How does it work? How do we get the commitment we need from people to accomplish what we need to do in the parish? Even more importantly, how do we build commitment for the inner life, for spiritual practice, for compassion and justice?
This will be a two part posting. The first is about the content of our commitment. The second will be concerned with the process of our commitment.
Understanding the content of our commitment is helped by: differentiating between two things, understanding the interplay of the two things, and seeing what is out of whack.
Differentiate between two things
In the parish’s life the content of our commitment takes two forms.
- Commitment related to the primary task of the parish
These are commitments around the Sunday Eucharist, finding a way to engage in the Daily Prayers of the Church, developing the habits of reflection and participation in community, and equipping the baptized for service in their families, with friends, in the workplace, and in civic life. This kind of commitment is about members accepting responsibility for their spiritual life—for getting and staying grounded in their identity and purpose as baptized members of the Body of Christ and for establishing was of integrating that into their daily life. It is about the parish, as an institution, as well as, as the Body, ordering its life in a way that facilitates these things.
- Commitment to assist in making parish life work
These are commitments around parish leadership, maintaining the property, providing the support system for liturgy, education and training, and so on. It’s the meetings of the vestry and all the working groups. Our commitment to these things provides the base needed for the first level of commitments.
A parish needs both these things—commitment related to the primary task of the parish and commitment to assist in making parish life work. We also need to understand that they are not the same thing and that the reason we exist has to do mostly with the first.
The interplay of two things
While the distinction between the parish’s task of forming people in Christ and making-the-parish-work is important it’s also more complex in practice. How we live and work together can either be “a school of love” or simply a matter of efficiency and effectiveness. There’s nothing wrong with a parish being efficient and effective. Unless it is not at the same time a “school of love.”
Our call is to do both. How we deal with the task at hand as well as how we deal with one another are important for the well being of the parish as an institution and the formation of the People of God.
And how we approach the routine business of parish life can be a sacramental expression of the spiritual life or just more busy work.
The issues and dynamics seen in Benedictine spirituality can serve as a pathway to better understand the interplay of the two elements—“”men and women need freedom and yet they must accept authority,” …”doing ordinary things quietly and perfectly for the glory of God,” … “They involve us in - the need not to run away, the need to be open to change, the need to listen,” …”Balance, proportion, harmony are so central” … “create the favorable environment in which the balanced life may flourish,” … “nothing is to be put before the opus Dei,” … “When the signal is given for the liturgy other work must be abandoned.” … “We are stewards and not slaves, what we have and what we do belong to the life on loan from God, and it is through that life in its entirety, with all its unspectacular demands, that we shall make our way to him.” … “he looks for consideration of one another, and above all he places love before zeal.” … “Yet the community is not to be run by majority votes. … there’s also is a definite tyranny that the weak and unhappy can bring to bear in any community.” … ”unless I am silent I shall not hear God.”[i]
We fail to see what’s amiss
As we all know, it’s easy enough for a church to drift into a situation where the energy is around a shadow of these two things. We naturally deal with the Sunday morning experience. That’s something directly related to the parish’s reason for being. It’s important and urgent.[ii] We also attend to the basics of making parish life work. Also, important and urgent. Nothing wrong with either.
Our problem is in our lack of fullness and depth; a lacking that seems so normal we fail to see what’s amiss.
And what is it that’s out of whack? Two things:
First, the primary ministry of baptism is pushed to the side in parish life. We, the Body of Christ, the instruments of Christ’s love in the daily life of the world, become instead “parish workers.” The glory of being fully alive—in our families, with friends, at work, and in our civic life—gets overshadowed by the routines of parish life.
Our participation in “the new life of grace” gets reduced to the upkeep of the institution.
The work of the Spirit happens even if the parish doesn’t explicitly acknowledge or only supports it haphazardly and partially. In the most oblivious of parishes some will grow in the life—“an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” And in an aware and alive parish more people will experience such growth.
Do a bit of assessment on your parish.
- In looking at the parish website when “ministries” are noted do we begin with the daily life of parishioners—work, family, friends, civic life? Is there an acknowledgement of the apostolate of baptism? Are there any stories that illustrate it? Or, in what we communicate do we suggest that the important “ministries” are what people do in, for or through the parish?
- Stay with the website. What’s the overall impression communicated by the images and text? Is it of a parish life that shows curiosity and comprehensiveness along with rootedness in faith (vs. smug certainty or shallowness); a capacity to listen and maintain a sense of proportion and sound judgment (vs. anxious, reactive decision making); a community that can face into difficult situations and painful times (vs. avoid and flee); a longing for the inner life and the ways of holiness (vs. a fear of depth or an exaggerated religiosity); and a delight in, a sense of awe of, and responsibility for, the creation. (vs. a spirit of control or heedlessness).
- Is the system of expectations tilted to satisfy those called to a ministry of making-the-parish-work or to those focused on their daily life? Has the parish explored ways to reduce the time asked of people for vestry and committee meetings? Do we present “stewardship” as being about our responsibilities in all of life or is it really seen as a code for giving money to the church? Is stewardship offered as a kind of biblical literalism or is there an acknowledgement of how our taxes and contribution to other causes are part of a modern understanding of stewardship?
The second thing often out of whack is that our efforts at formation are minimal. We allow it all to hang on Sunday morning and maybe a mid-week Eucharist. Maybe there’s a Lenten program. Isn’t this what most parishes do? Therefore, isn’t that enough?
More broadly, we fail to adequately attend to those things that are developmental, things that are important but not urgent. If the clarity of commitment is to occur it will usually be up to the priest-in-charge to make it happen. Clergy that sit around waiting for a spontaneous demand from the bulk of the congregation for spiritual guidance, a Daily Office in the church, and training in spiritual practice—well ... they will get to have a nice long rest. It may be an indicator that the priest doesn’t understand the task of shaping the parish as a core aspect of the presiding role in the Eucharistic community. It may also suggest that the priest doesn’t have an adequate grasp of the parish as a system, and therefore a workable strategy for pastoral oversight.
Do a second bit of assessment on your parish.[iii]
- In the Sunday Eucharist - A critical mass of people “flow” with it. Mostly don’t need a Prayer Book or leaflet. Or most are frequently confused and uncertain about how to participate.
- The parish equips and supports parishioners in saying the Daily Prayer of the Church on their own by offering training and guidance.
- For a parish with a full time priest - the Daily Office is said in the church most days
- There is an adult foundations course offered regularly and frequently in the parish.
- The parish has a climate and an approach to the spiritual life that encourages experimentation and the engagement of the tradition.
Commitment related to the primary task of the parish and commitment to assist in making parish life work -- a parish needs to do both these things. We need to have commitment to the activities that have to do with our reason for being and we need to attend to the nuts and bolts of parish life. And we need to see the interplay between these things. Wise leadership will attend to the issues of focus and proportion. The responsibility falls on all parish leaders and most especially the priest. The priest must not accept the false separation of “spiritual” and temporal.” She is responsible to focus both and to help others see the interplay.
How does commitment really work? Part Two: The Process
In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practices, Robert A. Gallagher 2011, Ascension Press.
In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today’s Christian Life, Michelle Heyne, Ascension Press, 2011
Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, Esther de Waal, The Liturgical Press, 1984, 2001
[ii] Urgent in the sense that week after week it presses upon us requiring a sermon, a bulletin, candles and linen, coffee. It’s on the schedule and expected by people.
[iii] See – “The Barriers” and “Changing Our Way of Thinking” pp 10-11, “Assessing the Parish’s Spiritual Practices” p. 155 in In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practices, Robert A. Gallagher 2011, Ascension Press.