Pastoral Planning: A Priestly Perspective
Fr Paul Marshall
Episcopal Vicar for Evangelisation and Pastoral Planning
Pastoral planning, in the Christian sense, began in about 28AD with Jesus gathering twelve disciples around him. The power of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom present among them, the power of his presence and healing ministry was confined, for the most part, to the small region around Galilee though his ministry set the locals talking. “Faith in our Future”, the name of our diocesan pastoral planning process, will also, hopefully, encourage parishes, schools, families and agencies to begin talking. What is it like to be at the coalface of such a venture as a member of the clergy?
The Bishop invited me to take on the role of Episcopal Vicar for Evangelisation and Pastoral Planning in March 2011. In July we gathered as the clergy of the Diocese at a conference to discuss potential directions for pastoral planning. Both my new vicariate and the clergy conference affirmed that my vocation as a priest involves allowing the face of the Gospel to enlighten, touch and transform the concrete realities of people’s lives in such a way that new hope, and therefore a new sense of commitment to the future, is born.
At the end of the July clergy conference, we as priests and deacons of the Diocese came to a consensus of key commitments that we hoped would underscore our response to planning for the future:
We recognise the changed and changing circumstances in our Church and in the world;
we are sensitive to the declining numbers of parishioners, and, in particular youth, who attend weekly Eucharist;
we are aware of the impact of increasing secularisation and even opposition to religion in society;
we face these challenges at a time when we, as clergy, are aging and our energy levels are lower;
at the same time, we approach our mission with hope and in good spirit;
we acknowledge the need for laity to take on positions of co-responsibility. There needs to be more encouragement of laity to take up their proper place in the Church;
we celebrate the multicultural diversity of our priests and people with all the faith, richness, and giftedness they bring;
through a Diocesan Pastoral Plan we want to reach out to families, to young people, and to all those not strongly connected to parish, or, who are estranged from the Church;
we wish to promote vocations, identify giftedness within the Diocese through the development of formation;
we name, as important, the principle of collaboration in our future.
Daniel Ang, our Pastoral Planning Officer, and I have been given the opportunity to advance these preliminary reflections through the planning process, “Faith in our Future”. We have progressed from the preparatory stage (August-December 2011) to the second stage of the process, our consultation of parishes which runs from February until October 2012.
As a priest involved in the planning process, I am being challenged by how I need to bring the Gospel and Sacraments to a diverse mix of people, viewpoints, trends and demands in our life as a growing and ever-evolving Diocese. There are two words that came to mind in reflecting on this experience: “dissonance” and “transformation.”
Planning for our future will bring some dissonance but it also promises our transformation. As a priest, I may be inclined to ask whether my security is at stake in the ever changing landscape of our Church and society. However, rather than seeing pastoral planning and change as a threat to that security, I see the Holy Spirit moving me forwards. To paraphrase the Epistle to the Ephesians, “Wake up O Sleeper, see what the Risen Christ is showing you now . . .”
Studies have shown that priests and others do not surrender their beliefs in the face of challenging realities. They simply adjust those beliefs to neutralise the facts! However, the realities of change confront us all with a challenge that we need to assume with courage: to engage with the present situation with openness, practical wisdom, courage and, above all, a living faith.
From a priestly perspective, whereas once our parishes had two or even three priests apiece, now one priest is often asked to perform the tasks of shepherd and corporate CEO without the necessary resources to do so. Dwindling parish numbers mean that there is now less money to run parishes and even less to pay staff. The bigger question looming on the horizon is “How do we equip people for Christian living and ministry in the 21st Century?” So, we come back to “Faith in our Future”, our Diocesan Pastoral Planning process.
Pastoral planning must begin with good faith in one another and in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It calls for an acknowledgement of our past and an honest appraisal of our present, invites conversation between all the faithful regardless of vocation, and seeks to surface actionable recommendations for our mission in the years to come. Ideally, this process is steeped in prayer, receptivity, discernment and some courageous decision-making. It often happens that God wants to change us but we don’t always want to be changed. Like the prophet Jacob we can wrestle with God and resist our true calling to conversion.
Real, transforming change is not cosmetic surgery. So as Vicar for Pastoral Planning, I am under no illusion that there will be some birth pains as we, parishes and Diocese, explore the place of Family, Youth, Ethnic Diversity, Vocations and Outreach in our life as Church. We invite both clergy and laity to be open to the challenges and promise of this process. As clergy, we must step up to the plate and make a commitment to work together with hope; laity too must step up to the responsibilities of discipleship in a new time. As Bishop Anthony observed in his Pastoral Letter, we need a new burst of missionary zeal and an explosion of new pastoral energy. It is together that such a future will be realised here in our Diocese.
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