... the first years of collaboration are like, "building an airplane while we're flying it!"
Last Saturday more than 40 people, most from Phase III collaboratives, gathered at St. Brigid Parish, Lexington to learn and hone leadership skills. Sister Ellen Doyle, OSU, from the Catholic Leadership Institute facilitated the day. Training and information are important parts of preparing collaboratives to function and evangelize successfully, but hearing from someone who has been through the beginnings of collaborative life is equally helpful. Rachel Keeler spoke about her experience in Belmont. She and Sister Kathleen Moran, CSJ, are associate ministers at the New Roads Catholic Community of Belmont -- St. Joseph and St. Luke Parishes. (Rachel describes the role of associate minister as a generalist pastoral leadership position, serving under the pastor, Father Thom Mahoney, and sharing responsibility with him for overall vision, strategic planning, ministry coordination, pastoral care, and staff development.)
She began enthusiastically, "We have an amazing, God-given opportunity to examine everything that we do in our parishes through the lens of evangelization. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity." This encouraging message was followed by a big dose of reality, "This is really, really, really, hard work." Rachel voiced the truism, "Change is always hard, and change in the Church is really, really hard."
In times of change there are great opportunities for miscommunication -- lots of miscommunication. Some people have a hard time expressing their feelings and things can get personal, and painful. "There will be a negative reaction," Rachel said, "You can go to the bank on this. Jesus promised it and it will be painful."
Having described both the blessing and the sting, she detailed the chronology of the New Roads Catholic Community, and with great clarity explained that each collaborative will live out the collaborative process in its own, unique, way. For Belmont, much of the first year was built around the question, "What does it mean to be a community?" In year two they worked on the collaborative vision and wrote their local pastoral plan. Prayer was a huge part of all of this. Now in year three, Rachael says that they feel like they are just getting started. Making this work takes grit. Grit is essential for leadership in general, and especially in a collaborative. "The enemy of grit is ease," Rachel said, so it's no surprise that difficulty builds grit. She employed the frightening but apt image: the first years of collaboration are like, "building an airplane while we're flying it!"
Discussion of trials, negativity, and the need for grit, were balanced by her observation that in these early years of collaboration the leadership becomes "rookie smart." "Rookie smarts" is how we think and act when doing something for the first time; curiosity and flexibility are two characteristics of this mindset. Rachel has observed this in action, "We're smarter in new situations."
Rachel closed her remarks with two pieces of advice that she feels are essential. Pay attention to the health of the team; prayer is an indispensable part of this. She suggested reading the Gospels from the perspective of the team; how did Jesus work with and care for his disciples? Her second piece of advice is to cultivate a willingness to experiment. Hand in hand with this, is being comfortable with failure. No one wants to fail, and in the work of evangelization the stakes are high. Helping people encounter Jesus and deepen their relationship with him is not trivial, not something to take lightly. But we call on the old maxim: If we always do what we always did, we'll always get what we always got. Here, in 2015, we have 16 percent of Catholics at Mass each week. It seems that some change is needed. Rachel referenced evangelical Christian pastor, Rick Warren, who urges his staff to experiment, and encourages them to make one new mistake a week. It must be a new mistake, resulting from experimentation, and from which they learn something new.
As for the name New Roads Catholic Community, it is taken from Pope Francis' September, 2013 interview in "America," and is a fitting last word: "Instead of being just a Church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a Church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage."
SUSAN ABBOTT IS COORDINATOR OF PARISH OUTREACH FOR THE ARCHDIOCESE OF BOSTON'S OFFICE OF PASTORAL PLANNING.
Susan Abbott is the former Coordinator of Parish Outreach for the Archdiocese of Boston's Office of Pastoral Planning.