Communicate, admit mistakes and 30 other merging lessons learned

| Father John Bauer - For The Catholic Spirit | September 8, 2010 | 0 Comments

Father Bauer

The following includes 32 lessons Strategic Task Force co-chair Father John Bauer shared with other pastors regarding parish mergers and reconfigurations.

In dioceses across the country the phenomena of merging, twinning, clustering and closing parishes has been occurring for several years.  The indications are that this will continue at least for the immediate future. Given this, it would be useful, I think, for those who have been involved in these endeavors to share information about what was helpful in this process.

This information may not make the challenge of these endeavors any easier, but perhaps it will make it less frightening. Having merged three parishes in St. Paul and lived to tell the tale, I would like to share 32 things I learned in the process.

1. While it seems obvious, it needs to be acknowledged right at the start that a clustered/twinned parish is very different from a single parish. It is a new reality. Given this, you need to learn to lead communicate in new and different ways. The things that succeeded in a single parish may not work in a clustered/twinned parish.

By the same token, parishes that have been clustered/twinned are now different than they were before (not better or worse, but certainly different).  These parishes are now part of a new reality. Part of the job of those in leadership positions is to help clustered/twinned parishes live into the new reality they have become.  I began to refer to the parishes as sites — for example, our St. Therese site, our St. Gregory site, our St. Leo site.

2. In the process of clustering and twinning and merging parishes and closing churches, you cannot communicate too much. You can never presume that because something has been mentioned once, that everyone knows about it.  In this regard, I once heard that people need to hear things seven times before they actually hear it.  As important, even if people don’t agree with something, they will usually appreciate the fact that you communicated the rationale and reason for it.

3. Ask people how they want to be communicated with.  We conducted a survey and found that the vast majority of people wanted communication to take place via letter and pulpit announcements.  Now while this was representative of the age of our parish — most were 30 or more years old — each parish is different.

In the average parish we are communicating to five different generations.  Each one likes to be communicated to and with in a particular way.  We need to ask which methods of communication people prefer, but not focus our efforts exclusively on the manner in which the majority wish to be communicated.  We need to strive to communicate in a variety of different ways.

4. You communicate a lot by simply being present at as many events and activities as possible. Presence sends the message that you care.

There is a story — probably apocryphal — about a priest in our diocese many years ago who knew the back entrance to every reception hall in St. Paul. He would stop at a wedding reception, greet people earnestly, all the while making his way to the back door.  People were thrilled that he stopped by and most thought he has spent most of the evening at the reception.

When you are not present, or if you don’t put in an appearance, people won’t assume you had a scheduling conflict, they’ll assume you don’t value them, or worse, that you hate them.

5. Never be embarrassed or afraid to say, “I don’t know.”  This sounds so simple, but it is so important. It is better to admit ignorance than to give inaccurate or misleading information.

6. You cannot communicate too much.  Never presume that because something has been publicized once, everyone knows about it.  You need to publicize things over and over and over and over again.  And you need to find different ways to say the same thing.

In our merging process when I sent out a letter announcing that our parish leadership had decided to renovate one of our churches to rent it to a charter school and sell the other church, I received a very angry letter from a parishioner accusing me of acting precipitously and without due deliberation.  I sent him copies of three previous letters (all parish mailings) in which I had outlined the options we were considering for these two sites.

His response: “It’s obvious I never got those letters.”  My response to him: “Hmmmmmm, that’s strange; everyone else in the parish did.”

Even if people disagree, they’ll usually appreciate the fact that you communicated the rationale and reason for something.

7. Prayer is a “sine quo non” in regard to merging parishes. As St. Paul said: “Pray always and everywhere.”

You need to pray yourself, and continually ask everyone else to pray. I closed each of my letters with this request.

Most especially, though, pray before each meeting or gathering.  And not just a quick prayer.  We used the prayer from Vatican II, the Gospel for the coming weekend and a special capital campaign prayer.

