DIREZIONE GENERALE OPERE DON BOSCO
Via della Pisana 1111 - Rome
The General Councillor for Formation
To the Reverend Provincials
and the Provincial Councils
To the Provincial Delegates for formation
And the Provincial Commissions for formation
THE SALESIAN COMMUNITY PLAN
A process of discernment and of sharing
Dealing with the topic of the Salesian community, the GC25 saw in the plan of community life an effective means for strengthening the ability 'to live and work together', to overcome the increasing disconnection of each individual's work, and to avoid the danger of pastoral work becoming fragmented. For this reason it asked every community 'to work according to a community plan' (GC25 72). The formulation of the plan of the Salesian community could be a good point of departure for putting the GC25 into practice.
To facilitate the initiatives of the provinces in embarking on this enterprise, I offer some considerations that may provide useful clarifications, stimuli and suggestions. These pages are aimed primarily at Provincials and their Councils, and the Provincial Delegates for Formation and their Provincial Formation Commissions; these have been asked to suggest methods and provide practical guides for the formulation of the community plans and for the carrying out of assessments of the plans of individual communities. (GC25 16, 74). However, these reflections may also prove useful to the Rectors and the confreres.
What is said here refers to the communities which are carrying out the educative and pastoral mission of the Congregation. But at least the general outlines also apply to formation communities; they too have to draw up a community plan, concentrating on the formation of their members and basing themselves on the indications of the Ratio (FSDB 222, 577). A specific write-up on the plan for a formation community will be offered later.
In current circumstances having a plan plays an important part in the life of any individual or group or institution. For a young person on the threshold of adult life, having a plan for his future means giving a certain direction to his life, taking responsibility for it and directing all his efforts towards reaching his objective, being ready for the necessary sacrifices. He has a dream and is ready to do everything possible to achieve it. There is enthusiasm and determination, his life has meaning and he wants to live it to the full. On the other hand, not having a plan is like being a ship at sea not knowing which way to go; it lets itself be carried along by the current. What a waste of time, energy and of life itself!
In a similar way the planning that a community does of its life and work is a necessity. We are in a new situation, that changes quickly and varies in different contexts. Our communities are dispersed because of the nature of the work; they live and work in different kinds of situations, and what is useful in one place is often of no use in another. Each local community therefore has to assume responsibility for itself in full knowledge and awareness. In such a situation planning offers some notable advantages:
- In the first place, the community builds it own sense of identity with the help of a plan. It questions itself about God's designs in its regard: What does God want our community to be in this place? What role has he given it among the young people and the lay people in these circumstances? What do we want to be in fidelity to God who has called us here? (GC25 73). Now, there is no doubt that in Church documents and in those of the Congregation we can find suggestions about how a community should live and function; but all that is put in very general terms. Here, on the other hand, is a particular group of confreres in a concrete situation who are asking themselves about the meaning of their presence and who are trying to discern the will of God. The community plan in this way becomes an effective way of discovering, as a community, the will of God and of practising obedience (GC25 23, 28, 34).
- From an awareness of its own identity the community acquires a sense of direction, in its own journey. It discovers the road to take in order to become the community it feels itself called to be. This sense of direction includes the whole life of the community: prayer, educative and social activities, relationships, meetings, ongoing formation, the everyday circumstances of daily life and special initiatives. As iron filings in a tray all point in the same direction when a magnet passes over them, so too in the community everything is now directed towards concrete objectives. There is a shared view of things, of criteria and of courses of action. (GC25 46).
- Naturally this leads to unity in action, and above all to a sense of communion among the confreres. A convergence is created among the members of the community. With each one having taken part in the community discussion and having offered his own contribution, there is greater understanding and sensitivity regarding each one and a greater harmony among them all. The community is united in wanting to journey together towards a common goal, following the way traced out together and chosen by all without any kind of imposition on anyone's part. (GC25 61). Formulating the community plan becomes another way of building the community and the best antidote to individualism.
