“Yes the future is always in the hands of God but he accords to us the privilege of participating in shaping the future.” (Anthony Scott)
There are three key elements to sustain change: honest assessment of the present, hopeful vision of the future, and practical steps to move forward. Although everything may appear to be ready on the surface, one of the challenges is to try to understand the deeper readiness of the culture for change. All parishes have informal norms that they don’t articulate. There are also deep, unconscious (tacit) norms that are not readily apparent. The planning team must be humble about the ability of new plans to overcome the underlying DNA of the parish – the dreaded “but we’ve always done it this way.” Planners need to check readiness but to expect surprises. Here are some of the factors to consider.
1. Clergy Must Be Supportive, Enthusiastic, and Committed to Planning
While the parish council and other lay leadership play key roles, if the clergy is not committed, it will be hard to sustain change. Programmatic initiatives that require professional staff to follow up may lose focus. Key members of the leadership advocating change may go unsupported or even be actively resisted. When the priest or bishop is not ready, it does not make sense to embark on visioning and planning.
2. There Must Be Urgency for Change
Some parishes are performing quite well. They may be in a great location with wonderful demographics for new members. They may have experienced effective professional and lay leadership. The parish has direction and is working effectively. These parishes may feel that their current governance, leadership and management are quite adequate. They do not feel the need to mobilize co-planners or take the time to do envisioning and planning. They may simply want a small long-range planning committee to upgrade financial plans.
3. Key Lay Leaders Must Be Committed to Planning
There is seldom a well-defined readiness for leadership envisioning and planning programs. Some members do not endorse the process. Others actively oppose. Still others are passive-aggressive. They listen attentively but do not agree to work on implementation. The priest, parish council president and chair of the envisioning and planning process need to build energetic consensus to undertake the task. This is an excellent preliminary rehearsal for the second round of consensus-building needed in the process later.
4. There Needs to Be a Financial Commitment to Planning
Planning requires resources. Even if a parish self-guides their process, they will need to budget for research, materials, possible secretarial assistance, technology, etc. This requires a planning budget. The process of getting some money in the next year’s budget for planning will bring all of the other readiness issues into better focus. When the parish council or general assembly has to vote on spending the money, they will dig deeper to explore their emotional readiness.
5. Planning Should Not Be Directly Competing with Other Major Projects
During envisioning and planning, parishes need to be focused. They cannot be distracted by another major community-wide project. If they are in the midst of doing a capital campaign or at the start of a building campaign, they may not be ready. Their focus needs to be on the other task.
6. Planning Requires Some Capacity for Creativity
Some parishes have little capacity for creative envisioning exercises. They are so resistant to change that they won’t allow creative stakeholders room to brainstorm. They tend to interrupt brainstorming verbally or non-verbally. They discourage creative thinking in group sessions. Older established leaders remind new leaders that their ideas “have been tried before.” They provide background information on why the community won’t respond to a proposed idea.
7. Planning Requires a High Tolerance for Feedback
Some parishes and most people are not accustomed to receiving feedback. We often hold cherished opinions and have little tolerance for criticism or dissent. It follows that some or even most of those involved in the process may struggle to objectively and dispassionately listen to contrary or divergent thinking. An effective envisioning and planning process will practice acceptance of alternative thinking without necessarily agreeing with it.
8. Planners Need Conflict Management Skills
Potential envisioning and planning parishes should not be in the midst of a high-level conflict. It is too difficult to recruit participants when people are in warring camps. Envisioning and planning requires a lot of energy coupled with a deep measure of inner peace and trust in God. It may be necessary to persuade others of the value of the process to the parish. Planning is somewhat abstract. Parishes need to trust the leaders and the process. In a community where relationships are strained and conflicts are raging, it is hard to generate trust. If there exists a major conflict, it may be better to delay envisioning and planning and work to acknowledge the conflicts and mediate the concerns of the various parties. After six months it may be possible to start the process. At some point the community needs to begin to focus more on the future and less on the past. Envisioning and planning can be a helpful bridge from the period of conflict to the period of peace that allows spiritual growth.