The Forgotten Part of “What Must Be Done”

by | Oct 21, 2020 | Formation, Reflections, Systemic change

“My mother did it that way”

There is a story I have often used to explain how many things we do without understanding the reasons even when conditions have changed. Sometimes the story centers around cutting off the ends of a ham.

One day after school a young girl noticed that her mom was cutting off the ends of a ham before putting it in the oven to cook for dinner. She had seen her mom do this many times before. When asked why her mom answered “I don’t know. it’s what my mom always did. Why don’t you ask your Grandma? ” Her grandmother, in turn, replied, I don’t know. That’s just the way my mom always cooked it. Why don’t you ask her?

So, undeterred, she called her great-grandmother, who was living in a nursing home, and at last got an answer. Great Grandma explained. “When I was first married we had a very small oven, and the pot roast didn’t fit in the oven unless I cut the ends off.

Generations had done the same thing in spite of the fact there was no longer any necessity for doing it that way. It was just “the way I have always done it.”

The unasked question in ministry

I remember a few years ago being present at a “listening session” held by a group offering quite a few important services in their neighborhood. Their food bank, in particular, was underutilized. Someone finally thought it might be good to ask the people they served what they could do better. To make a long story short, when they listened to the people they were amazed to learn that their food bank was not open at times when those who needed their services could come.

No one had thought to ask if there was a better time to offer their services! They assumed that their normal business hours were fine!

The forgotten part of the Vincentian Question

Among the followers of St. Vincent and St. Louise, it is becoming commonplace to talk of the Vincentian Question as “What must be done.” It is a wonderful question. It reflects his peasant practicality But there is something that is often overlooked. When he asked “What must be done?” he looked beyond what was always done.

There is another story that is familiar to us. It is the story of St. Vincent realizing that there was a better way to take care of the needs of a family in dire straits. It did them no good to have everyone rush to their aid all at once. He not only asked, “what must be done”? He also asked, “Is there a better way of doing this?” He realized there was. The willingness of people to come to their aid would be much more effective if these good-hearted people organized themselves taking turns to keep up a daily stream of meals.

He saw a new way of doing things, “Let’s organize the response to their need.”

Thus was born the Confraternities of Charity, later known as the AIC and the volunteers who work in every continent!

Questioning our ministry

What are the questions we should be asking about our ministry today?

  • Why are we doing things the way we do them?
  • Is there a better way to do them today?
  • When was the last time I asked if there was a better way of doing it?


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