In Your Midst

What is a parish all about?

November 2011

Reflections on creating a new Vision Statement for the Cathedral Parish 

I was genuinely honored when Father Ryan invited me to join the Parish Vision Council to create a new vision statement for St. James Cathedral. At the same time, I felt some trepidation. I remember receiving a copy of the 2005 statement, Christ Our Cornerstone, during my Welcome Back class years ago and feeling inspired about being a part of this vision. It didn’t take long to see that this parish was vibrantly living a vision firmly rooted in the Gospels and our faith tradition. One should proceed humbly when outlining a new vision for a parish that already sees the signs of our times very well.

The Pastoral Vision Council met weekly over a five week period late last year. We had the kind of discussions you would expect to see in any “visioning” process, but with a key difference. Rather than beginning with how we saw the parish in the future, offering ideas and hopefully building a consensus, we focused on two currents outside the group: how Scripture and thoughtful spiritual writers explore the idea of parish, and how you, the parishioners of St. James, see the parish as expressed in last year’s survey.
We began with that memorable passage in the second chapter of Acts, where Luke describes the early Christian community:

They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.  Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.  All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one's need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-27).

Read the passage and you quickly see what a sense of peace those people had through their prayer, common purpose, and service to each other. Very early, our discussions honed in on the idea that a parish must recognize the interconnectedness of prayer, teaching, and service.  One of our key insights, also very early in the process, was that none of us could choose one area and disregard the rest:  rather, we were all called to prayer, to reach out to those in need, and to form our own faith and that of others.  We were determined that the new vision statement would avoid language that would compartmentalize (or departmentalize!) what we do as a parish.

Other readings followed.  In our session on prayer we discussed ideas from writers like Abraham Joshua Heschel (“It is ... vainglorious to assume that self-expression as such is the supreme goal of prayer. The supreme goal of prayer is to express God….”) and Father Timothy Radcliffe (“We do not pray so as to change God’s mind about us, but … to change our mind about God.”).  From our session on forming faith, we read again from Radcliffe (“This is the question every time we try to share our faith. Do people get the smallest glimpse of the happening of God?”) and Richard McBrien (“The Church is essentially a preaching community which holds aloft... the wonderful deeds of God.... The Church is event, a point of encounter with God.”).

On the topic of service, we heard from Jean Vanier (“I suspect that we exclude the poor person, the Lazarus of this world, because we are frightened that our hearts will be touched if we enter into a relationship with him... If we do, we risk our lives being changed.”) and John Paul II (“By our mutual love and our concern for those in need we will be recognized as true followers of Christ. This will be the criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations is judged”).

And of course, we addressed the cathedral’s role as the “the model for … the diocese… the express image of Christ’s visible Church, praying, singing, and worshipping on earth” (The Ceremonial of Bishops). It was imperative to embrace our specific obligations not only to the archdiocese, but to all visitors and seekers, Catholic or not. The Cathedral is a repository of our faith’s living traditions, a refuge, and a place to gather in times of pain and of joy.

Though our sessions had specific themes, it was impossible to keep our discussions contained. During our conversation on prayer, one member said that if our faith was truly well-formed, then we should be doing “liturgy” all the time through our service and the example we show to others. Liturgy, done right, is not limited to Sunday. Another offered that during those Sundays together, we not only witness the transformation of bread and wine, we can become transformed ourselves by what that bread and wine has become. That transformation touches everything we do: we form the faith of others by the lives we lead, a life of service to others. All of this leads us back to our prayer together in the Eucharist, a constant cycle with Jesus at the center. Meeting Christ in prayer leads to knowing Christ in faith formation, which in turn leads to serving the Body of Christ. We come to meet Christ more deeply and know Christ even more profoundly than when we began.

In addition to reflecting on scripture and spiritual writers, we spent a significant amount of our time reviewing and discussing the results of last fall’s survey of the parish. Your response was remarkable—the open-ended comments came to 42 single-spaced pages in 10-point type!  Clearly, the parish’s outreach to the poor, its passion for service, as well as its liturgies, music, and preaching rate highly. You also treasure RCIA, faith formation, and ongoing education programs. Numerous comments highlighted the deep sense of community many of you feel here. It became imperative to us that any vision statement worth the name acknowledge the value of those efforts.

You were candid with your concerns as well. Too many feel a lack of connection with or a distance from the parish community. A number are concerned about drawing younger people, especially teens, closer to active parish life. Not surprisingly, many are apprehensive about what may happen to our parish community once Father Ryan retires.
As we discussed the survey, a key question arose: to what extent should the new statement give direction to the cathedral staff to tackle specific issues and concerns? By spelling things out, we may be able to address specific concerns, but would we sacrifice the flexibility of staff and volunteers to try new initiatives? Our consensus, quickly reached, was that the new vision should be a declaration of aspiration, a statement that could potentially inspire and stretch us, but not confine the creativity of the parish staff and volunteers.

My memory of this time would be incomplete without three other thoughts. One, there is never enough time to cover all the territory, especially territory as fertile as this. Two, without a gifted facilitator, we would have found ourselves wandering in territory that might look enticing but would have been well off the path. We were blessed with a gifted facilitator in Nathan Standifer, who gently guided us with probing questions and contributed with perceptive insight.

Third, this kind of enterprise cries out for a note-taker who has a keen eye for the finished product. In addition to producing our session materials, Maria Laughlin took comprehensive notes on the thoughts of over a dozen people over five intensive working sessions. Last spring she, along with Corinna Laughlin and council member Patty Repikoff, shaped that mass of information into a working draft that took on the look of poetry.

When I accepted Father Ryan’s invitation, two hesitations lurked in my mind. Why have a new vision statement or any statement at all? Isn’t Scripture and Tradition enough? I never asked these questions aloud because my colleagues—my friends—answered them by their energy and ideas.  Unless we want complacency and stagnation, we need to gather together periodically to ask ourselves in an intentional way what we as a parish are all about and what we can become. An examination of conscience, if you will, but even more, a renewed commitment to each other and to those who will follow after us. By meeting Christ, knowing Christ, and serving Christ fully present here at St. James, his Spirit will illuminate everything we do, if only we have eyes to see.

Mark Schoen is a controller at Seattle University and a member of St. James Cathedral’s Pastoral Vision Council.


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