Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"Growing an Engaged Church": Gift or Gimmick?

Seen any CAVE people lately? Those who attended this year’s Clergy Assembly will now be on the lookout for them. Why? Because it is the CAVE people who contribute to so many of our parishes being dragged down to the brink of failure. So who are these CAVE people? CAVE people are those members of our parish who Complain About Virtually Everything! You know who they are. Whenever you try to do anything in your parish they are the ones who make it clear to anyone who will listen that it will never work. The problem is that too many listen to them. What we need is more of those who do not spend all their time complaining, but are spending more of their time growing in holiness, to have a greater influence in our parishes. These people we will refer to as being “engaged” in their parish.

So said the little blurb in our Diocesan Chronicle about a year ago (Nov. 7, 2010 edition). A concerned priest friend had alerted me to the “Engaged Parish” program and the fact that priests were being required to attend several sessions throughout the year. The bishop endorsed it, of course. I have heard that a number of priests were not happy about the program, but that the clergy did indeed attend more sessions throughout the year, and it's still "in the works". I’ve not heard much more than that. However, I’m not very “engaged”.

Regarding “Living Your Strengths” and “Engaged Parish” programs, I admit I’ve not participated in them in any way. But I did a little research on-line. The concept is apparently based on a book by Albert Winesman entitled Growing an Engaged Church and another by Winesman, Donald O. Clifton, and Curt Liesveld called Living Your Strengths.  

Parishes implementing the program have participants take Clifton’s Strengthsfinder test, an on-line questionnaire that reveals the test-taker’s top five “signature talents”. The idea is that parishioners’ talents are going unidentified and under-used, and that if we can identify those talents and put them to use, we will have an “engaged” parish.

What sort of research base does the program have? The publisher (Gallup) makes claims for a strong showing of the “Clifton StrengthsFinder” test with regard to reliability and validity, but so do many other personality tests. The test was developed by Donald O. Clifton and colleagues, and was many years in the making, indicating plenty of research was done to create a useful instrument. In terms of the underlying philosophy of the test,
Clifton considered success to be closely associated with personal talents and strengths in addition to the traditional constructs linked with analytical intelligence. In accordance with those beliefs, he worked to identify hundreds of personal talents that predicted work and academic success, and he constructed empirically-based, semi-structured interviews for identifying these talents. When developing these interviews, Clifton and analysts examined the prescribed roles of a person (e.g., student, salesperson, administrator), visited the job site or academic setting, identified outstanding performers in these roles and settings, and determined the long-standing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with situational success. (see the complete report)

In other words, the “StrengthsFinder” test is a purely secular device, designed to measure success in secular activities; and “success” itself is defined in secular terms. The “Living Your Strengths” program uses the secular “talent identifier” and then superimposes Scripture and “spiritual” language to convert the whole concept to church-related themes.

And what about the “CAVE-person”? I think I’m considered one of those. I have pushed a couple of parish priests – and even a bishop or two - to conform to the mind of the Church, especially with regard to liturgical issues. I have tried my best to always be respectful, to back up my request with documentation from Church sources, and to keep the issue between me and the priest. And I make an effort to compliment priests when they do things well, and to acknowledge the tough job they have. Still, here are the responses I’ve received: “This is the way we’ve always done it”; “Other parishes do it, so it’s okay”; “Why do you have to be so ‘by-the-book’?”; “You’re right; but sometimes there are more important things than being right.”

I have a sneaking suspicion that CAVE people are simply the ones who won’t go along with the crowd. In every parish, as far as I can see, there is a core group of people with loud voices and lots of “political” power in the parish; if we were talking about junior high, we’d say they formed a clique. “Why can’t we all just get along?” they ask. But what they really mean is, “Like it or lump it. This is how it’s gonna be.” And if you complain about that, you are a CAVE person. It amounts to sanctioned name-calling and stereotyping.

Just my humble opinion…

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