Exorcizing the Program Demon

Exorcizing the Program Demon

Some demons are harder to expel than others!

Jesus understood this and taught his disciples when they struggled to exorcize a mute spirit from a young boy. “This kind,” Jesus said, “cannot be driven out by anything except prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29)

Some demons are troublesome, and when they sink their venomed fangs into us, they do not want to leave. Such a demon is often present in diocesan and parish life, wielding its dark influence to deaden and block our desire and ability to experience new life, transformation, and renewal.

I call it the demon of programs.

Though the denizens of Satan’s fallen realm prefer to work in the shadows, masking and hiding their presence whenever they can, still the discerning eye can spot their furtive and elusive presence. There are signs that one’s parish or diocese has fallen under the power of this programmatic demon to a greater or lesser degree:

  • A tendency to see the right program as the primary solution to problems or the primary driver of engagement
  • A repeated habit of executing programs with little personal preparation or followup with participants that ends up minimizing (or missing completely) the personal interior journey of the individual and the absolute importance of personal response to grace.
  • An absence of forethought in how the various programs offered by the parish could build upon one another to help lead a person on a spiritual journey toward Christ, into discipleship, and then into a lifestyle of missionary discipleship.
  • An organizational bias in favor of hiring and promoting administrative and operational gifts and skillsets, coupled with an excessive tendency to value and reward programmatic execution over spiritual fruitfulness.

Get with the Program

Now is the time when many of you who are reading this begin to push back and think things like “But we need good administration” or “we’ll never get anything done if we are not organized.”

And I completely agree with you.

Of course, spiritual growth and programmatic excellence are not mutually exclusive, but let’s face it, the Catholic Church is huge, and to meet the demands of the breadth of our members, we have become adept at creating programs and processes that move large amounts of people from one place to another (e.g., in our Catholic School systems, sacramental preparation programs, and catechetical offerings especially). This is especially true of the Church in North America, which largely grew from the influx of immigrants coming to the continent. To handle the flow of our people, we built structures (physical and organizational), processes, and programs that focused on producing fully initiated Catholics who could integrate with the surrounding secular culture.

We’ve inherited that programmatic mentality today, and often our first instinct when faced with things like declining attendance, fewer resources, and lack of participation is to “tune up” our programs and find ways to increase their efficiency.

And this is where the program demon enters.

In a parish or diocesan culture dominated by the programmatic demon, the efforts of pastoral leaders, staff, and key volunteers revolves largely around the efforts and activities central to running events, processes, and programs with little (or a substantially reduced) focus on where participants might be in the spiritual journey toward discipleship before the event in question and where they might be after!

The truth is that programs, events, homilies, and the like don’t make disciples. They can be particular moments of grace and catalysts for conversion, and they might even, through the grace of God, help someone surrender their heart Christ and become believers in Jesus and His church. But by and large, growth into the lifestyle of Jesus and His kingdom, learning and living the life of discipleship requires a particular kind of connection to those who are already disciples.

In other words, programs don’t make disciples, people make disciples. Or as I like to say, disciples aren’t mass produced; they are artisanal products. They’re handcrafted. This was fundamentally the model of spiritual multiplication that Jesus used!

Calling Max Von Sydow

So how can we exorcize the program demon and be set free from the Paradigm of Programs that often dominates contemporary parish and diocesan life in the West? The answer is as clear as it is radical! We must raise up a generation of men and women with missionary mindsets and practical skills who can accompany others fruitfully on the spiritual journey. This will be necessary not only to help set our parishes free, but this same approach will be necessary if we are to live fruitfully the Church’s mission to the world!

This is precisely what M3 Ministries offers to parishes and dioceses. And in the course of the last several years, we have seen first-hand how the presence of these ‘parish-literate missionary band of evangelizers’ challenges the current culture and brings their missionary perspective not only into their worship of God and daily life, but also into the meetings and plans of the parish community.

If we want to be free of the program demon, we must equip men and women who:

Possess a deep understanding of The Great Story of Salvation (the Kerygma)—including how the Gospel Message applies to them, and how their story and The Great Story intersect.

• Demonstrate a desire to share the Kerygma (the core Gospel Message) with others and walk alongside of them into relationship with Christ.

Understand the spiritual journey toward discipleship (the pre-discipleship thresholds) and have experience listening as disciples for where someone might be in those thresholds.

Possess integrated knowledge of the evangelization process and can think about parish life through the “lens” of that process.

Can concretely invite someone to surrender their lives to Jesus.

Demonstrate comfort with the power, presence, and person of the Holy Spirit, and intentionally “partner” with the Spirit to release the power of the Kingdom of God in both natural and supernatural ways.

Of course, parishioners don’t need to be formed in all these areas to be effective witnesses to Jesus. New disciples and longer-term followers of Christ whose lives have been re-energized and renewed by the Lord can profoundly touch the lives of others in Jesus’ name—without the benefit of such missionary formation. However, a parish or diocese rooted within a Paradigm of People consciously chooses to raise up these kinds of missionary leaders, not as a pre-requisite or requirement to serve in a missionary capacity, but so that the missionary activity of the whole parish will bear greater fruit. In other words, leaders in a people-focused paradigm don’t hold back their people from missionary activity until they complete all of the “necessary” formation, but rather seek to build up the missionary skills and identity of every parishioner so they can become even more effective and fruitful in sharing Jesus with others.

If you’d like more help moving from a Paradigm of Programs to one that focuses on People, check out the latest book from M3 Ministries’ Executive Director, Deacon Keith Strohm. It’s called Ablaze: 5 Essential Paradigm Shifts for Parish Renewal. You can purchase it from Amazon.com by clicking on the link below the image.