- The result is a greater commitment on the part of all the members of the community. Having been involved in the process, they feel that they can own the plan and they have a sense of responsibility for making it work. (GC25 74). Each one begins to work with enthusiasm, using his talents, energy and resources to achieve what the plan proposes.
As can be seen, the community plan sets in motion a process for discerning what God tells us about how to live in a particular situation, it is an effective instrument to create a shared vision, to build community and to develop relationships; it is a means to get all the members to work together; it is a help to each confrere to feel appreciated and to fulfil his own vocation within the community. The plan is the result of a process; it is therefore useful to pay attention to the whole process and not only to the result. The plan is �a means and not an end�; it is therefore necessary to motivate the confreres in order to achieve the purposes of the plan.
In order to set in motion the community planning process, there need to be some pre-conditions that can ensure the successful functioning of the process and an effective outcome.
- Above all it is necessary to cultivate some attitudes and beware of some dangers, thus avoiding the illusions and the delusions of every plan. The community is not the exclusive protagonist of the plan; it recognizes and accepts that over and above it lies God's plan in its regard. The aim of the plan is not the community's self- fulfilment or success, but its totally free dedication to the mission and to growth in its vocational identity. The community does not aim at 'perfectionism' but at its own evangelical authenticity. In drawing up its plan, it is not make a fetish out of methodological exactitude but seeks to reach each confrere in the depth of his being, starting from his own and the community's lived experience. (GC25 73).
There is an 'order of priorities' inherent in the process that reflects the primacy of God, and that leaves room for his grace. Listening to the Scriptures and prayer are the context and the parameters within which the planning process takes place and through which it then becomes a real spiritual experience for the community. Docility to the Spirit creates the conditions necessary to be open to the Gospel and to life, so as not to get lost in the face of uncertainties and mistakes, but to be always ready for renewal and conversion.
- There is a second thing that needs attention. Experience tells us that a successful plan depends to a large extent if not entirely on the dispositions of the members of the community towards it. If the plan is seen by the confreres as an imposition by the General Chapter or the Provincial, the tendency will be to put it off as far as possible or to do it as quickly as possible. It is obvious that this kind of plan is no use at all. It is important therefore that before the process begins the community is convinced of the need to work according to a plan (GC25 72) and that the members really want to do it; the community sees in it an important means for its own life and growth. If there is hesitation or lack of interest on the part of some, it is better to have a community meeting first of all about the purpose of the plan, in order to try to clarify it or to resolve doubts about it and especially to create an open and willing attitude. One needs to arrive at the point where the confreres are ready, if not exactly enthusiastic, to begin to walk along this path. The community formulates its plan not because it feels constrained but because it feels the need, not because it has to but because it wants to.
- Finally there is a third condition required. The community planning process is not something that starts from zero, but it has two important points of reference. On the one hand, there is our Rule of Life that offers authoritative guidance about the Salesian community; and on the other there is the text of the GC25 that concentrates on four aspects of the community: fraternal life, evangelical witness, animating presence among the young, and formation and animation.. No plan therefore can put these to one side if it wishes to be faithful to God's call at the present moment.
For this reason it is necessary that before beginning the planning work each community commits itself to taking up the texts indicated. To these basic points of reference two others could be added: the Organic Provincial Plan and the Plan of the educative and pastoral community. The Salesian community forms part of a Province and is also a point of charismatic reference point within the animating nucleus of the EPC; this 'presupposes that the community's plan is in line with that of the Organic Provincial Plan and with that of each EPC' (CG25 78, 74, 15).
The stages in the community planning process are the same three that are part and parcel of the text of the GC25 and of its acceptance by the community; they are essentially the stages of a discernment process.
