Thursday, April 18, 2013

Fresh Start

"Fresh Start" is a two-year programme that all priests in the Diocese of Toronto are required to attend monthly for their first two years in a new position. Research has shown that this is a critical time of transition for priest and parish and that doing professional development work in collegial community can have a big impact in the success of ministries. The Diocese of Toronto takes it so seriously that it is actually stipulated as a condition of employment in the "Appointment Letter" that a cleric gets from their Bishop officially assigning them to a parish. You even have the get the Bishop's permission to miss a day.

A few years ago I was asked to be a facilitator and sent to a training event to be certified. I've been assigned to the York-Scarborough Area ever since. I have to say that over time the programme has just gotten better and better, and that the chemistry of my particular group is just terrific.

The format is pretty simple. We gather. A volunteer provides a basic breakfast/snack spread. The church where we meet (St. Andrew's, Scarborough for my group) provides coffee. We say morning prayer (led by a volunteer) and do a quick check in. I usually ask people to go around the circle giving name, parish, and answering some question I come up with to make them smile. Today's question was "Share a happy story about your Easter celebrations this year." After that we spend about 1.5 hours doing a "Module" and then spend another hour on a "Critical Incident."

There are three facilitators for the York-Scarborough (for about 24 participants). Usually only two of us attend, which means none us facilitators are on the hook month-after-month for years on end. We take turns in our resposibilities, and this month it was mine to present the "Power, Authority, and Influence" Module.

Each "Module" of Fresh Start is a self-contained lesson that we run in a cycle. They reference each other, but are not intended to build on each other in a linear way. That's good because people can enter or leave the group at any time. They are arranged topically, and as you can guess from the title this one was about leadership dynamics in parish life. Examples of other modules would be "Wellness," "Strategic Planning," "Family Systems Theory," and so on.

The Fresh Start curriculum comes nicely pre-packaged with powerpoint slides, handouts, and talking points for the facilitator. These days I run the powerpoint off of my iPad hooked up to a projector, with my talking points on paper notes so that I can easily scan ahead or back. The module is designed to be interactive, so there is a lot of asking the group to chime in with suggestions and comments. For example, at one point today we were talking about strategies to deal with people who hang our around the church a lot and seem to use the information they glean as a source of power or influence over others in the congregation. Obviously, you don't want to alienate committed volunteers, but there are ways to use their curiosity and interest for good.

In today's session the part that really got everybody going was when one member questioned how appropriate it was to use a tool called the "Credibility Grid" by Peter Block. The Grid is simply a two-axis graph in which you locate people according to relative scales of mutual trust and mutual agreement. Someone with whom you have high agreement and high trust would be an Alley. Low trust and low agreement would be an adversary. Where it gets really interesting is when you talk about "bedfellows" (high agreement but low trust) or opponents (high trust, low agreement--think "loyal opposition"). This model was developed by Peter Block in his book The Empowered Manager. The challenge raised by a member of the group was whether the underlying assumptions about leadership in this model are appropriate for Christian leadership. For one thing, it seems to assume an adversarial relationship to some degree no matter which quadrant a person lands in (after all, "allies" are fighting against something). The other problem is that it seems to assume that the primary talk of leadership is get people to do what you want. Servant-leadership is perhaps requires a totally different mindset.

This got everybody going. There were some wonderfully poignant examples shared and insights offered. We were getting deep into some extremely important material and I was sorry to cut it off when the time came to move on.

My partner took over to facilitate the "Critical Incident" part of the session. Critical Incidents are basically just case-studies. Volunteers take turns presenting them. They must be ongoing (unresolved) issues, which raises the emotional stakes quite a lot. Naturally, we observe total secrecy about the stuff that gets shared. Typically everyone can identify with whatever scenario is on offer. The conversation is structured to steer the focus away from offering suggestions or fixes, and instead to focus on process and what the presented material raises in those that hear it. It reminds me a lot of my old CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) days, but with with a lot less crying! And that's Fresh Start.

Like a lot of professional development courses of this sort, the didactic material is helpful, but nearly as useful as the relational stuff that comes from sitting down your peers and talking through problems. It's a group of people that have far more in common than different, and our experiences overlap to a large degree. At least as long as I have been part of it, you don't see a lot of petty rivalries or falsity. This is the sort of group where nobody is under any delusions that we have parish ministry figured out! Nor is it the sort of group where the discussion devolves into mere bitching about this or that person or this or that organization. People vent, sure, but usually in a way that leads things forward neatly.

This is hard work. Complex and demanding on every level. I am thankful that we have something like Fresh Start to help. I find it delightful to be a part of it, and on mornings like this one I am thankful that my skills as a facilitator seem to be increasing. It's nice to be of service.

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