The heart of the Good News is freedom.
Do we have the courage to surrender ourselves to the Lord and begin to live in that freedom?
Do we have the courage to surrender ourselves to the Lord and begin to live in that freedom?
That’s the beginning of one of the most well-known phrases from one of the most well-known European fairy tales. The Wicked Queen who utters this commanding question (“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”) jealously guards her beauty and renown–and goes to great lengths to protect herself from ever being seen as second best. One gets the sense from this kind of reaction that something beyond a sense of her own beauty drives the queen’s actions–its as if insecurity tears at her heart with dark claws. She sees herself in a particular way, and needs the magic mirror to somehow prove that self-understanding wrong.
Why am I even bringing this up?
Because our parishes are filled with Wicked Queens and Wicked Kings whose self understanding and self image is wounded and broken. Some of them have their own magic mirrors, talismans that help them keep their hyper-critical demons (psychological and otherwise) at bay: gossip, alcoholism and drug addiction, an unbalanced quest for personal wealth and business success, sexual conquest and addictions (including pornography and extra-marital affairs), cutting, eating disorders–to name only a few.
Most of these folks suffer in silence, deafened by the voice of the Accuser who speaks lies over their lives and convinces them that a holy and loving God could never love them. These men and women have moved beyond simply a sense of feeling guilty and come under the bondage of shame. Guilt says “I made a mistake,” but Shame says “I am a mistake.” There are a great number of our brothers and sisters who are convinced that there is something essential about themselves that makes them unlovable and beyond the reach of God’s salvation.
I would say that a redeemed self-image is the number one thing that people who come seeking prayer for healing need. And as men and women concerned with spreading the Gospel of Jesus, we must recognize that a profoundly wounded self image functions as “rocky soil,” it is a barrier that prevents the seed of the Gospel from taking root in people’s hearts. It is difficult to receive the mercy and love of your Eternal Father when you are absolutely convinced that there i something entwined into your very being that makes you unlovable.
I should know. I was a Wicked King once–but that is a fairy tale retelling for another time.
The heart of the Gospel message directly contradicts the lies which bind the wounded self image. God created us out of an abundance of love–not out of a deficiency (of company or interesting things to do, for example). Human beings were the only part of God’s creation that He brought into being for their own sake. Everything else was created to serve this new creature called Man. Or, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it so powerfully:
All is created from the Word and all is called to serve the Word. This means that all of Creation, in the end, is conceived of to create the place of encounter between God and His creature—a place where the history of love between God and His creature can develop
The history of salvation is not a small event on a poor planet, in the immensity of the universe. It is not a minimal thing which happens on a lost planet. It is the motive for everything, the motive of creation. Everything is created so that this story can exist—the encounter between God and His creature.
Reflect on that for a moment–and be amazed.
God created us as embodied spirits, and, therefore, every other facet of Creation, down to the last fermion, hadron, and bosun He brought into being so that you and I (and every human person) can experience His love and offer Him our own.
Each of us matters.
Scripture delivers even more insight. In Jeremiah chapter 1 verse 5, the Lord says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. The hebrew word for such knowledge does not refer to simply knowing about someone. Rather, it signifies a deep, understanding that penetrates to the depths of a person. That’s why the word know in scripture was often used to refer to sexual union. In the Gospel of Luke, after the angel Gabriel delivers the Lord’s message that Mary would give birth to the messiah, she responds: “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (Luke 1:34).
Therefore, when the Lord says that He knew us before we were formed in our mother’s wombs, we must see the absolute radical nature of this proclamation. God’s desire to be in relationship with us, His dynamic and boundless love, was so powerful, that He would not wait until we were conceived. The Father held each of us in His heart and contemplated us from Eternity. How great God’s joy must have been when at last we were conceived and could begin now to experience and reciprocate this love. How the Father must have danced and rejoiced at the first division of our cell, the first fluttering beat of our heart, the first spark of dendrite and neuron.
The Father’s love for us is so great, that when our First Parents’ disobedience ruptured their relationship with God and destroyed the divine life within humanity, He refused to let His children perish. Rather, he sent His Son, who left the glory of Heaven and subjected Himself to the power of death so that He, through obedience and humility, could destroy death forever. And now, he sends His Body, the Church, into the world searching for the lost so that the joy of His kingdom and the power of the Father’s Love would be experienced by all.
Each of us is so precious to the Lord that He endured suffering and death for us. The Cross, therefore, is both instrument of salvation and sign of our value to the Father.