- A prayerful spiritual atmosphere of prayer having been set, a readiness ensured to work on the plan, and the contents of the reference texts assimilated, the first step towards drawing up the plan is identifying how the community would like to be in response to God's call. Now is the time to dream realistically. It is the time for the community, looking to the future, to ask itself what God wants of it. It is not a matter of describing a community in the abstract; it is a question of trying to identify the characteristics this community is being called upon to incarnate hic et nunc.
The community listens to and examines the Word of God; it looks at the expectations of young people, of the local Church, of the local area; it examines its own situation from a pastoral standpoint. It asks itself about its evangelical witness; considers its fraternal relationships; listens to the promptings of the Spirit in each one of its members. Each confrere is invited to say what he sees as God's plan for the community. Reflecting before God on his own life in community, the confrere shares with the other members his vision, his concerns and his expectations for the community, preferably on the four points proposed by the GC25. He also shares his experiences in community, those happy and those sad, and his own needs with a view to fulfilling his personal plan of life. As the community absorbs each one's contribution, it gradually moves towards a convergence of views about what God calls it to become.
It is useful to recall that at this first stage one is only describing how this community should be, not what it needs to do. And it is important that the community's projection of itself into the future, which emerges from what is said by everyone, be not a cold, cerebral thing but something to make all the members of the community enthusiastic. It is something to attract them, to encourage them, and that is realistic; it responds to their wishes and to their expectations; it points to what could be the result of everyone's efforts and sacrifices.
- Once this 'shared vision' for the future has been arrived at, the second stage begins, which is that of considering, along the lines of the vision, what one finds in the community: the situation of the community. Often there is a tendency to begin speaking at once of the problems; it would seem a better approach to consider first the 'successes' of the community with regard to the future that is hoped for, and also its resources. Proceeding in this way creates a positive atmosphere for the whole process and serves to encourage the members in that they see things that have already been achieved or that can be. Then one moves to identify the things that need to be improved in view of the desired objectives. It does not help to make a long list of all the points positive and negative in detail. Instead a good planning process presupposes the ability to identify those three or four points that are central and in practice include the others; it is a matter of collecting the basic challenges that arise from the situation.
- And so we come to the third stage of the process, which is that concerned with action. In the light of its vision of the future and of its present situation, the community indicates the lines of action for the coming year. These are drawn up according to the four parts of the GC25: fraternal life, evangelical witness, animating presence among the young, and formation and animation of the community.
These are expressed in the form of objectives to be achieved, strategies or procedures to be implemented, and interventions to be made to reach the objectives (GC25 74). The objectives express the vision of the future in concrete terms, that is to say, in the form of verifiable targets. They will help to verify if and to what extent we have succeeded in realizing our vision. The strategies or processes are the principal aspects that need to be taken care of if the objectives are to be attained. And the interventions are the actions to be carried out.
It is to be hoped that the lines for action are the essential ones, so as not to overstretch the community on too many fronts; that they are significant in having a notable impact on the community; and that they can be achieved within a year, so taking into account the real possibilities of the community.
The plan should also be accompanied by an annual programme, in which the timescale, the methods and those responsible are indicated. The more concrete the practical proposals, the greater the possibility of them being effective.
Two points require attention throughout the process: there are steps to be kept in mind if a convergence is to be arrived at, and it is important that the Rector be aware of his role.
- It is important that in the whole process efforts are made to arrive at conclusions and decisions by a consensus, or better, by a convergence of the members of the community. Convergence does not mean unanimity, but that each of the members, even if he does not find the conclusions or the decisions entirely to his liking, nonetheless is ready to give his support to them. Naturally to arrive at a consensus in a group of people needs time and effort, but it has the great advantage of overcoming differences of opinion, of creating a shared view of problems and of solutions, and consequently of fostering unity. In this way the plan becomes the 'product' of all the community; each of the confreres finds himself in it. And being open, throughout the whole process, to what God wants, the work of drawing up the plan becomes a real act of discernment.
