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Pastors are not Interchangeable Parts – A Reflection on an Article By George Weigel

July 23, 2013

072313George 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.

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Comments (27)

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  1. The Ironic Catholic says:

    I’m not sure how I feel about this. I used to be in a diocese that rarely moved priests. I’ll be honest, I saw a lot of complacency in some of the priests there. I know things I wish I didn’t. It was not a healthy diocese–although that may have had nothing to do with the “20 yr placements.” I’m in a diocese now that moves people at the 6 yr mark, or as has been increasingly the case for reasons I am not privy to, earlier. I suspect the “early moves” have a lot to do with the shortage and trying to cover every spot with difficulty. But no question it is hard on parishioners, maybe especially lay staff, who question whether they will have jobs with each new change. There may be truth that it hinders evangelization and long term planning–but in an ideal world, we receive different pastors and appreciate that there is more than one face of the priesthood. The process can help a parish realize that the parish is bigger than a single pastor.

  2. Deacon Greg Kandra says:

    What goes largely unmentioned is that not every parish priest is cut out to be a pastor.

    Pastoring requires management and leadership skills—both personal and administrative—that aren’t necessarily in every priest’s toolbox. With the smaller pool of priests, there is a smaller pool of potential pastors, with the result being that sometimes men who are not up to the job, or who don’t even want the job, have to become pastors, by default.

    One more reason we need to pray for vocations!

    • M.C. says:

      With all due respect, Deacon, it seems pastors should be relieved of the day-to-day financial and administrative responsibilities of their parish. Their mission should not be to worry about the prime rate or pre-buying oil for the winter, but they should be freed, as much as possible, to fulfill fully and solely their vocation as pastor of souls. The time a pastor currently spends going over budget and building maintenance issues is time taken away from the confessional, visits to the sick, spiritual direction, catechetical formation (perhaps of the catechists?), and celebration of the sacraments. All this busyness seems all too often to lead to sloth and worldliness. With so few priests, the church needs them to entrust these worldly preoccupations to a trustworthy parishoner with the proper gifts and formation, as is the case in other parts of the world.

  3. Sandra Lipari says:

    It came about in the 1970s…

    Joined 14 years later yet moving men who are suppose to be Spiritual Fathers is unstable…

  4. Mark O'Neil says:

    If the relationship between the pastor and the parish is healthy and modeled properly like between Christ and His church severing the relationship by moving a pastor arbitrarily due to artificial term limits can do more harm than good. Also putting in a priest who just is not pastor material can do more harm than good. My Catholic friends tell me about their parish priests and hear about the difficulties, challenges, and troubles. Some of my Catholic friends who are faithfully devout have felt the need to go to another parish, see a different priest, or come less frequently or stop attending when the new pastor does not fit well with the parish.

    It is always critical to remember that God is sovereignly reigning and Christ will protect and ensure His church will grow. It is our privilege to share in the work of God that He has prepared for us to do. Use the gifts, talents, and circumstances to the best that God has enabled you to do, then let God be God, who is revealing history according to His eternal plan and purposes. Our view is always myopic and God’s view completely comprehensive. Do the best you can, maintaining your standing before God, and God will provide for His church what it needs when it needs it.

  5. Xander says:

    I would agree that pastors are not interchangeable parts. My experience as parish priest, pastor, dean, personnel board member is that a straight forward policy (term of office) is simple (thought not as effective) as developing a process to assess the effectiveness of a pastor. Unfortunately policy (term limits) becomes the chosen method of problem solving.

  6. Ben says:

    I always thought moving priests was intended to prevent a cult of personality. In other words, keep the focus on The Church and not this particular pastor. Consider some of the more notorious cases where a priest has been at a parish for 20,30 years and that’s HIS parish. The Bishop can’t do anything with him. If he retires or is moved involuntarily, half of his parish might go with him.

    Frankly, I don’t mind the 6 year shuffle. Maybe 10 years, but I wouldn’t want longer than that.

  7. Donna L. says:

    My husband and I moved to this area over 25 years ago and attended 3 different Catholic churches, depending on my husband’s work schedule. We left in 1994 and returned to the Catholic Church in 2008. All three of the priests for those 3 parishes were still there, and are still there today! I’m pretty sure all 3 priests have been with their parishes since the 1980’s.

    The “assistant”(?) priests, however, get moved all the time – usually within a year to a year and a half. This is always upsetting to us, as we get very attached. However, they are being moved to parishes where they will be leading.

  8. Mike says:

    I’m not sure there’s one right answer here. I was admitted to the Sacraments (at age seven) right when the Novus Ordo Mass was promulgated and liturgical thrash began in earnest. So during my formative years, my parish had three pastors in succession over a decade or so, and experienced progressively more random expressions of the liturgy — and, on occasion, of the truths of our faith.

    By the time I got to college — a Jesuit institution, for what that may be worth — in 1980, it was extremely difficult to know what to expect. (Had I heard of the Land o’Lakes Conference, I might have been better able to temper my expectations.) In any event, I didn’t perceive much either in my parish or at my college to keep the world, the flesh and the devil from getting the nod.

