Becoming mission-shaped is a matter of the heart

A parish culture can only be oriented towards mission if its leaders and people undergo personal transformation.

By Ken Morgan

May 3 2016

Most people wouldn’t think about it this way, but embarking on a process of parish renewal involves change. And when we think about change in the parish, we tend to think about the activities we do and the resources we use.

Beneath the activities and resources however, a parish church is a community of people. So parish renewal at the most fundamental level is about the renewal of its people. And that means personal change.

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The beginning of a new year is the time we tend to think about personal change. Memberships to fitness centres and weight loss programs spike in January. Yet most New Year’s resolutions wane before Easter. Personal change is difficult.

According to Harvard Professor John Kotter, most change initiatives fail to achieve their goals. Change initiatives may fail for a variety of reasons, but sooner or later most of those reasons can be traced back to insufficient discipline, focus and sustained effort.

Beyond attending a Pathways workshop and writing up a Mission Action Plan, the journey to becoming a church that is shaped by mission principles is a long one. More than tweaking some programs and making plans, being mission-shaped is really about being mission-cultured, and the change must take root at the heart-level.

Kotter calls this ‘anchoring change in the culture.’ And like the gym membership that is forgotten by Easter, most efforts at parish change run out of energy before the new ways become the ways of life. Sometimes the change effort gets lost because a new challenge arises that consumes all the oxygen in the church (eg a church conflict or a building program). Sometimes it happens because the church suffers from a kind of communal Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and is constantly grabbing onto the latest shiny new idea that drifts into its peripheral vision.

However, even more pervasive than these is what Ed Friedman calls “Homeostasis” – the inexorable force that causes churches to settle back to the way they’ve always been. Peter Drucker is quoted as remarking, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and unless the mission of Jesus can permeate to the individual and corporate heart, the effort to become mission-shaped will peter out, gradually subsumed by the invisible power of ‘the way we do things around here.’

As I write this month’s column I am studying Robert Quinn’s classic Deep Change. The uncomfortable truth with which Quinn confronts me is that corporate change first of all requires the leader themselves to embrace personal change – ie to engage new ways in their personal thinking, decision-making and behaviour. Put another way, the leader must overcome his or her own personal homeostasis.

By far the most significant factor in the success or failure of the parish renewal program is the willingness of individuals – particularly the leaders – to embrace change in their own habits of thought, decision-making and behaviour, and the discipline to see it through all the way until it is ‘the way we do things around here.’

With all this in mind, Carol Clark and I are building a strand of personal renewal into the parish renewal process. Beginning with a retreat and followed by a series of spiritual exercises, we’re hoping to help priests and parish leadership teams embark on a journey of personal transformation that’s intended to interweave with the ‘Pathways’ strand that focuses on mission process.

Through fostering personal transformation toward mission and organising our activity for mission, our goal is to help parishes become truly and deeply mission-shaped.

Ken Morgan is co-ordinator of the parish renewal program for the Melbourne Diocese.