One of the most challenging and invigorating parts of being a priest is how it has made me stretch, change and grow in ways I never imagined or knew that I needed. Being with people in their most vulnerable moments of joy and sorrow has taught me deep lessons about God’s presence, grace, and compassion. Learning how to listen to members of our parish community and staff about their hopes and dreams and faithfulness to God has inspired me to serve them with relentless determination. Serving those who are suffering and in need in northeast Ohio and the Dominican Republic has taught me that God does indeed provide in ways imagined and unimagined — all signs of God’s grace that give life in more ways than I can count.
As new priests, it takes a while to figure out the routine of parish life as we realize what we know and, more so, what we do not know. After a relatively short number of years, we are assigned to be a pastor and realize over time what we must do to function and survive in parish life. We learn how to navigate parishioner and staff personalities; how to get resources and services from diocesan offices; when and who to call in Catholic Charities and the local social service agencies; how to deal with budgets and diocesan guidelines; and how to handle crises calls and knocks on the door. During those early years we are grateful for what we learned in our seminary formation, while also wishing we would have paid closer attention in some areas along the way!
As we grow and mature as priests and pastors, we are also forming a relationship with our ordinary, depending on leadership styles (his and ours) and our shared desire for working in communion to serve all of God’s people and build God’s kingdom. Just as couples do most of their growth and experience of the sacrament of marriage after the wedding day, we too grow into our vocation as priests as our experience and the liturgical seasons and readings wash over us. We form habits in our personal and communal prayer life that continue to call us to reflect, pray, change and grow to better serve the people whom God has entrusted to our care. We form other habits as well, and those also influence how we live our vocation.
The four pillars of priestly formation (human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral) have prepared us for our ministry. These pillars continue to challenge us to grow in all areas when we understand and embrace an active commitment to lifelong formation and learning. My experience has taught me that the human formation piece is our greatest need for development and ongoing formation both before and after ordination.
Human formation offers insight and understanding regarding what it means to be human and to more fully understand human behavior — our own and others. It includes a growing and current understanding of psychology, sociology, sexuality and how these weave together with our spirituality to make us who we are — hopefully a holy, healthy, faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Human formation necessarily requires growing in our self-awareness — understanding our strengths, limitations, blind spots and the complexity of how we are beautifully and wonderfully made in God’s image and likeness.
Thankfully, there are tools to help us do this.
Working with What God Gave You
I grew up in St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Parma, Ohio. It was a wonderful parish. Everywhere I turned there were people doing amazing things that made the parish brim with vitality and activity. When I was invited into leadership roles as a teen, it gave me a sense of pride that the leaders saw something in me that I didn’t necessarily see in myself at that time. I was excited — and a little scared — that they trusted me and believed in what they saw in me enough to let me try new things. They would trust that I could get things done. As I look back decades later, I forever am grateful that others recognized talents in me and helped me learn and understand the amazing gifts and talents God gave to me.
As a seminarian, I couldn’t wait for those periods during formation when I would get to be in a parish. It would be my time to see what was needed, find the right people with the right talents and invite them into roles and experiences where they could shine for the Lord while serving our parish and beyond. Much like others did for me, I tried to help “name” the unique gifts and talents in the people that I met and how best they could use them to serve the Lord and the community. It was exciting for me to help people develop their gifts and talents in service to the Lord.
When I was asked to serve as the vocations director of the Diocese of Cleveland, I had the unique opportunity to meet Donald Clifton several times over my 12 years in vocation work. He was the CEO of the Gallup organization and, even more importantly, the developer of CliftonStrengths (formerly StrengthsFinder). Early on, I had the blessing of sitting next to him at lunch. As we talked, at one point he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I can prove to you that there’s something each person can do better than the nearest 10,000 people!” He was in the process of developing what would come to be known as StrengthsFinder and later would conclude that we are even more unique than 1 in 10,000. When he shared this thought, he caught my attention.
