Strengthening parish staffs has always been a cause of mine. I have ministered within a school and a parish setting, and in both cases was a part of the parish staff. I have rejoiced to be a member of a parish staff that lived vibrancy. I have also been saddened to be a member of a staff that struggled greatly and needed strengthening in order to exercise its mission and its existence effectively.
Living out our baptismal calling is the vocation of every baptized person. Doing so requires a spirit of welcome and hospitality. Goals need to be set where everyone on staff is actively involved, thus creating community as each one strives to be an authentic leader. Authentic leadership happens when God is experienced in each person with his/her God-given gifts and talents. Each one is welcomed and encouraged to live his/her baptismal calling fully. In his book, Heroic Leadership, Chris Lowney notes that genuine leadership focuses on the future. Proven leadership, according to Lowney, is the integration of four essential pillars: self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism.
Such leadership has its ripple effects. People are drawn to a group that finds joy in reaching out to others in real ways and shows the signs of a vibrant parish.
I cannot help but think of the little girl who taught me a valuable lesson nearly 20 years ago. Her response to me is as clear today as it was all those years ago. I have told this true story many times, because it has had a profound influence in my life and clearly focuses on what is essential.
In this particular parish, each year the children in faith formation were chosen to bring the baby Jesus to the crib scene in church during the midnight Mass. Each year, a “little Joseph,” a “little Mary,” and some shepherds and kings would dress in costume and process from the back of the church to the front where the Christmas crib was located. This year, for some reason, the parish staff decided that I would choose two children, a “Mary” and “Joseph,” to carry the baby Jesus statue to the front and that this year they would not dress in costume. Rather, they would just wear their “Sunday best.” The little girl who would be Mary came from a family that was struggling. They were very poor, and the mother was trying desperately to keep her family together. About the fourth week out, I reminded the “little Mary” and the “little Joseph” that they would not be wearing costumes. I didn’t want them to be disappointed because they would not be dressed in costumes. I reminded them the third week out, the second week out, and finally when midnight Mass was just a few days away, I again reminded them.
This little girl, obviously exasperated by my many reminders, looked up at me and, with as much emphasis as she could muster from her tiny being, said to me emphatically, “Sister, it doesn’t matter what Mary wore. What matters is that she carried the baby Jesus.”
I stopped in my tracks then as I do now, when I feel that I am losing ground and not focusing on the essentials.
I really believe that parish staffs are vital to the life and mission of a parish in all of its aspects. Unless a parish staff takes time to pause and reflect on its purpose, the goal and mission of the parish, it will not be vibrant and effective. Titles are not the most important. Each one’s gifts and talents, each one’s welcoming and hospitable spirit, each one’s outreach to others—these are of the utmost importance. Pettiness and focus on self need to fall away, making room for generosity and availability.
When a parish staff works to strengthen itself from the inside, valuing each one’s unique contributions and calling each one to greatness, the circle widens and the spirit is contagious. Setting time apart from busy agendas in order to pray and reflect together is very important. Letting go of power and control and concentrating on service and being reaches so many and is far more effective.
The little girl, many years ago, taught me an extremely valuable lesson that can now apply to strengthening parish staffs. The most important mission we have is to carry Jesus to a parish, a Church, and a world longing for such a gift. A vibrant parish staff will be a “Christ-Bringer,” “Christ-Bearer,” and “Christ-Server” if it focuses on its mission and purpose for existence.