George Weigel recently published an article in First Things that offers a good critique of a common practice in most U.S. Dioceses, that of moving pastors every six to ten years. While some priests are lucky enough to stay longer, most find themselves moving every six or more years. Frankly, both priests and parishes usually suffer as a result.
There are, of course times when it is a good idea for a pastor to move on. Sometimes he is a poor match for the parish in question, sometimes there has been a change in the parish for which he is ill-equipped (e.g. demographic changes, language issues etc). Sometimes health and age are a factor. And sometimes there is a sense by the priest and/or the parish that the pastor’s work there is done and that a fresh perspective will be healthy for all.
But more often than not the change of a pastor is at best stressful, and at worst a serious shock to the priest and parish in question.
Before I say more, let’s look at some of what George Weigel has to say. As usual I will print his remarks in bold, black, italic text, and make some remarks of my own in plain red text. I present excerpts. His full article is here: Pastors are not Interchangeable Parts
Priests’ councils and clergy personnel boards were set up after Vatican II to give operational meaning to the council’s teaching that priests form a kind of presbyteral college around the local bishop and share with him in the governance of the diocese; such bodies were also intended to provide some protection for priests against the whims and crotchets of arbitrary or authoritarian bishops. Both were laudable goals. Yet…the result, too often, is to intensify, not diminish, clerical careerism and ambition.
OK, perhaps there is some of this. But to be fair, I think most personnel boards try to be even handed, and work hard to match pastoral openings with perceived gifts and talents of priests.
I have served on such boards and generally it is hard and honest work. It is even harder today, since most dioceses are trying to make the best of a very difficult situation where there simply aren’t enough priests to meet all the needs.
Further, certain parishes present complexities that must be handled by an experienced pastor. Some parishes are bigger and have schools. Some have special ethnic qualities. Others have debt, and need a steady proven hand at the helm. Other parishes are small, and can be good starter parishes for a new pastor.
Frankly there isn’t a lot of room for careerism and ambition. It is “all hands on deck” to meet an increasingly critical shortage. While vocations are up, the pipeline hasn’t delivered enough new priests to overcome the death and retirement of older priests. Addressing critical needs, and even filling gaps mid year, due to sudden illness or loss, is the usual work of personnel boards these days. It more about bailing water than paving paths for careers and satisfying ambitions.
That is surely what’s happening when priests’ councils or clergy personnel boards, composed of priests working under the bishop, treat parishes as square holes into which pastors are fitted like interchangeable pegs. There are “good parishes” and “tough parishes”; good parishes are given out as rewards; tough parishes are assigned as a matter of sharing burdens within a presbyterate (or worse, as warnings or punishments); and all of this happens according to a fixed time-table in which pastors have specific terms of office It’s…hard to imagine anything farther removed from the New Evangelization.
I suppose all dioceses have certain “plum parishes.” But frankly they are fewer, and the list of “likely suspects” to fill the plum parishes isn’t what it used to be. Men are made pastors younger and younger, and there aren’t the ranks of priests that is really the catalyst for a lot of cronyism.
From my own work on personnel boards the more critical question is whether a given priest would fit the profile of the parish, and the needs of the people well, not merely that “he has earned it” or “he is a prominent guy who needs a prominent assignment.”
But it is Mr Weigel’s last statement that most rings true and critical to me: the problem of assignment changes occurring on a fixed time-table, in which pastors have fixed terms of office. And he is most correct to declare this as highly problematic in relation to the New Evangelization.
In my own diocese, pastors have terms of six years. After that time, we can be moved, but this does not necessarily mean we will be moved, only that we can. But frankly, after six years, most pastors know our time is short, and that we could be asked at any time to move. It is unnerving and tends to shut down any long-range planning after the six year mark. Sad too, because it takes a good four or five years to get a good enough sense of the parish and people to do good long-range planning. But by that time the clock has substantially ebbed.
Mr Weigel articulates the problems well in this next paragraph.
