Psychologically, we develop a sense of self and our own value through our parents’ trustworthiness in meeting our basic physiological and emotional needs as infants. In a parish this translates into the central role of consistency. In simplest terms, “today” needs to look like “yesterday,” and “tomorrow” we promise will look like “today.” This is why liturgy is so important in the development of our own Christian identity. The liturgical cycle of the parish is in my experience the single most important element in establishing a sense of consistency in a parish.
The rhythm of the Church’s daily and festal liturgical cycle, the periods of fasting and feasting, the times set aside for regular confession, and the annual cycle of more domestic events—not only house blessings, but the other blessings of the created world in the Church’s liturgical life—set a pace to community’s shared life. And this is why it is important that the parish liturgical life not only be consistent, but manageable for the community as a whole. Too much liturgical prayer is as bad, if not worse, than too little.
Again developmentally, a health self-image requires not simply consistency, but consistent success. Abuse can, and often is, also consistent. Too full a liturgical cycle and people simply don’t attend. They get in the habit of not praying liturgically, not seeing themselves as part of the shared liturgical life of the Church.
Simply scheduling a service because we can is bad idea. Better, for example, to serve the Hours and say maybe the Pre-Communion Prayers before Liturgy that people are likely to attend on Sunday before Liturgy than say, a Matins (Orthros) service that people don’t.
Additionally, consistency in the parish liturgical life means that services need to start on time. Sunday Divine Liturgy at 10:00 am should not mean Liturgy starting at 10:15 or 9:55. 10:00 am ought to mean 10:00 am. If Liturgy does not consistently start on time, then people are likely not to value arriving on time for Liturgy—and how can they since the start time isn’t consistent?
Consistency is also important in the administrative life of the parish. Priest office hours (and his time off, weekly and vacation), regular parish council meetings, people’s steward commitment (and the parish report on how well that commitment is being fulfilled) all need to be regular and predictable. I would also include here education classes that not only start and end on time, but also meet for a fixed number of weeks and only a publically announced theme.
When I was a college chaplain I would often say that I didn’t schedule events with the expectation that students would show up. I scheduled events so that they kids knew when and where to find me before and after events.
Certainly consistency can become an end in itself and we always need to be on guard that this doesn’t happen. But human beings need predictability. We will shape our lives and our identity around what we can reasonably count on happening. If I can reasonable count on Father being in his office on Tuesday afternoon, or taking Mondays off, I will come to see him, in small ways at least, as trustworthy. And human beings, being social creatures, tend to model our lives around those we trust.
Finally, and this has been for me something of a personal struggle, parishes need to plan. Too often we assume that a community can simply act spontaneously. Within limits that is true. Paradoxically though, healthy spontaneity must go together with healthy planning. Without planning, spontaneity is simply ego-driven inconsistency; planning without spontaneity will also become ego-driven. Without each other, spontaneity and planning become idols and the work of human hands. King David offers us a word of warning here about idols. He says of idols
Especially for more project-oriented planning (whether short or long term), I’ve found the following four questions helpful:
- What do we want to do?
- Why do we want to do it?
- What are the steps along the way from now to our goal?
- How do we know we have succeeded?
Elementary to be sure. But often all we really need to foster a health sense of consistency are elementary things, such as starting on time and knowing what we want in life and why we want it.
Next, the ABC’s of Preaching and Teaching.