Church Life

When More is Less, and a Mess, at the Parish

My ego destroys my ministry and I am only just now waking up to it. As a fancy "Professional Catholic" I easily get caught up in the "More is More" trap of religious consumerism that the book Rebuilt talks about.

The authors begin their book with the central idea of the religious consumer, a person who is selecting from a menu of self-satisfying products offered by the parish. They are not there out of a deep commitment to follow Christ. They are not there to receive the gifts of the sacraments. They are there because this parish is their social club, their attendance makes them better than others, and it is a small enough place to gossip effectively.

Though this does not describe everyone at the parish, this describes a particular category and a powerful American tendency within the parish. Not everyone is a religious consumer, but I will say that the way I ran my ministries, programs and events pushed this brand of consumerism on the very parishioners I am supposed to be serving. 

Religious consumerism is fostered when we think that, as the parish staff, we need to create a hundred different offerings that appeal to a hundred different people. We become trapped in the menu-making business. We think perfection in our job lies in a lot of diversity and complexity of offerings. If you don't like this Bible study, maybe you will like that one, or that other one, or this marriage course, or that prayer seminar, or this guest lecture. On and on it goes.

My ego drives this menu-making because I want to show people how freakin' smart and talented I am. I can talk convincingly about a wide variety of things, fancy Jesus-ish things. You are impressed. You should be. I am awesome, and I never hesitate to show you how many books that I have (but have I really read them?), and how well I did on my M.A. comprehensive exam. I am smart. I promise I am. Give me time and I will convince you. Probably. Just look at all the different classes I'm teaching! Look at all the programs and events I am overseeing!

Did it work? Are you convinced? Am I? Less and less...

When we create the menu of options for our people to consume, we might be missing the point entirely and doing a huge disservice to our parishioners. Just because we have a lot going on does not mean that we are living our mission. It certainly does not mean we are good stewards of the time and talent that God gave us personally and gave our parish. It may mean that we are exhausting ourselves and our parishioners' time and attention.

What Rebuilt is teaching me is that we need to have a clear understanding of our mission, what our purpose in the parish is, and I am not talking about just my particular ministry. The entire parish needs to have a vision of who they are in Christ Jesus. Our parish, from top to bottom and bottom to top, needs clarity of purpose and only then will my religious menu-making stop.

When (in)famous chef Gordon Ramsey walks into a failing restaurant in his Kitchen Nightmares show, over and over again two ingredients emerge that trigger the fall. The first is the addition of items to the menu that breaks away from the original purpose for that restaurant and the second, which inevitably follows, is the plummeting quality of the food produced.

A Greek restaurant starts offering Americana because the owner thinks that if half a group does not care for Greek food, the whole group won't come. So he adds a little here and a little there. The cooks are making a wider array of food than when they started. Things get rushed. Things get lost. The owner went off focus. When he does his famous overnight makeovers, Ramsey always simplifies the menu. He cuts dozens of items. He emphasizes the original, core items.

It turns out, when you have that kind of clarity, quality tends to follow.

As clear as that example is, when applied to the parish life, all is mud. We get trapped into thinking that no one will come to us unless we offer 20 different programs, or the same program at 20 different times. The staff ends up always being at the parish, breaking their necks, thinking that is how they do their job. Volunteers get burned out because edgy staffers are leading them and because they are overwhelmed with all the things they are getting pressured into volunteering for. 

And you know who else gets burned out? The parishioners. 

We all know that it is the same 100-500 people that attend everything, run everything, volunteer for everything. We see the same faces at the events we offer time and time again. We might even guilt them into attending this new thing we are hosting, leading, teaching or offering because of how scared we are that no one will show up.

The whole time we never stopped to ask ourselves, "Should we even have this Bible study? Should we even host this dinner party? Why am I always here? Why are we always offering things that fewer people want to attend?"

Less is more.

We need to have the courage, as Jim Collins in his book Good to Great recommends, have a "Do not do list". We need to take stock of our mission and our people's needs. We need to simplify dramatically and make sure that everything we have is on target with our mission. It takes courage to say "No" to the well-meaning, good-hearted parishioner who recommends another program, talk, or project, but if we do not know how to say "No", then we don't foster the Kingdom, but only our egoism and their religious consumerism.

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, Inc., once said that he was more proud of the things he said no to than the things he said yes to, because it kept his entire company on track to produce the best products possible. His successor, Tim Cook, remarking on how Apple became the most valuable company on earth, surpassing ExxonMobile, said that it was this simplicity, this clarity of vision, that brought Apple to the top. After all, their entire company's product line that made them over 160 Billion dollars can all fit on your dinner table. That is simplicity and clarity of mission.

Clarity of mission rejects menu-making and refuses to play by the rules of the religious consumer mindset. It makes the staff work smarter and harder on the things that will make this parish succeed, and ignore the distractions. The focus changes from my ego and from my parishioners' egos, to the health and faithfulness of the parish.

We stop doing-for-doings-sake. We build where God wants us to, or else we labor in vain. I think Jesus said that. Let's take Him more seriously here.