Change is hard: five questions every new parish leader must ask

Change is hard: five questions every new parish leader must ask

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One of my first jobs after college was in campus ministry. The Newman House was an actual house just off campus. It was also the residence for the priest-director. The most memorable feature of the house was its red door. I asked my boss why the door was red. He said that every time he was assigned to a new parish, he painted the door of the rectory red within the first week of moving in. Then he made no other changes to any part of the parish for at least one year.

His point was that he wanted to let people know the parish had a new leader. But he wasn’t going to arbitrarily overturn systems that might have been in place for years before getting to know how things worked in the parish.

How to embrace change as a parish leader

Change is hard. In my experience, a change in leadership in Catholic parishes seldom goes smoothly. It might be a change in pastors or a change in another pastoral leader such as the parish musician, the catechetical director, the school principal, or the head of one of the ministry groups.

There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes change goes smoothly and is actually a time of healthy growth for a parish. But to make a smooth transition requires some true leadership skills.

A good leader does not avoid change. My Newman House boss was announcing that fact by painting his door red. He was sending a signal to the parish that change was inevitable. A parish that avoids change is destined for stagnation. In Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis said that parishes and parish leaders must “abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’” (33).

On the other hand, a good leader doesn’t rush headlong into changing everything at once. A parish music program or faith formation process doesn’t happen by accident. As a new leader, you might see deficiencies that have so far gone unnoticed. But there are reasons those deficiencies exist. Maybe the reason is incompetence or laziness in the previous leader. And maybe there is something deeper. If we make rapid changes, we risk losing the institutional memory that brought folks to the place they are on their ministry journey.

If we make rapid changes, we risk losing the institutional memory that brought folks to the place they are on their ministry journey. Click To Tweet

When we avoid change completely or when we change too much too fast, we lead the parish to a place where it cannot function. Lack of change tells the parish we have nowhere new to go; we’re done. Reckless change demoralizes parishioners and communicates that whatever they were doing before was irrelevant and misdirected.

A good leader starts the change process by listening. You don’t need to paint the door red. Just show up to meetings with a notebook. Ask questions. Write everything down. Reflect back what you heard. And then walk away without a plan (for now). Like painting the door red, that will announce to everyone that change is inevitable. But by continuing to listen and learn, you also communicate that you are not going to disregard what has gone before.

5 questions to ask during a leadership transition

During your learning time, focus on these five questions.

Where have you been?
The goal of this question is to discover the sacred quest. Your parish or your ministry group has been following the promptings of the Holy Spirit, which is what has gotten them to where they are now. What is the story of their journey so far?

Where are you now?
You, being brand new, look at the Sunday liturgy or the religious education program or the RCIA process, and you see everything that is wrong. But the parishioners and staff members who keep everything running week to week see all the successes they’ve accomplished. As a new leader, your goal is to find out what the parish sees happening right now. New leaders have to see current reality through the eyes of those living in that reality.

Where do you want to get to?
Even though change is hard, most parishioners want their parish or their ministry to be in a better place. They have goals, even if those goals are unarticulated. Dig deep here and discover what their hopes are. Based on their “where have you been” responses, ask them to remember why they began serving in the role they have now. What hopes did they have then? Do they still have those hopes?

How are you going to get there?
Assuming that the folks you’re listening to have unfulfilled hopes, you then want to find out what their plans are for achieving their dreams. In my experience, this is the hardest question for new leaders to stay in “listening mode.” I want to dive in and tell folks all the ways they can start changing in order to achieve their goals. New leaders really need to be patient here and let the parishioners articulate their plans. Most of them won’t have what we might consider “plans.” But they will have some idea of what they need to do to take the next steps, even if that idea is buried deep in their hearts.

How will you know you’ve arrived?
This final question is crucial. We all need accountability. Unfortunately, many new leaders hold their new parishes or new ministry groups to an unspoken accountability structure. A new leader might make changes because what is currently happening doesn’t conform to diocesan guidelines or to what we learned in seminary or graduate school or (most often) what we did in our last assignment or job. None of this really matters to your new parishioners or staff. The natural reaction is for the new leader to assume that means the parishioners or staff don’t want to be held accountable. And that’s not true. It’s just that they have a different measure for accountability. Our job is to discover what that is.

Leading by walking away
You may not agree with many things you hear in your listening process. But I guarantee you will hear much more that you do agree with. You will be surprised at how much these stuck-in-the-mud, lackadaisical, ill-formed [musicians, catechists, parish council members, fiesta planners] care about their parish and their faith. For now, you can let go of the parts you don’t agree with. There will be time to deal with that. For now, walk away. Don’t make too many changes too soon. But do keep asking questions, and do keep leading by listening.

Your Turn

How did you listen to your parish when you first transitioned into your new leadership role? What did you hear that surprised you? What did you hear that challenged you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Image credit: Ross Findon| Unsplash.

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