Steven Covey in the Woods
Summer is coming to a close in my neck of the woods. Of course if you’re reading this in the southern hemisphere (as I’ve discovered sometimes happens when I look at the statistics page for my blog) you’re looking forward to spring. Anyway, I really haven’t taken a summer vacation. In fact summer seems to have gone by quicker than ever. Call it poor planning on my part. I let the days slip by, and didn’t make plans. Perhaps I should take that 7 Habits for Highly Effective People course or read the book by Stephen Covey. Oh, wait a minute. I took the 7 Habits course adapted for Catholic priests, several years ago when it was offered by the National Federation of Priests’ Councils in our Diocese. I remember thinking at the time that it was an awful lot of work to be that organized, bought the Franklin Covey planner, and proceeded to not put into practice most of what I learned. I was and am just not that disciplined. So, my professional life is still disorganized and I could be more effective than I am.
So why do I bring up the 7 Habits? I did take a couple of “mini-vacations” where I wasn’t absent from the parish over a weekend, for 3 or 4 days mid-week. In August I took a short trip to New Harmony, Indiana and St. Meinrad Archabbey and St. Meinrad Seminary, in Southern Indiana. I am an alumnus of the seminary.
My goal on this trip was for a little R & R & R. That’s Rest and Relaxation and Renewal. Rest and relaxation are important. The first two R’s can lead to renewal of spirit, renewal of energy, renewal of purpose and mission. I can use a bit of the third R. Besides a quick trip to southern Indiana, I do need to schedule a retreat. Again, the lack of organization of my life and procrastination.
New Harmony, Indiana was founded in the 19th century, with two groups trying to establish at different times a utopian community. They were the Rappits and the Harmonists. (You can read more at the town’s website linked to in the previous paragraph.) Those early residents didn’t achieve their goal, but the current residents have used this history to cultivate a town where there is an openness to “spirituality” and a peacefulness. At the heart of this spirit of the town is the New Harmony Inn. It’s a wonderfully relaxing, peaceful place that draws its inspiration from the early settlers and provides visitors a sort of spiritual retreat atmosphere without being a religious institution. I spent two days and nights there, using a gift card that I’d been presented three years ago by my parish of St. Stephen, Caseyville, IL during the “Year of the Priest.” The priests of the Diocese of Belleville used to hold their convocation there for a few years. I had mentioned how much I liked town and New Harmony Inn, so I was presented the gift card. I finally used the gift this past week because other plans for a longer vacation didn’t materialize and I had at least reserved the week on the calendar for vacation.
On the morning of my first day, I decided to use one of the bicycles the Inn loans out for guests. I found myself riding a gravel trail in the woods between the Inn and the Wabash River that the town is next to. I had walked one of the trails, earlier and found myself praying and reflecting in God’s cathedral, never meeting another person. This time on the bicycle, I noticed some men were sitting on benches or fallen trees. In their hands were the unmistakable Franklin Covey & 7 Habits of Highly Effective Planner books!
Putting two and two together, I figured the group I had seen the night before at the Inn’s Red Geranium Restaurant was some sort of corporate retreat taking the 7 Habits course. So, I asked one of the men and had my conclusion confirmed.
What struck me as ironic is that here these men were, out in nature’s beauty where productivity and efficiency are not exactly the goal. Noses buried in their planners, planning what ever they’d need to do to get organized and highly effective at work they were missing the point of enjoying God’s handiwork. Perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh, I’m sure they were noticing the beauty around them, but still, it just seemed incongruous. I did remind the man I spoke with to remember to check out the scenery and not miss what was right in front of him.
Sometimes, that’s a problem for me and other professional church ministers. We professional ecclesial ministers are called to have vision, to lead and program our congregations so that people grow in living the mission. But I wonder if sometimes we get too focused on where we want to be and don’t notice the person in need right in front of us, or take the time to rejoice with our people over what God is doing in that moment in our parish.
The encounter with Stephen Covey in the woods on a river bank left me with a desire to spend my three days away in more of a prayerful attitude of being attentive to what God was inviting me to hear in order that I might be not just rested and relaxed but also renewed. The parish will still be there when I get back, I reminded myself. Perhaps it was part of God’s plan that the wi-fi signal in my part of the Inn complex wasn’t working. I wasn’t going to be tempted to deal with e-mails and parish planning on my computer I brought along.
Later that evening, while I was finishing my dinner at the Red Geranium restaurant, a group of five men and a woman were seated on the patio where I was dinning. We struck up a conversation (I do have a habit of doing that with strangers when I’m traveling alone) and they invited me to join them for a drink. They did get me to reveal I was a priest taking a little R & R which always opens up a host of topics and questions, which I’m glad to answer. There’s No Vacation from Telling Good News as I’ve written before. During our conversation I discovered they were part of the same workshop learning the 7 Habits. Apparently, it was proving to be a valuable experience for them.
That’s good, I thought. Yet, I couldn’t resist adding my two-cents of “pastoral advice.” I told the group about my experience with the 7 Habits course. Then I reminded the group that while I’m sure it’s valuable in both the business and ecclesiastical world, my experience has taught me that when servicing our “clients” (when viewed through the lens of the business realm, members of parishes are “consumers” of a service that we provide) relationship always trumps efficiency. These young business people will do better in their business if they concentrate on building a relationship with their clients. Ultimately, the business of church ministers is always building up the relationship of the people they serve with Jesus Christ. The way to experiencing a relationship with Christ, in the Catholic realm, is to build up relationships among parishioners, to form community. In encountering the poor, we encounter Christ who invites us into relationship through serving the least of my brothers and sisters.