Influence vs Control The Heart of Pastoral Ministry

At times, we yearn for everyone to align with our wishes — a feeling I’ve certainly experienced, hoping my wife, kids, and others would adhere to my expectations. As a father of five, my contentment once relied on others following my lead meticulously.

Dec 01, 2023

At times, we yearn for everyone to align with our wishes — a feeling I’ve certainly experienced, hoping my wife, kids, and others would adhere to my expectations. As a father of five, my contentment once relied on others following my lead meticulously.

Yet, as my children transitioned into young adulthood, my parenting approach evolved. What used to be effective became outdated. I’ve come to recognise that dictating terms no longer suffices. Nor should I shoulder every challenge my kids encounter. Guiding teenagers now demands a different strategy as they mature.

Granting space for my children to make choices and confront the consequences has proven crucial. Life often imparts its most profound lessons amidst uncertainties and difficult decisions. Embracing failure as a tool for growth has become integral, backed by guidance when needed.

Parenting young adults has taught me a crucial lesson: influence outweighs control. This principle extends beyond the home— it holds true in the leadership of the Catholic Church. Attempting to control others is fruitless; our inability to control renders it counterproductive.

Control vs Influence
You have probably met a pastor, parish administrator etc. that tried to exercise complete control over a parish. They have to make all the decisions, they don’t want to allow others to take the reins over any part of the parish, and they manage others with a “my way or the highway” mentality.

Has any leader ever truly helped a parish with this style of leadership? If so, the gains were marginal at best.

This is for many reasons, but here are some: In a parish (or diocese) where the person in charge is exerting CONTROL, you get:

The leader’s ideas
• People who follow based on fear (I don’t want to lose the job) or necessity (need the money).
• A team that feels underappreciated and underutilised.
• An organisation limited by the knowledge, skill, and ability of the leader.
• High burnout and low morale.
• Little creativity and slow (if any) growth.
• People who are poorly managed and feel the burden of being supervised.
• A leader who can’t see beyond the short-term.
• A culture where failure is unacceptable. Fear is a primary motivator.
• A decision-maker who is self-focused and must get their way. The bottle-neck of decision making causes everything to drag.

In a parish (or diocese) where the person in charge is exerting INFLUENCE, you get:

The team’s ideas
• People who follow because they believe in the mission. They are willing to sacrifice to achieve the goals set out.
• A team that feels united and appreciated. They are empowered to use their gifts.
• An organisation limited by the team’s combined knowledge, skills, and abilities, which far surpasses any one person.
• High morale and low burnout.
• Creative thinking and growth.
• People who feel supported and encouraged by supervisors.
• Leadership with a long-range vision. Short-term failure for longterm success is acceptable.
• Decisions are based on principles that can be applied by various people in various situations.
• The culture is other-focused. It desires the good of the other. Delegates many decisions to others.

Pastoral Practise
So, what does influence look like in a healthy parish? Well, it starts with the truth and ends in trust. Truth is the foundation of all good pastoral ministry and leadership. Truth is never to be sacrificed at the altars of unity, listening, influence, pastoral practice, etc. We can't truly have any of these if we leave truth behind. Truth guides us in how we act, live, make decisions, & treat others.

Still, the truth is not a weapon to hammer others with. We have to learn how to wield it in a way which will be accepted by others.

Building on the truth, we need to work on earning the trust of others, listening to their experiences, being patient and kind with them, but when we discern that it is appropriate to do so, we also need to love them enough to tell them what is true, good, and beautiful, starting with the Good News that Jesus has come to save us from our sins.

This isn’t aiming for control, but influence.

Influence says, “consider this” and “this is what changed my life and I think it might help you too”.

It also believes in the God-given ability of others to do great things.

Control says, “you must do this or else” and “I can’t love you until you do this”. It doubts the Godgiven ability of others.

Here lies the Catch-22 situation. To provide good pastoral care, you need to know your people and spend time with them. This means that a pastor by himself (or with a team helping him with pastoral care) can’t serve everyone in the parish in the way they need to be served, at least not with the current model most parishes operate with today.

In Practise
If there is anyone who could command others to do what he wanted, it was Jesus. God made man. He had the authority, right, and power to command others. Yet, more often than merely commanding others to do what He said, He chose to influence them. He wanted them to follow Him freely and out of love. Not mere obedience due to obligation.

We Catholics know obligation, but we should also know that mere obligation no longer suffices. Most Catholics don’t care that they are obligated and commanded to attend Sunday Mass every week. Most Catholics don’t care about the moral laws that are imposed on them.

We can no longer merely command. We must lead with integrity and influence.

Influence is actual power in practice. It means that a leader has responsive followers who have been influenced and thus accepted leadership. A leader with no influence has no actual power to do anything.

In many ways, this is the state of the Catholic Church. Many don’t accept the influence of our leaders. Leaders must thus win back influence. Power, influence, and leadership can change our Church. The questions of what strategies and tactics are best to use are therefore paramount.