    Only by completely unmerited grace — is there any other kind? — did I find my way back to the Faith in 2011. My parishes and the activities in which I participate are, also by grace, blessed by holy and faithful priests, of whose instruction and forbearance I need all I can get.

    This whole issue just has to add to how tough it must be to be a priest. You and all priests, Monsignor, deserve our humble thanks and our prayers for patience and perseverance.

  9. Jamie R says:

    Msgr Pope, how is a priest’s performance evaluated? Is his performance evaluated? I see some parishes with very active ministries and others with almost nothing. I see some parish priests leading by example and others visible only at Mass. I see some priests reach out to new congregants and others react as if we didn’t exist (outside of our donations). I see some priests taking risks and making sacrifices to excite and evangelize and others do the bare minimum.

    So, how much does the Cardinal and his staff know about an individual priest’s performance? Is the priest left to his own devices or is there some kind of support/monitoring system? Is there some kind of goal-setting or annual performance review?

    • Not sure how to answer this since it varies from place to place. Here the Deans are expected to perform assessments on pastors and parishes and report findings to the Cardinal. But the current problem with evaluations is that there aren’t a lot of other priests most bishops can draw from if performance is poor. Hence, performance ratings have marginal effect at the end of the day. Perhaps it will involve “finding a better place” for Father. There are some priests in every diocese that become almost “nonassignable” in terms of parish settings and sometimes they have to be sidelined into early retirement or duties where they can do less or little relative harm. It is sad.

  10. Gregg the Obscure says:

    I came into the Church in 2001 from a protestant background. I’ve been in the same parish that whole time. In 2010 our pastor took early retirement a year before he would have been transferred out (after two six-year terms). A large number of folks subsequently left the parish, but now attendance is increasing again albeit with different folks. A fellow convert had a great line “I signed up for the team, not for the coach”. Unfortunately that attitude isn’t more common. Had the old priest stayed, the surviving folks who left would probably still be around, but I doubt many of the new ones would have stuck. Somewhat because of style, but also because the former pastor was very “progressive” while the new pastor is more conventionally Catholic. Mobility of pastors increases parish-shopping by the laity. That churn of the folks in the pews weakens, to some extent, the arguments in favor of more stability in terms for pastors.

    I agree that pastors should be given the opportunity to focus more on the spiritual needs of their parishes. I’ve met very few priests who have much evident skill (or, frankly, interest) in the business aspects of parish life.

  11. Carl Hotz says:

    In my diocese pastors are given a six year term that is renewable once. It is almost always renewed so that he has 12 years at a parish. My suggestion would be that it could be renewed more than once. Six years is a good time for a review. If this is done correctly, it can be an opportunity for the pastor to look at how effectively he is serving the parish. If he is an effective leader then renew it for another 6 years. Stability is an important part of the pastor’s ministry. Stability re-inforces his “fatherly” role. It also provides a certain balance to the bishop. It is good for pastors to be able to give honest feedback without worrying about being moved.

  12. Cynthia BC says:

    There some things about Catholic life that were a bit of a culture shock for me as a Lutheran (pastors serve for as long as it’s mutually agreeable with the parish), and the six-years-and-out deal is one of them, as well as the fact that (as far as I know) a given parish has little if any say in whom they are assigned. My husband’s parish is on its third pastor since we started attending in 1999. The notion that a pastor could be swapped out at any time is rather disconcerting.

  13. RichardGTC . says:

    I think the best reason to give priests longer assignments than six years is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For me, being Catholic is about participating in the Sacraments–or mostly that. Anyway, if I go to Confession and a priest is too severe or too lax with respect to my sins, I have recourse to the Catechism. This may not seem like much, but one time a priest actually started screaming at me in a Confessional that he didn’t care what the Catechism said. I am confident that he was repenting of those remarks almost as he was saying them. Also, the best protection that a priest can have, imo, is a laity that is well-informed because a well-informed laity will understand that the Catholic life is difficult for everyone, and God please that will inspire mercy in all.–also, a well-informed laity will help keep a priest from becoming complacent. So, imo, whether six years or longer, I say: priests, for our own sake and for yours, Catechize.

  14. Cissy says:

    This article intrigued me. I have been guilty of being a “Roamin Catholic”. I love the tradition and all that Holy Mother church has for us. I love the parish I am at now and our pastor is considered an outcast {his words not mine} by the bishop and not treated well by some of his fellow priests and the staff at the Catholic Center offices. He is such a wonderful man and we truly love him in Christ. He has done so much to build up this tiny parish, from remodeling it, bringing back reverence . Celebrating the mass properly, introducing Latin {slowly} to the parish.
    Yet he has been bodily threatened by some in his parish and treated horribly by many. I know you don’t seek to be a priest for the glamour, you are crucified with Our Lord, sometimes on a daily basis. I appreciate priests because without them, we would die. God bless you Monsignor.

  15. Sue Korlan says:

    My brother is a priest and it broke his heart when his first parish was turned back into a mission parish in what became a failed attempt to reorganize the diocese by having 2 priests stay at one parish and run three. He was moved elsewhere after only 3 years. Now he is back there and working hard, although they are probably going to move him away again after this year. They were going to do it this year but he managed top talk the bishop out of it for now. This is my home diocese and they’ve been moving priests around after a few years for as long as I can remember, which is the 1950s, so I think it depends on where you are and whether or not it’s mission territory like this diocese is.