- The role of the Rector in this process is not that of deciding on his own nor of imposing his ideas. He encourages the confreres to listen to the Spirit and to each other and to look at the questions from different points of view. He invites each one to take part with complete freedom, and for this reason he tries to create an atmosphere of trust and respect. He helps in the gradual process of arriving at a convergence overcoming any reasons for dissent. He accompanies the community during the whole process, guiding it with great sensitivity and ensuring that this is neither rushed nor burdensome.
I have said above that the plan is not a written text in the first place, but the convergence of the community on certain objectives to be attained and on the measures to be taken to become what God calls it to be. Therefore, the community does not aim so much at a perfect 'document' as at the participation of everyone, reciprocal listening, sharing and convergence; these are the real values and the fruits of the process.
Nevertheless, the community needs something written that might serve as a record. It is not necessary that this record be prepared by everyone together; such a procedure would only serve to make the community meetings burdensome. Instead it would be far better if the Rector were to ask one or two of the members to take notes during the community assembles and then to put things in writing. This 'document' is then submitted to the community and to the Council for its approval, and a copy thereof is given to each member.
Even if I am not proposing any particular model for the write-up, the written text should present God's call as perceived by the community, the present situation and the lines of action, following the outline traced by the GC25. In other words, it should refer to fraternal life, paying attention to communion, communication and sharing; to evangelical witness, giving due consideration to the primacy of God, the grace of unity and the radical following of Christ; to the animating presence among the young, showing due regard for the educative and pastoral community, the Salesian Family, the local Church and the neighbourhood; and to formation, ensuring an annual programme of ongoing formation of the community and of formation together with the laity, making daily life efficacious for formation, and paying heed to the animating role of the community and of the Rector.
The three moments of the process of discernment could be expressed in the form of expectations, invitations or desires as a first step describing God's call; in the form of resources, difficulties and above all challenges as a second step describing the situation of the community; and in the form of objectives, strategies or processes and interventions as a third step, spelling out the lines of action. It may be useful to recall here that if a fruit of community planning is putting the community plan in writing, the above-mentioned aspects ought to be kept in mind throughout the process.
After it has been written down, the community plan becomes a constant point of reference to which each confrere and the whole community returns. At the beginning of the year, the community formulates or updates its plan (CG25 65) and makes it more specific with the annual planning process (CG25 74). Then the community sets to work to implement it. Periodically, through the 'Good night', the conference, the assembly or by some other means, the Rector reminds the community and the individual confreres of the undertakings assumed. Important is the contribution to making it more concrete that the House Council can make; each month it can measure the correlation between the 'path to be followed' and the 'path actually taken'.
The whole community verifies and evaluates the progress of its own plan in the course of the year and towards the end of the year. To leave the assessment until the end of the year alone is to run the risk of not having the time and the possibility of making the necessary adjustments, of removing possible blockages and of making a push to reach the targets. In this way the plan does not remain a fine document on paper, but becomes an effective means for uniting the community and helping it make progress in its life and mission.
On his part, as the GC25 suggests, every confrere seeks to harmonize his personal plan of life with that of the community (GC25 74, 31). And so the community plan becomes a reference point for each one's personal plan of life.
The Provincial with his Council has the responsibility of accompanying and of verifying the community plans; for this he can use the services of the Provincial Delegate for Formation and the Provincial Formation Commission (GC25 16, 74). In this way the communities learn to make progress with the whole Province and are encouraged and guided to take the necessary steps. In addition, the Provincial checks whether the community plans are consistent with the Provincial Organic Plan and the plans of the local educative and pastoral communities.
It has been said that failing to plan means planning to fail! The community process of formulating a plan has been proved from experience to be a help in producing that community of Salesian brothers and apostles that we want to see in everyone of our houses. Our community is not a 'finished article' for the fact that it is made up of a number of confreres, but is a building in progress, a work of art in the making. To finish it is the task of each one of us, with trust, generosity and joy.
Fr Francesco Cereda
Roma, 13 dicembre 2002