I could walk into your parish and within five minutes I would be able to identify the one or two people who should have been fired ten years ago.
I’ve been using this as a joke at parish leadership events, Legatus meetings, and evangelization trainings for the past ten years and it always gets a great laugh. Why? Because it’s true!
Every person in the room - whether they are the pastor, a parish staff member, or just an engaged parishioner - knows exactly who I’m talking about. The only people who don’t get the joke are the people it is about!
Obviously I’m being a little facetious, but the inability to deal with poor performance is actually a sign of serious organizational health in a parish, and to explain that further I’m going to talk about something I love: Baseball.
At this point in my article I thought I’d start explaining why I love baseball, but I quickly realized how much this would derail my post, so I’m going to skip that for now. Just know this, beyond my faith and family, my favorite thing by a long shot is baseball.
I coach my son’s little league team and I love doing it. To me, coaching is simply the act of visualizing who a person wants to become and helping them make that vision a reality. If you can get the picture of that persons ideal self in your mind, and you know how to help them achieve that ideal vision, you can be a great coach.
Now, keep in mind, little league baseball is not Major League baseball. Playing little league is about a lot more than winning games. This shouldn’t need to be said. But, what about your parish? Is a great parish run more like a little league team or a Major League team?
While it might sound nice and conjure images of flowers and sunshine and rainbows to say a parish isn’t about winning, the truth is that souls hang in the balance. And winning a soul is much more important than winning a baseball game.
So, you need to ask yourself, is your parish running like a little league team or a Major League team?
I want to run through five signs your parish is running like a little league team and how you can avoid them.
1. Goals and Positions
Paxton, my four-year-old, plays T-ball, which is always a riot. Half the kids don’t know if they are right handed or left handed, many just play in their own little world, and there is always someone running off the field to go to the bathroom. It’s hilarious.
There are no positions, the kids just swarm on the ball like ants on an Oreo. And there is no real goal of the game: no one makes an ‘out’, it doesn’t really matter if you touch the bases or not, there are no winners or losers, there is no score, etc.
Everyone specializes in one position. A player might have a secondary position or be more of a ‘utility’ player, but the best players have one area of specialty and they stick to it to best utilize their skills and talents to win the game.
Everyone knows the goal: get runners to advance from base to base until they cross home plate - and prevent the other team from doing so. They know what is a hit, what is an out, and what is a run. They know how to win. Very little is left to chance or interpretation.
The best parishes are run like a Major League team. First off, they have a well established goal and purpose of the parish (this is NOT a given, of course). Second, everyone in leadership - from the pastor, to the staff, the parish counsel, the school teachers, the volunteers - knows the goal and purpose of the parish, and they know how their individual contribution fits into the whole. The best parishes place people in positions that suit them so that their individual talents and abilities can shine in service of the greater mission of the parish.
Ask this: What is the overarching goal your parish is trying to reach, and how do the individual goals of the youth minister, the DRE, the finance council, the music minister, and the school all contribute to that goal? Do the people in those roles know the overarching goal? If you asked them individually what the goal of the parish was, would they all give you the same answer? Would they know the goals of their individual role and how those goals support the overarching parish goal?
2. Keeping Score
At the youngest ages, we don’t keep score. It’s not about knowing who won or who lost, it’s about the experience, falling in love with the game, and building values. Even at older ages, we have run rules and time limits, and we put rules in place so a team can’t run up the score.
Everything is measured against the score. The goal and purpose is to win, and the way you win is to score more runs than the other team. Teams enforce different strategies to try to get walks, hits, runners on base, drive everyone in, and prevent the other team from scoring, but in the end every effort is measured against one thing: the score. If it doesn’t drive in runs or prevent the other team from doing so, then it doesn’t matter. Period.
The best parishes keep score. Plain and simple. They don’t let ideas, events, strategies, or initiatives get by without serious scrutiny about whether or not they were effective in achieving the purpose of the parish. The best parishes know what they are trying to achieve and don’t settle for subpar effectiveness. They are constantly iterating and asking how they can improve. They pursue best practices and have built a culture of continuous learning, all at the service of the mission of the parish.
Ask this: When was the last time your parish openly recognized that something didn't go well, and gave serious thought to how things could be improved in the future? How are you defining success and failure? How are you tracking your successes so that you can repeat what works well, and how are you scrutinizing failures so that they aren't repeated?
