How To Guides

A Common Ground Approach for Parish Building Committees

April 05, 2007


Ground breaking for Holy Family ChurchThe building or renovation of a worship space is an exciting and significant opportunity for any parish or institution.  Decisions about the space where the rituals that shape the faith of the community are celebrated -- the space that supports and nurtures the spiritual life of the people -- are important indeed.  Such a project can also be quite a challenge!  The time, energy, and financial resources required can be daunting even to the most enthusiastic.

Success depends on many factors.  A key component is the involvement and ownership of the community.  Serious reflection on the identity and mission of the parish, as well as attention to the formation of the assembly, are critical aspects of the process.

A first step in establishing a parish committee that represents key constituencies and ministries of the faith community.  The committee may be advisory or it may be responsible for making decisions.  In either case, it provides valuable feedback and counsel throughout the project.  It should include representatives from various generations, ethnic groups, liturgical ministries, finance and other parish committees, and perhaps a few people with expertise in areas such as marketing and communication.  It is very important to define the responsibilities of such a committee and to commit to a process of education and formation with them.

Committee members will participate in many meetings to discuss all aspects of the building project.  Because of the centrality of the liturgy in the life of the community and its importance to the faith experience, people hold strong views and opinions.  Topics such as placement of the tabernacle, seating arrangements, and devotional spaces and practices can create significant conflict.  Conflict should not and cannot be avoided.  However, the committee needs to agree to an appropriate method for dealing with conflict and tension that will likely arise during the process.

I suggest that such a method include several steps:

Step One:  A basic education in the theological and pastoral principles of the liturgy found in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Español].  This includes, but is not limited to:

»  Liturgy as the celebration of the Paschal Mystery.
»  Liturgy as source and summit of the Christian life.
»  Ritual dynamics as a key aspect of worship.
»  Liturgy as communal ritual.
»  The language of symbol as an essential ingredient.
»  Attentiveness to the relationship between ritual and space.

Step Two: Understand the dynamics of change and reform.

»  The process of reform must expect and even encourage the expression of differences.  People confronted with change need to respond, articulate their ambivalence, and work it out.

»  The process must respect the autonomy of different experiences.  People need to find their own meaning in changes before they can live with them.

»  The feelings involved in change are as important as anything else to be considered.

»  Change, introduced slowly, is much more likely to be successful.  The more drastic the change, the more attention to planning is needed.

»  People react more positively to change when they have a voice in both the planning and the implementation of the change.

Step Three: Practice Basic Communication Skills

»  Take responsibility for what you say and feel without blaming others.
»  Use empathetic listening.
»  Be sensitive to differences in communication styles.
»  Ponder what you hear and feel before you speak.
»  Examine your own assumptions and perceptions.
»  Keep confidentialities.
»  Trust and tolerate ambiguity.  Remember -- this is not about debating who is right and who is wrong.

As Christians involved in a process to build up the community, more is required.  The present dissension and lack of civility in much church discourse calls us to new awareness and consciousness in our deliberations.

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin († 1996) (Archdiocese of Chicago) addressed this reality in his Common Ground Project.  His original document resulted from extensive consultation and was intended as a call to a new way of addressing the polarizing issues confronting the church.

Common Ground has come to express a certain spirituality that is faithful and hopeful, one that trusts the Spirit working in our midst.  It calls for humility, tolerance, and respect.  It's a way of exploring differences that creates a space of trust within the boundaries of scripture, tradition, and accountability.  It is as much an art as a skill.

Because there are a number of "hot button" issues related to the celebration of liturgy, including the space for worship, the ethic of Common Ground can be most useful.  Shall we have pews or flexible seating?  Where should the baptismal font be and what should it look like?  What about the location of the tabernacle?  What kind of gathering space is needed?  What kind of space for reconciliation?  These are questions that have brought committees to frustration and stalemate. 

What principles beyond basic communication do's and don't's should guide our conversations?  What kind of dialogue is appropriate when discussion ecclesial issues?

Step Four: Incorporate the Common Ground Dialogue Principles.

»  Recognize that no single group or viewpoint in the church has a complete monopoly on the truth.

»  Do not envision yourself or any one part of the church as the saving remnant.

»  Test all proposals for their pastoral realism and potential impact on individuals, as well as for their theological truth.

»  Presume good faith on the part of those with whom you differ.

»  Put the best possible construction on differing positions.

»  Do not ascribe motives to others.

»  Critique and evaluate contemporary cultural influences and values, acknowledging the culture's valid achievements and real dangers.

»  Practice hospitality and humility.

This kind of conversation will assist a committee in drawing forth the gifts of all members and in addressing issues.  Engaging in this level of dialogue will deepen our understanding of what the Lord is calling us to in carrying out the mission of our parish and our church in this time and place.

Sheila McLaughlin is Director of The Bernardin Center for Theology and Ministry at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, IL.

Photograph by Mark Joseph Costello

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