A Programmatic Spirituality
I had the joy of celebrating mass as I often do at the Cathedral which I’m currently assigned, in London Ontario. As I took my place at the chair, I saw a type of mystical beauty. Outside I saw our security guard walking by the door, ensuring we were safe, a volunteer bringing in a gentleman who had been feeling unwell; a woman gathering a chair so he wouldn’t have to sit alone, and the greeters welcoming some of those who were coming in a bit late. This somewhat chaotic, unprogrammed event was nothing more than the Body of Christ at work - and in just a few seconds, I saw it all. This is the opposite of a fear-based approach to ministry, and embodies a ministry that is relational-based.
For many, hearing “fear-based” ministry, they will immediately think I’m speaking of those who preach about The 4 Last Things (heaven, hell, purgatory and judgment). But I’m not. That has its place in the proclamation of the Gospel, and a significant, important place when we consider Christ’s own preaching. I’m speaking about something else, something a bit more hidden. This is the type of fear that naturally arises from a programmatic non-relational approach to ministry:
One of the biggest frauds in the business world in 2015 occurred at Volkswagen when it was discovered that they had intentionally designed software that made the emissions on their diesel cars appear cleaner than they actually were. This deception grew from a fear culture. Employees and management were afraid to admit they could not meet the extremely high goals set by the corporation’s top executives. The corporate culture was such that cheating and lying seemed preferable to looking bad to the boss. (Marcus Warner & Jim Wilder, Rare Leadership: 4 Uncommon Habits for increasing Trust, Joy and Engagement in the People you Lead.)
When people intuit the love in the Gospel message about the 4 Last Things, they are easy to accept. However, when love is not intuited from the scriptures, from our ministry and style of leadership, they are burdensome truths that we either rebel against or uphold for the wrong reasons. But here is the thing: love isn’t a program. Love of itself cannot be anything but relational, and it as St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us “is a cause of joy.” (Summa Theologica, II-II Q28 A1)
Programs, as important as they might be, often take on the central focus of anyone in ministry. What is the solution to a church without youth? A youth-group. What is the solution to unbelief? More catechesis programs. How do we bring the unaffiliated back? Send them a book. When we look to all the problems of the Church we often try to arrive at some solution by way of a new policy, a new program, and a communique given online, on social media, to the media, and to the people. Sometimes this is called (falsely) the new evangelization. It is the dream of an anti-social paradigm that doesn’t want to build relationships in a gritty, organic manner. None of these methods are, on their own, relational. Perhaps they need to happen, but they are vacuous and actually cause harm if that is all that is present.
Recently I came across a podcast “Restore the Glory” which spoke of a Bishop experiencing a conversion in the way he related to his own presbyterate and flock. It was truly a humbling message to listen to. Undergoing a healing ministry, the Bishop began to discover that he had failed to relate to his priests as a Spiritual Father. He had become an administrator, and was likely falling into the error of gauging success by programmatic standards. For some leaders, they tend to either acquiesce or micro-manage when programmatic standards are unconsciously at the root of ministry. In both cases, these two approaches generate fear - from an abandonment and remote approach to relationships - or an angry micro-task oriented approach to everything.
As a leader myself, one thing I’ve noticed, is that it can too easily happen that when we read the scriptures, we immediately apply the hard-message to those we minister and not to ourselves. We might say, for instance, “That we ought to be relational-focused” but for this Bishop, that simply wasn’t the case when it came to his priests. It was what he insisted of them, but wasn’t what he practiced. The healing that occurred in his diocese as a result of experiencing a paradigm shift from a programmatic model of ministry to a relational one was significant. Listen to the podcast if you want to know more.
All of us are called to be leaders; His disciples; His Body. We do not live in an ivory tower that sets us apart from the community of the faithful - that isn’t holiness that is isolation. God Himself, who is not a distant God, is close to His flock - or as Pope Francis puts it, He takes on the smell the flock. In this way, when we as leaders isolate ourselves from the community, we actually generate - implicitly - a programmatic model of the faith, devoid of relationships.
Fear, according to Aquinas, when rooted in the enemy, always leads to broken relationships - to sin. Fear is rooted in some sort of lie, generated by the enemy, which leads us to operate our ministry like those Volkswagen employees. We work not to build good relationships within the Church and with Christ, but to merit the approval of our work-ethic, organizational skills, and the results. We gloss over the fruits of the Holy Spirit, and fail to learn the names of the people in our parishes. We may even avoid our parish, and prefer remaining behind the computer.
Fear often occurs when we are isolated and alone. It can also be generated by wounds, trauma, and exhaustion that doesn’t find rest in good ministerial-relationships. For the Church, which has been peppered by all sorts of scandal and litigation, it may be the case that there is a type of survival mode predicated on seeking human-approval from dissenting voices that threaten more litigation. These things can warp the Church’s approach to evangelization, forgetting that we are not principally there to help others have a healthy relationship with an extrinsic doctrine or implement structures without Spiritual fruits or to assume the program will ipso facto produce such fruits. Rather, we are to internalize doctrine, the Gospel, and faith in a relational context with God and our neighbor.
We are called to minister out of joy, rather than fear. But when we are afraid, it is impossible to be joyful. Yet, joy itself, is always rooted in healthy relationships. It is that stable force within us, which knows our identity in Christ, knows our loving Father and the Spirit within us crying abba. Joy is not found in producing a program that grabs many people’s attention while nonetheless still fostering isolation and loneliness.
The Church is the Body of Christ and the People of God. It is in this vein that we as a Church must really spend time understanding what it means to be gathered in His name. If the Spirit of that gathering exists, it will produce fruits, but that gathering is not ipso facto a program - it is communion. When we have a good relationship with the Lord, and amongst one another, we become a healthy environment that enables growth. But when we do not…
Leaders who lack the RARE skills that characterize a well-trained fast-track system will eventually create malfunctioning groups. The leader’s shortcomings impact the entire organization, generating a fear based culture where people are afraid to admit failure or expose weakness. (IBID)
In many ways, such a method is merit-based. One is accepted or scorned if their work produces compliments or complaints; numbered attendants or few; big donations or a mere denarii; influential inroads or the cancel culture. This is all results-based, problem-solving; but none of it shares in wisdom of the Gospel who sees the Lord condemning prophets who are well liked, while He Himself is crucified; the poverty of the cross; the desolation of communities to martyrdom; and the boldness of the proclamation to the unbeliever.