“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” —Isaiah 43:18-19
How often do we, as individuals and as parish communities, stop to ask what new thing God is doing in our midst? Or what former thing God is inviting us to let go of? Or what is “springing up” around us that we should be paying attention to?
The words the prophet Isaiah uses to remind the Israelites to trust in and watch for signs of God’s redemptive plan unfolding are challenging words in the best of times. Two years into a global pandemic and Isaiah’s words inspire hope, but also bring apprehension: Do we have the energy to perceive what is springing up? Are we willing to stop dwelling on the past?
Do we have the eyes to see what God is doing?
As soon as the Mission Action Plan (MAP) leadership team at St. John the Evangelist in Hamilton started talking to people in the parish about engaging in the MAP process, we realized that the answer from our community was “YES”. Not only was there enough energy to engage in the collective discernment process created by the Diocese of Niagara to help churches figure out how God is calling us to join in God’s mission, there was also enthusiasm. As we spoke to people about participating in the process, the common sentiment expressed was: “This is exactly what we need right now.”
The MAP process is structured around three conversations about key aspects of congregational life: adult faith formation, reshaping parish culture, and fullness of life in the neighbourhood. At St. John’s, the conversations are organized and facilitated by a leadership team made up of six people from our congregation, including our minister and one of our churchwardens. A week before the conversations, we gather to read through the instructions in the MAP Facilitator’s Guide and make the small adaptations necessary to suit our specific context. We also determine what roles members of the team will fulfill during the conversation, which include communication, facilitation, note-taking, small group leadership, and running the online meeting platform. We have found that preparing ahead of time and taking a team approach to the consultations is the best way to ensure the conversations go smoothly.
The goal of the three conversations is to engage in “holy brainstorming” to assess our parish’s strengths, gifts, passions, and growing edges with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. St. John’s first two conversations, which we hosted on Zoom and were attended by 30–40 people, were filled with helpful insights, new ideas, expressed love for our church community, honest sharing about areas of ministry we need to improve, and a renewed spirit of enthusiasm for engaging in God’s mission. After the conversations, the MAP leadership team gathered to review the input we received. We created summaries of the common themes and made the results available to parishioners on our website.
As I write this article, St. John’s MAP leadership team is preparing for our third conversation. After the third conversation, we will review all the ideas shared and invite people back for a final conversation in which we will determine what ideas God is calling our parish to work on over the next couple of years. We are excited to see what “new things” God is inviting us to not only “see” but also to do. The “action” part of the Mission Action Plan is crucial. The pathway that the MAP process is helping St. John’s develop is leading us to deeper participation in God’s redemptive work in the world. This is, indeed, something to be excited about.
For congregations interested in or planning to start the MAP process, here is some advice based on our experience at St. John’s:
- Build a strong team to lead the MAP process. Skills that are important to have represented on your leadership team: facilitation, organization, analysis, active listening, ability to work collaboratively, and commitment.
- Choose one person to act as chair of the leadership team, preferably someone with strong organizational skills. Empower and support them to keep the MAP process on track and moving forward.
- Review the MAP facilitation guide several times. It contains a lot of information that takes time to digest. If something suggested in the guide will not work in your context, adapt it. For example, we divided into small groups of four to five people for some parts of the conversation because we felt it would give more people the opportunity to speak even though the guide did not suggest it.
- Do your best to create a spirit of openness in the conversations. You want people to share honestly, so naming outright that all feedback—even difficult feedback—is welcome is important.
While the MAP process might seem a bit daunting at first, do not be afraid! Once you start moving forward, it easily picks up momentum and the feedback you receive will encourage you to keep going.