In our April 5, 2018, blog post, SPES took a first look at the “Divine Renovation” (DR) ministry headed by Rev. James Mallon, a priest of the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth. This installment in our two-part report on DR taps into the numerous podcast episodes in which Fr. Mallon provides practical, step-by-step guidance to implement his vision of parish life renewed by missionary discipleship and personal relationships with Jesus.

In a couple of intriguing (but easily missed online) episodes from last year, Fr. Mallon offers specific tips to bishops who want to help pastors pursue a vibrant sense of evangelization. The calls for innovative leadership and bold strategy may elicit different reactions among bishops, as well as pastors and other parish family members. SPES has crystallized the suggestions as a “top ten” of ideas in the hope that parish renewal advocates will consider them and seek out more details as they wish—via the podcasts and other resources.

Fr. Mallon, the author of Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish (2014) and Divine Renovation Guidebook: A Step-by-Step Manual for Transforming Your Parish (2016), starts out his “Bishops” podcast episodes (scroll down to see these episodes from autumn 2017) by noting his numerous conversations with pastors and some bishops. He acknowledges that everyone’s leadership abilities are challenged nowadays by any commitment to create the change he’s promoting. It’s a fundamental shift in perspective from sustaining the “basics” in a parish to building a faith-filled launchpad for evangelization.

“We were formed for priesthood in Jerusalem, but we’re in Babylon,” Fr. Mallon says of men ordained during recent decades. “We’re a Church in exile.” That is, today’s efforts to create vibrant strategies and structures are contending with the secular culture and well-established protocols within diocesan and parish offices, as well as Church leaders who may be ill-prepared to pursue “divine renovation.”

But Fr. Mallon and his two ministry team co-podcasters don’t hesitate to offer bishops a supportive and substantive checklist of ideas. These are presented in the order they follow in their online episodes, not necessarily ranked by priority:

