Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Pastoral Planning Depends upon a Miracle

Although the Christmas decorations are long gone for most of the secular culture, the Church squeezes in a few more days of Christmas. It is interesting to see the readings provided to us during these last days before the Feast of the Baptism of The Lord.

Yesterday, for instance, we heard from St. Mark's Gospel on the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish.  The people present that day came from all sorts of experiences. They were all different. But, they were all hungry. Hunger is a need that is manifested across all cultures, times, and personalities. They were all hungry and Jesus fed them.

In the first reading, St. John the Evangelist writes that God has loved us and that we should love one another. All of us are 
hungering to be loved. This is the profound hunger of our souls. We want to be loved entirely, completely, and endlessly. Every person we meet has this desire. I have this desire. On Christmas Day, the Church commemorates the profound truth that God's love became incarnate and made his dwelling among us. But, in "stretching out" the Christmas Season and including this Gospel in it, the Church is teaching us that this love was not for just a moment. It was not just for a few shepherds and some kings. Jesus feeds the five thousand on that day because he knows they are hungry. But it does not end there.

St. Mark informs us that there were twelve wicker baskets leftover. This "twelve" symbolizes the Church. Today, the Church continues to draw from these twelve wicker baskets the infinite love of God and she feeds all who are hungry.  We have the opportunity every day to feed those who are starving for love. When people meet us, they ought to be fed from the wicker baskets. This is evangelization. Evangelization is to feed others with the love of God.

The Church can risk becoming stingy with this love, distributing it sparingly. We do this when our love is preceded by certain conditions that must be met. No, we must love first. The Church can also risk becoming too self-absorbed in its evangelization. The focus can become too much on planning and upon making ourselves successful, and too little about depending upon the twelve wicker baskets. Two fish and five loaves was a terrible plan!  So was making the spread of the Gospel dependent upon twelve very human men.

I freely admit that I might be wrong.  But, I fear that we have adopted the language of corporations at the expense of the language of the Gospel. In my experience--especially as a pastor--I have found that the expertise of business people in the life of the Church is of inestimable value. But this expertise needs a priest to translate this into pastoral practice.  And, the first people who see the truth of this are the faithful business people. While the People of God get upset when their ecclesial leaders do not adopt sound business practices, they are even more upset when the clergy try to sound like little CFO's.  Sure, clergy should do their best to understand and implement sound financial practices. But, the people--and especially the business people who give their time and talent--really want their priest to be a priest. They want their parish to be a parish. They want their children to know the joy of feasting on God's love; a love discovered from the superabundance of the twelve wicker baskets. 

Pastoral planning is vital to evangelization. But, this planning shouldn't be based firstly in a corporate mentality that is divorced from sound theological truths.  It should be based in a joyful confidence that Jesus chose twelve unworthy men to distribute the loaves and fish. I bet any pastor who has shepherded a parish that has grown and produced good fruit or any bishop who has shepherded a diocese that has grown and produced good fruit would never say, "Here is how to do it."  Instead, those shepherds can only look with profound humility into the wicker baskets and 
marvel at how God's love really does feed the hunger of the sheep.

What builds awesome parishes and dioceses is not primarily the result of human ingenuity.  It is true that Jesus ordered the disciples to do some planning. They had to find out how much food there was. They also had to organize people and to distribute the food to them after it had been multiplied. But, the key is the action of Christ. No corporate planner would say, "Hey, let's try to take five loaves and two fish and feed five thousand people."  Those corporate officers would and should be fired.

Perhaps in the life of many dioceses, sound corporate practices were not heeded. This is a shame. But, the proper evangelical response to this is not to adopt a language and a mentality that is foreign to the Church. The proper response is to adopt sound corporate principles that are shaped by and obedient to sound theology.

The whole world is hungering to be loved. All of those who are mired in sin, sadness, despair, darkness, and hatred . . . they want to be fed by love. I know that's what I want and I suspect everyone 
else wants that too. I'm not dismissing the whole notion of planning or suggesting that it is a bad thing. In actuality, I think it is a good thing. But, I am suggesting that our pastoral planning--while always taking into account the wonderful expertise of the corporate world (an expertise that I have always relied upon)--must always originate and remain faithful to a miracle that we cannot create: two fish and five loaves fed five thousand men.   This is the miracle of the Love of God.  Everything depends upon twelve wicker baskets.

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