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Thursday
Aug062015

Caesura: Methods for “taking counsel” ..... Part One

The Benedictine tradition includes a promise of stability, obedience, and conversion of life.  That "promise" is not only a commitment made in community, it is a lens into the inner life and dynamics of a community. We have seen the health of a parish that is grounded in a rich and complex prayer life; in which there is deep listening, both interpersonal and in communal discernment; and where there is an openness of minds and hearts to the future that God offers. We have also seen parishes that seem to express a shadow side - where stability is turned to frozenness and obsession with parish traditions; where obedience has either become legalism or has no hold at all; where conversion of life is the cover for self-absorption in which change is driven by sentimentality or political ideology. We know of the parishes where there is an obsession with change or/and others with maintaining traditions. Robert A. Gallagher, Fill All Things: The Spiritual Dynamics of the Parish Church.

 

Saint Benedict knew something about shaping a Christian community. Benedictine monastic communities have existed for over 1500 years now. The spirituality of Saint Benedict is seen in Anglicanism’s Book of Common Prayer and orientation toward balance and moderation. I believe it’s in our DNA as a Communion. Parishes move deeper into their best selves as they come to understand and reflect both the more obvious, as well as the more hidden, aspects of Benedictine spirituality sitting within the deeper underlying assumptions of Anglican parish culture.

 

Meetings of the Parish Community 

This is the big one for most parishes. It means breaking out of the once a year, scripted parish meeting called for in your by-laws and engaging gatherings that are face-to-face, two-way, structured conversations. Of course you need to have the annual meeting; just add three other meetings. These are occasions when the parish community is invited to “take counsel.” Along the way change the process and tone of the annual meeting to fit the new way of doing things.

Three of four meetings/year about 1 ½ hours/meeting

Put all these meetings on the parish schedule at least a year ahead of time. Knowing that there will be times for conversation will help contain the tendency to grumble. It also allows leaders to point members in the direction of those meetings as the time when issues will be raised and explored—“Please hold onto your idea and come to the meeting. You can offer your idea, hear the ideas of others and possibly get a sense of what others make of what you’re suggesting.”

Have most of these meetings on Sunday after a Eucharist with a short homily and very shortened coffee hour.

 

Broad overall assessing and conversation

One meeting needs to be a broad assessment – action planning process. Use a channeling process that begins with something along the lines of “Likes/Concerns/Wishes” and proceeds to prioritize items. Items that “belong” to the rector or the vestry are “channeled to them. There may be some items that are the work of an existing committee and others around which a new working group is formed.

This kind of gathering allows the community to offer anything on its mind. Anything it likes and would like to see continued or built upon, anything that they are concerned about, and any new wishes and hopes they have. Because the lists are prioritized we end up with a narrowed down set of possible action items. In the process everyone has had an opportunity to be heard (briefly) and the mind of the congregation gets expressed. Most ideas will not receive enough support to end up being worked on but those proposing the ideas will know they had the opportunity along with everyone else and can of course return next year and offer the idea again.

At times the whole parish community is invited, at other times a congregation within the parish. That will depend on the issues to be engaged. These meetings need to make use of the methods known to facilitate dialogue and listening.  

In some parishes there will be good reasons to have such a meeting for the individual congregations. For example, at St. Paul’s, Seattle where I attend it might make sense to have a general meeting for just the 5:00 congregation because that group has a somewhat different liturgy and culture than the other three congregations.

 

Specific issues 

These are opportunities to have all those willing to gather to focus on one significant issue. They will usually be smaller gatherings than the broad overall meeting. I’ve seen parishes do it around things such as hospitality, membership growth, and finances. The meetings are usually about 1 ½ hours long. They may include “channeling” (gathering prioritized lists of issues to address and moving them into a channel for action) and ”testing” processes or some other way to gather information related to the topic for that occasion.

Take the opportunity of being gathered to have a sheet of newsprint hanging off to the side. Some people have called this the “parking lot” conversation sheet. On it people can note any concerns or wishes they’d like to call to the attention of the leadership. Usually none of the items on this list would be addressed in the meeting called for some other specific conversation. The list would later be reviewed by the rector and wardens (or another group) and appropriate action taken—do nothing, refer to an existing working group, use as the base for a testing process at an upcoming coffee hour, etc.

 

Conversation not debate

It is important that these meetings not turn into “town meetings” with their image of a contentious and argumentative spirit.  This is a process in which we are called to “listen carefully” and to invite members to “incline the ear of your heart.” [1]  It’s a time for humility. We share what’s on our heart and we let go of it. We accept that the rector or vestry are likely to make the final decision about most matters.[2] It’s all in the spirit of Benedict.

It’s also important that these meetings not undercut the responsibility of the rector and vestry for decisions they have to make. The gatherings are an opportunity for leaders to test things with the community and for the community to hear its own voice. The effect of such regular assemblies is usually increased trust and commitment.

 

Other elements

You want to establish a strong face-to-face norm. Being able to see one another, to be aware of body language and expressions, helps people stay connected. They are more likely to be be self reflective and take into account the impact they have on others.

Avoid using social media for these purposes. Much of the time it might provide useful information and even be fun. But if it turns negative a great deal of damage can be done to individuals and the parish community in a very short time. Let social meeting be “social” and not a way of undercutting the parish’s capacity for conversation and collaboration.

It’s common for issues to be raised at these meetings that lend themselves to using a testing process method (see below). That might be a tool used during the meeting or if the issue isn’t related to the topic of the meeting it might be done at a another time.