8. Have a timeline, but don’t have a preconceived plan. Continue to communicate the timeline at every opportunity.  Communicate benchmarks along the way.

9. Encourage those in leadership positions to continue for the duration of the transition.  Ongoing changes in leadership can delay progress as new people get up to speed. Also, new people might have their own agenda.

Most importantly, though, once people know who the parish leaders are they are more apt to share their thoughts and opinions with these people when they see them in social situations or away from church.  You can gain a lot of important information from these informal conversations.

10. Recruit volunteers for specific committees or task forces.  People are more apt to volunteer for something when they know what their specific task is and what is expected in terms of a time commitment.  Additionally, it is helpful for people to get to know other people and have to work with them.  Most importantly, though, recruiting volunteers increases the circle of communication exponentially.

We had the following committees:
– Communications committee.
– Transition committee (moving to a one priest parish and change in Mass schedule).
– Building committee.
– Capital campaign committee.
– Renovation committee.
– Artifacts committee.
– Kitchen committee.
– Closing ceremonies committee.
– Site disposition committee.

11.While finances may be problematic in the process of merging parishes it is important to bring in professionals or people with expertise when needed.  (If you really can’t afford to hire professionals seek out qualified volunteers for example, the members of our communications committee.)

We hired a consultant to help us pick a fund-raising company for our capital campaign.  He suggested that we interview various companies, listen to their proposals and then suggest to them what services we wanted and what we were willing to pay, for example, the feasibility study should be free.      Word quickly got out in the parish that we were being very savvy in the way we were dealing with things.

12. Continually inform parishioners of the individuals who are serving on the various committees and task forces.  People may feel more comfortable sharing their concerns and questions with someone they know. We continually published the names of people on various committees.  This gave parishioners the opportunity to “talk with someone they knew” about their issues and concerns. The diversity of membership on these various committees also forced people to communicate with each other.

13. You cannot communicate too much.  As I said earlier, you need to find different ways and words to say the same thing. In this regard we began using a common bulletin. I also sent out regular “update” letters and emails, but first I ran them by your communications committee and parish pastoral council. By the time the process was over I had sent out 26 letters.

Additionally, you need to develop ways and vehicles for people to share their question sand concerns — for example, Q & A boxes, dedicated voice mail line, and dedicated email address.

14. Keep your archbishop and bishop informed of everything you are doing.  I sent Archbishop Harry Flynn and our auxiliary Bishop Richard Pates copies of all correspondence to parishioners.

Most archbishops and bishops don’t like surprises.  Also, if you’re going in the wrong direction it is best to find out early.

Archbishop Flynn and Bishop Pates got so tired of my letters that instead of writing back to me acknowledging them, they’d just write a note on my letter and send it back.

15. It should go without saying, but let me say it anyway, admit when you’ve made a mistake or taken the wrong course of action. In our situation this happened when I decided unilaterally that we should hold open forums, so that people could share their thoughts and feelings directly with me.  I almost had WWIII on my hands.  In those situations it is easy for a “vocal” person to say something offensive or inappropriate. Conversely some people may be too shy to share their thoughts and concerns.
After that experience, my communication committee never ceased to remind me that that was not my brightest move.

16. In regard to liturgy, begin to do things in common — for example, acclamations and psalmody at Mass, hymns (learn new hymns together) and liturgical planning.  This communicates the clear, but unspoken message that they are becoming one community.  Our liturgy committee developed a series of “summer liturgies.” It was fun and it kept people involved during the summer months.

17. At the same time you are doing the above, also don’t forget to acknowledge and celebrate milestones in the life of each parish — for example, parish feast days, parish anniversaries (50th and 75th) and closing ceremonies. This sends the clear, but unspoken message that even though they are becoming one, you still value their individual histories.

18. Don’t just ask people to work together, ask them to pray and socialize together — for example, holiday gatherings and end of year celebrations.  This is a great way to build trust and acceptance. Also, as I said earlier, a great deal of communication occurs informally in these settings.

