The NPPN Executive serves the National Pastoral Planners Network whose purpose is to promote and strengthen a culture of planning for mission and evangelisation within the Catholic Church in Oceania. We engage pastoral research and best practices in church growth to offer experience, knowledge, resources and processes that enable dioceses and parishes to advance the mission of Jesus Christ under the guidance of the Spirit.
In June 2014 our colleague, friend and executive member of the NPPN, Chris Ehler, informed us that he would be finishing up in his role as Project Officer on the Mission Team of Evangelisation Brisbane.
Chris has brought great wisdom, experience and insight to the NPPN over many years and we offer below a tribute from Geoff Gowdie, former executive director of Faith and Life, Brisbane, which captures well our gratitude and appreciation for Chris’ great gifts and contribution not only to the Archdiocese of Brisbane but to the Australian Church as a whole. We wish Chris and his family all the very best in the new phase of life that awaits them.
“Chris Ehler commenced work with the Archdiocese of Brisbane in early April 1994 after more than 20 years in education as a teacher, school principal and diocesan education consultant. He became a member of staff firstly in the Church Life and Mission Vicariate and then in the Faith & Life Vicariate. Chris’ contribution and gift to the Church of Brisbane and beyond has many dimensions, and this is my focus in the words that follow.
Chris stepped into the world of diocesan-wide pastoral planning in its early days. With the leadership of Auxiliary Bishop Jim Cuskelly MSC, the Archdiocese of Brisbane had developed Shaping and Staffing Our Parishes (SSP), its first systematic approach to planning within the changing landscape of parish life and mission.Chris’ key task was to take a lead role in assisting parishes to use the SSP processes and resources. He did this with enthusiasm, commitment and great gusto. Parishes had the resources to run their own processes but inevitably Chris was often approached to run assemblies and generally accompany parishes through the journey of developing their pastoral plans and talking to one another in their designated pastoral areas.
Following the 2003 Archdiocesan Synod, a second round of Archdiocesan-wide planning focused on deaneries. Chris, as executive officer for the Commission for Evangelisation and Pastoral Planning, was heavily involved in the preparation of documentation and in resourcing parishes and deaneries to implement the planning processes which focused on pastoral leadership and the operating structures of parishes. The plans that emerged from this activity supported the Archdiocese through to 2013, giving the new Archbishop, Mark Coleridge, time to settle in after the retirement of Archbishop John Bathersby in 2011. It was also during the course of this long planning period that the Archdiocese adopted the strategy of inviting priests and seminarians from overseas to serve and study in Brisbane.
From the early days of his time with the Archdiocese Chris began an association with pastoral planning personnel in other dioceses around Australia and in New Zealand. The first ‘national’ gathering occurred in 1990 at Geelong, bringing together about nine people under the leadership of David Shinnick from Adelaide. I attended from Brisbane as did Melbourne Archdiocese’s Bob Dixon who is still very much at the research forefront in this area. By the time Chris came along the group had grown and before long formed a national association which became known as the National Pastoral Planning Network (NPPN).
Throughout his entire time here Chris has maintained his contact with NPPN and, in fact, took the lead in representing Brisbane in this forum. NPPN members will understand when I say that NPPN involvement not only demonstrated Chris’ capacity for hard work but also his loyalty to people and his faithfulness to seeing tasks through to completion. He has served NPPN in a variety of capacities for many years through thick and thin, and there has been a lot of ‘thin’ in the constantly changing dynamics that impact on planning in an ecclesial environment. Executive membership, conference organisation, newsletters, telephone support – Chris himself became a constant within the network.
In similar vein, Chris became the local go-to person and authority on planning-related instruments and processes: the National Church Life Survey, local Church data such as the Clergy Allocation Schedule and the Mass Attendance Count, digital maps for parishes and deaneries, and general engagement with Bob Dixon and the ACBC Pastoral Research Office. These items wove regular patterns through his working rhythm, year-in and year-out. When NCLS reports were released he could be seen around the Archdiocese faithfully running workshops for parishes on how to use NCLS profiles to enhance parish life and mission. He would often be on the telephone with Bob Dixon responding to or clarifying requests from Bob or just even ‘enlightening’ Bob on a point or two. He developed an expertise that is borne of long experience and became a valuable resource to parishes, archdiocesan committees and personnel from other dioceses. Chris was always open to ways in which he could support others and contribute to the common good at a local and national level and across the Tasman.
Another string to Chris’ bow was added in the first decade of the new millennium. He was appointed as the executive secretary of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, a body newly formed to provide advice to the Archbishop in matters of pastoral life and mission. In its early years the APC was very involved in the preparation of the 2003 Synod and its follow-up documentation. In later years, a differently constructed Council was focused on evangelisation and pastoral planning. Chris diligently and faithfully prepared agendas, meeting notes and all the usual documentation that punctuates the story of such bodies.
The final and perhaps most passionate dimension of Chris’ contribution to the local, Australian and NZ Church has been his engagement with stewardship. From 2006, when the Archdiocese asked Faith & Life Vicariate to resource the growth of stewardship consciousness and practice, Chris took the lead role. He became personally convinced about and committed to the capacity of stewardship to be a spirituality for life.
Thus, there began in the Archdiocese a new story that linked with similar stories in other Australian and New Zealand dioceses and with many dioceses in the United States. A very memorable and impactful sequence of stewardship institutes, conferences, seminars, workshops and network gatherings was set in train. Locally, Chris worked with a Stewardship Support Unit and nationally, Chris became the Chair of the national network of diocesan stewardship coordinators which organised institutes and conferences around Australia and in New Zealand. Chris became the organisational heart of it all, and was very experienced and able in supporting the organisation of events far removed from his own geographical location. Chris was nominated as the Oceania member of the International Catholic Stewardship Council, participating by teleconference at all hours in three of the Council’s four meetings per year, and attending the fourth in person around the time of the Annual Stewardship Conference in the US. He would always bring back many ‘goodies’ which he shared generously and widely through his network publication Stewardship eNews and in a more targeted way with individual parishes when he walked the stewardship walk with them.
Over 20 years, Chris assisted with many other projects and events, too many to list here, and none of my comments cover his rock solid commitment to his family, local parish and St Vincent de Paul Society. Aside from his own generous nature and preparedness to contribute where he possibly could, you would want Chris in ‘your team’ because he was support you could count on – with his experience, level headedness, thoroughness and dedication to seeing things through. Now, after 20 years he moves on after what can only be described as a massive contribution to Catholic life and mission in this part of the world.
All that is left is for us to express is our gratitude for the gift of God that Chris Ehler has been to us all and perhaps to vocalise that echo of Jesus’ words in our hearts: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’”