When our project leaders discussed how to introduce our findings to people in the Chicago Church, we crafted a teaser title, “One Thing the Pastor and Staff Will Always Tell You, and Three Things They Won’t.” The “one thing” was about being busy, the “three things” were connected to that expressed need to be working, doing, performing.

The first “won’t” was any admission about the feeble condition of their spiritual lives. Pastoral people spend their days and nights ministering to other people’s spirits. By day’s end, often after the last evening meeting, they go home tired: priests to rectories where the unanswered telephone blinks with messages, religious to community households where new agendas await, deacons and many lay people to families who need to be fed, counseled, or offered some form of parental ministry. When you minister to parishioners, they won’t ask how you are doing spiritually—most think you are one of the holy people they know—and you won’t say.

I must admit that our data is somewhat contradictory on this matter. Many, many people we met were persons exuding significant spiritual depth. For most, an immersion into the spiritual life motivated their sense of vocation. Many expressed to us an experience of being called to the work, and for some that meant personal struggle, while for others it brought a sense of wholeness. More about that later.

What we picked up, however, was a strong sense of fragmentation with respect to the tending to their spiritual lives, to finding time, place, space for prayer and reflection. They expressed longing. A retired bishop shared with me, “Now I’m finally able to spend serious time with Our Founder.” Some even expressed a sense of guilt over not feeding themselves spiritually on a regular basis.

Not surprisingly, when people did report making time to nourish themselves and one another with prayer, personal and shared reflection, scripture, sacrament and ritual, they increased their capacity for collaborative work and their ability to align themselves in common mission. In the day to day of parish work, the insight came to many as a blinding flash of the obvious.

A parish consultant gently inquired at a pastoral team meeting, “Is there any connection you see between struggling to meet each other as co-workers and not engaging with each other in prayer, scripture, reflection?”  She later reported, “It just blew them away. They hadn’t thought of that. It’s amazing that this parish that has almost everything, that has the staff members with the credentials they have, that they had just forgotten this element of what brings us together.”

Some see nurturing personal spirituality while also building team practices of sharing the spiritual life as a core discipline. The pastor of an Anglo/African American parish observed, “If we’ve lost track of that, if we lose track of why we’re doing what we’re doing. If we’re only connected to the institution, we’ll get way lost.”

Early in the project, we surveyed all the retreat centers in the area. On their rosters of services, none had programs for parish teams. Now, practices such as annual full-day or overnight “breakaways” for non-business-related staff retreats are becoming more common. Other practices range all the way down to simple ones, like the Wednesday morning 15 minute stand-up meeting to share the upcoming Sunday readings.

While spiritual direction is a common routine for many ordained and religious, the practice of working with a personal spiritual director became a happy discovery for many lay ministers. Early this year, I began suggesting to parish councils that a good discussion item might be, What do we have in place to support and grow the spiritual lives of our pastoral staff?

Who else would ask?


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Comment by Frank Bellini on August 26, 2012 at 8:19am

The Church is under a massive weight of psychological pressure, given the recent issues with pedophilia.  Its moves towards an more conservative stance towards Vatican II issues is not helping.  Unless and until it admits its sins and repents them, all staff and laity will remain under that pressure.  With weekly mass attendance in the lower teens (% of Catholics attending regularly), staff-stress issues are inevitable. 

As a result, contributions must be down to historically low levels and there is nothing more stressful than working for an organization that is continually facing financial issues.

Spirituality cannot be compartmentalized away from those conditions.

Comment by Daniel Gast on August 26, 2012 at 10:33am

Indeed, Frank. Thank you. It's an amazing set of circumstances, and some things, such as contributions NOT being down (at least in the local church I know), belie the common sense assumptions, and suggest that something more is stirring.  

Else it is suffocated, spirituality can never be compartmentalized and isolated. I'm thankful for my years at a Jesuit university, Loyola University Chicago, where every day I'm reminded that our task is to "Find God in All Things."

Finally, you are pointing at the reasons we're all here at the Roundtable. I got attracted to it because of the people here, their passion, their results-oriented action AND especially their positive approach to what is possible. The tone we strive to take is that of an appreciative inquiry. 


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