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Practical and Essential Factors of Parish Transformation

“They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’” (Luke 24:32)

Seven Behaviors that Lead to Parish Transformation

The Orthodox Church is always on the road to Emmaus and so every Orthodox parish and also every Orthodox Christian is also on the road to Emmaus – from incredulity to belief, from ignorance to revealed truth and from confusion and uncertainty to the ineffable joy of communion with the Resurrected Lord leading us to exclaim with the disciples: “They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he (the as yet unrecognized Jesus) talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?’” (Luke 24:32)

Though it would be bold to say, in a certain way, the parish priest is both a disciple on the road to Emmaus together with his parish and also the representative of the Lord opening to his parish the meaning of the scriptures (or the meaning of God’s engagement with human beings as testified in the scriptures)”, which leads to parish transformation as the disciples were transformed in the breaking of bread with the Lord.

Yet how does this practically happen when all authentic change must be voluntary and participatory according to Orthodox synergia?

Some clues are offered by the experience of the Lilly Endowment sponsored Indianapolis Center for Congregations in their vast experience working with over 3,000 congregations over the past 15 years.

Tim Shapiro, president of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations recently authored an article proposing that there are seven practical aspects to parish transformation. These are framed on the basis of observation and research suggesting that parishes change when their leadership – both clergy and laity – learn how to change. Knowing how the parish learns is essential to leaning new ways of thinking and acting. So priests and lay leaders need to learn how the parish learns. The material below is adapted for use within an Orthodox Christian context.

What do you do when the parish either needs or chooses to do something new? Perhaps the parish wants to serve the homeless, an entirely new endeavor. Maybe the parish is working on a renovation of a building and it has been a decade since a significant building project. Maybe the parish wants to reflect its adult education program or more pro-active evangelization. Perhaps the new thing is addressing a long-term issue that the parish has collectively avoided. No one needs help in creating a list of new demands on parish life. Each new initiative can seem like starting a deep-space mission. Any parish is expected to think and behave in ways that it has not yet learned with knowledge it does not yet hold.

Tim Shapiro writes, “The Center has observed a learning framework used by congregations developing new capacities. The framework includes seven overarching behaviors. The behaviors apply to almost any congregational challenge. They are not complicated.” The learning framework is part of a deep structure of capacity development taking place in congregations that are effective at learning new skills. When a congregation adopts most of the activities that make up the framework, they are more likely to effectively address any challenge.”

The seven behaviors do not come from a psychological framework, though they add to the emotional well-being of a parish. They do not come from an organizational framework, though the activities strengthen the parish as an organization. The frame is spiritual in the sense that it reflects a theological conviction that parishes are basically healthy and able to sustain the learning they need to address challenges if given the right amount of assistance and time from the Holy Spirit and the active engagement of parish leadership. The seven behaviors fortify strengths already present in every parish, whether nascent or dynamically visible, while also enhancing the parish’s relationship to its mission.

Here are the seven elements that make up the learning framework that the Center for Congregations has observed:

1) Parishes that learn well find and use outside resources.

Parishes learn best about almost any topic when they use an outside resource in juxtaposition with their own ingenuity. An outside resource provides new perspective. The parish’s unique features and ingenuity makes sure the learning is contextual and relevant to the particular parish’s journey to Emmaus.

2) Parishes that learn we’ll live within a worldview of theological coherence.

Parishes that are grounded in a lucid theological perspective are more likely to have the maturity to act consistently with their faith commitments. This coherence provides opportunities for God to be honored during the learning. Cues of theological coherence show up in mission statements (or the Nicene Creed!). It is supported by adult education. Theological coherence is exhibited in everyday conversation—prayer during hospital visits, comments in hallways, Facebook messages, and so on. Learning to think clearly about faith, and articulate that faith publicly, aids parochial learning.

3) Parishes that learn well ask open-ended questions and practice active listening.

Parishes learn when parishioners do not assume there is a pre-determined answer to complex issues. It is obvious but rarely practiced: human beings, including every parishioner, learn best by asking questions for which they don’t know the answer, or as the nineteenth century philosopher Herbert Spencer wrote, do not begin with “contempt prior to investigation.”

4) Parishes learn well when clergy and laity learn together.

It is not just that clergy and laity should work together. It is that they need to learn together. When shared learning takes place, respect and trust grows. Projects maintain their momentum because they are not too dependent on either clergy or laity.

5) Parishes learn well by attending to rites of passages.

When new learning is taking place, it is important for parishes to pay attention to tender and mighty moments of passage: birth, graduation, marriage, divorce, illness, recovery, death and also very practical things such as deciding to undertake a capital campaign or initiate a serious program of evangelization. Nothing teaches like life. (And nothing teaches quite so well as Orthodox liturgical life applied to life passages!) Attending appropriately to rites of passages is profound a way to practice theological coherence.

6) Parishes learn well when they slow things down.

Creating a sense of urgency makes sense when there is an emergency or when the parish is becoming complacent. Some parishes need a sense of urgency to consider a new endeavor, but are best served when they use their momentum to discern, not rush to action. Learning requires thoughtfulness and spiritual reflection, which requires time. Slowing things down is a way for parishes to allow their thinking to catch up with their praying and their praying to catch up with their thinking.

7) Parishes learn well when they say “no” and say “yes”:

When a parish takes on a new initiative, another activity may need to be discarded (such as the bold and daring decision to dispense with the parish festival and get serious about stewardship). Parishes that affirm what matters most as well as that which matters less are best able to gain new capacity to address their challenges.

Some parishes follow the learning framework naturally. Their leadership is wired to learn in this way or they have integrated the behaviors into their life together based on experience. Other parishes need to initiate, for the first time, some of these learning behaviors.

Parishes are by necessity learning all the time. New challenges require new capabilities that require learning. Whether paving the parking lot or training in monastic prayer, adopting the seven learning behaviors as a part of intentional parish practice strengthens the possibility of positive outcomes. The parish has all kinds of new challenges waiting and it deserves to learn its lessons well.


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