Training and more training

It was a dark and stormy night. Really. A fierce nor'easter whipped in and unpacked torrential rain and impressive winds, and threatened to stay for days. Still, in the midst of all of this, they came: members of Phase II parish councils and finance councils, school boards, a self identified member of his collaborative's "kitchen cabinet," pastors, a parochial vicar, and staff from the Pastoral Center in Braintree. They came to North Andover. Similar meetings -- minus extreme weather -- are being held throughout the archdiocese because an important part of Disciples in Mission is formation and training. Clergy, staffs, councils and boards receive training in Leadership and Evangelization. Sessions on General Topics address practical issues that parish councils, finance councils and school boards may encounter in their advisory role to pastors: budgeting and finance, real estate and facilities, personnel, and the canonical directives that impact these things. Participants hear from, and engage with the staff from the archdiocesan Finance, Real Estate, Human Resources, Canonical Affairs, and Pastoral Planning offices.

The group that gathered at St. Michael Parish in North Andover included council and board members from Acton/Stow, Amesbury/Salisbury, Littleton/Westfield, Middleton/Topsfield, and Braintree. That 80 people would come out in such dreadful weather, speaks volumes about the care and devotion they have for their parishes and new collaboratives. The General Topics sessions scheduled in Lynnfield and at the Pastoral Center had over 150 registrants -- signs of openness, engagement, and hope.

The pastoral plan Disciples in Mission speaks about the need for parishes to welcome people with "radical hospitality." St. Michael Parish took the concept to heart as hosts of this meeting. Participants were greeted warmly, very well-fed, and encouraged to sing the invocation to the Holy Spirit to begin the meeting. Sister Patricia Boyle, CSJ, associate director of the Pastoral Planning Office, facilitated the evening. Her welcoming remarks stressed the focus on evangelization that is the foundation of the pastoral plan. Denise McKinnon-Biernat, Patrick Farragher, and Dennis Donovan from Parish Services and Real Estate, and Jim DiFrancisco from Human Resources outlined the services that their offices provide to parishes, especially the parishes in collaboratives. The collaborative model is still very new.

Patrick Farragher told the audience, "To do this right you need lots of tools and assistance. You have a dedicated staff at the archdiocese to assist you."

Sister Pat agreed, assuring the group, "It's alright if it takes time."

Phase II is only five months into the collaborative process. Everything is still quite new and the presentations prompted questions, many focused on financial aspects of managing a collaborative of two or three parishes, or even a single parish collaborative. A member of the Acton / Stow delegation reminded the assembly, "We have the Holy Spirit to guide us. We bring different perspectives, but the Holy Spirit is with us in this." A message of hope.

The final presenter of the evening was the Father Mark O'Connell, Judicial Vicar of the Archdiocese and head of the Metropolitan Tribunal. With the right combination of wit and gravity, he outlined the path that brought us to Disciples in Mission. Taking listeners from Rome to California to Boston, he cited canonical situations that arose in the aftermath of the sexual abuse crisis and the 2004 reconfiguration process. His was another message of hope and the perfect way to end the evening.

Make no mistake, pastoral planning is hard work. According to the Archdiocesan Archives, over 150 parishes were established in this archdiocese in the 19th century. It was hard work then. It's hard work now. Reorienting a leadership model that has been used for so long is hard, necessary, work. There are successes. There are also questions and difficulties, but many, many good people -- councils, board members, and people in the pews -- are keeping their minds and hearts open to the working of the Spirit. A clear take-away from the gathering in North Andover on that dark and stormy night is one of hope.

Susan Abbott is Coordinator of Parish Outreach for the Archdiocese of Boston's Office of Pastoral Planning.