19. If they don’t already do so, have committees from each parish begin meeting together.  It keeps people from thinking you are playing favorites. Additionally, unless there is a compelling reason not to, give them all the information and details they want. It keeps people from thinking that they aren’t being told something, for example, you have money you’re not telling us about.

20. You cannot communicate too much. Respond personally to every letter that is directed to you.  I know this is asking a lot, but it can be done simply.

I created a template in my computer. The first paragraph thanked the individual for voicing their concern. The next paragraph(s) addressed their specific issue and concern. The last paragraph thanked them again for bringing their concern to your attention.

21. Remember that not everything is worth fighting about. Sometimes benign neglect is the best way to deal with certain people or situations — for example, parish life committees, funeral luncheon committees and introductions to the readings.

You don’t have to have an immediate answer or response to every issue or concern that arises.  In fact sometimes things resolve themselves.

You do need to be careful, though, in that sometimes situations can get out of hand if you don’t intervene. If you’re not sure what to do, ask people you trust.

22. In communicating with people be aware of your hot buttons — for example, personality types you find difficult, issues that are important to you, but not to everyone else.

23. Always be ready for surprises, both good and bad.  I was surprised at the hoopla over the change in the time of morning Mass.  I was also surprised by an unexpectedly large contribution to our capital campaign.  Additionally, I was surprised at the closing ceremony campaign for St. Therese. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was after hanging the pictures of all the previous pastors of each of the parishes, a parishioner seriously complained to me that there should only one picture on the wall — mine.

24. Always remember that everyone has to lose something. The best compromises are the ones where everyone is a little bit unhappy.

25. Never, ever criticize former pastors or staff members. In fact, in the case of pastors, offer to lead the canonization process, even if they are still alive.

26. Unless it is truly not financially feasible, or unless there are compelling reasons not to, try to maintain parish staffs intact — but make them work together. Don’t add to the feelings of loss by terminating staff. Also, termination of staff usually adds to anger and resentment.

27. Expect the best of people and then continually remind them that you expect the best of them. Publish a “code of conduct” or “rules of behavior” as soon as possible so that you are clear with people in regard to how you expect them to speak and act toward one another.

28. Be very careful what you put up to vote. Voting creates winners and losers. The only thing we voted on was a new name for the parish — and even then we were clear that the ultimate decision was Archbishop Flynn’s.

29. Don’t take things personally.  There will be people who will be angry with the situation and will take their anger out on you. There will be people who may leave. If you take these things personally, you’ll end up going crazy.

30. Choose carefully the issues you address at the Sunday assembly.  I say this because:
– People sometimes hear things differently than they are said.  The written word allows everyone to have the exact language in front of them.
– Using the pulpit is one-way communication.
– Additionally using Mass times too frequently can lead people to think this is the only way they are going to get important information.
– Also, using Mass times too frequently can lead people to believe you are in a crisis mode, rather than following a process.
– Finally, using Mass time too often is disruptive of the liturgical year in general and the liturgy in particular.
Having said the above, sometimes it is important to address things from the pulpit. The two issues I addressed at Mass time were:
– Archbishop Flynn’s decision (but only after a letter was sent out).
– The launch of our capital campaign. (Again, though, only after sending out a letter.)

31. You cannot communicate too much.  There is no such thing as too much information. Flood people with information — for example, appraisals, financial date, condition of parish plants and parking lots, need for capital improvements, comparisons with other parishes, savings, et cetera.

People have a right to information and to receive a response to their questions.  This is especially true in regard to financial information.  The only financial information we did not make available to people were the salaries of our various employees.

32. Finally, you need to remember to take care of yourself in the process. There will always be something more to do, but remember you can’t feed people from an empty larder.

Make sure you:
– Take a regular day(s) off.
– Take your vacation time each year.
– Limit the number of hours you work in a given week.
– Make a retreat.
– Are involved in interests and activities outside the parish.
– Have someone you trust that you can talk with.

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Category: Archdiocese Planning Process, Spotlight