Engagement and Discernment Print
Written by Michael Fones   
Saturday, 15 August 2009 13:14
Our parish is going to ‘do’ the “Engaged Church” program together with a Gallup survey and the Living your Strengths. I’m guessing you two are aware of this program? I think it has a lot of merit but I have real concerns about the Living Your Strengths. I’ve taken it and it obviously is a very secular model. But the questions and content [even in the Catholic edition] feels like a ‘conflict’ with our charism process and understanding. What I’m told when I question this is more people will participate in the LYS than in the Ch because it’s less of a time commitment, more familiar language, etc. and that once we ‘get’ them in on this level we can invite them to the deeper level of charism. While I recognize the reasonableness of this thought process I worry that it will set-up a sense of either-or-equality between the two. I’m totally committed to the Charism process and content. I feel like we’re trading true gold for a cheap imitation bronze here.

Curious Georgette

Hi, Georgette;
Sherry and I have some real concerns about the Engaged Church model. Here are some of them - Sherry may have others to add.
1. Yes, Growing an Engaged Church is based on a program first developed for the business world. In and of itself, there's nothing wrong with that. However, because the strengths have nothing to do with the supernatural, the focus tends to be on the individual, whereas with the charisms (spiritual gifts), the focus is on what God is doing for others through my assent and cooperation. In my opinion, that's a huge difference.

2. There is no discernment involved in the StrengthsFinder's inventory. As we've learned from the Catholic Spiritual Gifts inventory, the results of any such inventory can be easily skewed by what people hope they could be, would like to be, feel a need to be, etc. With the StrengthsFinders inventory, people are told that the five areas of strengths that they score high on are, in fact, their areas of strength. There is no sense in which other people should be involved in helping the individual check to see if that, in fact, is the reality. Consequently, people, having taken the inventory, may insist on doing things or being engaged in the parish in ways that fit their self-image and ego, rather than the reality. If that's the case, how will anyone else on the staff or in the parish say nay?

3. On a similar note, the StrengthsFinder's inventory fits in nicely with the American desire for quick results and quick analyses of the individual. And, because all of the various strengths are positive in some way, can feed our collective and individual narcissism. At least with the Called & Gifted we are honest about the fact that we can and will attempt to use our charisms to meet our own needs. Thus, we offer some practical spiritual helps to overcome that tendency. You're right, Georgette, the StrengthsFinder's approach is much easier than the discipline and honesty required in discernment.

4. The thesis of Growing an Engaged church is that engagement leads inevitably to spiritual growth. Our experience, and Catholic spirituality, suggests that that is not the case. Spiritual growth happens because of grace and our conscious cooperation with it. Just as a human relationship doesn't grow when it's ignored, our relationship with God doesn't grow without our participation. Growing an Engaged Church doesn't seem to indicate how engagement will lead to spiritual growth. As the saying goes, spending time in Church doesn't make you a Christian any more than spending time in a garage makes you a car!

5. But do we want engagement in the parish? Is that the goal of ministry - to get more and more people involved in parish activities and events? That is much less threatening to the individual lay person than living their faith in their work environment, where people are much more likely to be supportive. Becoming "engaged" at Church buys into our tendency to believe that being a good Catholic means involvement at the parish, rather than applying our faith and being an agent of God in the marketplace. It tends to strengthen the dichotomy that many of us have between "what happens at Church" and what happens at work and home. Growing an Engaged Church, because it is based on a business model that attempts to deepen the connection between an employee and his or her place of work. This is quite different from the purpose of a parish, which is not meant to connect people to their parish, but to form them for their apostolate in the world. "Since the laity share in their own way in the mission of the Church, their apostolic formation is specially characterized by the distinctively secular and particular quality of the lay state and by its own form of the spiritual life." (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 29)
". . .the Parish has the essential task of a more personal and immediate formation of the lay faithful." (The Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful, 61).

6. In light of the spiritual growth indicated by the thresholds (trust, curiosity, openness, seeking, discipleship) we've been discussing with pastoral workers, and again, from asking people about their relationship with God in our many gifts interviews, the consensus is that not all Catholics -even "engaged" Catholics - seem to be intentional disciples. Many of our parishioners seem to be at the passive thresholds of trust, curiosity and openness. If I become engaged in a parish where the vast majority of people are at these thresholds, and there is no concerted effort to call people to a deeper relationship with the Trinity, then even if engagement leads to deeper spirituality, how will it lead beyond openness? Again, God can and will use whatever we offer, but engagement alone does not necessarily lead to discipleship.

7. That being said, let's look at the example of the early Church. St. Paul didn't preach the Christian community or engagement within it. He preached Christ - and him crucified, no less! "Engagement" in the Christian community was the result of conversion to Christ; "You are Christ's body, and individually members of it." In addition, St. Paul had to confront the human tendency to sin - even among disciples - over and over again (e.g., Gal 5:15-21). My concern is that any process introduced in a parish, whether it's Growing an Engaged Church or Gifts Discernment, will ultimately be undermined by the lack of conversion and discipleship within the parish. The difference between the two processes is that the process of discerning gifts acknowledges the need for conversion and discipleship, and recognizes the human tendency to pervert a good thing to our own needs and ends.

In the end, Georgette, I have to admit I'm saddened that so many parishes are substituting engagement for discernment, but I understand why it's enticing. It's easy, the bulk of the expense is borne by the individual, not the parish, and it helps pastors and parish staff be successful in getting people working in parish programs. Unfortunately, engagement's not the purpose of pastoral ministry - formation is - a formation that is personal, immediate, and focused on the secular nature of the apostolate of the laity.