Why Maintenance is Tougher than Mission
It’s a month on from the amazing Maintenance to Mission conference at St Mary’s Twickenham. 300 people including 100 priests gathered here to learn more about renewing their parishes.
I’ve turned into that annoying person who has found something they think is the answer to everything. I have met lots of priests recently in my travels, and I invariably ask them at some point during the conversation, “Have you read Divine Renovation?!”
Most priests either go pale or glaze over at the thought of radically overhauling their parish. But the more I see of what maintenance entails, the more I think that mission is, by comparison, easier, life-giving, and … more fun.
Firstly, it’s important to be clear that maintenance is different from decline. I’ve seen a lot of parishes where they are noticing a decrease, year on year, of people attending Mass and requesting sacraments, and they don’t know what to do about it so they are not doing anything. These parishes are firmly in decline.
Parishes that are in maintenance, by comparison, are in pretty good shape. Perhaps numbers are declining somewhat, but programmes are still fairly robust, there is a healthy number of catechists and other volunteers, pews and car parks on Sundays are pretty full.
But in every parish I meet where this is the case, they are all still asking the same questions. Why do families not continue practising after they’ve received sacraments, despite our very best efforts? Why – despite all the resources and energy – is all this yielding so little fruit?
In his book Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek uses the image of a snowmobile in the desert to illustrate a situation where we use methods that don’t work in the environment we are in. Because the snowmobile is not getting us anywhere very fast, we pour effort in to working on the machinery itself. We blame the tools we are using, when really they are simply not suited to the environment.
This seems to be true of our parishes: Our methods for transmitting the faith have remained the same while our environment, the culture, has shifted beyond recognition.
The struggle is uphill all the way.
People approaching our parishes still want to use the snowmobile even though it doesn’t work in the desert. We complain about them being consumers, but keep offering them the very same product they want to consume – a First Communion programme with a First Communion celebration at the end. Then we complain some more about them being consumers.
The reality is the Church has made them consumers by setting an expectation and fulfilling it again, and again, and again. They’re doing what they’ve been set up to do.
Here are the two extremes of responses I’ve seen to this situation:
Some parishes I’ve been to resignedly accept the consumer mentality around the sacraments and freely offer them on the consumers’ terms: “We can’t expect any more – nowadays it is too much to expect families to come regularly to Mass.”
At the other end of the spectrum, other parishes raise the bar for receiving the sacraments of initiation so high that only the most committed will succeed in fulfilling the criteria: “We have two years of hoops to jump through and only then can they receive Confirmation – we make it as difficult as possible.”
The problem with both of these responses is that neither addresses the elephant in the room: that the model itself might be at fault.
As Fr James Mallon says, “We’re so wedded to our methods, that we’ve forgotten our mission.”
I wonder if priests look pale at the thought of mission because they imagine that mission is something additional on top of programmes and everything else going on that they have to do.
But mission is deeper – an excavation of our mindsets and ways of doing things that clears out the junk of everything that is not working – and adopts new approaches that are more suited to evangelizing our environment.
Mission will always be tough, but it is far more life-giving than creaking our way uphill, offering people services that do not make them disciples and therefore do not fulfill the purpose of the Church’s existence.
Here are three main ways mission is more life-giving than maintenance:
- People not Programmes: Mission is more interested in individuals than in programmes. When you start focussing on people and their relationship with God, ministry comes alive, and stops being about administering programmes (which is not the mission of the Church).
- Reality not Pretence: Meeting real people – as they actually are – and inviting them into a journey of discovery of God is authentic and truthful. Assuming they already have a relationship with God and that a sacrament will automatically bear fruit in their lives is not. When we consistently act in a way that is not authentic and truthful in pastoral ministry, I believe it drains us of true meaning and purpose. It wears us down. We know that we are acting in one great big ’emperors new clothes’ scenario.
- Relationships not Tasks: Mission flows from communion, and communion grows in friendships. It is relationships that make any project fun. If your ministry becomes more relational and less functional – more fun is guaranteed.
Believe me – if you make the journey of turning to God, admitting what you’re doing is not working, and asking for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit to start out anew – you will not regret it. Mission is an exhilarating, Holy Spirit adventure – and maintenance has nothing on it.