In designing the meeting ask yourself, “Is this something that requires the Rector and or the vestry to vote on and approve or is this an opportunity for people to form teams in which they pursue work on behalf of the parish within the parishes overall sense of direction and culture?” Be clear with those gathered as to which it is.

 

Testing Process

A “testing process” can be done for a few minutes at coffee hour, at vestry meetings, in working teams and at parish community meetings. It will usually be most effective if done when the group is gathered and can respond and discuss the result, formally or informally.

Face-to-face processes are usually more effective in promoting careful listening and effective response. A rule of thumb might be to use a “testing process” about four times per year with the whole community and possibly ten times with the vestry.

The testing process is a way to find out where the larger community stands on certain questions or issues. It helps both the community and the leadership get a sense of where the group is collectively.  It’s important for parish leaders and the congregation to understand that the testing process is not a way to shift decision-making authority to a vote of the congregation.  The results do not mean that any particular change will take place.

Examples of useful areas to test: satisfaction with the amount of silence in liturgy; sense of understanding and competence with using the Daily Office; satisfaction with existing methods of reflection; should we have announcements during the liturgy or at coffee hour, and so on.

Examples of ways of framing questions or the discussion that are not useful include setting up binary responses, such as, “I would prefer piano music to the organ at 10:30.”  Similarly, you don’t want to test in areas where the group is not competent to respond. 

Context matters.  It might, for instance, be very useful for the rector to gather specific feedback about liturgical issues or her sermons from a small, trusted group of parishioners who know something about liturgy and about homiletics.  This would not, however, be a useful exercise if expanded to the parish as a whole.

In some cases the testing process can be an alternative to community meetings. For example, when I was vicar of a Trenton parish we had two congregations within the parish. The larger had a shared homily[3], a lot of silence, a jazz musician as the parish musician, and occasional jazz masses using local groups. We would do what looked like a Greek or Jewish line dance as we moved from the Liturgy of the Word to our places around the altar. There was also an 8:00 am congregation that did Rite One from the pews in front of that altar. They didn’t exchange the Peace but did often go to breakfast together. They didn’t want to have meetings or group conversations. If I wanted their thinking about something I’d use a short testing process. For example,

I’d like us to:

Continue using Rite 1 all the time ….. Use Rite 1 only in Advent and Lent …. Use Rite 2 all the time

 

        A PDF on the Testing Process

 

Leadership Conference

Each year have a leadership conference. This is a time for leaders to get their “heads above water” and to see the parish in broader and deeper ways. This can be at a retreat center or at the parish. While many parishes have such retreats with just the rector and vestry you might consider opening them to anyone in the parish who was willing to fully participate and help with follow-up work in the three months after. It helps to use an external consultant at least every two or three years.   

         A PDF on Leadership Conferences

 

Informal conversations

The rector invites groups of 8 – 15 people to meet for conversation. In a parish with an average attendance of 150 that might mean 5 or so meetings each year. Spread the meetings over the course of the year. Have some food, a structured conversation, and end with an Office. Not everyone will want to be part of these conversations. Over a two-year period, you will end up including just about everyone interested in participating. Then do it again. And again. It’s all rather informal. Do it reliably over several years and you’ll have a pretty good sense of people’s thoughts and feelings.

 

Seniors 

The seniors are the “wise ones” of the parish. They may be former wardens, active priest associates or retired priests. There may be a person or two with advanced training in parish development or organization development. The rector might meet with the group three times a year. A vestry might devote one of its meetings each year to such a gathering.  All this is very informal and is not advertised to the whole parish. The rector and/or the vestry can legitimately ask for the counsel of select groups as they see best.

 

Considerations

Taking counsel with the larger parish community means using methods that help parish leaders better understand the hopes and concerns of people and have ways to gage which are held by many and which by few. It’s also a way for the parish community to hear its own voice and engage in mutual obedience and accommodation. I may think my view is correct. I may even thing most others share my view. These methods are ways of getting a better sense of how others actually are responding to my thinking. Giving myself to the processes of  “taking counsel” is an act of humility.

Remember that the primary ministry of the baptized is in their daily life. While it's important to have methods to consult with the entire parish we need to keep in mind that many, and probably most, members will not want to participate except on special occasions.

Consider reducing the number of vestry meetings each year to five. Have fewer committee meetings. Reduce the number of standing committees use more short term working groups. Look into methods that allow for more self management by working groups.

Rectors, vestries, and parish committees and working groups are pretty much able to make reasonable and confident decisions without input from others in the parish. It's not that we have to have the input to get things right. Though there will be occasions when the additional input does help us get it right, improve the idea, or avoid some pitfalls. Maybe that’s why Benedict wrote “do everything with counsel and you will not be sorry afterward.”

The willingness to take counsel with the larger parish community increases a sense of ownership for decisions that are finally made. It may bring some improvement in the decision-making.  It improves trust in the parish leadership.   It also becomes a form of what is called graduation in organization development. Graduation is the process of systematically developing future leadership in the system. As we see how people handle themselves in these processes we get an idea of who might be good members of the vestry and other committees in the future

rag+

 


[1] RB Prologue Vs 1 Listen carefully, my son, to the master's instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is the advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.

[2] RB Chapter 3 4 – 5 “The brothers, for their part, are to express their opinions with all humility, and not presume to defend their own views obstinately. 5The decision is rather the abbot's to make, so that when he has determined what is more prudent, all may obey.”

[3] Shared homily - sort of like a Quaker meeting, not like a New England town meeting. It was sharing not discussion or debate