Committing to a Clear Purpose for Your Gathering

The Second in a Series of Blogs

When I first “met” Priya Parker, during a podcast interview with Dr. Brené Brown (and yes, I am still a serious Brené groupie),  she said something that may stick with me forever:  the type of gathering is not its purpose.  A staff meeting is not the purpose of a staff meeting.  Mass is not the purpose of Mass.  Religious ed class is not the purpose.  A baby shower is not the purpose.  It’s the form of the gathering.  Too often, Priya says, the type of gathering also has a “way” it always takes place, and those methods and activities become the heartbeat of the gathering.  You know she’s right.  How many staff meetings have you been to that are exactly the same as the last?  No real purpose other than they are on the calendar.  They follow the same pattern every time.  Nothing substantive happens or, worse yet, what happens is you learn to hate being with your colleagues, you learn to dread the day they occur, and you begin to look for ways to shield yourself from them.  I knew she was right.  The type of gathering is not its purpose.  OK.  Now what?

Priya teaches that it falls to the hosts of those gatherings to name and then create a clear, bold purpose for that gathering.  Then, she says,  center every activity in the gathering around moving toward achieving that purpose.  Words, activities, art and environment, use of the space, choice of rituals or lack thereof are all deliberately chosen to achieve that bold purpose.  Here’s an example of what a parish staff meeting in today’s age might look like if it takes Priya’s wisdom to heart:

The BOLD purpose:  To determine how we are going to re-connect our parishioners to Jesus, to the parish and to one another.

The location for this meeting:  The sanctuary or primary worship space.  Why?  Because this is the first place many are re-entering after 15 months of diaspora and where we believe we connect to Christ, the parish and each other in ways we do not elsewhere.

The set up of the space:  A table and enough chairs set up at the base of the altar or in the center of the worship space.  Make sure everyone can see each other clearly.

Art & Environment:  In addition to whatever is still in the worship space from Sunday, light the altar candles.  Place a runner or small cloth in the correct liturgical color in the center of the meeting table with a pillar candle, tea lights, unlit, for each member and a Bible or other Sacred Book on the table. 

Structure for the meeting: 

Gathering:  The pastor is outside the worship space, greeting each staff member as they enter, and directing them to place their items at a place on the table, and then to walk around the worship space, slowly, considering what it’s like to come back in here after being gone a very long time.  Have them go and sit in their “usual” or comfortable seat and reflect on what it’s been like to be forced to sit elsewhere.  What is it like to come back and not be able to sit in the preferred place?  What thoughts and feelings, questions and concerns emerge?  Allow 15 minutes for this gathering activity.

Opening Reflection:  Can be accompanied by a Gathering Hymn such as “All are Welcome” or “We Gather Together” or “Companions on the Journey”.  It would be great if you can sing together, but if not, listen together to a recorded or streamed version.

Next, a short prayer asking that each person there feel God’s welcome embrace, as they come home, to the Table, to Jesus’ real sacramental presence…to the heart of the parish.

Reflect together:  What is it like to come in after being gone?  What thoughts and feelings are emerging?  Share individual stories of re-entry into the worship space and of sitting in “their” place, and of the part of the space that connects them to Jesus.

  • How does this space connect people to Jesus? How can we highlight that in gatherings before, during and after Mass?
  • How does this space connect people to their sense of belonging to this parish? Stories of sacred moments celebrated here, family connections, friendships, mourning give evidence to how this works.
  • How does this space connect people to one another? What can we do to foster re-connection, since in effect we are all “strangers” to one another, having lived 15 months outside of one another’s lives?

Action Steps:  What can we as a staff do immediately to begin this re-connection process?  Who else should be involved in assisting us in meeting this purpose?  What obstacles will we need to overcome immediately?  Down the road a bit?  Who can help us plan the sustained efforts this will take?  How will we move forward, precisely, from this meeting?  When will we check in again?

Closing ritual:  As each petition is read by a staff member, the same staff member pauses to light their tea light and place it near the candle on the table.

Leader: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”  This parish exists to be that light, and to rekindle that light in others.  It exists to work with one another to keep the flame of faith burning brightly until the judgment day in heaven.  Let us pray for our parish to be that bright light of faith, drawing others toward Christ through our work:

  • For all those for whom the pandemic has been one long dark night of the soul…may our parish bring light and life.
  • For all those whose lives bear the bruises of banging around during the darkness of the pandemic…may this parish be the balm they need.
  • For all those whose families are worn out, frazzled, over-done with too much togetherness, may the joy of parish friendships lighten their burdens.

When all the petitions are read  (craft them ahead of time) and the candles lit, the collect might be something like:  Christ be our light.  Shine in our hearts.  Shine in the darkness.  Christ be our light, shine in our parish, alight with you this day.[i]  Amen.

This is a staff meeting with a very intentional, clear, bold purpose.  It accomplishes that purpose at least in part, and has the potential to both transform the staff and positively impact the parish.  Might you finish with this part and then add the other “usual” items you have on your agenda?  Sure.  Just get mutual agreement for the time this will require.

Next week I’ll be talking some more about this notion of re-entry and what kinds of things Priya suggests we pay attention to, and how those categories translate to parish/congregational life.  Until then, begin to be intentional about the purpose for all of your gatherings and structure every one of them toward achieving the purpose.  Jettison the old ways.  Create new forms.  Seek new locations.  Add rituals, art, music and most of all, time for real connections.  You, the people you serve and those precious elements of time and relationships deserve this attentiveness!


[i] Adapted from Bernadette Farrell’s song, “Christ be our Light.” 


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As I write this, it’s just under a month until the first phase of the Church’s Synod on the process of synodality is to begin.