When You’re Banging Your Head Against the Ministry Wall

Last week at a diocesan meeting for DREs I gave a short presentation on adaptive leadership and it’s implications for ministry:

The presentation was based on my reading of the book Leadership on the Line (one of my 17 Books Every Catholic Leader Should Read).

The scenarios I gave to the groups to discuss were:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Your pastor asks you to review and recommend some DVD programs for adult faith formation in your parish.

Three Attitude Shifts for Embracing Young Catholic Leaders

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?

What Young Catechetical Leaders Need

A couple weeks ago I responded to a request from a catechetical colleague and friend to consider working on a national project. After thinking and discerning about it I decided to politely refuse but found that, in doing so, I had some things to say. Indeed, what should have been a simple “no, thank you” email quickly blossomed into a 1,300-word essay about the needs of young catechetical leaders.

Below is a highly edited version of that email. I don’t mean to speak for all young Catholic leaders, but I would love to hear reactions from other young adults working in Catholic ministry — feel free to leave a comment or send me a private message via my contact page.

Dear T—-,

Thank you again for your invitation. I am gratified by the words you shared expressing your confidence in me and my gifts.

Unfortunately I find that I can’t muster much enthusiasm right now for committee work. As I mentioned, my experience with national committees is a mixed bag – good, committed, energized people who are often ignored and who do not possess a means of energizing the organization with their ideas. With a new baby, plenty of diocesan work to keep me busy, and other projects I’m excited to pursue, I don’t think I would be effective in breaking through this organizational culture.

In particular I find myself pessimistic about the ability of national ecclesial bodies to attract and tap into the energy, charisms, and commitment of young Catholics, in no small part due to the experiences I have had. In some corners of the Church there is a consistent undertone directed towards young adults that we are there to learn or be learned about, rather than having anything meaningful to say on our own behalf. This was made very clear to me when, at a gathering of national catechetical leaders, a well-known and respected leader in catechetical circles cut me off three times as I tried to respond to a point he was making to me during a hallway conversation before he walked off. At that moment he was the face of an organization that didn’t care to hear my story.

The failure of many national organizations to make good use of new media is also disheartening to me as someone who has tried to educate catechetical leaders on “best practices” for engaging the faithful through new media and who sees it used so well in other corners of the Church (including, surprisingly, the USCCB).

You may recall that, at the end of our conversation last December, you made the statement that “I have a deep loyalty to [X organization]”. I reflected on that afterwards and realized that I have no loyalty to the organization – not because I see it as unimportant or because of my shorter history with it, but because my loyalty is to the ministry of catechesis (as is, I know, yours). Any interest I have in or energy I give to the organiztion is directly proportional to how helpful I see it to catechesis and my role as a catechetical leader.

In this I don’t think I am alone among younger Catholics. Last October Rod Dreher recounted this anecdote following a meeting of friends of First Things magazine:

After lunch, an older Catholic theologian said the morning discussion highlighted for him a “generational divide” among our group. He said that his faction sees the basic problem as one of reforming institutions, which is the approach they inherited from the legacy of Pope Leo XIII, whose reign stretched from 1878-1903. This theologian said that Leo believed that society should try to re-harmonize the three things needed for happiness and a flourishing life: family, community, and church. In Leo’s day, these three had been thrown out of balance by revolutionary economic and political upheaval; he dedicated his pontificate to finding a workable balance.

In the classical First Things approach, said this theologian, the problem is one of bringing the three elements into proper balance in the public square. You can’t return to 1940, but you can bring them into greater alignment. But by the mid-1990s, it was beginning to become clear that the problems were not just a matter of reforming institutions, because institutions were fast becoming optional to American life.

The second, younger faction, this man said, seems to believe that the institutions can’t really be reformed, and that the problem, therefore is more radical. There seemed to be agreement around the table to this notion. One professor spoke quite eloquently throughout the day on the personal crises she sees in her students. There is, she said, an overwhelming sadness to them, an existential angst and fear…

“You can’t imagine how my 18 year old students think about these things,” she said. “No institutions, with the possible exception of their families, mean anything to them.”

This resonated strongly with me – I’m not interested in reforming organizations that have outlasted their usefulness. This is a reality that ecclesial organizations will have to face if they want to attract young adults – insofar as they seem to ignore the concerns of young catechetical leaders (and to be clear, those concerns tend to be very different from the concerns of older catechetical leaders who are driving the agenda), these organizations will appear useless to those young leaders.