As I wrote in Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church, building the Church of the New Evangelization takes time and patience in a parish setting. The time involved will vary from situation to situation, and it certainly can’t be measured in un-renewable terms of office for pastors. Moreover, once Evangelical Catholicism has taken hold in a parish —
the gospel is being preached with conviction, the liturgy is being celebrated with dignity, the parish is attracting many new Catholics, religious and priestly vocations and solid Catholic marriages are being nurtured, the works of charity and service are flourishing, and the parish finances are in order—
— moving a pastor out because “his term is up” is about as old Church, as institutional-maintenance Church, as you can get…. There is no reason to let clergy personnel policy be shaped by anything other than the demands of the New Evangelization in a challenging cultural moment.
Actually its not an “old Church” practice at all. It came about in the 1970s. Prior to that time, pastors had great stability and often stayed twenty to thirty years. It was the age of giants! Only in the past thirty to forty years has the idea of a “term of office” set up.
At any rate, Mr Weigel is certainly correct that the needs of the New Evangelization are best served by greater stability in leadership, and this principle should, other things being equal, hold sway.
It takes a long time to get a parish in order, and many parishes have fallen into disorder in the past decades. And even once that is done, it takes even longer to get the parish focused on what really matters most. Yes it takes time! Six years just isn’t enough.
Thus a priority task for the local bishop as agent of the New Evangelization is the re-evangelization of his priests, especially in long-established dioceses where the mindset of institutional-maintenance Catholicism and the habits of clerical careerism and ambition are most likely to be deeply entrenched. For priests, too, can be tempted to think of each other as interchangeable parts, some of those parts more popular than others. As long as they do, clergy personnel policy will be an obstacle, not an asset, to the New Evangelization.
It is certainly true that maintenance Catholicism has got to go. Too many priests and parishes have a “open the door and hope they come” mentality, where an shrinking and aging group is being served, but no new ground is being broken. Many parishes have seriously eroded and many are past critical. Business as usual will not due.
Bishops and priests do need do need to be re-evangelized and retooled. But having done so, (and many younger priests do GET the new evangelization), a priest and pastor will need time to train and reignite an often moribund, business as usual parish to think and act differently. Frequent shifts in pastoral leadership may well weaken whatever gains are made by a re-evangelized clergy.
His point that pastors are not just interchangeable parts is very powerful. Priests are not meant to be mere administrators or even just sacramental providers. We are to be the spiritual father of our people. Priests are to deeply love their people. And pray God they love him too.
Thus the transfer of a pastor is like a death, or at least it ought to be, if priest and people learn to love each other as they ought. Death is very traumatic and some parishes do not easily or quickly recover from the often sudden loss of a pastor. It often takes years for a parish to get back in rhythm with a new pastor. That’s right, pastors are not interchangeable parts.
Finally, a word of sympathy for bishops in this regard. Frankly, most of them are making the best of a difficult situation. My own Archbishop prefers stability for pastors and tries to maintain it if possible. But, as stated above, the combination of complex pastoral situations combined with fewer priests “on the bench” makes his task difficult.
In the “emergency room” of most hospitals certain protocols have to be set aside due to the urgency of the moment.
Priest Personnel meetings increasingly look like emergency rooms: “Fr. Jones” has stage four pancreatic cancer and must step aside immediately. His parish is bilingual and has a school that is in financial difficulty, and the principal just quit last week under allegations of financial irregularities. Who can take his parish?! And suddenly the dominoes start falling as one experienced bilingual priest is moved in, and now his parish needs filling, but has “needs” as well. So another must step in. And, before you know it, five parishes have been affected to close the gap.
Pray for vocations! We need “a bench.” Currently most dioceses not only do not have a bench of ready players, they don’t even have all the positions of the field filled.
But George Weigel is right. We have to work hard to find an maintain stability for pastors where the match between pastor and parish is good.
How say you?
Thanks to Patrick Coffin of Catholic Answers. I was honored to be on his show last night and we briefly discussed this article, which I had missed.
This video speaks of priests as soldiers. And it is true, we are soldiers who need to have a fight in us. But we are first and foremost Fathers who love our family, love our parish.