How to survive — and thrive — After a change in pastors

The announcement sometimes comes in a diocesan newspaper article, the parish bulletin or a parish-wide email. Sometimes, word gets out through the rumor mill.

News that a pastor is leaving and will soon be replaced by another priest can make for a stressful situation for any parish. The transition personally impacts the clergy, as well as the parish lay leaders and the faithful in the pews who may have gotten used to their pastor and now worry about what the next priest will be like.

Will his personality mesh with the community? Will he be as good a homilist, or better? Will he work collaboratively with the parish ministry teams or take a more unilateral approach to leadership? Will he make changes right away? Will he embrace the traditions already established at the parish? Will he have the ability to engage the faithful members of the parish and bring in others from the community?

“You pray and hope they’re dynamic and gifted as far as being a homilist and speaker. That can make or break you. If you can’t keep someone’s attention, that really is a downfall, quite frankly,” said Paul Gencarella Jr., a parishioner of St. Pius X Church in Westerly, Rhode Island.

“You always have mixed emotions, because you don’t know how the new pastor will be, what changes he will do or what kind of personality he has,” said Delta Santa Teresa, a parishioner of St. Peter and St. Denis Church in Yonkers, New York.

Teresa’s parish underwent a pastor transition three years ago. She said the new pastor, Father Jose Felix Ortega, a priest of the Legionaries of Christ, took a measured approach when he arrived at the parish. He met with parishioners, attended meetings and just listened to people instead of looking to make dramatic changes.

“The new pastors should see first if things are working right,” said Teresa, a parish trustee. “But, at the same time, we can’t remain stagnant. If you get a young, vibrant priest, of course he’s going to want to make changes. I want to give them a chance. If they want to change something, I’m open to it, even though I’m from the old generation.”

Father Ortega told Our Sunday Visitor the most important thing he could do early on to make the transition as smooth as possible was to be a good listener.

“You don’t arrive to the place thinking you’re the supernova and that you’re going to change the world or save the world,” he said.

Why change is needed

Diocesan bishops, with help from their presbyteral councils, decide to move pastors for several reasons. Most pastors are assigned to a six-year term of office. Though bishops can decide to renew those terms and allow priests to serve longer in those roles, in most cases the pastor will be on the move after his six years are up.

The pastor’s talents and his skill set may be needed elsewhere in the diocese, or perhaps he has received a new full-time assignment in the chancery.

Sometimes, a move is necessary because the pastor is a poor match for the parish and does not get along with his parishioners.

Demographic changes, such as when a parish becomes overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking, may necessitate a move if the priest cannot communicate with the changing faces in the pews.

In some circumstances the priest may have requested a change of assignment or may have personal or health problems that require a change of scenery. Or, like in professional athletics when a coach has to move on, the parish may feel that the pastor’s work has run its course and a fresh, new perspective would be healthy for all involved.

“The frequency of change differs from diocese to diocese, and it is dependent on pastoral situations, how many parishes need to be staffed and how many priests are available,” said Claire Henning, executive director at Parish Catalyst, a California-based nonprofit organization that provides support to parishes and priests to create vibrant Catholic parishes.

Henning told OSV that pastors are sometimes moved to a new parish to “clean up” irregularities or when the old pastor gets moved to an administrative role in the diocese. In some situations, the new pastors have to come in and help heal a community that may have been fractured by allegations of previous sexual abuse or malfeasance.

The assignment decisions are difficult because most dioceses have a lot of parishes that need to be staffed but a thin bench of available clergy.

“My personal philosophy is that if you’ve got something great going, don’t mess it up. Keep it going great,” Henning said. “I appreciate what a difficult position many of these dioceses are in, but I think it is often a mistake to move someone from a place that is really gaining traction, where people are coming to faith and are drawn there because of what’s going on, especially where the parish is reaching into the community and engaging the unchurched.”

installation
Father Dan Swift, followed by Bishop David M. O’Connell of the Diocese of Trenton, N.J., processes into the sanctuary at St. Mary of the Lakes Church in Medford, N.J., during his installation Mass as pastor in 2015. Courtesy photo

Planning for transition

Ideally, Henning said the transition from one pastor to the next includes a process where parish team leaders, staff members and involved parishioners have a dialogue with diocesan officials and the incoming pastor about their expectations and what they hope to continue in the parish.

“I think that’s key to development,” Henning said.

Several dioceses offer assistance to parishes that are about to undergo a pastoral transition. For example, the Diocese of Buffalo in New York offers a retreat to help the parish community see the change in pastors through the lens of the paschal mystery.

“So we look at the notion of dying and rising, and how we’re all going through that process,” said Dennis Mahaney, the director for evangelization and parish life for the Diocese of Buffalo. Mahaney told OSV that preparation is key for a smooth transition.

“Which of course means leadership, leadership, leadership,” he added.

The transition is about more than finding out what kind of leadership style the new pastor has or letting him know where to find the parish’s keys. An important component is helping the community accept that change is happening. Parish leaders have a critical role to play in helping the faithful in the pews to accept the change in pastoral leadership.

“There will always be resistance,” Mahaney said, “But you got to stick with the plan.”