I think such organizations have a place in the Church – they have not outlived their usefulness. Indeed, my words here are born out of a place of love and respect for the good work such organization have done over the decades. If I sound harsh it is only because I want such organizations to succeed in the future. But I do not see many of these organizations’ names surfacing in the catechetical circles in which I travel – young catechetical leaders see them as largely irrelevant to their ministry, if they think about them at all.

We don’t need organizations for their newsletter – there are plenty of blogs with more (and often better) content. We don’t need them for their conferences – we can see the same speakers in webinars and have the same lobby conversations on Twitter and Facebook (and year-round, too). We don’t need them to stay connected to the national catechetical scene – we have myriad ways of accessing resources from publishers and the USCCB.

What we need are professional organizations that will acknowledge, listen to, and engage young catechetical leaders as leaders with our own expertise and experiences to bring to the table, even when we do things differently and challenge the “old guard”. This generation is not willing to “wait our turn” – we have plenty of opportunities, thanks to new technologies, to strike out on our own and form our own intentional communities of support and mutual learning. Current national leaders could be a willing partner in those conversations. Thus far they have chosen to stay within their own walls.

Who’s In Your Braintrust?

CatmullQuoteI 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?”

Parish Employment and Parish Membership

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?

Leadership Bibliography

I was recently asked by a colleague to help put together a list of some resources for lay leaders in the Church. What I put together is by no means complete, but it does include a number of resources that I have found extremely helpful in the six years I have served as a catechetical leader in our diocese.

In the interest of sharing, here’s the list I supplied:

Books

Websites

Films

  • 12 Angry Men (dir. by Sidney Lumet, 1957)
  • Amazing Grace (dir. by Michael Apted, 2006)
  • Apollo 13 (dir. by Ron Howard, 1995)
  • Chariots of Fire (dir. by Hugh Hudson, 1981)
  • Chicken Run (dir. by Peter Lord and Nick Park, 2000)
  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi (dir. by David Gelb, 2011)
  • Mr. Holland’s Opus (dir. by Stephen Herek, 1995)
  • Office Space (dir. by Mike Judge, 1999)

What leadership resources have you found helpful in your ministry?

Notes – Growing in Holiness Through Middle Management

Today at the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership convention in St. Louis I am offering a breakout session on holiness and management. Below are my slides, notes, and additional resources for those who may be interested in living out their vocation as a catechetical leader.

Slides

Notes

The notes from this presentation are available in PDF format.

Additional Resources

10 Steps to Managing Communications in a Crisis

Last week, at our diocese’s annual Principals’ Leadership Conference, Kathie Sass, our soon-to-be-retired diocesan spokesperson, gave a wonderful presentation on the 10 steps leaders should take to anticipate and react to crises in their ministries. The talk was based on the work of Jonathan Bernstein.

First, Kathie outlined the steps organizations should take before a crisis to ensure they are ready should a crisis occur:

  1. Anticipate crises and put written policies in place on how to avoid and deal with specific types of crises.
  2. Identify a crisis communications team. The team should include whoever is the head of the organization, legal council, and someone on staff with expertise in the crisis area.
  3. Appoint an official spokesperson. You don’t want media calling teachers, parents, etc. Appoint someone who is well-spoken, not just the person in charge.
  4. Train your spokesperson!
  5. Establish notification and monitoring systems. This includes both old media (television, radio, and newspapers) as well as new media (text messages, Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.).
  6. Identify and know your stakeholders. Communicate with them and let them know who to refer media inquiries to.
  7. Develop holding statements. Don’t say “No comment”; at the very least express sympathy, offer prayers, and say that a statement will come later. Crisis communications team should review these holding statements regularly to ensure that they are well crafted, easily understood, and truthful!

Kathie then gave guidance on how to respond should a crisis occur:

  1. At the outset of a crisis, assess the situation. Make sure you know the specifics before acting or making a statement. Reacting before you have all the information can result in bad decisions or hasty statements that must later be retracted. (This is where those holding statements come in handy!)
  2. Finalize and adapt your key messages; continue to communicate these messages to your key stakeholders. Don’t automatically act on a lawyer’s advice to say nothing! Transparency can mitigate bad feelings and avoid the appearance of a cover up.
  3. Do a post-crisis analysis. Detail what you did well, what you failed to anticipate, and how you could improve. Update your policies and procedures as needed.

All of us hope that we can avoid crises in our ministries, but the past few decades have shown that we all need to be prepared to act should the unthinkable happen.

