How does a parish listen to God?

April 25, 2022

Just like going into lockdown, the process of coming out has brought parishes both challenges and opportunities. The biggest opportunity, I think, has been to reassess exactly what sort of parish God wants us to be going forward.

In March 2020, we had to stop everything and find new ways of celebrating and creating community and the results were, in many cases, surprisingly good. Now though, we are faced with a new choice: do we try to recreate how our parishes were just before lockdown, or do we dare ask God if he wants us to do something new?

The Parish Pastoral Council at Our Lady of Mercy, Sunderland, was formed during the lockdown and like so many others, met online for a few months. During those early meetings we tried to listen to what God was saying to us—not an easy task via Zoom—and formulate a pastoral strategy for a post-lockdown parish. Behind our discussions was the belief that we were living in a grace-filled time and that God was presenting us with an opportunity to create with him something new. Over a few meetings it became clear to us that we needed to have a written statement: a mission statement.

A mission statement: those words often make people's eyes roll and conjure up images of mind-numbing meetings to produce a document composed in meaningless corporate speak which, after its presentation, is invariably filed away and forgotten about. We certainly weren't looking for that! If we were to have a mission statement then it needed to be God's mission statement, not ours, and it needed to be the fruit of a process of prayer and discernment. That's where the Jesuit Institute comes in.

We asked Vron Smith from the Jesuit Institute to work with our Parish Pastoral Council in a process of discernment to formulate a mission statement that we could present to parishioners and which would guide the direction of the parish for the next few years. We asked her to help us, as a pastoral council, to learn to listen to God and each other so that we could discern God's will for Our Lady of Mercy.

We agreed to a six-week process with several parts. Every Sunday evening for six weeks the pastoral council met to discuss and share, with Vron Smith leading the discussion and guiding us through the process. From that discussion Vron would, on the following Monday, send us some scripture quotes to pray with, along with a summary of our discussion. We prayed with these every day and during the week met online with a prayer guide who helped us discern where the Spirit was moving in us as we prayed. The following Sunday evening we shared the fruits of our prayer and looked for patterns. Every meeting ended with a good meal!

Over the course of six weeks we had a mission statement that was the fruit of our prayer and discernment and which we were confident reflected God's vision for our parish. Over Advent 2021, we presented it to the parishioners and began a series of conversations, asking parishioners for their impressions and feedback, asking them if the mission statement reflected the kind of parish to which they felt they wanted to belong. Vron then worked with us to listen to what the parishioners had said and see if we needed to make any changes.

As I said, talk of mission statements often makes people's eyes roll. However, that's precisely what Jesus gives us in Matthew 28:19-20—the original mission statement. The question the Parish Pastoral Council was grappling with was what does it mean for us in Sunderland in a post-lockdown, post-pandemic world? The answer can only come through prayer and discernment and listening to God as his Spirit moves among the people of Our Lady of Mercy Parish. I remain every grateful to Vron and the other prayer guides who taught us to listen to God and each other and how to discern God's will for his parish.

It has been a few months since we completed that process and our mission statement is already guiding the choices we make as a parish; moreover, the process has changed the way we work together as a pastoral council. We listen better, we're more willing to speak what we really think and, above all, we're always asking 'What does God want?' and prayerfully waiting for his answer.

This article was written by Fr Christopher Hancock MHM JCD, Parish Priest at Our Lady of Mercy, Sunderland

If you would be interested in the possibility of a similar process in your faith community, email Vron Smith.

Photo by Olivia Snow on Unsplash

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