It is, of course, important for everyone to both hear the gospel and come to know the Person of Jesus. However, for those whose self-image is wounded, both proclamation of the kerygma and personally encountering this love of God are essential. Often, before they can truly hear and respond to the Gospel message, this love must be incarnated for them. Such personal experience of the love of God through other Christians will act as a bridge of trust and we should intentionally build upon that to help these men and women respond to God’s grace and move through the pre-discipleship thresholds. For them, this personal encounter will gradually confront the woundedness of their self-image and help them see to the reality of who they are and how precious they are to God
For most parishioners, whose main contact with the Church is the parish, this will often take place within some element of parish life–and so we must be deliberate in our attempts to foster this kind of incarnation. The actions that I will list below are foundational, meaning that you can use them no matter what event or process you are undertaking (i.e., Alpha, Discovering Christ, Bible Studies, Parish Missions, Evangelizing Retreats, etc.):
There are many ways to surround someone who has a wounded self-image with love and encouragement. The reality is that their healing and openness to the Gospel is likely to be part of a journey that takes time. If we are really serious about our desire to share the Good News, then we, as individuals and communities, have to commit to walking with these men and women for the length of their journey. As we do, however, we may just find some hidden mirrors of our own and, through the grace of God, release them in His mercy.
Inside every Wicked Queen is a holy Princess whose identity is rooted in the Eternal King. Inside every Wicked King is a Prince Charming made in the image and likeness of His Loving Father. We must become Holy Mirrors of God’s redemptive Presence.
And help them truly see.
After what seems like endless months of planning, modifying, communicating, and prepping, launch time is here. You’ve read all the right books and been to all the right conferences, and you worked hard at picking the best possible program. The name tags are made, the pencils sharpened, and the small groups assigned. Now, all you have to do is keep the momentum going and parish transformation will blossom like flowers in springtime.
If you are like so many other parishes, your program may launch to great success and then seemingly disappear without much lasting fruit, ending up assigned to the dustbin of history as another reinforcement for the “we tried that before, and it didn’t work” culture so prevalent in parochial life. The truth is that cultural change is challenging and takes far more than a spiffy new program to occur.
Here are 5 reasons why your parish’s latest evangelization program won’t bear much fruit:
Maybe your parish is exceptionally active, and you have so many things going on that your latest evangelization program is just one more activity in the Greek-Diner-sized menu of competing events. Or perhaps you are under-resourced as a parish, and it took everything that you had to just get this latest program off the ground. Either way, chances are that your new evangelization initiative is not linked in a strategic way with any other parts of your parish’s pastoral strategy. It’s an outlier, and once people go through it, you don’t have any process, program, or event that builds upon what your parishioners experienced in any formative developmental way.
In other words . . .what’s next for the alumni of your evangelization program? What path do you have for them to take the next step toward (or in) relationship with Christ? Here’s a fundamental question I ask every parish that M3 Ministries works with: What is the specific pathway that your parish has available to help those who are unchurched encounter Christ, come to a decision to follow Jesus, mature as disciples, and receive formation to share Christ with others? In order to really bear fruit, every parish must have a clear plan accompanying people on the journey toward missionary discipleship. One program–even the most amazing one–is not sufficient.
Catholics have developed a remarkable ability to create institutions, programs, and processes to move large amounts of people through specific experiences–Catholic Schools, RCIA, Religious Education of children, sacramental preparation–you name it, and we can catapult thousands of people through every major hurdle and come out the other side. The problem is that we never take the time to discover where each of our people are in their own spiritual journey before we load the catapult. As a result, we offer every single person the same experience as if they were all in the same place spiritually, and we very rarely help them discern if they are in the right place developmentally for a particular program to bear sustained fruit in their life. And we wonder why our programs seem to have little lasting impact.
It is only recently, with the publication of Sherry Weddell’s landmark book, Forming Intentional Disciples, which introduced the concept of key pre-discipleship thresholds to the Catholic world, that we have a language and conceptual framework for seeing more specifically where people actually are. The work of other apostolates, like FOCUS and their Discipleship Roadmap, have expanded this understanding to the post-discipleship journey. The reality is that people in different thresholds and places on the journey require different things, and offering people something for which they are not developmentally able to receive can cause them to “go backwards” or stall in their journey toward missionary discipleship. In other words, how will baptismal prep at your parish be different for someone in the Threshold of Trust versus someone who is in Seeking?
We rarely do any followup or debriefing with those who come through our evangelization programs. Often, our parishioners have positive experiences and may even move through some thresholds, but we never walk with them after and help them unpack that experience. We either end the program abruptly when it is done, or quickly move on to the next program. When we offer experiences and programs that make an impact and then don’t nurture that change within people, we guarantee that the fire kindled within them will eventually die. It is imperative that we take the time and walk with people post-program. It is as important as providing the program itself in the first place. Personally, I like to ask men and women who complete a process or program: “How did this experience influence, change, or deepen your relationship with Jesus?” and “What can I do for you to help you grow further in this area?”
Sometimes we embrace mediocrity in the Church, believing that good content and great intentions mean that we can get by with ho-hum execution. The good news is that most evangelization programs today are high-quality and possess phenomenal multimedia resources baked into them. But I’m not just talking about video quality or handout design. Good execution means paying attention to every facet of the program experience–from ease of sign up, to meeting hospitality, environment lay out, small group facilitator discernment and formation, communication with participants, and just about anything else you can think of. In the 21st century, we are competing with countless other activities and experiences for the attention and time of people. This isn’t about making our programs more entertaining, but rather providing the best possible experience for our parishioners and guests. Why invest money, time, and resources into a program that you are just going to run on autopilot?
