What I’ve Learned from the New Parish Priest

by Augusto Cuginotti

Meeting the New Parish Priest

I am lucky to have worked with communities that embed a spirit of service – they are spiritual and religious communities. I appreciate the fact that their existence and organisation are based on service. Some have become bureaucratic and relying on top-down decisions, excess controlling structures… not too different from many other organisations.

Last week I’ve got hold of an informal publication made by a catholic priest from Australia, Father Brian Bainbridge, who passed away recently. As one of the elders of the Open Space¹ community, Fr Brian taught and inspired many². I’ve never met him and hardly follow my subscription to the Open Space online list serve, but was genuinely interested in what he wrote – he brought together service and collective learning. So this is what I’ve learned with the new parish priest.

Spirit of Service and Collective Learning

The beginning of Fr Brian’s document already show this beautiful connection:

The transformation I saw as so seriously needed in parish life was a movement from ‘control’ to ‘service’.

This is very true for faith organisations I’ve been in touch with. I must admit I don’t think that control opposes service though – I imagine that perhaps at some time in the history of an organisation (in this case more than 1500 years old), control might have been a huge part of service. Even if that is true, that was past, not present: we live in a culture where processes control too much, kill innovation, do not invite capable people to participate.

We are in an era of complexity where being at service means relying more on collective learning and action. It is more and more about inviting people to and through service.

Real Change-Makers do ‘Boring’ things without Getting Bored

If you read the document, Fr Brian talks about a lot of structural and processual changes that happened at the time. Real changes mean to let things die, to be attentive to details, to be careful about the community and to go sometimes for the slow and boring patient rather than the quick and fun. As for me, someone who like to see big things moving fast, I took a deep breathe to go through the descriptive change of the Church A/V System, something that must have made a contribution I’d never understand from my little chair.

Change that involves people are analogical and has inertia – should have. A real change-maker can both deeply care about the change and also detach and trust that with space things will come to being. Both were present in Fr Brian’s story: the ones that need radical change – e.g. when it was decided that financial advisors should be chosen among young people only – or to retreat until the collective feels ready to act – e.g. a case of the Catholic School’s management and its principal.

But “letting-go” doesn’t mean there is no structure and no process or just a free-for-all.

Open Space Structuring a Hosting Attitude

Methods and models are good support so you can focus on what really matters – good methods and models can structure helpful attitudes for both host and participants.  Structure is a constant invitation for human behaviour, so it’s good to keep an eye on them to see how it is serving you.

It was interesting to read that one of the changes in attitude towards the new Parish Priest came by his constant invitation, and therefore constant faith, in the wisdom and power of others in relationship with him and with a higher purpose.

People started moving from “What do you want us to do?” to “This needs attention“.

if it is God’s work, it will prosper. If not, we will find out. So, go for it.

He called his choices being ‘consistent with Open Space modelling’ and ‘in the spirit of self-organising‘. I would put it the other way around – Open Space modelling and self-organisation are consistent with this attitude, part of what makes it a great ‘operating system‘. Either way, we should go for it.

Hosting 2.0: I’m Never Busy

This is a gem shared by Fr Brian, a wisdom from someone who hosted with grace.

Any priest or minister who does this [“holding the space of the parish”] knows how important is this “just being around” at a time when people can connect. One Parish Priest described this as the “Sacrament of being seen”[…]

The advantage of being around is the avoidance of the sense or perception of “being too busy”. People often preface their conversation with “I know you are very busy, but…” To which my answer is always “I’m never busy – how can I help?”

In a spirit of service, we should never be busy. This is hosting 2.0

More about The New Parish Priest:
Chris Corrigan’s Parking Lot
Tenneson Woolf on Berkana Collaborative

Picture from Lawrence OP