energy and attention on our own projects and desires. Being able to have candid conversation about what is and is not working is essential to the tasks of ministry. We should have the fortitude and integrity to ask probing questions, give honest opinions, and challenge one another about what is effective.
(And I hope it goes without saying that we should do collaboratively with one other, rather than behind each other’s backs.)
In my diocese I am blessed with colleagues who are unrelenting in their focus on improving our ministries and who are unafraid to question, challenge, critique — and praise! — each other in appropriate, loving ways. It’s not always easy (as one of them likes to say, “Collaboration is hard work!”) but it is rewarding in ways I could never have dreamed when I entered into ministry.
Who is in your Braintrust? Who can you turn to for honest, candid discussion about your ministry? If you can’t think of anyone, how could you foster relationships with others to develop your own “braintrust?”
I am sometimes asked by parish catechetical leaders (especially principals) whether they should become members of the parish that employees them when they are hired.
I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule (and in my rural diocese there are certainly circumstances where worshiping at a different parish would be impractical), but in general I am not in favor of working where you belong.
For one, there is a risk of work interfering in other parish activities. This may be my own personal bias, but when I go to Mass I’m not thinking about work. But some people seeing parish workers at Mass view them as “on the job,” even if it is outside of their “office hours.” It would be distracting for folks to come up to me (either before or after the liturgy ) to discuss a work-related issue. Put another way: it’s impossible to be an “anonymous worshiper” at the Church where you work.
Secondly, as Jesus reminds us in a recent Gospel reading, “No prophet is accepted in his own native place.” While I wouldn’t go far as to equate parish employees with the biblical prophets (although would that we all were like them!), that catechesis is part of Christ’s prophet ministry should cause us to reflect. I sometimes wonder if it is harder for people in my parish to take me seriously as a church employee when they see me, for instance, struggling to keep my toddler settled during Mass week after week.
What do you think: should parish employees belong to the community they work for?
Our catechetical office recently learned that we will be moving into a new office suite in a few months. Our existing suite is being converted into new meeting spaces that will be larger and more convenient for people meeting at our pastoral center.
With this move we have the opportunity to design our new offices (within some constraints, of course) and I’ve been giving some time to thinking about how to arrange and design this space to both maintain and build upon the great collaboration we currently enjoy.
Here are a few of the ideas I’ve come up with:
- Increased artwork – Currently our walls are pretty bare. We have some small religious artwork and posters from past diocesan events, but nothing that really fills the space or inspires greatness. I was already considering purchasing some new art for the office; now I consider it a “must” for the new space.
- Green plants – I’m a big believer that having living things around makes any space more welcoming and inviting. In fact, I just bought a fish for my office! With the move to a new space I’m looking at various office-friendly plants to add some green, help purify the air, and add a friendly atmosphere.
- Comfy meeting space – One of the things I love about our office is the level of collaboration we’ve achieved, especially as an office that covers parish-based religious education, Catholic schools, and youth ministry. Having a large, open space with comfortable chairs encourages good collaboration and communication, both for internal meetings and when sitting down with DREs, pastors, principals, and others.
Those are some of the issues I’m wrestling with in our new space. Do you have any advice on creating a great office space?