Evangelization programs should have as their goal the making of disciples. Running a program without explicit understanding and agreement of this reality on the part of leadership leads to less fruit. When evangelization programs are run to try and keep people engaged or get new people “involved,” they often do not bear lasting fruit. Furthermore, we know that only a disciple can make a disciple. Unfocused evangelization programs often lack the presence of disciple facilitators who understand the disciple-making process. Without disciples facilitating the program and intentionally accompanying participants, the program will not have as much of a long-term impact as it could. This intentional accompaniment includes a willingness to invite others “in the present moment” to drop their nets and follow Jesus if the situation warrants that kind of invitation.
The good news is that our evangelization programs do not have to fail. By taking these five factors in to account during the planning and execution of your parish’s program, you will help that program yield sustainable long-term impact.
The most important being the fact that our parishes are filled with amazing, generous, gifted men and women who are not yet disciples of Jesus Christ–not through any fault of their own, but because we as pastoral leaders have not done a great job of proposing relationship with Jesus to them (and living it out for them to see).
Yes, there really is a crisis of discipleship.
But it is aided and abetted by a related crisis–a crisis of leadership.
If evangelization and accompaniment are the core components of the engine that drives parish renewal, leadership is the essential fluid that cools and lubricates that engine, allowing every component to perform at maximum efficiency. Without authentic leadership, the engine of cultural change fails to start, overheats, or blows a gasket, thereby coming to a complete stop.
Just look at the current manifestation of the sexual abuse crisis we are living through right now. Clearly, the causes of this abuse and cover up issue are complex and interrelated, but you can be darn sure that poor leadership on the part of our shepherds has helped to move us to this place today. Healthy things can grow in a healthy climate, and nothing has quite as profound effect on organizational climate (also called culture), than leadership. Just talk to anyone who has volunteered or worked in a parish for any length of time–chances are they will have run in to an unhealthy climate (or two…or three). Such toxic environments stunt growth–personal, professional, and spiritual. They spread division, woundedness, bitterness, anger, and hurt like a virus, and they act in direct opposition to the Church’s mission.
If we are going to take the New Evangelization seriously, and truly live out the Church’s mission, we need to form, raise up, hire, and nurture authentic pastoral leaders who can bear great fruit. The hard truth is that many of our parishes are not led well, and the blame isn’t simply on the pastors, priests, and deacons. Our entire leadership culture often suppresses innovation, uses intimidation and manipulation masked in pious language, promotes mediocrity, and is more concerned with external data (numbers of people who go through our programs and processes) than spiritual fruitfulness. Often, our parishes live, lead, and struggle out of silos rather than focused and generous collaboration.
The context of our current crisis only highlights the dire necessity of leadership transformation. There are no other options–we either embrace a fundamental change in how we govern and live out our common baptismal life as parishes, or we just accept the fact that our future fate will be one of decline, retrenchment, and a growing irrelevance to the secular world.
Responsibility for such a change in leadership begins, first and foremost, with each of us. To that end, we have identified 7 Qualities of Fruitful Pastoral Leaders in an attempt to help individuals and groups of parish leaders begin this journey of transformation. You’ll find the 7 Qualities listed below. In addition, we have also created a free, downloadable Leadership Resource to assist you. This resource not only contains details on the 7 Qualities, but it also sets out some critical reflection questions that you can use individually or in a group setting to form and support your personal development as a leader or the growth of leaders at all levels of your parish. You can download the FREE resource by clicking here or by clicking on the image at the bottom of this blog post.
Note: We chose to use the word fruitful rather than simply effective to highlight an important reality–leadership isn’t simply about positional excellence but about individual and communal impact. Fruitful leaders not only change culture…they change people. In addition, each of these 7 Qualities rests upon the foundation of vision. Not every leader in your parish has the ability to see, articulate, and promote a new vision, but all leaders internalize the vision of the community and live it out in such a way that others are drawn in.
Living these qualities out will not be easy–especially in the beginning. It will take much understanding, compassion, frank and honest discussion, and trust to change our leadership culture. But doing so is one of the most powerful ways that we can cooperate with the supernatural life that God has given His Body, the Church. When I first met Fr. James Mallon’s parish, St. Benedict, a few years ago, I commented to him that the secret sauce of the Divine Renovation model was that they wedded the very best in human organizational leadership principles with a reliance on the supernatural life of the Kingdom.
Are we ready to commit to such a shift in our own leadership? Are there other qualities of fruitful leaders that should be highlighted? We’d like to know. Drop a line in the comment box. And don’t forget to download our FREE Leadership Resource by clicking the image below:
When we do that, we end up simply consuming the Eucharist rather than entering into the consummation that Jesus desires.