Leading a Changing Parish

The landscape of being Church, especially of being a parish, is in a continuous state of flux. Over the course of one year, parishes can change in demography and financial condition, can have great staff turnover or can face dramatic shifts in pastoral needs. New challenges arrive every day for the priest who leads that ever-changing parish. I have talked with many priests in the context of both the Pastors’ Toolbox program and the Catholic Leadership 360 program that Leadership Roundtable offers across the country and in the context of the priest convocations we lead. In those contexts, I get to hear how priests handle the challenges of continuous change, and several common themes emerge from the success stories I hear.

First, those who tell me they are successful with leading a changing parish realize very quickly that whatever issues or situations they are facing, a brother priest has already faced the same. They are not alone or isolated unless they choose to be. They take initiative to find an experienced brother priest and ask for wisdom. In addition, there is a profound relationship we call communio between parishes that makes up the local Church. The diocese, as the local Church, and the bishop are brilliant gifts to the pastor who is leading a changing and challenging parish.

Second, there is no such thing as just a finance issue, or just a human resources issue, or just a management issue. Each has pastoral, legal, moral and financial dimensions. Seeking a more well-rounded view of whatever problem is presenting to the priest who leads is a key to success. The priests who successfully do that seek to know the mind of the community as a part of discerning the will of God. That is what pastoral councils can offer. They also seek expert consultation through their finance council, the diocesan offices or other sources of expertise.

Successful priests are very aware of how much change in one parish affects nearby parishes. His brother priests who serve in the same region of the diocese, in his deanery for example, may be asking exactly the same questions and facing the same issues. Many solutions to problems are now regional, not parish-based. Successful pastors have a view of the local Church that is beyond just parochial. In a sense, they find solutions that help the whole of the local Church, not just their parish.

Last, those who successfully lead changing parishes integrate their active and contemplative selves. They find ways to step back from the stress of continuous activity, as Thomas Merton advises, into solitude, silence and prayer. Read St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila, Hildegard of Bingen or one of the other mystics of the Church. It seems counterintuitive to step back while some are calling you to take on another task, but that is exactly what these great people of the Church invite us to do. As the priest in a context that is continually changing, you are called to nurture your contemplative self while also being your active self. It can be learned; it can be practiced; but most of us cannot do it alone. One of the first things a priest who is really struggling with the stress of leading a parish will often tell me is that he no longer goes to spiritual direction. That is not an option for a priest who wants to successfully lead a changing parish.

So what does this mean for the priest who is leading a changing parish? One common lesson I hear from priests who successfully navigate challenges is that they have committed to their own ongoing formation. Many times a priest reports what essentially is a feeling of being de-skilled by change. The parish they thought they were leading is no longer the parish that is, and the Church they prepared to serve in seminary no longer seems to exist. Across the country, I see many examples of parishes investing in the ongoing formation of their priests. I see dioceses making similar investments in the presbyterate. That can only work if the priest is willing to make that same investment in himself. That is part of leadership.

JIM LUNDHOLM-EADES is director of programs and services for the Leadership Roundtable.