Human nature resists change and all systems seek stability. We know from our own lives that change is easier when it is self-directed. This is especially evident in organizations when a change (e.g. the decision for parishes to cooperate or merge) is seen as coming from elsewhere. Few things are certain except that change is messy. The more parishes are involved the messier it gets. And the key to success is leadership. But what are the best practices of pastoral leaders in these situations? And what leaders are most likely to succeed?
Best practices for multi-site parishes or parish clusters include:
1. Listen - When parishes are linked or joined, the most immediate challenge is to reduce negative reaction by listening carefully to people’s apprehensions, blending with people’s concerns, and providing maximum control to those who are most affected by change. Sometimes simply engaging people in the process is the cure for their dis-ease. When effective leaders talk they are always careful with their language (e.g. avoid comparisions between communities and always refer to the group that is present in any remarks about the choices or decisions in amulti-site situation).
2. Warm the Atmosphere – Effective parish leaders humanize change by investing significant amounts of time just being with people in relaxed situations before, during and after implementation of changes. This allows leaders and parishioners to relate human-to-human without role or agenda. Forming emotional bonds is vital for reducing anxiety. Effective leaders give those who are most disaffected plenty of one-on-one opportunity to voice their dissatisfactions. Remain calm, and listen intently and avoid reactions or response.
3. Diffuse Resistance to the Change – Just listen with genuine curiosity.One way that profit and non-profit groups alike do this today is by giving a name with a positive spin to a any change (e.g. New Horizons, Moving Together in Faith, etc.), whether it be a development campaign or restructuring effort, that emphasizes the positive possibilities ahead. Rally opinion-makers (long-time parishioners, organization heads, donors, etc.) and large groups within the parish early on for the project.
4. Accommodate and Standardize – While it sounds at first like a contradiction, it is actually a vital tension. Effective leaders accommodate legitimate diversity. This includes local customs, prayer devotions, cultural celebrations, or participation in community events that are important to a particular congregation. At the same time, leaders need to standardize practices whenever possible (financial software, personnel policies, liturgy aides, supply vendors, staff meetings, calendar setting, pastoral council guidelines, etc.) to increase efficiency and effectiveness.
5. Move to a Common Bulletin and Website – This particular effort to standardize can save lots of time and money. It also communicates a common sense of identity and purpose. Start with information that is relevant to all communities and campuses of the parish.
6. Initiate Joint Ministry - Merging choirs, youth groups and pastoral councils is a powerful way to express the marriage of parishes and communities. Even when kept independent, joint planning and event co-sponsoring can greatly reduce duplication of effort. Seeing a united choir leading praise and prayer can diffuse divisions without even acknowledging them.
7. Take Ministry Beyond the Pews - Encourage parishioners to collaborate as co-workers in God's vineyard. Eucharistic ministers from multiple Masses or sites can team up to cover a soup kitchen for one day a month. Lectors and catechists can team up to help out at an educational outreach (e.g. G.E.D.) program in a low income neighborhood. Youth program leaders can go to high school events together to do some outreach and ministry of presence with the teens on their turf. The Knights, Holy Name, Men’s Group and Buildings and Grounds leaders can staff a weekend for the local building project or reach out to low income and elderly parishioners who need help with their property once a month. All parish ministries have corresponding ministries in the world. This is where strong bridges can be built between parishes or campuses without adding any more meetings.
8. Host New Events Together – Nothing says progress and unity better than new events. In the beginning these can be light and enjoyable events that let people just be together (e.g. picnic, unity Mass, dance, or holiday party). Eventually these events can focus on parish purpose (e.g. volunteer recognition, Lenten soup suppers, a best practices sharing session, faith formation or an annual town meeting). What better way to celebrate the universal call to holiness and achievements of a parish than at Pentecost? Some parishes recognize devoted volunteers. This can be hosted at a different parish campus each year as a way to get acquainted.
9. Provide Carpooling for Events and Training – This is especially helpful to those who live near one campus or the other and have difficulty traveling distances. This resistance can be an easy excuse to avoid going to “their site”. Carpooling can also be used to encourage parish leaders to attend larger regional and diocesan events.
10. Use Conference Calls – When parish sites are at a distance, it is important to accommodate people who cannot travel and include them in event planning or decision making events. This keeps all meetings and decisions accessible.
What kind of leaders succeed in these situations?
Parish leaders are most effective in multi-site and merged situations
when they exhibit calm and compassionate leadership. These leaders
focus on a unifying purpose, plan for a positive future, empower parish
leaders and encourage the parish to be a become community of learning.
1. Leaders Who Plan - Newly joined parishes need time to plan. Planning is best done in accessible ways. Effective parish leaders must exercise creativity in organizing parish clusters around a united sense of purpose in ways that go beyond the assumptions implied by a “one pastor per parish” approach. Planning together helps leaders to focus the congregation on its common identity and purpose. Cooperative planning gives leaders opportunities to challenge a merely consumerist approach to parish membership. From this starting point, parish organizations and ministries can be engaged in articulating their role in making the marriage of communities work. Key parish groups are also invaluable partners in keeping parishioners engaged in the process. These groups are places to discuss and pray over what is needed for a merger to succeed.
2. Leaders Who Empower – Through our common baptism, both clergy and laity are welcomed to cooperative stewardship in the church and world. While we are co-workers in the vineyard, the structures can sometimes isolate efforts or emphasize the work of some over the contributions of others. The task of sharing ownership in parishes is no longer an option if churches want to thrive, and not merely survive. How does working together with others, both inside and outside our parish, broaden our vision of church?
3. Leaders Who Unify - The mission of a parish is often taken for granted. Unity is not uniformity. Parishes that define themselves in opposition to other parishes suffer from parochialism. It is important to ponder the reasons for our unity and diversity. What is distinct about our parish? What does God ask of us, especially in this new circumstance? Can we make a concrete difference by working together? Who are the influencers who can be enlisted to support change early on (e.g. pastoral and finance council members, long-time parishioners, parishioners who hold positions of respect in the community)? How can pastoral staff bring the pastoral council, or other parish organizations and ministries together to accomplish more or better ministry through cooperation?
4. Leaders Who Learn - Emerging issues require new approaches to pastoral ministry. Effective pastors and parish leaders in clustered parishes will have to learn how to manage the time and resources of their communities as well as learn how to manage their own time and energies to stay healthy. Since few parish leaders can go back to school, this suggests a need for local learning communities and a commitment to continuing education for those already doing pastoral leadership. Multi-site and merged parishes can require additional expertise in: parish administration, pastoral planning, collaboration, time management, leading change, systems theory, negotiation skills, fiscal and personnel management and skills in volunteer management to respond effectively to the emerging demands of parish life.
For more specific strategies on Inter-parish Cooperation.
For assistance with leadership in multisite parishes or parish clusters contact the Office of Parish Life or call 716-847-5531.