This thought of being so uniquely made by God connected my own life experience and what I was passionate about — namely, helping people use their talents to serve the Lord. I spent the next 10 years in vocation work passionately trying to share this message with teens across our diocese by inviting them to understand how amazing they are and how they are designed by God for a special and unique purpose. Clifton wanted to study people at their natural best moments. He would often say, “What would happen if we helped all people do what they naturally do best?”
Finding Your Strengths
Clifton went on to complete his research and develop a tool that all could use to identify and name one’s unique gifts and talents. As I found out, what he shared at lunch years before would become, for me and for many, an amazing resource to help empower teens, engage young adults and help people of every age discern God’s call and the path to a fuller, more meaningful life. The more a person comes to understand their God-given talents and strengths and put a name to them, the easier it is to put the pieces of the puzzle together to see and understand God’s vision for their amazing lives.
Ten years ago Dobie Moser, our diocesan director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry and a trained Gallup Strengths Coach, helped Gallup organize a Living Your Strengths Summit for Catholic leaders at Gallup’s headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska. There were more than 100 Catholic leaders from around the United States present. The goal was to discuss and develop ways to carry this empowering message and strengths tool to our parishes and local communities.
|How to Use CliftonStrengths
❏ Commit to learning more about your own top five Strengths and how best to use them.
❏ See Strengths work as a tool and an excellent resource, not as a cure-all program.
❏ Help your people to see themselves as having God-given talents to use to serve others.
❏ Do a staff training day on Strengths to grow together in service to your people.
❏ Learn and affirm the top five of each of your staff members and ministry leaders.
❏ Empower leaders and staff to prayerfully use their Strengths for the good of their ministry and the larger parish community.
❏ Encourage teens and young adults to practice and learn about their talents to grow them into Strengths in a spirit of discipleship. Strengths is a great complement to your confirmation preparation program.
During the first evening of the summit, a question was posed that grabbed my mind and stirred my heart: “What’s right with you?” So often in life, and in priestly formation and ministry, we focus on “What’s wrong with you?” as an implicit judgment. God equips each of us with amazing talents that can be developed and effectively applied to any area of life/ministry. Clifton defines his Strengths as God-given talents that have been developed over time with knowledge and experience. When we use the tools — the strengths — that God gave us, we are most alive, most effective and efficient — our naturally best selves.
When you take the CliftonStrengths online assessment, you quickly receive a lengthy report via email that paints a detailed picture of your top five strengths within the framework of 34 strengths. The report weaves together your particular strengths and provides a description of your inner wiring that is accurate and informative. In my report, and in the thousands of reports of young people and adults who have taken the CliftonStrengths assessment at our parish, I have yet to have a person who did not find the report to be accurate, informative and helpful for their self-awareness. They are amazed and energized by having this new understanding and seeing the words that best express who God made them to be.
I strongly suggest taking the assessment to learn all 34 of your signature themes in rank order, and then getting coaching to understand and utilize them. There is great freedom in knowing what you are best at — and also to know what are not your strengths. It gives you the ability to let go of the illusion that you have the talents to be all things to all people. It opens the door to building stronger teams with people who have strengths different from your own.
The recognition of our own strengths, and how we are uniquely made in God’s image and likeness, opens the door to the awareness that everyone else is similarly uniquely made with combinations of strengths that are different from my own and each other’s. This awareness helped me as a priest and as a pastor to look differently at every staff person and parishioner. What are their strengths? How can I help them to discover, develop and use them? How can I raise the awareness that our strengths are gifts from God, and in the context of stewardship we must, therefore, develop our talents and use them in service to others and the world?
Father Jean Paulin Lockulu, right, sings during
an ecumenical Easter sunrise service in Klawock
on Prince of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska, April 19, 2014. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec
A Helpful Tool
Over the past 10 years, more than 900 members of my parish community have taken the CliftonStrengths assessment and participated in some processing experience. It’s been amazingly helpful as a parish community. You can see each participant find energy in their self-awareness. It has contributed to building a close-knit Christian community as people get to know each other more intimately through their strengths. It’s also a great tool to help guide them into ministries and opportunities where they can do what they naturally do best.