    When I lived in the Diocese of Lansing MI the board asked the priests where they wanted to serve and did its best to put everyone where they wanted to be. Priests who were happy stayed and those who weren’t moved on. That seemed to me the best because if a priest is unhappy with the parish it’s probably not too fond of him either. So this system seemed to work fairly well.

  16. Celia says:

    I think it’s worth considering that stability is a luxury for many. I know diocesan priests aren’t vowed to poverty in a monastic sense, and that’s not my point–I don’t mean physical luxury. My point is that for many of the laity, esp. Gen X and younger, knowing where you’ll live for the next 10-15 yrs. is not only not our situation, but it may never in our lives have been. We’re a highly mobile nation, often involuntarily for reasons of job loss or family disaster or obligation. Uncertainty of moving in a few years is the normal state of life for many people, and it’s something priests have in common with some of their people that’s valuable.

    I’ve been a trailing spouse for years & the last thing a mobile person needs in (another!) new place is a priest who’s oblivious to the social disruption she/he is undergoing. This is even more true in a parish where most of the people in the parish are long-term parishioners, who sometimes have no concept of hospitality toward the “newcomers”.

  17. Mary Carlisle says:

    Locally, we have a priest at one church who has been there for 20 yrs. A priest at another church who has been there for 40 yrs. Another church has there priest for a few yrs and then is changed. Another church has there priest for about six yrs and then is changed. I don’t understand why some parishioners are fortunate enough to have stability but others are deprived of it. Also, glad to read posts from people who know the truth I only uncovered a few yrs ago. It broke my heart. Learning about The Land O’ Lakes Conference was bad enough. But reading how Saul Alinsky influenced/started the change in the church to liberal progressivism still has me reeling. I want our traditional Catholic Church back.

  18. Marcy says:

    When my children started school I switched parishes as I wanted to be a part of the parish and school.. We had 2 young charismatic priests, Fr. R and Fr. S. The following year Fr. S was transferred to the parish he grew up in. A great semi retired priest came to help out . Fr. R had the church, renovated, a restroom in the narthex , an elevator installed for the aging parishioners, new steps, lights in the bell towers. He gave such fantastic thought provoking sermons that always ended with a question . Fr. R was a great confessor too. I had never gone face to face before I attended that parish. He was kind, never condemning and gave great spiritual direction.
    He made weekly visits to the school children and they loved him. A gym , office space and 2 additional classrooms were added to the school. Several times a year he sang Ave Maria solo with his beautiful tenor voice.The congregation grew by leaps and bounds.
    Then the hatchet struck. After 3 only years, he was sent to a large parish in his home town, 100 miles away. Everyone was mortified.It wasn’t like he’d be transferred to another parish in our town so we could go hear him say Mass.At his good-bye Mass Fr. R told us to keep up the spirit of community he worked so hard to build, don’t let this parish go back to what it had been.
    In his place, we received a priest who was ready for retirement. He was a nice enough man, but he wasn’t enthusiastic, his sermons lacked cohesiveness , they were more like stories of his life experiences.. Attendance was going down but we still were able to maintain 3 week end masses. He retired after 3 years and we were given a priest from a parish 60 miles away, who’s parish was not sad to see him go. Fr. D’s sermon’s were boring but short.You could tell everything was rushed. He frequently looked at his watch during mass. The pendulum was swinging.Our bishop died and in his place came Bishop L, whom no one knew or had even heard of;he was from another state. Parishes were closed , churches sold and our pastor suddenly had 2 large parishes. Mercifully, along with the new parish came another priest. Fr. M was a breath of fresh air. He came from a religious family. He had 3 uncles that were priest and he had the heart of a shepherd.. He had a degree in Sacred Scriptures that made his homilies so interesting. People would call the rectory to see what Mass he was scheduled for each week. Two years later he was transferred, and then the exodus began.
    I moved and went to another parish. It wasn’t till last summer that I went back to that parish for Mass. Fr D had retired and there was a priest , Fr. G who was a Franciscan. There could not have been more than 20 people in that huge church. What happened? Where did everyone go? The school hadclosed and it’s building rented out to a charter school.
    And now, last month, the bishop added another parish to that assignment and another priest is coming to replace Fr. G. So , Fr T a very large middle aged priest now has 3 parishes. I pray his health holds up.
    All of this occurred in a 20 year span. Is it any wonder that this once vibrant parish who helped so many draw closer to Christ, educated thousands of children and was an outreach to those in that part of town fell apart?

  19. Buckeye Pastor says:

    Don’t blame your bishop for not solving all the problems of your parish (or diocese). They are incredibly complex. Shifting populations, declining parishes, fewer priests with a higher average age, priests’ health concerns becoming aggravated as their assignments now cover two or more parishes. Pray for your priest and for your bishop. Pray also for vocations to the priesthood, and encourage young men to at least consider the seminary. And by all means offer to help. Our parishes can’t survive with only the same fifteen active lay persons who volunteer for everything.