I received a note from one of our readers who put this question to me: “What experience can you offer regarding the difficult issue of communicating with the diocesan chancery regarding a sadly unmotivated and essentially incompetent pastor? We have two parishes and one priest. Both parishes have thoroughly assessed our problems and are in agreement that it is essential to move forward.” The writer, probably in communion with other concerned parishioners, consulted the Church’s 1983 Code of Canon Law, notably codes 519 and 528-530, though a reader may want to look at the entire section concerning pastors to see the present day “legalese” of parish-diocesan life.
I approached this question not only from the point of view of communicating with the chancery [I will return to that] but with the description of the pastor as “sadly unmotivated and essentially incompetent.” The expression “sadly unmotivated” suggests to me an internal struggle—from depression, to exhaustion, to aging, to discomfort with the English language, to alcoholism, to a crisis in faith itself, something akin to what Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, and many other holy persons have wrestled with in their ministerial church lives. It may also be that the pastor has yet to engage with his people to the degree that he feels better about his pastoral assignment. It is not clear how long this particular pastor has served in his present position.
The best recent research on the assessment of candidates for the priesthood has isolated two key dispositions of absolute importance for priestly life and ministry: a generally favorable disposition toward people, and self-control. There are many priests who simply do not feel warmed and energized by parochial interventions, due to shyness, low self-esteem, poor conversational skills, or an inherent distrust of people, as in “what do they want from me now?” I might add here that many of our new priests are coming to U.S. soil from different countries with different ethnic and cultural vision of the function of a pastor, unaccustomed to bringing the counsel of the membership into their administrative style. I note, too, that in the case cited above, the same pastor is responsible for two parish communities. In church-talk, such arrangements are called “sacramental circuit riding” and impede the pastor’s opportunities to invest in the interpersonal ministry that Canon Law so strongly recommends.
The term “essentially incompetent” noted above covers a great deal of territory, and before any discussions with diocesan officials, it is important to spell out precisely what is meant by “incompetence” in this circumstance. Major incompetence might include matters involving construction, budget, questionable hires, lack of financial transparency, poor preaching, frequent absences, issues involving the parish school, inadequate programs such as adult and youth faith formation, etc. Incompetence could also be inferred from an evident and potentially scandalous pattern of rudeness up to and including verbal assault of parishioners. Canon Law is not clear on what to do in such circumstances. It only mandates a parish finance board, with consultative responsibility only. A pastor is bound to hear it, but he is not bound to follow its advice. In truth, all my life I have encountered pastors who rarely or never meet with their finance boards. My parish has a finance board but the membership, minutes, etc. have not been posted in any public parish forum since I joined the parish in 1996.
Parish Councils can be an important tool in parish life, but despite popular belief, there is no Church law stating that a parish must have a parish council, though individual bishops can mandate their existence in their dioceses. Many churches do have such bodies, and I feel they are useful in keeping the administrative staff of the parish—and notably the pastor—informed of needs and concerns. However, parish council members rarely have the skill and background in the area of ecclesiology, or Catholic learning in general, to originate new insights into a parish’s ministerial life. On the other hand, councils can be motivating forces in the execution of diocesan or pastor’s initiatives, such as in developing family-based faith formation programs.
The letter above indicates that “both parishes have thoroughly assessed our problems.” I had several initial questions when I first read this, the first being the breadth of involvement of each parish in the discussion and analysis of the problems at hand. For example, did the parish councils of both parishes meet one or more times for discussions without the pastor’s knowledge? The second question involved the true scope of concern within each parish. I have never known a parish—including the ones I pastored—where there was 100% unanimity about the pastor’s skills, styles, and priorities. A sitting pastor may be problematic for some and a godsend to others, a poor preacher but a wonderful confessor/counselor. In taking action which may be interpreted by some parishioners as an attempt at ouster of the current pastor, the danger of dividing the parish may be a real threat, and the last state of the parish, to paraphrase the Gospel, may be worse than the first. Breadth of agreement is highly elusive to measure.
A third question, referring to material in this post above, is the criteria used in such discussions over involving the chancery. The Café reader who sent me this question had gone to the trouble of researching pastoral responsibility in Canon Law, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, our catechetical impact over the past few decades does not prepare most Catholics on the nuts and bolts of ecclesiology, and parishioner colloquies often collapse into strong emotion rather than firm matters of law and practice. My correspondent did tell me later that a legitimate church authority with long experience is guiding resolution of the issue, which is a good thing.
Chanceries have changed a great deal over my lifetime. When I arrived here in Orlando 40+ years ago, when I had a meeting with the bishop or some committee, I would always make the rounds and visit all the department heads to chew the fat and give a quick update of field conditions. Nearly all the “secretariat heads” were part-time or full-time priests of the diocese at that time who understood the nuances of parochial life. Over the years, with diminished clerical manpower, our chancery—and probably most others around the country—depends more upon lay professionals and time management. Some directors are excellent, but in other cases it is hard to find lay personnel with all the college/professional background one would hope for. CARA research recently indicated that only about 17,000 laity are involved in college level preparation for careers in Catholic management and ministry across the country. Another point worth remembering is the small pool of priests available to a bishop for assignment or replacement.
These changing realities are worth keeping in mind when any individual or group is attempting to resolve a local problem with assistance from the chancery. Priests, like most of us, need to feel loved and appreciated. If there is a major character flaw that impedes a pastor’s execution of his duties, it is often hard to know if one is seeing some form of personal toil, or a true personality disordered cleric. As a rule, I would assume the first, and as an individual or a pastoral body [e.g., finance board, school board, etc.] I would inquire of the priest’s pastoral burdens and ask if there are ways we can collectively assist in helping him meet his public burdens. If nothing else, his morale may be boosted by a kindly overture. Even if he declines any help, you have delivered in a gentle fashion the truth that his pain is evident to parishioners, that he is not effectively hiding whatever his inner crosses may be.
In communications with the chancery, the same style of concern needs to be conveyed. Precision in describing problems is best delivered with a parish’s concern for the good health of its pastor. Chancery staffs form opinions of the diocesan parishes, and an approach with a good heart goes along way in maintaining good relations with the bishop and his advisors.