It is not, however, better than sliced bread. Very often, when a program comes along, we all jump on the train. CliftonStrengths works because it helps the person understand himself or herself better. Strengths works because it creates a common way to understand each other. Strengths is a great tool for stewardship discernment.
Mostly, it will only be another program unless you really take the time to understand what this is and how it can work best for your community. It can make a powerful difference. I see the levels of engagement and discipleship rise annually in my parish community and others that have embraced Strengths not as a program but as a most helpful tool.
The overwhelmingly positive experience that I have had, both personally and in ministry, with the CliftonStrengths assessment tool made me aware of how much I needed to grow in my understanding and knowledge of myself and others. It opened my eyes to learn about a variety of excellent tools that focus on human formation from various vantage points. These resources and the training that comes with them provide a deeper understanding of who we are, why we do what we do, and how to better understand and work with others. One affirming dynamic is my discovery of how I can best serve others based on who God made me and others to be as authentic and deeply loved human beings. These tools have the capacity to help us become highly effective leaders and priests who better know, love and serve God’s people.
In Your Toolbox
Aside from the CliftonStrengths program, here are two other useful tools, with brief descriptions, I have used for my own growth as well as with others in leadership in our parish.
APEST is a tool developed by Alan Hirsch, and it provides a leadership profile that identifies one’s aptitude in these areas: Apostolic, Prophetic, Evangelistic, Shepherding and Teaching. One goal of the APEST tool is to know in rank order your natural ways of ministering and being with others, and then bringing intentionality to how you serve in your role. The context and application for the APEST tool is the ministry setting in which one is already operating. The APEST tool weaves together your individual response and your ministry context.
MCORE, developed by Joshua Miller, assesses and identifies one’s motivational themes. MCORE uses a narrative approach to gathering information about three significant achievement stories as identified by the person taking the assessment. The report is used in a coaching session to reflect and understand one’s deepest motivations and how these relate to leadership. The link with MCORE is to connect the dots with identifying one’s motivations and how our motivations are an expression of and response to our vocation.
Who Is Your Ministry Coach?
Although assessment tools can be quite useful, I am convinced that tools are much less valuable than good coaching, facilitating or mentoring along with the use of the tools. The tools have to be sound, valid, accurate, etc., to provide reliable and meaningful information. The best assessment tools will be of little value if the priest or layperson is not open to coaching and ongoing formation. The coach needs to know how to listen, ask good questions, make effective observations and offer encouragement and course-correction options as needed for ongoing growth.
| Juanita Fiscal, a youth group leader at St. Willebrord Parish in Green Bay, Wis., gives instructions on carrying a basket of donations to
the altar to Julianna Zuniga and Angel Arjon on
April 26, 2017. CNS photo/Sam Lucero, The Compass
Coaching also lessens the risk of isolating behaviors that can be unhealthy in our priesthood and, in turn, make us ineffective leaders. Both unhealthy and healthy behaviors most readily are observed and known in relationship with others. Nobody, including priests, receives a free pass to avoid the challenges of our culture and the risks of self-destructive behaviors. The preventive and responsive strategies to these risks always includes a strong element of Christian community where one can deal openly and honestly with life’s struggles and have the support and resources to work through these challenges.
I overheard a conversation recently where one person asked another what was so special about St. Ambrose Parish (the parish where I am blessed to serve). The person responding said that among the many things they loved about our parish was that “we are constantly inviting others to use their gifts and talents and shining a light on the amazing people and all they do and give for God and our community.”
While I know that I could do that better, I was heartened and grateful for their response.
Perhaps God’s light is shining through us as we grow in intimacy with him, with our parish community, with our brother priests, and with a world that longs for the light of Jesus Christ to bring Good News and hope to a world in great need. These tools are a very helpful means to shine the light on each person’s gifts and talents so each can be more alive and full of the light and love of Christ.
FATHER BOB STEC, pastor at St. Ambrose Catholic Parish in Brunswick, Ohio, has served as the vocations director for the Diocese of Cleveland and coordinates The FEST, an annual family festival in northeastern Ohio.