Learning how to do mission takes time... and patience

There is much to learn - and unlearn - for parishes about how to do mission, and learning and change take time, reflects Ken Morgan, Coordinator of the Parish Renewal Pilot Program.

By Ken Morgan

July 12 2016Learning is an essential part of the Parish Renewal Program. We invite parish teams into carefully designed workshops like ‘Pathways’ where priests and laypeople work together to learn about and create plans to organise their church activity around mission. While Pathways is not all that complex to understand, most parishes find it a challenge to implement their learning.

Recognising this, Parish Renewal Coordinator Carol Clark and I brought together teams from five parishes participating in the Parish Renewal Program for a ‘refresher’ on the Pathways framework. The goal was to do a quick revision and then provide some stimulating content on how to overcome blocks and barriers to implementation.

As it turns out, I was the ‘participant’ slated for some learning that day. Things didn’t begin all that encouragingly. As I queried progress since the first Pathways workshop, it seemed that most of the participants were a little unclear as to what I was talking about. I found myself going over the concepts all over again. In fact, it took half of our workshop time and a range of learning exercises just to bring the content from the first workshop to the collective ‘front of mind’.

It was as if the group were ‘learning it again’ for the first time. I was surprised – but I shouldn’t have been. Adult learning theory holds that people integrate ideas by applying them over and over. Anyone who’s taught a person to drive or to play a musical instrument will testify to this. John Kotter suggests that change fails because leaders under-communicate the change agenda by a factor of 10. I had already learned this. I had experienced it when training church planters – and yet I needed to it learn it all again – as if for the first time.

Pathways can be especially challenging for people who have been longstanding churchgoers in longstanding churches. It’s not that we need to throw out all the old traditions, but we do need to come to a new understanding of church life and the purpose of church activity. There are a lot of assumptions that went unquestioned in previous generations that now need to be reconsidered. Thinking needs to shift from ‘doing things because that’s what churches do’ to thoughtfully designing church activity to serve the purpose of mission. There’s some ‘unlearning’ to do. And sometimes we need to ‘unlearn’ it again and again.

So with half of the workshop time burned and most of my brilliant PowerPoint slides still to present, I began to despair. And then something wonderful happened.

I set the teams their first ‘evaluate and plan’ exercise and gave them about 15 minutes to chew it over. As I moved from table to table, I discovered the teams were forging through the first challenge and anticipating the content of the next, and the next – all without my help or teaching.

I forgot about the PowerPoint slides and allowed the teams to keep working at their own initiative. One group made significant progress in laying the groundwork for a school holiday program. Another designed an innovative ‘story-telling’ group that worked in tandem with an existing women’s fellowship. Carol and I moved around the tables observing, asking questions, providing a little clarity here and there: and marvelling at the rapid progress the teams were making.

I learned a long time ago that people learn best when they can take responsibility for their own learning. And that day I learned it again – as if for the first time.

If we the church are going to Make the Word of God Fully Known to the next generations, that they may become fully mature in Christ, there is much to learn and probably just as much to ‘unlearn’. Learning and change take time, bumping up against our assumptions and habits. Leaders, teachers, coaches and consultants need patience. We sometimes need to learn things over and over – and each time as if for the first time – before we make them our own.