You know the definition of crazy, right? Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different outcomes. By that definition, I’d say a lot of our parishes are “crazy.” Their approaches, attitudes and actions are “the way we’ve always done things” while at the same time, the constant lament is the decline of participation at all levels.
So much time is wasted on trying to improve what did not get the preferred outcomes, or repeating previously “successful” events only to have them not be as successful the second, third or fourth time. Right now, because the pandemic interrupted some of those beloved activities, they are coming back with a jubilant vengeance, and those who come “are so happy we are back!” But look around…who’s not there? And why is that so? Why are fewer and fewer people connecting with the parish?
One reason...it’s not trustworthy. I know. Hard to read. Harder to accept this may be afoot in your parish/diocese. Harder still to realize your behaviors as a parishioner, a leader, a staff member or the clergy are part of this erosion.
Read on to see where energy needs to be put NOW to build trustworthiness. Read on, to see what you are already doing so you know to double down on those efforts by asking others to do the same. Read on, to chart a pathway toward trustworthiness. It’s the fertile soil in which synodality can take root, for the assumptions of a synodal approach all start with trust.
My assertion is that the local parish, the diocesan church and the US Church is not trustworthy enough. Read on to see what you think, to assess your experience and to start now to amend the soil for synodality’s seeds right where you are.
As you read, you’ll see a brief description of an element that kills trust and suggested antidotes.
Dishonesty and cover-up: What was once hidden is being revealed, over and over again. Our institutional Church engaged in sin, crime and cover-up. It broke a sacred trust between its clergy and the people. Make no mistake that many people walked away, heartbroken, enraged and cynical.
So, what are you to do? Tell the truth about things big and small. Jesus reminds us that “whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.”[i] What’s really happening with money? With the staff relationships? With clergy leadership or lack thereof? With commitment to the mission statement? With how many people are really making the parish run? With why Father is away? With why someone or several people have left the parish? Be honest and transparent.
Inconsistency: This has less to do with “always doing the same things”-the reason people give for this is that people like consistency- and more to do with an alignment. What is alignment exactly? It's a visible connection between the Church’s evangelizing mission, the parish’s articulated part in that mission and the activities people to which the people are asked to apprentice and then commit. It’s about being authentic, over time, rather than jumping around from here to there, trying all sorts of things, competing with other churches. It’s about being given a mission field (parish boundaries) and instead of serving those within it, bouncing around from cause to cause, place to place. It’s about saying the parish is committed to Scripture and yet no one is reading the Bible, sharing its Wisdom, or using it to guide decision making. It’s about saying the parish is “Eucharistic” and yet not unpacking the implications of that for such things as justice, conversion, and mystagogy. Be consistent in mission, message and expected action.
Absence: This often centers on the clergy and staff and the expectations of the people regarding where they should be, when and why. It sounds like, “What do you mean he’s not here? Where is he?”asked during the priest or deacon’s normal office hours. It sounds like, “Where’s the DRE? The kids and teachers are here. They should be here, too.” “Is Father stopping by?” asked by a parishioner participating in sacramental preparation. You get the idea. There’s a mismatch between expectations and reality. The fix: publish calendars. Explain absence if it’s because of something unexpected. Adjust personal preferences to meet expectations. And communicate clearly to adjust expectations. Share the demands on time. SHOW UP. Stop by. Ruffle hair. Work the room. Connect with the people. This is for everyone: parishioners at funerals and first communions and other parish events. Clergy at both regular and special gatherings. Staff where the people they supervise and support are gathering. Show up. And be forthcoming with why when it happens that you can’t.
Arrogance: Never wrong. Can’t tell them anything. Not ongoing learners. Never see signs of conversion. Doesn’t apologize, ever. Talks down, assuming they know and others do not. Takes advantage of little supervision. You get the idea. This is especially toxic when it’s exhibited by anyone in leadership, from a committee or council chair to the clergy and everyone in between. The antidote: ongoing learning. Listening to understand and learn. Sharing what’s changing and why. Apologizing, earnestly and quickly. In other words, humility.
Irrelevance: This is a common complaint from the young, young adults and mature disciples. Whatever is being preached about, shared in faith formation, or on the parish’s meeting agenda does not connect with “real life.” Language choice is too far outside what normal people use. Suggestions are just not “real.” A case in point was shared with me a long time ago when a DRE suggested that every family have a prayer space in their home, with a crucifix and candles, an open Bible, rosary, prayer books, and ideally a kneeler and some holy images on the walls. The nervous titters in the room made it clear that the listeners were pretty sure the one suggesting this had never been in a “real” home. The fix: Ordinary language. Real life examples. Listening to the hopes, dreams, joys and sorrows of the people of God. Being aware of the signs of the times. Preparing gatherings with news in one hand and Scripture in the other. Being practical with actions and activities. Allowing for personal expression and preference.
