By Daniel J. Mahan
Most pastors are sitting on top of a gold mine -- a gold mine of talent, that is. Parishes are vibrant when the talents of staff and parishioners are used for the sake of the Kingdom. The talent of the catechist who was born to teach seventh graders is a priceless commodity. The talent of the bereavement committee member who has a particular ability to connect with widowers is an invaluable gift. The talents of those who have compassion for and a passion to aid the poor, the less fortunate and the unborn are truly worth more than silver or gold.
The good news is that most pastors sit atop inexhaustible sources of talent just waiting to be mined and put to good use. The bad news is that the tools and knowledge for extracting the gold from the mines are in short supply.
What else can explain the fact that in many parishes the same people seem to do all the work -- and are weary of doing it? What else can explain the vast number of Catholics who attend Mass but are otherwise not engaged in the life and mission of the parish?
This article will argue that a proper understanding of talent is key to engaging parishioners in the life and ministry of the parish community. Furthermore, when a pastor appreciates his own unique talents, he is better equipped to develop a style of leadership and management that will be a tremendous blessing for the parish and the wider Church. A practical approach that is accessible to priests and parishioners will be outlined.
The word talent comes from the Greek word talentos found in the New Testament parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30). A very valuable coin, the talentos was the equivalent of 6,000 dinarii, the daily wage for an unskilled laborer. Given the current minimum wage and the forty hour work week, a talentos is worth nearly $250,000.
As the English language developed, no better word could be found to describe the God-given gift, ability or aptitude that is a talent. A talent is a natural, God-given pattern of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied.1
Talent is why Tiger Woods could swing a golf club with perfect form at the age of three, and why he breaks new records every year. Earl Woods recognized in his son a priceless treasure, a natural talent that would be honed and strengthened through lessons, practice and competitive play.
Anyone who has watched Tiger play the perfect shot at exactly the right moment in a major tournament knows that some things cannot be taught. Talent is the key to understanding Tiger's success, as it is the key to understanding why certain ministries in our parishes flourish. The more the pastor understands talent, the more likely he is to succeed in extracting the gold from the mine upon which he stands.
Most parishes have a catalog that contains a description and listing of the contact person for each ministry and program in which parishioners can become involved. Many parishes conduct an annual ''Ministry Fair'' in which the various ministries set up displays.
While both approaches are commendable, they both proceed from the same starting point: the need of the parish. Both communicate effectively a message such as, ''St. Mary's needs five catechists, four ushers, and three counters of the collection.'' Both usually meet with less than spectacular results. Few contact persons listed in the catalog need to install a second phone line to handle the volume of calls!
A more effective way to mine the gold is to use an approach that proceeds from the need of every member of the parish to share his or her priceless talents. This need runs deep within the heart and, when fulfilled, leads to a person becoming fully engaged in parish life.
When talent is tapped into and given an opportunity for expression, the person sharing the talent feels that he or she is truly part of the parish community and participates constructively in its mission. A person whose talents have been engaged in a meaningful way is likely to feel a sense of belonging that deepens his or her commitment to the parish.
Furthermore, the awareness of one's talents gives a person new insights into how to understand family relationships and how to approach one's work.
Talent is an extremely precious commodity, yet many parishes suffer from a lack of awareness of just how valuable talent really is. Sometimes individuals who are highly talented in and committed to a particular ministry are conscripted into additional responsibilities in another area of parish life; they have been persuaded with the argument, ''We need you because we can't find anyone else, and if you don't do it, we will have to discontinue that ministry.''
Sadly, such generous, responsible parishioners spend many hours laboring at ministries for which they are not naturally suited, rather than focusing upon doing what they do best in their service to the Church. Burnout for that parishioner is not only possible, it is highly likely.
In the case above, what underlies the fear of not being able to find anyone else to help out in a parish of hundreds or even thousands of families? It's not a lack of talent as the vast majority of parishioners have the talent to succeed at their place of work. Rather, the fear arises from the fact that most parishes lack the tools and knowledge to be good stewards of those same talents, drawing them forth and putting them to good use for the sake of the Kingdom.
A proven instrument for identifying talent is emerging as a powerful tool for use in our parishes. The use of the Clifton StrengthsFinder(tm) has helped businesses, schools and health care institutions place employees in positions in which they could do what they do best most of the time.
These employees, who spend most of their time working on projects for which they are naturally talented, show a high degree of productivity, satisfaction and loyalty to the company. Simply put, they are more engaged in their work.
This same instrument is now available for parish use. Every copy of the Catholic Edition of Living Your Strengths2 contains an access code to the online talent assessment. Readers who take the 30-minute assessment are given an explanation of their top five talent themes, along with practical suggestions for putting their talents to use in the parish.
A companion workbook (Living Your Strengths Journey) allows small groups of parishioners to learn more about their own talents and grow in an appreciation for the talents of others. Specialized training in Strengths Coaching is available through the Marian College Center for Catholic Stewardship in Indianapolis.
St. Gerard Majella Parish in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., has been using Living Your Strengths for several years, and the results are astounding. By learning more about their talents, hundreds of parishioners have become engaged in the life of the parish.
Marie Guido, the parish gifts coordinator reports, ''It is so amazing to see people discover their strengths and then see a ministry that is right for them instead of us having to go out recruiting to 'fill slots!' It is so refreshing and such a joy!''3
Marie leads the small-group experience at St. Gerard and is also certified to provide one-on-one individualized strengths ''coaching.'' Some parishioners choose to participate in the group experience, some prefer a one-on-one setting, and still others take advantage of both opportunities.
The result is a growing number of parishioners who have a deeper appreciation for their God-given talents and who are now putting those talents to use in the parish in ways they never thought possible.
Calling forth parishioners to use their talents and to ''do what they do best'' for the sake of the Kingdom is more than a program that is administered by a staff member. Rather, it is a conviction that the role of the pastor is to call forth and animate the gifts and talents found within the parish.
The pastor is called to lead as Jesus did, by recognizing the unique talents and strengths of disciples and equipping them to go forth into particular roles of service and evangelization.
Priests are not always aware of their own unique talents, nor do they always recognize how powerful can be their encouragement of the talents of others. As an authentic leader, the pastor learns to lead from his own strengths, rather than trying to imitate the tactics of others.
Priests need help with this, for priestly leadership is the learned, artful application of skills and knowledge for the great benefit of the Church. The priest who is a great leader is one who is capable of crafting and communicating a vision for the parish community and who mentors others, helping them to discover and then do what they do best.
A priest can learn this approach -- leading from his own strengths, crafting a parish vision, mentoring others -- at an intensive strengths-based leadership and management course now offered to pastors at the Marian College Center for Catholic Stewardship.
Working within a cohort of six to 14 brother priests, the pastor hones and develops a style of leadership that fits his own unique set of talents. Further- more, the pastor receives an analysis of data about the level of engagement of his own staff and parishioners that is invaluable in helping him to lead in that particular parish.
The Lord has blessed every human being with a unique set of talents. In the words of St. Paul, ''We are God's craftsmanship'' (Eph 2:10). Under- standing the talents of others and helping them to put them to use for the sake of the Kingdom is not only an act of good stewardship, it is a prime example of strengths-based leadership most befitting of every priest. The strategies spoken of in this article should give every pastor hope that within his parish is an inexhaustible source of talent more precious than silver or gold. TP
2 Ibid; available through www.catholicstrengths.com
3Inside the Engaged Congregation: A Case Study of the Church of St. Gerard Majella.
FATHER MAHAN is a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and is Executive Director of the Marian College Center for Catholic Stewardship.
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