Exhibit A comes from my own launch. My first assignment was a four-year stint as chaplain of a Catholic college. I flew to the campus for a weekend job interview during the last month of my deacon year. I remember being ushered in to the president’s office for the grand interview. It was a less than stellar exchange, and finally I thought to ask, “Well, what are you looking for?” or words to that effect. The president’s face lit up, and with a geometric precision that would have outperformed any GPS device today, he pointed to a spot three-hundred miles away and said, “I want what they’ve got.” I was young but not stupid; I realized he was looking with envy at the growing reputation of another Catholic college in the same religious order.
In retrospect, I would say that it is dicey to take a Catholic job when the employer isn’t sure what he or she wants, beyond scratching an itch of discontent. There will always be a shadow of impatience over your tenure, because your employers don’t really know what they want, and thus will have no agreed upon concrete set of expectations for employee job evaluations. Hiring to scratch an itch inevitably leads to firing to scratch an itch. That puts the employee at considerable vulnerability.
This leads to another pothole in the road to a ministerial career: The Church’s administrative allergy to specifics. Even though the United States Department of Labor (of all places!) has a working code for youth ministry, 21-2021, there is a bad habit of assumptions within the Catholic structure that our job titles correspond to a universal set of norms and expectations. In my own case, “campus ministry” at my college was different from “our competitor.” Mine was a majority commuting school in a metro setting, the other an isolated mountain mecca 70 miles from the nearest safe airport. Needless to say, the needs and the programming were quite different at each site.
Are there “official” template documents or job descriptions for such positions as youth ministers? I searched several websites under a “Catholic youth ministry resources” swing through Bing (sorry about that) and I found a few homemade templates whose main weaknesses were vagueness. But in fact, I rarely come across any Catholic parish minister who can produce a written job description on file for their present placement. Parish hiring rests considerably on the comfort zone of pastors, who historically eschew restrictive documentation like contracts or employee strictures, because they in turn resent any interference from their chanceries. Hiring is undertaken as an open-ended trust agreement with the unspoken agreement that “you won’t hear anything till you screw up.”
The lack of employee documentation—specifically a concrete job description with real hours, regular review and renewal, and concrete accountabilities listed—is a serious church problem across the land. Personally, I think one of the most offensive conditions in U.S. parish life is the failure to provide paid parish ministers with legal contracts. Given all our talk about social justice, how this situation is tolerated or ignored is beyond me. Again, searching “catholic contracts for lay ministers” my first solid hit was the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s website which posted templates for legal contracts of principals and Catholic school teachers, not parish ministers. I wouldn’t have mentioned this here except that the site states up front that those “who are involved in the education and instruction of children and administration of schools must sign a contract if the Ohio Department of Education requires certification. All other employees are considered at will [emphasis mine] and are not required to sign a contract.” In other words, it is the State of Ohio, and not the Catholic Church, that requires the legal protection of a contract for certified teachers.
The phrase “at will” is a true legal concept that all employees anywhere probably need to understand when entering any industry. For our purposes, I will limit discussion to church employees other than contracted school personnel. In Catholic parlance, “at will” means that a parish salaried employee can be summarily dismissed by a pastor, any time, without cause or previous indication of problems. As I understand U.S. law, the courts have been comfortable with this practice in worship sites based upon the “free exercise of religion” clause and judicial reluctance to engage in internal doctrinal debates.
That said, my clinical files are full of peremptory firing accounts where the dismissals took place on what I can only describe as the whims or impulses of pastors or shadowy politics in the parish staff or even the parish at large. This is one of the downsides—but certainly not the only downside—of “clericalism,” in which a local pastor makes decisions unilaterally, without due process, consultation, or even collection of appropriate data. Clericalism demoralizes an entire congregation or parish, but in the arena of employee relations the pain is particularly acute. For Catholics entering parish positions as newbies, whatever level of training they may have enjoyed has conveyed the Vatican II sense of Baptismal dignity and collaborative or conciliar teamwork. The reasonable expectations from Church documents would be a degree of dialogue and openness between the employee and the pastor. Many pastors have extraordinary respect for their ministerial teams, but many who are indoctrinated with their own importance through the priesthood are, to put it bluntly, incorrigible.
No two parishes are exactly alike, so it is worth your while to study the various placements in your prospective community, or to reflect thoughtfully upon advancement within your current site. Over the next few weeks, as I can, I will use the Wednesday stream to continue this line of thought. Subsequent entries will treat of the spiritual/devotional make-up of a parish, the history of previous individuals who filled the same position, the kinds of non-negotiables you need to bring to a church interview, and assessing your future employers(s). A job interview is a two-way street: you can reject an employer in the same way he may reject you. If that happens, grab a donut in the staff kitchen on the way out and set your face elsewhere.