  1. The first suggestion is actually a necessary initial step, the DR team says. Each bishop must make a candid assessment of where his diocese and its people stand along the spectrum from, ideally, a high degree of missionary zeal to, more typically, a desire to maintain the current functioning of parish life to, unfortunately, a need to manage decline in parishes, both in terms of quantity and evangelistic capability. A self-assessment provides crucial benchmarking and a recognition that everyone needs to share support and ideas if they are to achieve the greatest outreach for the Lord. The DR ministry desires to help set up bishops and pastors for success in this endeavor, Fr. Mallon asserts.
  2. A bishop should identify the pastors and other priests in his diocese who are the most capable and passionate for transforming parish life. He also should identify “strategic parishes” that are ready for the journey toward renewal and can become models and resources to nurture others’ journeys. After matching the most promising pastors with the most promising parishes, the bishop must invest heavily in those pairings. One key recommendation is to grant long-term leadership to the pastor, allowing him a minimum of twelve years to build up the parish’s strengths in distinctive, well-planned and well-implemented ways. Too often, a policy of more frequent reassignments from parish to parish “hits the reset button” on progress being made or leaves a pastor disheartened about prospects for real change, Fr. Mallon says.
  3. Think about these strategic parishes, as well as their pastors, as excellent investments, as “beachheads” proving the resistance against lukewarm Catholic life is still being waged. “Every diocese needs a model of health.” These model parishes will be evangelizing people who don’t know God; they will identify their strengths and equip them for ministry. The diocese needs models among urban, suburban and rural parishes alike. Renewed parishes inspire the diocese and provide resources and partnership opportunities to other parishes. Growing, energized parishes are also a robust source of financial support to dioceses and the whole Church.
  4. Help preserve a priest’s passion to change the world and make a difference. Offer strong support and resources as he confronts difficulties over the long haul, Fr. Mallon advises. A bishop may choose to assign a relatively young, passionate priest to a blossoming parish where he can learn lessons that will apply to future assignments. Or he may decide a particular priest is a good match with a parish which faces more challenges but will benefit from his distinctive qualities. Before they are categorized as particular kinds of assignments, such as a place of reward for priests near retirement, parishes should be reviewed for their needs and circumstances, as well as their potential to become outstanding models. This informs the best choice of pastor. Fr. Mallon also advises bishops to be intentional about succession planning for a parish, perhaps assigning a priest for a year of orientation. “Too often a bishop is trying to plug holes,” but more strategic approaches will bear fruit, he says.
  5. Restructuring in a diocese facing limitations is one of the most difficult challenges for bishops and everyone, according to Fr. Mallon. But it must be done boldly, with an eye toward concentrating resources that will be sufficient for a strategy of renewal. In general, amalgamation through the closing of unsustainable parishes is a good strategy for the long-term even though the closing of a church causes heartache for all concerned. Without the closing of churches, pastors may be assigned to lead in too many places, risking an erosion of their energy and zeal. They are overloaded, dealing with more buildings, parish councils and administrative tasks. Fr. Mallon pointed out that St. Benedict’s, the “divine renovation” parish he pastored in Halifax before going to work for the archbishop, was the product of an amalgamation where shrunken parishes were closed and a replacement St. Benedict’s Church was built—larger, with more resources. When a church is on life support, there are questions to ask: Beyond keeping the current parishioners happy, will staying open bring more people into relationships with Christ? Can strong “strategic parishes” step in with resources, even partnerships, to challenged parishes?
  6. Coaching is an important part of the methodology for the DR ministry. In keeping with the needs described in the fourth recommendation above, the goal is to set up pastors for success in their parishes and bishops for success in their dioceses. Bishops can establish a structure that provides coaching to pastors through the chancery office. This approach was described in some detail in part one of this SPES coverage. A bishop cannot expect pastors individually to have all the skills necessary to accomplish all the tasks they undertake, but a diocese is unwise to comprehensively “take over” a mission—such as evangelization or youth ministry—that could and should be better addressed at the parish level.
  7. One of the first steps DR recommends through its coaching role is establishment of a leadership team of several people to serve each pastor. These are laypeople who share the pastor’s vision—what he is passionate about for the parish—and who will make a full spectrum of strengths available to the pastor. The chief categories of strengths relate to strategic planning, executing those plans, playing influential and instructional roles and building diverse relationships—qualities which can’t be found all in one person. A team that truly shares a vision of the future will not become “yes men” for the pastor, but rather will ensure healthy debates and honesty in addressing uncertainty and mistakes, plus team spirit unhindered by internal politics, Fr. Mallon says. He adds that a bishop needs his own core leadership team; these advisors, drawn from diocesan staff members and elsewhere, likewise must be unanimous in support of the bishop’s vision.
  8. A bishop must establish and reinforce his vision while also receiving input from his own leadership team and empowering pastors to understand and implement that vision locally. The bishop must be “father and brother” to the priests of the diocese, helping to keep their passion alive. It is easy for bishops to become frustrated that crucial steps they desire are not implemented promptly and completely in various parishes. Fr. Mallon urges avoiding frustration because there are several reasons for this, including the differential implementation skills among pastors and the amount of time pastors have. A bishop must realize what the business world has come to understand, namely that leaders must be nurtured and invested in. He might suggest that, if a pastor is dividing his time between such task areas as preaching, presiding at sacraments, leading and other kinds of service, the pastor could set a goal of increasing the amount of time he devotes weekly to leadership functions.
  9. Another crucial component in the relationship between a bishop and pastors is the structure and strategy underlying the annual diocesan assessment—for lack of a better term, the “tax” paid by parishes to the diocese. Fr. Mallon cautions original principles that guided the design of assessments often reflected the “maintenance” rather than “mission” model. For example, parish collection receipts used for buildings and their maintenance may be exempt in some assessment systems whereas the hiring of pastoral staff members may be “taxable.” Back in the days when several priests might be in residence and able to handle most parishioner needs, adding staff seemed superfluous so unspent money went to the diocese, Fr. Mallon explains. Today, there is a connection between the level of discipleship flourishing in a parish and the number of staff members needed to nurture it; an assessment system ideally will not discourage pastors from investing in human—and spiritual—capital. Bishops may want to review their assessment systems because, as in secular government, a “tax” system reveals what is valued and what is not.
  10. Lastly, the DR ministry is telling bishops it wants to help them with coaching and inspiration to enliven parishes and dioceses. The aforementioned Divine Renovation Guidebook (2016) provides detailed advice on forming core leadership teams. A just-published book, Divine Renovation Apprentice: Learning to Lead a Disciple-Making Parishby Rev. Simon Lobo, CC, draws upon apprenticeships and other formation preparing priests to nurture dynamic relationships with the Lord. The Divine Renovation website offers visitors contact information to invite DR teams and to plan attendance at Fr. Mallon’s presentations. One can learn about the Divine Renovation Network, which includes some parishes in the United States (see our April 5 blog post to learn about the Archdiocese of Omaha), and priest-internship programs. Learn about, and register for, the annual international conference held at St. Benedict’s Parish in Halifax. But the DR 18 conference, scheduled for June 11-12, is sold out; registrations are being accepted for the waiting list. While waiting, don’t forget the numerous podcasts, which can be found via the website and through DR’s YouTube channel.