How you treat people matters. Trying to exert control by fear, punishment, guilt, or negative consequences rarely has the desired outcome.

People respond when they have ownership, buy-in, clarity in mission, encouragement, they feel like they are cared for, they matter, their opinions are listened to, etc. This model of pastoral care does not mean that every decision needs to be democratic or that we have to slow down the growth to poll everyone about everything. Rather, it means people are truly cared for by their pastor(s).

Psalm 23 tells us a lot about pastoral care. A good shepherd cares for the flock. He nourishes, provides shelter and food, protects, guides, and comforts the flock.

The fact is that most parishes are simply too large for the priest(s) to be able to adequately serve the flock in the manner they need and want. Thus, we need a shift from priestcentric pastoral care to lay-centric pastoral care. We see this in the early Church. The most important duties of the leaders (priests and bishops) became harder to accomplish as the Church grew post-Pentecost.

Thus, in Acts 6 we see the establishment of the diaconate to share some of the administrative responsibilities and free the Apostles to preach the Gospel and shepherd the flock. Then the burden was shared by the laity as well. The women who helped fulfil the needs of the community. The poor. The rich. The elderly. The young. Everyone had a role in bringing the Gospel to others, but a role that was dependent on their gifts.

Lay assisting in pastoral care? Yes!
Some Catholics get worried when the role of the laity goes beyond pray, pay, and obey. It need not worry us though. We also need not blur the lines between the clergy and laity. Only our priests can give us the Sacraments. Only our priests can pastor our parishes. Only our clergy can preach homilies during Mass, etc. There are many things laity can’t do. Therefore, to have a lay-centric pastoral care model we need to define what that might look like. Here are a few markers for such a parish:

1. Focusing on conversion beyond the confines of Mass attendance is crucial. In our current understanding of “discipleship” and “ministry,” there’s an emphasis on passive absorption of information. However, our aim should transcend mere reception and lead to transformative change rooted in heart conversion and tangible actions. Knowledge serves a greater purpose — to nurture love, not just accumulate facts. Therefore, our pastoral ministry should centre on fostering transformed lives, striving to align ourselves closer to the saints God envisions for us. This transformation necessitates opening our hearts to prayer, allowing the Holy Spirit to work through us, and actively sharing the Gospel with those who might never step into our parishes. Building a community of missionary disciples among the laity is essential for this endeavour.

2. Creating purposeful and intimate friendships is key. These relationships must possess a clear mission — cultivating and nurturing missionary disciples who, in turn, replicate this process with others. This approach is both learned and observed. Intimacy here means investing time and effort to develop trust within meaningful conversations. Spiritual friendships thrive on this foundation, mirroring the accompaniment we aspire to offer fellow parishioners. Recognising the limitations of our clergy’s capacity, it’s imperative for the laity to take on this role too.

3. A vision for growth is vital. Every Catholic should understand the purpose behind their friendships and articulate how these connections contribute to fostering the next generation of disciples. Each friendship stands as a valuable goal on its own, yet it should also serve as a stepping stone in our mission. Those we mentor should be equipped to empower others to become disciples themselves, fostering a chain of multiplication in our faith community.

I know of many small groups that have been going on for years. The members grow in knowledge of Scripture, Church teachings, etc. but their personal prayer, action, and mission are not changed over the course of those years. This is primarily due to the fact that the group is fulfilling what it was started for — education on different subjects. It isn’t started to be a process that transforms members’ lives and then equips them to be transformative agents in the lives of others. To change lives, we have to have our own lives changed first.

Some of the outcomes of having intentional lay-centric pastoral care are:

It takes much of the burden off of our pastors. I know that during a spiritual crisis the men that I walk with are more likely to make their first call to me (or another lay friend they are walking with) than to a priest. This can’t be said for someone who has no other meaningful spiritual relationships.

It makes pastoral care scalable. We can’t just reproduce a ton of new priests to care for all the Catholics in our world. We can care for one another. Thus, this model is scalable, while a priest-centric one is not.

It fills in the gaps where Catholics are weak. Our parishes aren’t helping people find meaningful community or relationships. Furthermore, it gives a place where active conversations can happen, rather than just passive reception of information. For these two reasons alone, the model can benefit many who are on the cusp of disaffiliation.

Slows the decline and turns it into growth. Without large-scale changes in HOW we operate, we won’t make a dent in the decline, at least while you and I still live. But, with this kind of model in place, we can not only slow the decline, but turn it around. We can grow. Only disciples of Jesus can make other disciples of Jesus. This is our mission. This is our calling.

This kind of pastoral care is dependent on our clergy being leaders who influence their flocks in ways that have them take up their rightful place in caring for others. A good shepherd cares for his sheep. Good sheep make more sheep. None of this will be done by controlling others. — By Marcel LeJeune, Catholic Missionary Disciples

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