Crafting Your Parish Vision

Dear friends in our Risen Lord,

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

by Joseph Kormos Parish Development Ministry [Diocese of Western Pennsylvania, Orthodox Church in America]

"Who are we and what are we about" is a key question that needs to be front and center for all parishes with a future. Not every moment in time requires big picture conversations, but occasionally it is time to review where we've been and where we're heading. And, since the rear view mirror always seems clearer than the windshield - this isn't easy.

Elusive Topic

In parish development workshops the conversation often turns to the topic of "parish vision". It can be an elusive topic. Many see a "Parish Vision" as a theological, ecclesiastical, high prose description of our journey to the Kingdom of God. Others simply want to express a practical picture of what our parish community is striving to be like/"look like" three, five or ten years from now. (Both have their place.) Still others want to do anything but talk about vision. We understand their pain as well.

How to do this well? The trick is to get people talking --respectfully but openly. Replacing politeness with real dialogue. But keeping the "pragmatists" and "dreamers", important contributors to every parish, from driving one another to separate corners of the room takes some effort -- and luck!

Some Helpful Approaches--Tools for Your Toolbox

Here are a few (tools actually!) tools and facilitation devices that you might consider in planning a session to talk about the "vision thing". None are perfect but they've all shown applicability in the right situations.

Face Facts/Vital Signs

Building and implementing a future vision requires a sense of urgency. And, honestly most parishes lack urgency.

One approach to getting started is to create an inventory of key facts or vital signs - sometimes, but not always, in the form of numbers. A "Face Facts".

Often dealing with these questions in the beginning can really open the eyes of parishioners and get the group to buckle down. Even in excellent parishes. Is membership down? Donations? Median age increasing? Vespers attendance? On time arrival at Liturgy? Church School attendance? Youth retention? What's that -- haven't attracted a new convert in eleven years? Have no idea how to engage change in the parish? If so face it. Often the discussion about various categories can provoke helpful discussion about what is important here.

Build a Parish Time Line

Many times visions discussion run aground when some participants get stuck in the rut of nostalgically remembering the good old days while 'newbies' act like the parish has no heritage, history or inheritance whatsoever. ("Nothing important happened before I arrived.") One approach to overcoming this is to explicitly include a time line session in your vision efforts. It will force you to look back in order to look forward.

People resist change because they fear the unknown. We have found that people have more confidence in the future when they carry forward parts of the past. But of course the parts we carry should be the best parts!

Categorize Past/Current/Emerging Ideas

As you discuss your timeline reflect upon various ideas that have emerged in past years and add those in play today. Since the level of understanding, commitment and consensus is critical to achieving traction for new things, consider categorizing them as:

  • Ideas that have arrived -- and taken root in the parish in the past x years.
  • Ideas in progress -- emerging in various pockets of conversation but not on the most people's radar screen.
  • Ideas in conflict -- those causing gridlock. Ideas which are clear enough and important enough to generated differing opinions.
  • Ideas DOA or rejected -- What caused that? Have conditions changed.

Photo Collage

Generating new images of "possibilities" for a parish is not easy for most. One difficulty is that words--spoken, and particularly written--are difficult for some. Images or photos can help. To seed the conversation about what our vision could be, use a collage of photos of parish life, behaviors and ministries. These can be from your parish or others. From the collage of 15-30 photos of parish life ask small groups to discuss what is most important to their vision of a future parish. 

Individual Submissions

Consider inviting parishioners to offer written views of important future priorities. You'll need to do a bit of pre-work perhaps to create a starter vision--then ask for comments and critiques. This approach keeps people from feeling left out and may attract those on the margins. 

Good Questions

Whether you use the structured guide approach above or not, the most important aspect of planning for parish discussions is good questions. A discussion is not a presentation or an education class. Communication and feedback, ideas and dreams are being sought. The job is to help develop a converging sense of where to head next as a parish. Here are some questions we find effective:

  • Are we achieving what we set out to achieve?
  • What do we do best in our parish? What are our true strengths and assets? How can we build on them? Put them to better use?
  • What does true excellence look like for this parish in the area of _________________. (E.g. church school, youth ministry, evangelization etc.) What would we do? What would that take?
  • What parish assets/resources are we not using well? (Physical/Financial? Contacts? Location? Talents/Gifts? Energy?)
  • What kind of (e.g.) adult education program could consistently attract 40 adults from our parish, 15 from other Orthodox churches in the city? What would that cost? Is that really outside our possibility?
  • What things have we said "we can't do that" or "we tried it" that are actually possible if we see ourselves and our talents in a different way?
  • Has new technology made something previously impossible now very doable?
  • What would we need to be doing in this parish that would turn you on to a degree that would actually surprise you? ("If you had asked me if would ever have participated in this or given to this etc., I'd have said 'No', but here I am!")

Please think about the above and let us work together for the good of our parish.

In Our Risen Christ,
+Father George