Duplicity: This means two-faced. Say one thing to one person and another to someone else, often to avoid confrontation. There’s one “policy” for this group of people, and another for others. Rules are selectively applied to make it easier on the leaders rather than to lead others to Christ. One group gets privileges while another is not afforded the same privilege (think use of meeting space). The antidote: have a why for all the “what’s”. And then make sure everyone understands the why behind policies, decisions and conversations. Choose consistency of response. Learn to face push-back from people who want special treatment with the why behind the what. Challenge one another to consistency in messaging. Point out the consequences of being of two minds. Remember, Jesus said “Blessed are the singlehearted.”[ii] He also said “Let your yes, be yes and your no, be no.”[iii]
Scattered-unfocused, no clear pathways: This sounds like, “What does Father want?” and no one knows the answer to that, perhaps including Father. It sounds like “I haven’t had a chance to think about this,” about an item that’s been around for weeks. It sounds like, “I have no idea what we should do now,” without any method for coming to a decision. Or it looks like one path today, another tomorrow and a third the next day. It looks like poor processes and procedures, no methods for addressing conflict, or for special needs. It looks like chaotic experiences of things that should not be so, like registering for a parish activity. It sounds like, “Who’s in charge?” The antidote: deliberate thinking, embracing decision-making processes that are synodal, planning, using group time to think through a situation and come up with options, and slowing down the pinging brain.
Doesn’t do what they say they will do: This needs no further explanation. The antidote is easy to write and sometimes hard to do: keep a calendar, use reminders, plan for unexpected emergencies, communicate clearly, concisely and on a timely basis, do not over-commit, return messages on a timely basis, show up when you say you are going to show up. This is for every person in the parish but especially for those in leadership.
Unprepared: When I first started in parish ministry I was determined to end the agony over “bad parish meetings.” They were too o often characterized by the meeting leader being unprepared. No agenda, or outline, off the cuff, conversational without any real points, and participants not sure what we were doing there. And more often than not, the leader would admit to being unprepared as if that were supposed to mitigate my pain. Antidote: pray, prepare, practice, and pray. Pay attention to space, comfort, hospitality and time. Specify outcomes. Create outlines. Manage time. Dress appropriately.
Too secretive about personal life. Perhaps you’ve had this experience. I have, especially around the clergy, where even after years of being in their flock, I had no idea about their family, their hobbies, their past, their hopes and dreams, their travel. I did not know even a tiny bit about what they did on their days off or on their vacations. But this can characterize all dimensions of parish life, where there’s work to do but the people doing the work don’t seem to care about one another. There’s no humanity, depth, dimension…not enough places to connect to one another. The antidote: share appropriately, be vulnerable especially when life’s dealing tough blows, take time in every meeting to check in at the human level, and then remember to follow-up.
So, how much of this characterizes your parish or diocese? Over what do you have influence RIGHT NOW? Start there. If you are doing one or more of the above listed behaviors, re-consider. Pray. Ask the Spirit to guide your conversion.
A final personal note…writing this was indicting for me personally. I definitely tend toward being uber-private, to wanting to get the work done that needs to be done, to assuming people have others in their lives who care about them. I bought the old leadership philosophy that those who follow me will do so because I am competent, and that my humanity really has no place in my leadership. And I bought the line that I matter because of what I produce, so my real self has no place in meetings.
Friends, that is not Jesus. Jesus cared first about the people gathered around him. He was a healer. He felt deeply for those suffering around him. He cured, healed, fed, listened, wept. He was fully human. He was vulnerable, asked for help, lived in community, laughed and ate with others. He was not secretive about his personal life. Rather, he invited others to follow him…to share in that life.
And they trusted him. Indicted. Conversion journey begun. How about you?
Want to talk this through a little more? Unsure what to do now? See trustworthiness as an issue? Go to www.pentecostvigilproject.org and schedule a conversation. Join our contact list! Check out our resources on building trust.
Want to understand this trust issue a little better: Listen to Onora O’Neill’s TED talk “What we don’t understand about trust.” https://www.ted.com/talks/onora_o_neill_what_we_don_t_understand_about_trust
Coming next week: an added bonus for leaders: a personal trustworthiness inventory. Join our mailing list to get this delivered right to your Inbox!
Photo "Thought Catalog" Unsplash