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Posted February 28, 2011

The Roots of The National Institute
for the Renewal of the Priesthood

By Eugene Hemrick

Where do I begin to tell my story of The National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood — a dream come true — yet mixed with ambivalent feelings?

When the institute was first conceived, it was envisioned as a think tank that would spiritually and intellectually energize pastoral leaders with unique resources, and provide them with a forum for in depth discussions. I remember thinking “What better time than now to do this? Priests, deacons and lay leaders can use all the assistance available during these trying days.”

From its very beginning the institute was well received. And yet despite its success, there were times I wanted to walk away from it and never return. From where did the idea emanate? What inspired its design? How does it operate? And though it’s successful, why is there my ambivalence?

The inspiration behind the institute goes back to my twenty years as director of the office of research for the Bishops’ Conference in Washington, D.C. [1976-1996]. It was a memorable time of conducting research with bishops, university scholars, dioceses, various religious denominations, and national agencies. Approximately one hundred national studies were produced during those years. More important than this were the lessons those years taught me about the value of research for energizing church ministry. I often thought to myself: “If pastoral leaders applied the principles of research to their ministry, its effectiveness would soar.” What are these principles?

Principle 1: Research Evokes the Spirit of Concentration

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: “Concentration is the secret of strength.” In our research, I learned that as taxing as was the deliberation it required, this concentration acted as a catalyst for consolidating our thoughts and energies, and creating a strong team spirit. Oh, we had our battles and fractures, but as Ernest Hemingway once observed, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” We always overcame our differences, and were stronger because of the experience.

I often thought when feeling this wholesome spirit: “Wouldn’t it be great for church leaders to experience the strength that concentration generates?” Unfortunately, many of them are in perpetual motion with little time for serious reflection. Years ago the renowned theologian and cultural analyst Romano Guardini realized how feverish life is becoming and commented that we are losing our contemplative edge.

One reason the national institute exists is to enable pastoral leaders to maintain the contemplative edge of which Guardini speaks. This is accomplished by providing a web page that acts as a laboratory or quiet library where serious reflection and the intellectual muscle this creates can happen.

Principle 2: Research Immerses One in a World of Ideas

During my years at the Bishops’ Conference, I was also a syndicated columnist. These two roles immersed me in the world of ideas. Most of that time was spent searching for new concepts that applied to ministry. The latest books and studies were read; seminars were attended; knowledgeable people interviewed; and, there were numerous meetings with scholars and pastoral ministers from the grassroots.

One of the ironic things I learned in conducting research on church ministry is that there is a tendency to focus more on pragmatic ideas than on its spiritual side. Church leaders tend to be more interested in what does and doesn’t work; what resources will best help them be successful, and how to manage a staff, budget, or conflict.

Undoubtedly, these pragmatic needs must be addressed. However, when they are overemphasized, they tend to overshadow important spiritual questions. For example, has the spiritual life of a pastoral minister improved through his or her ministry; what virtues most help a parish to improve its holiness and, do homilies and programs draw the faithful closer to God?

After years of struggling to find the best way to measure the true effectiveness of a ministry, we experienced a major breakthrough. We realized that its spiritual side needed more attention than was given it. This may sound self-evident until one compares the pragmatic to the spiritual approach studies follow. Most studies tend to be much more oriented to the pragmatic. The number of parishioners attending church or going to confession is of far more concern than what actually happens to their spirituality in church or in the confessional.

The need for balance between the pragmatic and spiritual is the reason behind the institute’s twofold goal of creating spiritual and intellectual energy. It aims at assisting participants to enjoy continuing education by providing them with useful resources. But it also aspires to help them find Christ in their life through exercises like self-directed retreats or meditating on the works of spiritual writers.

Principle 3: Research is an Adventure in Exploring Causes and Effects.

Leo Tolstoy once said, “Man’s mind cannot wrest the causes of events in their completeness, but the desire to find the causes is implanted in man’s soul.” Research elevates the appetite for seeking the causes that Tolstoy says our soul desires. It casts a person into an investigative mode in search of clues, turning working into an adventure.

In our research we were forever looking for cause-effect relationships. When we found what might be a proven cause, it was a jubilant moment. I often fantasized what a wonderful thing it would be if pastoral leaders made it a regular practice to seriously hunt down the causes of their successes and failures. (As fanciful as this may sound, I have personally witnessed this seeking out of causes in pastoral ministry).

In a renowned parish in Chicago, I sat in on a session in which a well-known lecturer consulted with the parish staff after each of his talks. The reviewed his text and his delivery bit by bit to see what was or wasn’t connecting with the audience. What were its highlights? Did the facilities create a welcoming spirit? They worked hard, but you could see they were having fun making suggestions for achieving better results the next time.

Whenever the institute posts statistics, case studies and success stories, one of its hopes is to enable participants to better understand cause-effect relationships. For example, seventeen percent of parishes are now without a resident pastor because priests are going into retirement, dying or leaving, and aren’t being replaced. New ordinations aren’t keeping up with departures. The causes for this are many: the breakup of the family; a Catholic school system that no longer is a feeder system for vocations; changing images of the priesthood; confusion about the role of a priest; and a culture that is anti religion, encompassing pluralism and radical individualism, to name a few.

As this example demonstrates, understanding cause-effect relationships is essential to ministry because it gives meaning to situations that often look hopelessly incomprehensible. Countering this hopelessness is one of the goals of the institute. It accomplishes this by enabling participants to view the wide range of variables in an issue, and to aggressively seek their cause-effect relationships. By knowing the cause one can more easily decide on change strategies.

Principle 4: Research Glories in Carefully Formulated Questions.

Francis Bacon knew well the power of the question when he said: “A prudent question is one-half wisdom.” One carefully formulated question, as we learned in research, can open up an entirely new world. And in all truthfulness it can cause grave disturbance and create havoc.

Whenever we formulate a question of exceptional worth and watched the results it caused, I would often wonder how many in ministry realize the power of one good question? Do they truly understand the catastrophic change it can cause?

The awe I developed for a well-formulated question is the reason the institute has a discussion section. Its aim is to raise thought-provoking questions that create ongoing dialogues, and energize priests, deacons and pastoral leaders through the sharing of ideas.

As I now reflect on the mission of our institute to spiritually and intellectually energize priests, deacons and lays pastoral ministers, I realize the direction it has taken harkens back in great part to my research experiences. During them, I tasted the contemplative edge, a world of ideas, the adventure of cause-effect relations, and the power to critical questions. These are the wholesome experiences the institute endeavors to reduplicate with its participants. In the words of Baruch Spinoza it hopefully is saying to them: “Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand.”