TUESDAYS WITH TERESA: Helping churches be more vital and healthy

I am scribing this message on a Saturday afternoon, just after the Diocesan Pastoral Council Meeting. The core content of this meeting was to review the outcomes of our ‘around the diocese’ DPC meetings. The DPC found today’s meeting to be productive, and we will now work on the core ideas of our conversation before communicating with our parishes, Councils and agencies.

Before writing my weekly messages, I often go to the weekend readings, and of course I am able to relate the readings to what I have discerned through the week to share with you. This week is no different and it captures part of the essence of our DPC conversation.

The Gospel acclamation proclaims:

The word of God is living and active; it probes the thoughts and motives of our heart.

The key message from the readings is about praying and working constantly for justice. In the second letter of St Paul to Timothy (3:14-4:2), we are reminded:

You must keep to what you have been taught and know to be true; remember who your teachers were, and how, ever since you were a child, you have known the holy scriptures – from these you can learn the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and can profitably be used for teaching, for refuting error, for guiding people’s lives and teaching them to be holy. This is how the person who is dedicated to God becomes fully equipped and ready for any good work…….. proclaim the message and, welcome or unwelcome, insist on it. Refute falsehood, correct error, call to obedience – but do all with patience and with the intention of teaching.

In October and November, thousands of churches across Australia will participate in the National Church Life Survey (NCLS). The aim of this survey is to identify the strengths of church vitality at the local level. Seven of our parishes have been chosen, as random samples, to participate in the survey and one parish has voluntarily opted in.

The NCLS use nine core qualities to make up the measure and these are reflected in the survey that will be completed by those who attend Mass on the survey weekend.

The Internal core qualities are:

Faith – alive and growing

Worship – vital and nurturing

Belonging – strong and growing

The Inspirational core qualities are:

Vision – clear and owned

Leadership – inspiring and empowering

Innovation – imaginative and flexible

The Outward core qualities are:

Service – practical and diverse

Faith-Sharing – willing and effective

Inclusion – intentional and welcoming

It is common for us to score poorly in the NCLS compared with other denominations, and this has always intrigued me. I encourage all those who have the privilege of representing the diocese in participating in this survey, to do so with consideration and commitment. You are not only representing our diocese and how it sees itself, but you have also been chosen to be a representative of the Catholic Church across Australia. I know we participate in many wonderful ‘Jesus’ initiatives, but because they are a normal part of our Catholic culture, we often fail to recognise their significance when answering the survey questions.

The NCLS has been held every five years in Australia since 1991 and is the largest, longest-running survey of church life in the world. The NCLS is a mission research project involving more than 20 denominations and movements across Australia. It is expected to include:

  • 400,000 attenders
  • 3,000 churches
  • 7,000 church leaders
  • surveys in 8 languages

The overriding purpose of the project is to help churches to be more vital and healthy. The guiding vision is Jesus’ statement that “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

There are three key reasons we take part in this survey:

  1. To shape the future of our local churches
  2. To help our denomination better understand the gifts and challenges of local churches
  3. To be part of the national snapshot of the whole Australian Church.

There are three standard types of church life surveys:

  1. The Attender Survey including a special survey for children
  2. The Leader Survey
  3. The Operation Survey.

An analysis of the results will be communicated back to the participating parishes and to the diocese, listing the core qualities from the greatest strengths to those areas of parish life that are not as strong.

If we believe that our churches are making a positive contribution to our society, then it is essential that church and civic leaders better understand the place of the Christian Church in Australian society. This massive mapping exercise is deserving of our participation. Our sample participation is sponsored by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. It is possible to conduct a Church Life Survey (CLS) in your parish at any time. Suitable times might be before or after a program of parish renewal, or after a change of parish priest, so that the new pastor/parish leader or leadership team is provided with an excellent source of information about the new parish. The Leadership Strengths Appraisal Survey is also worth pursuing. The Lead with your Strengths kit offers sustainable leadership material to assist in building effective leadership and to ensure leaders thrive in ministry.

I wonder how we are faring as a church in this 150 years of our being a diocese? I would like to encourage those who are participating in this survey, over the next few weeks, to really consider what is being asked of you and to respond responsibly and prayerfully. Interestingly, it is known that the Inspirational Core Qualities are key to the vitality of parish/church life.

For those of us in parishes not participating in the NCLS, I invite you to consider how you would rate your parish, based on the nine core qualities. I have written previously about how the nine core qualities align to our own five foundations:

  1. Identity and Community
  2. Worship and Prayer
  3. Formation and Education
  4. Mission and Outreach
  5. Leadership and Structure

I finish this week’s reflection with the Entrance Antiphon for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C):

To you I call; for you will surely heed me, O God;
turn your ear to me; hear my words.
Guard me as the apple of your eye;
in the shadow of your wings protect me.

Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is Director Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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