In clerical circles, one of the more often quoted phrases of Pope Francis comes from a homily wherein he told priests that they ought to live so closely to their people that they "take on the smell of the sheep." What Francis says in his typical colloquial manner is not all that different, in style or in substance, from Jesus' own words when he said, "I know my sheep and mine know me." This knowledge is not something peripheral or extrinsic. It is an intimate knowledge. The shepherd knows his sheep. He knows their weaknesses, their peculiarities, their habits, the manner in which they interact, their needs, their imperfections, and he loves them. He lays down his life for them. This type of intimate knowledge does not come from reading a book, issuing a study, or performing a survey. It does not arise from collecting data. One can do a statistical survey about the flock but not really know the flock. In order to know the flock--to know the sheep--the shepherd has to dwell among them.
Without this type of intimate knowledge, pastoring is reduced to managing. Jesus did not identify himself as the "Good Manager." He said, "I am the Good Shepherd." The priest--and bishop--is called to make the presence of Christ the Good Shepherd visible in the midst of the flock. Among the potential pitfalls of comprehensive, large-scale, diocesan-wide pastoral planning is that of leaving people feeling managed rather than shepherded and leaving pastors feeling like project managers rather than shepherds. Large-scale planning can come across as bureaucratic rather than pastoral. It can make people feel as though decisions about their life are made from data studied by experts, remote from their experience, rather than by shepherds close to their experience. If this is not guarded against, it will have a long-term negative effect upon the Church and upon vocations to the priesthood.
I do not have a solution for how to do comprehensive, large scale pastoral planning. I am certain that it involves more complexities than I can possibly comprehend. Perhaps a standard to which those responsible for making such large-scale decisions might hold themselves to is this: "Do I know these sheep? Am I so close to them that I smell like them?" If the answer to this question is, "yes," then the sheep will know that those who are making decisions about their life are shepherding them, not managing them. If the answer is, "No," then things need to slow down until those involved with pastoral planning have some stink on them.
There is something mutual involved in pastoral planning. "My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me." There is a beautiful promise contained within these words of our Lord. The sheep will follow. Sometimes, when it comes to pastoral planning, the onus seems entirely placed upon the sheep. "Here's the plan and they should follow." But, our Lord's words can be seen another way. He says, "I know them and they follow me." When the sheep feel that they are known (and loved) then they will follow--even when it is difficult. Sure, sometimes some sheep need a little prodding, but even this--in the context of a true pastoral relationship--is seen by the sheep as shepherding, not managing.
When we speak of "pastoral planning," the "pastoral" has to precede the "planning." Pope Francis reminds us that to be pastoral, the shepherds must be among the people, close to them, and even smell like them. Any pastor will tell you that such closeness takes time. But, pastoral patience is worth it. To expect priests to make major pastoral shifts quickly without knowing the sheep is to damage the pastoral relationship. It puts pastors in a very difficult and unenviable position. For pastoral planners to make large-scale shifts without first having a closeness to the people, risks alienating parishioners from the larger Church.
Again, I'm not sure exactly how to accomplish this, but I think people in parishes need to feel a greater closeness with the people on the diocesan level who are running pastoral planning. They need to hear the voice of the shepherd in them so that they can trust and follow. But those responsible for the large-scale pastoral plan also need the benefit of knowing the sheep. Without this knowledge, it is impossible to shepherd them. Without this familiarity and closeness, we risk people feeling that their relationship with the diocese is one that is reduced to management.
To put an image on it, pastoral planning should be like shepherds walking in the midst of the sheep, leading them peacefully along. It should not be like cowboys driving a herd of cows! Many--both pastors and parishioners--feel a bit like pastoral planning has adopted the frantic and chaotic model of cowboys driving the herd, rather than the calm and determined demeanor of shepherds guiding the flock. Evangelization that is not rooted and centered in the experience of feeding in green pastures, simply becomes enthusiastic activism. It will fizzle.
Large-scale projects can tend to take on a life of their own. That's natural. Jesus knew this. This is why he spoke of leaving the ninety-nine in order to search for the one. A good manager stays with the ninety-nine. A good shepherd goes in search of the one. As we continue upon the path of pastoral planning, I think we need to improve the relationship between parishioners and those on the diocesan level who make decisions. Parishioners need to know that this is about shepherding and not about managing. And, I think that people in the parishes can take consolation that very, very few priests became priests so that they could be cowboys. They became priests so that they could be shepherds. When the dust from the rodeo settles, the people in parishes can take consolation that in the person of their pastor, Christ the Good Shepherd is in their midst.