And just like the mute spirit in the Gospel of Mark, if you want to exorcize your community from the program demon . . . don’t forget prayer and fasting!

Reigniting After Burnout

Reigniting After Burnout

It happens to many of us, eventually.

Whether we are regular unpaid help at our parish, or if we have a full-time position on staff. At some point if we are not very careful, we will burn out. Like a gas grill whose tank is empty, our flame will flicker and sputter and, finally, disappear. I’m not talking about normal stress that comes with working among a group of people, with all the attendant politics and personal foibles that comes with it, nor the fatigue one might feel when one’s shoulders are set “to the wheel” for an extended period of time.

Rather, I’m talking about the out-of-control, downward spiral often accompanied by bitterness, frustration, and a defensive attitude that screams “I don’t care anymore” as loud as it can. Burnout can be ugly and, unfortunately, it can cause collateral damage–among our ministries and to our friends, families, co-workers, and fellow parishioners.

Burnout is often connected (as a cause, an effect, or both) with an experience of a collapsing prayer life, a struggle with a pattern of sinfulness (vice) or acedia–a state of spiritual listlessness or torpor. And just a quick aside–not every experience of dryness in prayer is a good thing. While desert experiences are normative for many disciples, part of the way that God forms and trains us to move to a deeper faith and trust in Him, sometimes our experience of dryness in prayer can be a result of an obstinancy, a pattern of sinfulness, or the experience of acedia. A well-trained and perceptive Spiritual Director can be invaluable in discerning the root of such experiences.

But what to do if you are suffering from burnout? Is rehab possible?

Fanning the Flames

The good news is that our God is a God of restoration, renewal, mercy, and wholeness. There are very concrete things that we can do to navigate through this period and dispose ourselves to His renewing grace. Here are my suggestions in no particular order (assuming that you are a lay man or lay woman):

  • Take some time to do an in-depth examination of conscience and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you patterns of sinfulness, areas in your life that are not under the Lordship of Christ, and thought habits that set up obstacles between you and God (for example, a habit of thought that is filled with self-judgment or self-hatred will cause someone to believe that while God might heal and forgive others, there is something about themselves that is unloveable, and therefore God just wouldn’t deign to forgive or heal them).


  • Once the Examination of Conscience is complete, run, don’t walk, to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance. Give all of that junk to the Lord and trust that He will forgive and restore you.


  • Although times of burnout are often times when we want to pray the least, make a concrete schedule of prayer that includes several opportunities for prayer throughout the day. If it’s available somewhere near you, give particular emphasis to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (daily, if possible). If you are spiritually prepared, receiving communion during these masses will go a long way toward restoration. A note here for parish staff members–resist the gravitational pull of someone enlisting you to help at these masses. Make this a time for you to fully participate as a member of the assembly in the pews. Go to another parish for mass, if necessary.


  • To facilitate the other bullet points and to help with recovery, take a step back from your area of ministry for a time (if you are a staff member, I would encourage you to take some vacation–a minimum of three days, maybe stretched out over a weekend to give you 5 full days off). During this time, make it clear to your pastor or ministry coordinator that this is time that you are taking for you. Resist being contacted about that ministry or area; assign a delegate who can handle things while you take some time off.


  • Then get a life! Okay, so that might be a little facetiously stated, but seriously cultivate, explore, or return to a hobby or other area of your life that has nothing to do with direct ministry at all. Train for a marathon, remodel the house, dive into a series of books you’ve been meaning to read. Whatever it is, make sure it is something that you enjoy.


  • When you are ready to return to work/your area of volunteering, meet with the coordinator or your boss and set clear boundaries. If you are paid for 35 hours a week of ministry–inform your pastor or boss that you are restricting your time working at the parish to those 35 hours. If your boss feels that they need you for more hours than that in order to “get things done,” it is incumbent on them to provide compensation and a reworked job description and job offer. It is then incumbent on you to prayerfully discern whether you should work those additional hours. The little secret at the heart of a lot of parish work is that staff members and volunteers routinely work far more hours than they are compensated for or were assigned to work. Whether the pastor/boss/coordinator never intends for that to be the case, it often occurs. This is, at its heart, an issue of justice which parishes need to address.


  • To facilitate setting clear boundaries, work with your boss/volunteer coordinator to set clear priorities. If everything is a priority then in reality nothing is important. The fact of the matter is that, unless you have a network of gifted and well-formed individuals who have taken personal responsibility for coordinating an area of your work, you personally can only start and maintain a relatively small number of “plates spinning on a pole.” Setting clear priorities helps you know where to expend your limited focus and amount of time.


  • Cultivate a network of gifted and well-formed individuals who have taken personal responsibility for coordinating an area of your work. Burnout often results from the physical, mental, and spiritual drain that comes from working on things in your ministry/area of work for which you are not gifted. Discern your spiritual gifts (charisms) and then deputize or, if you are very lucky, hire individuals who have charisms in areas where you are not gifted (or talented). Form them well and then give them space to work/coordinate that area of responsibility (but DO still hold them accountable).


  • Maintain the disciplined schedule of prayer that you put together as an emergency rehab. Keep developing your prayer life and find a solid spiritual director.


  • Strive to build good and honest lines of communication with your boss and coworkers. Passive aggressiveness and conflict avoidance have been elevated to art forms within many parishes. Refuse to give in to it. Act counter culturally by respectfully addressing issues and conflicts that arise. Don’t let them fester. Be open to speaking the truth in love to your coworkers and boss–and truly listen when someone respects you enough to do the same.

Hopefully, you’ve found a few things in this post helpful. These suggestions come from hard-won personal experience. What other suggestions might you have for helping someone reignite after burnout?