Most rectors and vicars experience it – people in line to greet you as they are coming out of church, they lean in and offer an idea to improve the parish, or someone we really need to visit, or a “small complaint” about the liturgy. During the week we receive emails, text messages, and informal conversations with ideas, suggestions, questions, concerns, advice, complaints, and wonderments. It's all overwhelming. And it's easy to feel resentful toward those offering these things.
I've heard some clergy use the phrase "I'll ask when I want advice." That's bringing into the conversation a logic that is appropriate in a limited situation faced by couples. It's completely inappropriate in the relationship between clergy and those who worship together in the parish. In most situations it's probably wise for spouses to not attempt to offer advise about one another's work life. Even if asked for there's some tendency for it to end up in a bad emotional place. However, in the parish it is part of the priest's work to create a listening climate and to have enough humility to learn from the wisdom of others.
Having such openness doesn't mean allowing oneself to be emotionally overwhelmed. It does mean: 1) accepting the reality that people will offer their thoughts and feelings and 2) that it is the priest's job to provide an effective way in which those thoughts and feelings can be offered and taken into account.
The first step: focus on where we can influence things
The trick is to turn our attention away from all those people and our feelings of frustration. We need to check our resentment. The task is to turn to ourselves -- what can we do to manage the situation better than what we are doing now?
There’s an exercise that has been used in training and coaching leaders, it's called “The Circles of Influence.” The first thing to do for ourselves is to acknowledge that 1) we can’t stop people from offering their thoughts and feelings and 2) it would be bad for the parish if they do stop. Watch the energy drain out of a system in which people come to believe that the vicar doesn’t want to listen to them.
We have no control or influence over whether people have thoughts and feelings. None! We can influence how we and the parish community engage those thoughts and feelings. Shutting them down is a violation of human dignity and the well-being of the Eucharistic community. Allowing them to overwhelm us is self-destructive.
This is about our emotional intelligence and spiritual life. We need to manage ourselves. Manage our own emotions. We need to let them become energy for improvement instead of a sense of personal failure and frustration.
Things to do
It helps to have a few very specific things we can do to make all the ideas, complaints and visions manageable for ourselves and the parish as a whole. Here are a few ideas.
We need structured, face-to-face, listening processes that allow us to create productive conversations. These are ways of taking all those ideas and suggestions coming at us as the priest and make them part of the community’s common life.
Parishes require ways to identify and focus on needed conversations and issues. A “channeling process” is possibly the most effective tool for taking the dozens of suggestions and proposals offered and narrowing them down to those with the most investment in the congregation. The process gathers people’s concerns, new ideas, and insights and puts them in a channel, a pathway, toward decisions and action. The process can be done about the totally of parish life or a segment. The key is for the community and its leaders to carefully listen and respond. We don’t want to miss opportunities or to allow issues to fester or become centers of anxiety.
Regular community meetings
The parish community needs regular meetings over the course of the year. They are a chance for leaders to test things with the community and for the community to hear its own voice. At times the whole parish, 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. Having three or four such meetings each year provides the opportunity to engage more people in the significant questions of the community’s life. It is important that these not turn into “town meetings” with their image of a contentious and argumentative spirit. It’s also important that they not undercut the responsibility of the rector and vestry for decisions they have to make. Put these meetings on the parish schedule so people know there are opportunities coming in which they can be heard and hear others.
A brief process, think 5 – 15 minutes. An issue is identified and a spectrum, scale, is created to reflect the views present in the community. The “testing process” can be done for a few minutes at coffee hour. 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.
We need to do less of this
We need to stay with the current amount
We need to do more of this
A PDF: The Testing Process
Leadership Conference or Retreat
Each year have a leadership conference. The idea is for leaders to take the time 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. It might just be the rector and vestry or could be open to anyone who was willing to participate and help with follow-up work in the three months after. It helps to use an external consultant. A leadership conference needs to include time in prayer and activities that build connections among those present. It’s a time to explore parish dynamics, strengths, and opportunities in relationship to the primary task and core processes.
Benedictine – Taking Counsel
All this is easier to the extent the parish is grounded in the basics of a Benedictine spirituality about community life. A reminder:
1 As often as anything important is to be done in the monastery, the abbot shall call the whole community together and himself explain what the business is; 2 and after hearing the advice of the brothers, let him ponder it and follow what he judges the wiser course. 3 The reason why we have said all should be called for counsel is that the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger. 4 The brothers, for their part, are to express their opinions with all humility, and not presume to defend their own views obstinately. 5 The decision is rather the abbot’s to make, so that when he has determined what is more prudent, all may obey. 6 Nevertheless, just as it is proper for disciples to obey their master, so it is becoming for the master on his part to settle everything with foresight and fairness. … 12 If less important business of the monastery is to be transacted, he shall take counsel with the seniors only, 13 as it is written: Do everything with counsel and you will not be sorry afterward (Sir 32:24).
I’d translate that in this way – Bring the parish community together to discuss important matters. After hearing the voice of the community the rector or the rector and vestry or the appropriate working group – makes a decision. Be sure that in the process the newer members are included. In expressing ourselves we are to listen with openness and respect to the thoughts and feelings of others. Work with whatever decision gets made. If after a while you believe it to be a mistake, ask the appropriate group to reconsider. On less important matters (issues that don’t get discussed by the whole community) the rector can gather a few of the “wise ones” in a kind of kitchen cabinet. Maybe once a year the vestry might meet with the “wise ones” to reflect on the overall well-being of the parish community. The wise ones are those in whom you can see the coming together of the gifts of the spirit – awe, piety, acceptance of paradox and balance, courage, openness to the Holy Spirit, self-knowledge. Maybe there is a former warden or two, a quiet and thoughtful member regular at the Daily Office, a retired priest with broad experience.
A wonderful side effect of this is that we decentralize parish decision making just a bit. It also allows the vestry and rector to feel more in touch with the whole parish community.