Challenging transitions

But even with good intentions, parish transitions can be messy. Mahaney described one situation where a new pastor had to take a leave of absence after running into significant resistance in his parish, especially when he tried to change the Mass schedule. The parish was a merged community that had fought a diocesan restructuring plan years earlier. After a few months, the exhausted pastor had to step back.

In the Diocese of San Bernardino, California, a pastor of 13 years and his parishioners recently became very angry when he was reassigned to a new parish. In another parish, angry parishioners voiced their frustrations to local media outlets when the diocese decided that their pastor, who had only been there eight months, was needed elsewhere.

“Most of the time, we find resistance from parishioners, pastoral councils, and we deal with a lot of angry people who are mad that the bishop is moving their pastor who is well liked. We have people writing letters to the diocese and coming in person to speak with officials here,” said Marco Elias, the director of the Office of Transitions in the Diocese of San Bernardino.

“Some transitions are very challenging, especially when people are used to the leadership of a certain priest, and suddenly the pastor is taken away,” Elias told OSV. “There is a lot work we need to do in listening to parishioners, helping them to process their feelings. Sometimes, we have to work on reconciliation, forgiveness and anger management.”

Transitioning from one pastor to another can especially be challenging when an international priest arrives at the parish.

“They may have a particular accent that makes it difficult for people to understand the homilies,” Elias said. “Those transitions are really difficult, especially when they get pastors from Africa and their accent is still thick.”

On successful transitions, Elias said it is critical that the outgoing pastors demonstrate leadership and allow space for parishioners to honestly talk about the move and their emotions while helping them to understand the spiritual good that can come from such a move. Elias added that a transition team is also set up to assess the parish and present a report to the incoming pastor about his new community and the parishioners’ concerns and expectations.

“That report then becomes the foundation for pastoral planning with the new pastor,” Elias said.

Making the path smooth

Most leaders of parishes that have recently transitioned from one pastor to the next told OSV that preparation and dialogue, as well as a willingness on the part of the new pastor to meet with and listen to his new community, are critical to making the transition as seamless as possible.

“It was very important for me that our new pastor come in and hit the ground running on his first day and not having him come in and be asked what type of computer he wanted, how he wanted his office arranged and what type of software programs he needed,” said Susan Kraemer, the business administrator for St. Mary of the Lakes Church in Medford, New Jersey.

Welcoming Your New Pastor
“IMAGE"
Don’t allow sadness over the loss of your old pastor to dampen your enthusiasm over the arrival of your new pastor. Now is the time to do whatever you can to make him feel welcome. Here are some suggestions:

Kraemer arranged for IT consultants to meet with Father Dan Swift before he became pastor in 2015 so that he could tell them ahead of time what sort of computer and software he wanted for his office. Kraemer also got people to paint Father Swift’s office and to set up his living arrangements while she briefed him on the parish’s business operations and various ministries.

“I’m very glad I had the opportunity to work with Father Dan to make his transition go smoothly,” Kraemer said.

Robin Blier, a parishioner of St. Pius X Church in Westerly, Rhode Island, credits her new pastor, Father Michael Najim, with keeping open lines of communication with parishioners since he arrived in the parish last summer.

“Nobody is good with change. We’re creatures of habit,” said Blier, who has high praise for her pastor.

“It’s been a wonderful, grace-filled transition,” she said.

Gencarella, Blier’s fellow St. Pius X parishioner, agreed, saying that “things have only gotten better” with Father Najim’s arrival.

“Father Najim has roots in the St. Pius community, and that makes the transition that much smoother, because he already knew some of the people,” Gencarella said.

“He’s come in with some innovative ideas and the physical strength to put up with the daily burden of running the parish and the school. It’s difficult to wear those hats, but Father Najim has been a beacon of hope and light,” he said.

‘A parish family’

Father Najim, who grew up attending Mass at the parish where he is now pastor, told OSV that the parishioners have made the transition smooth for him.

“They’ve been tremendously supportive, which has been a great blessing,” said Father Najim, who added that he spent the first several months after he arrived at the parish getting to know people and trying to establish a welcoming, evangelizing tone.

“We’re all imperfect, nobody is perfect, but we’re all called to holiness,” Father Najim said.

“We want to be a family here. I emphasize that we’re a parish family, that we embrace one another and we help one another because we’re all journeying together.”

Maureen Wieler, a parishioner at St. John the Evangelist Church in Pocasset, Massachusetts, meanwhile, said she was saddened to recently receive an email that her current pastor soon will be leaving.

Wieler, a member of the parish’s pastoral council, said the council will be scheduling a meeting with the incoming pastor to let him know about the Cape Cod parish community and its operations.

Wieler already has heard some good things about the next pastor, who will be arriving from another parish in the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

“From what we’ve heard, he sounds really nice,” Wieler said, “And the people who are losing him are sad to see him go.”

She added that a new pastor helps the transition when he comes in, makes observations and kindly offers suggestions instead of looking to make immediate wholesale changes.

“With the lack of priests, they’re going to be moving around a lot. You just get used to it and hope that the new guy is going to be good.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.