Building a Better Parish Catechetical Leader (Bosco RoundUp Part 1)

Last week I had the privilege of attending the St. John Bosco Conference at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. This was my first time attending the conference and I was very pleased at both the scope and the quality of the presentations by various catechetical experts. Over the next two weeks I will share some of the insights and inspirations I received from the conference.

The very first workshop I attended was by Gloria “Gigi” Zapiain of the Archdiocese of San Antonio’s Catechetical Center. In it she outlined the characteristics and gifts possessed by successful parish catechetical leaders (PCLs). She centered her talk on four characteristics:

  • person of faith and prayer
  • master catechist with a vocation to leadership
  • an ability to work with people
  • filled with ardor and joy (and, I would add, hope!)

Gigi did an excellent job opening up each of these characteristics and their implications for PCLs. I especially liked her focus on the second characteristic: it’s not enough for a PCL to be a good catchist, but they must also be a good leader at the service of the parish, the pastor, and the catechists. Likewise, in her discussion on enthusiasm and joy she emphasized that a good PCL does not settle for “maintenance ministry” but actively seeks ways to grow catechesis within the community.

The workshop inspired me to tackle an issue that crops up regularly in our diocese – pastors requesting help in hiring good catechetical leaders. Unfortunately some parishes are either unwilling or feel they are unable to discern and call persons for these vital roles. As a result some parishes fall into a “warm body” mentality and wind up choosing catechetical leaders who may be good organizers but do not possess the characteristics identified by Gigi.

As a response to these issues I’m currently in the process of creating a “Guide to Hiring Parish Catechetical Leaders” for our diocese. The guide will contain an overview of the Church’s teachings on the qualities necessary in an effective catechetical leader; a look at the types of parish catechetical leaders in our diocese and their roles in catechesis; a discernment process for calling volunteer leaders; a simple outline of a thorough hiring process for professional leaders; and resources including sample job descriptions and contracts.

What gifts and characteristics do you see in successful catechetical leaders?

What the End of LucasArts Can Teach Us About Ministry

Two weeks ago Disney announced that, after purchasing LucasFilm from George Lucas a few months back, they are shutting down the company’s video game division, LucasArts.

If, like me, you played computer games in the 1990s and 2000s, this is a time of grieving. LucasArts created some of the greatest games of the last two decades and gave me some of my favorite PC gaming memories:

So the news left me somewhat surprised and saddened; another little piece of my adolescence has been parceled off.

That having been said, it was probably the right move for Disney to make. LucasArts’s track record in the last few years has been lackluster (their last published game was the dismally reviewed Star Wars Kinect, a game that actually included a Han Solo dance mini-game) and many of the best games using LucasFilm properties in recent years have been developed by other companies.

In other words, LucasArts was no longer producing games at its former levels, and other companies were doing a better job creating games with LucasFilm properties.

What does this have to do with ministry?

One of the hardest things to do is stop doing good things, especially good things we’ve been doing for a long time. Unfortunately we can’t do it all and sometimes we have to stop doing good things in order to do better things. In the case of Disney, this meant recognizing that they could license their propertieis to other companies who were just as capable of making great games, minimizing risk while freeing up resources for other projects and pursuits.

For parishes, this means recognizing when a program or ministry has come to the end of its lifespan. Usually this means a ministry that no longer serves the needs it was created for or consumes too many resources, leaving nothing for other important pursuits. Knowing when to refocus or even end a ministry is a difficult but task for all catechetical leaders, whether it’s a once-thriving small group ministry that has dwindled to a few members, or a youth ministry that has become more focused on activities and trips than the proclamation of Jesus Christ.

They key in all of this is discernment and regular review of a parish’s activities. We shouldn’t be afraid to take a close look at where we are putting our time and resources. Budget time is the perfect time to do this since it means looking at what is already going on and planning for the future. (As a wise CFO I worked with once remarked, a budget is moral document since it tells us what our priorities are.)  This doesn’t always mean shutting down ministries; it may simply mean restructuring them or scaling them back to more appropriate levels. But it does mean a fundamental shift in how the parish views its ministries.

Of course this process won’t come without some grieving; as I said, it’s always hard to stop doing good things. But as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time for all things, including a time for endings. Our stewardship of the gifts we have been given requires nothing less than that we use them with care.

When was the last time you evaluated the programs you run? Are there any “good things” you should let go of so as to be free to pursue greater things?