Not just a “branch office”: Pastoral excellence INSPIRE-d in the local Catholic parish

Posted Feb 13, 2014 | Pastoral Excellence Network


By William A. Clark, SJ

William A. Clark, SJOftentimes, Catholics have tended to understand church through its “universal” structures. Consequently, the local community or local “parish” might be viewed as “the bottom of the ladder” in a hierarchical church. Despite the direct and essential role played by the parish for generations of Catholics, it has often been understood as merely a functional “branch office.”

This tendency has influenced some frequently encountered attitudes toward local parish planning, development, and leadership: that a program or vision statement “descends from on high” (a diocesan office, perhaps) or that a staff focuses its efforts exclusively on “business management.” This can create the assumption that overtly spiritual and pastoral concerns belong to “higher authority.”

Project INSPIRE assisted dozens of parishes to do local and practical theology on the parish level—so that pastoral leadership teams could, as the analysis of INSPIRE by Sr. Katarina Schuth of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota determined: “develop a clear vision with broad input” and “reflect communally on the purpose and spirituality of their work in ministry.”

Project INSPIRE’S work

A main focus of the work of Project INSPIRE, a Sustaining Pastoral Excellence initiative of the Archdiocese of Chicago in collaboration with Loyola University of Chicago, was to train pastoral leadership teams in Catholic parishes to develop deeper self-understanding, communication, and collaboration in order to together clearly articulate their own mission as a parish.

A recent “Milestone Conference” at Loyola University celebrated the work that Project INSPIRE has done and now concluded. At the Conference, theologians, social researchers, organizational consultants, archdiocesan and university administrators, and ordained and non-ordained pastoral workers came together around a shared passion for Roman Catholic parish communities.

Such a rich variety of perspectives underscored two important implications of INSPIRE teams. First, that excellence in pastoral leadership in parish communities arose from the collaboration of committed pastors, skilled staff members, and parishioners who could “own” their emerging vision for the parish. Second, that consultants could best offer their expertise in ways that assisted this existing collaboration and emerging vision rather than try to impose something on the parish.

Celebrating INSPIRE’s lingering contribution

The recent INSPIRE Milestone Conference engaged participants in a version of “Catholic congregational studies” approach. The conference presented a multi-disciplinary focus on parish communities that makes the data of social research and the practical experience of consultants available for theological analysis and thus provided an apt background for ongoing reflection on mission and vision in parish pastoral teams. This provided an actual experience of “local” or “practical” ecclesiology.

As a result of their participation in INSPIRE and/or the Milestone Conference, parish leaders can begin to think of their ordinary work as the journey toward a fuller and more deeply shared articulation of the church’s mission in this time and their place. This in turn can guide both the practical tasks of leadership and further research and reflection. The concrete work of embodying pastoral excellence in a parish leadership team thus can become an integral part of the whole church’s self-understanding as the people of God and the body of Christ.

Milestone Conference attendees are currently developing an ongoing network to encourage research, discussion, and writing about parish community and to build on the experiences of INSPIRE. Thefore, the mission of INSPIRE continues to Identify, Nurture, and Sustain Pastoral Imagination through Resources for Excellence.

Rev. William A. Clark, SJ, is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts. From 2011 to 2013, he was Visiting Research Professor at Loyola University’s Institute for Pastoral Studies, where he focused on the work of Project INSPIRE. He has done extensive research on parish communities in the U.S. and internationally and is the author of A Voice of Their Own: The Authority of the Local Parish (Liturgical Press, 2005).

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