3. Keeping Statistics
We don’t keep stats in little league. An eyeball test can usually tell you who the more talented players are. Even if a team does keep individual statistics like batting average, they don't usually share it with the players or families.
No other sport is as obsessed with statistics as Major League Baseball. Teams keep hundreds of individual statistics on every player, and the league keeps records of how individual performances stack up against players throughout history. Everything someone does on the field is scrutinized. We measure, record, analyze, and evaluate everything.
The best parishes give clear expectations and hold people accountable to achieving them. They measure performance and they let people know how they are doing. They have individual goals that contribute to the mission of the parish. If a performance is not up to par, they don’t shy away from that. They coach people to improve.
Ask this: How does someone know if they are doing a good job or not? What are reviews at the parish like? Does the parish even have performance reviews? When they have them, are they vanilla experiences or fearful experiences? Or are performance reviews an exciting time to dig into how to get better? Does the priest ever ask how the homily was received and do you give honest feedback?
4. Individual and Team Goals
Every team needs a united purpose. Yes, part of the goal of Little League is to win. But more important is the character development of the individual players, their growth and improvement as athletes, and their deepening love for the game. Little League can be tough in this regard because we’re all parents, and it’s natural for us to care more about the goals of our kid than the goals of the team. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a reality.
There is one constant and unchanging team goal and purpose, and no individual is placed in front of the team. If you perform poorly, you are expected to work to improve. You will get help from coaches. You will know there is an expectation to do better. If a player can’t improve, eventually he will be replaced.
Building off the third sign, the best parishes set clear expectations, measure performance, and hold people accountable to achieving their goals. But they never allow the needs of the individual to be placed in front of the needs of the parish. Can this get tricky? Absolutely. But violating this sign is why I can walk into most parishes and recognize the person or people who everyone knows should have been let go years ago, but they are still hanging on because everyone wants to be nice and warm and fuzzy. Do I seem heartless? Perhaps. But this I know for sure: parishes are making life worse for that person by allowing them to stay in a role that doesn’t make sense for them, and ultimately the purpose of the parish is suffering.
Ask this: Is ego more important than discipleship? Is feeling comfortable more important than evangelization? Is avoiding conflict better than becoming a better parish? Does it really help someone to keep them in a role that doesn't make sense for them? Does it really help the parish to allow someone to stay in a role where they aren't succeeding? When is the last time someone was replaced for poor performance? When was the last time someone dispositioned a volunteer who wasn't running something well?
5. Participation awards
Everyone gets a trophy. Success is guaranteed. As soon as you decide to play, you win.
No one cares who lost the World Series.
Life doesn’t give participation awards, and neither does a great parish.
Deciding to get healthier, or be a good parent, or be a reliable employee, doesn’t guarantee success. That decision is only as effective as the actions that follow it. You have to do what it takes to achieve those things. There are no participation awards in life.
In the same way, a parish isn’t great just because they decide they want to be. Great intentions don’t make a great parish. I’ve been at parish events where fifty people out of the two thousand family parish showed up and no one ever said: “Hey, that right there, that didn’t work. Let’s figure out what went wrong so it doesn’t happen again.” Instead we get cliches like, “well, quality over quantity” and “ministry isn’t really about the numbers.”
Ask this: What has my parish changed in the last three years? What programs are still running from fifty years ago that everyone knows needs to end but they allow to keep going because of 'tradition'? When is the last time my parish had an honest conversation about how it could improve? Do we have a plan for the future? Do we expect things at the parish to get better or worse?
On my team’s practice shirts for this year I’m putting a quote.
“You don’t get what you hope for.
You get what you train for.”
That quote is just as true on the baseball field as it is in life.
Great parishes know the purpose and mission of their parish, they know how they are going to achieve that mission, they put people in places to succeed. They set clear expectations, measure performance, coach to improve, and aren’t afraid to replace someone who can’t do what needs to be done. Great parishes know that their intentions to be a great parish won’t automatically make them so.
Is your parish running like a Major League team or a Little League team?
Thanks for reading everyone and please comment or email me to let me know your thoughts!
My name is Dominick Albano and I'm an author, speaker, and consultant.