My monthly column for OSV Newsweekly.
Pope Francis has challenged us to find more effective ways to bring Christ to the world. So this year, let’s resolve — both as individuals and as a Church — to adopt a new approach to ministry that focuses on nourishing the seeds of faith instead of the current model that obsesses over why barren land is so … barren. Let me explain.
The Church is rightly concerned about many problems. How can we retain our teens and young adults? How can we help couples live the Catholic vision of love and marriage? How can we do a better job of ministering to marginalized persons — especially the divorced and remarried, as well as LGBT persons? How can we build a Church of intentional disciples? But year after year, despite our best efforts, polls show that the Church is losing people at a constant rate. The more energy we put into our current approach to ministry, the worse the results are.
What to do?
I believe the answer can be found in something Abraham Maslow once said about clinical psychology: namely, that its focus on disease led to a “sick psychology” that could tell people what was wrong with them but could never give them a clear way out. His comments became the seeds of the “positive psychology” movement founded in the late ’90s by psychologist Martin Seligman. Positive psychology is the science of human flourishing. It does not ignore common psychological maladies like depression, anxiety and all the rest, but approaches them from a different angle. Instead of looking at what is “broken” in the person, positive psychology studies what, exactly, leads people to experience happiness and fulfillment. It then teaches those skills to people who are struggling so that they can experience abundance in their lives as well.
Despite early concerns that such an approach would be unrelatable or insensitive to people who were struggling with real problems, hundreds of studies over the last 20 years have shown that positive psychology has transformed countless lives with its solution-focused, growth-oriented, wisdom-based approach.
Sick vs. healthy ministry
What does all this have to do with Church ministry? Everything. Since the late 1960s our ministry has been profoundly influenced by old-fashioned psychological models that focus on diagnosing problems rather than seeking solutions. We’ve all fallen into asking problem-focused questions like, “Why don’t young adults stay faithful?” “Why don’t couples use Natural Family Planning?” “Why don’t LGBT people, divorced people or others in ‘irregular situations’ feel welcome?” These questions seem superficially helpful, but they merely grind down on the problem without leading us to any clear solutions.
More contemporary liturgies? More traditional liturgies? Scrap NFP training? Require NFP training? Change doctrine? Toughen up on doctrine? Without any data to support a clear way forward, we merely react out of our personal biases, asserting “solutions” rooted less in either faith or facts than in secular, conservative or progressive ideologies.
A better way
In the new year, let’s adopt a “positive ministry” approach that looks at what works instead of what doesn’t. Let’s find Catholics who have struggled with real human challenges in a way that led to deeper faith and greater personal integration. Let’s ask them how they made the Faith work despite their challenging circumstances and teach those skills to those who are struggling.
Let’s talk to Catholic couples who have faced real struggles with NFP, but have learned to approach those struggles in ways that led them to experience both a more faithful and a more intimate marriage and ask them, “What worked?” Let’s talk to homosexual Catholics who are not living in denial but who have found a way to live their Catholicism in a way that has led to both deeper personal and spiritual integration and ask, “What worked?” Let’s talk to teens and young adults who have faced personal doubts and social pressure bravely and honestly but still managed to remain in the Church all along and ask, “What worked?” Let’s talk to divorced and remarried persons who have embraced the real challenges of living as brother and sister for a time but came out of the experience both stronger and more faithful and ask, “What worked?”