What the Bishop Never Told Us at Ordination

“Father, we need a new stove in the parish hall. The pilot won’t work and we can’t use the oven for anything.”

“Father, we have evidence of termites and mice on the property.”

“Father, the service man came to inspect the boiler, and he says we need a new one.”

“Father, I just want you to know there are two broken windows on the top of the steeple of the church.”

I have heard each of these and many others like them in the past several months. The latest — and maybe the best — was after a recent Sunday evening Mass. I was in the back of the church saying hello to parishioners and encouraging them to come to a beer and wine social in the hall in anticipation of the Eagles playing in the most recent Super Bowl. A little girl about 10 years old came up to me and said, “Father, the toilet in one of the bathrooms is blocked.” I wanted to say to her, “And how was the homily?”

A Unique Job

I was ordained a priest on Aug. 28, 1971, by Bishop Peter Van Diepen, OSA. To the best of my recollection, Bishop Peter (as he told us to call him that morning) never said anything at the ordination about stoves, termites, mice, boilers, broken windows or anything about the overall facilities of buildings. He did talk about preparing well and preaching the Good News, celebrating sacraments prayerfully, encouraging others in the Faith and reaching out to the poor and marginalized, etc. He didn’t say anything about fundraising or balancing budgets.

Not long ago I was at a Walgreens waiting for a prescription. I was watching the pharmacist and thought: “He doesn’t care if it snows tonight. He is not responsible to make sure the snow is removed and that customers have parking spots tomorrow.” Shortly after that I was visiting a doctor whose office is attached to a hospital. It dawned on me that it was not his issue if the parking lot needed to be paved and sealed or that the temperature of his hospital was too cold or too hot.

A Need for Help

I presently am serving as a pastor for the fifth time. I certainly realized these issues of snow removal, parking lots, regulating temperatures in the parish buildings, etc., came with the turf of being a pastor. I am, however, becoming more convinced that there is something seriously wrong with this job description.

In the parish in which I am presently serving, St. Augustine’s in Philadelphia, I am the only priest assigned to the parish. I thank God every day I have other members of my Augustinian community who are very willing to help when needed, but understandably they are not responsible for the administrative side of the parish. I honestly do not know how pastors who live alone manage. Our parish has a very competent facilities manager (a former lawyer, volunteer fireman, disc jockey and owner of a handyman business), but because of finances it only has been recently that this position became full-time. I might add that we celebrated our 220th anniversary as a parish last year and, consequently, our buildings are quite old.

In all of the parishes in which I have served, I had very competent and capable facilities managers and a very active parish finance commission. As someone who cannot change a flat tire or hammer a nail, I have depended tremendously on these men and women the 27 years I have been a pastor. As selfless as they have been in sharing their knowledge, experience and competencies, they are volunteers with a limited amount of time. The bottom line is that the final responsibility and final decision about the boilers, roofs, budgets, etc., rest with the pastor.

Not only do the final decisions rest with the pastor, but this is where it is very easy to spend an incredible and inordinate amount of energy. Most of us probably spend more time on the administrative aspects of the parish than we do on the pastoral life of the parish. Not too long ago, someone said to me, “That is why they call us ‘Father,’ because a father takes care of the needs of his family, and if the boiler needs to be fixed, he takes care if it.” I didn’t respond, but I did think, “Yes, but if a father spends a disproportioned amount of time on the maintenance of the house, he will have a dysfunctional family.”

A Lopsided Calling

I firmly believe something is wrong with our present system. Why can’t we move in the direction of the pharmacist, doctor and other professionals who do spend some time on administrative duties but who, at the same time, spend the vast majority of their time and energy on their vocation?

The situation is getting worse. More and more we are having clusters and collaborative parishes where one pastor is responsible for two or three parishes. This means not only is he responsible for the pastoral life of several parishes, but he also is responsible for all of the facilities of each of the parishes.

'The Gift of Administration'
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Father Donald Senior, CP, president emeritus and chancellor of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, has written a compelling resource for pastors on the importance of administrative work in our churches titled “The Gift of Administration: New Testament Foundations for the Vocation of Administrative Service” (Liturgical Press, $19.95). In the introduction, he writes:

Does this reality have an effect on vocations? Is the ministry of the priesthood appealing to young men (or not-so-young men) as they see how much time their pastors are spending performing administrative tasks? It is not only prospective vocations, but I have heard from more than one priest (including some pastoral associates) that they would never want to be a pastor.

What can we do? I do not pretend to have the answers, but I know some of the challenges. I would like us to have some serious discussions about these challenges. How can parishes afford to hire competent people to be full-time facilities and business managers, giving them a decent salary to raise a family? Does canon law have to change so that the final decisions rest with the business or facilities manager? If so, then in what way and how do we go about doing this?

Canons 528, 529 and 530 clearly describe the responsibilities of the pastor. These canons speak about the word of God being announced; the Christian faithful being instructed in the truths of the faith; providing catechetical formation; reaching out to those who have ceased practicing their religion; making sure the Eucharist is the center of the parish assembly; seeing to it that the sacraments are celebrated devoutly. It says in order to fulfill his office in earnest, the pastor should strive to come to know the faithful who have been entrusted to his care; visit families; make a special effort to work with the poor, the afflicted, the lonely, those exiled from their homeland; support spouses and parents. The pastor is to promote the laity’s proper participation in the Church; help the laity realize their connection with the (arch)diocese and the universal Church. Functions that are especially entrusted to the pastor are the celebration of the sacraments, assistance at marriages, imparting nuptial blessings, celebrating funerals, blessing the baptismal font during the Easter season and imparting solemn blessings outside the church.

Canon 532 says: “The pastor represents the parish in all juridical affairs in accord with the norm of law; he is to see to it that the goods of the parish are administered in accord with the norms of Canons 1281-1288.” These canons refer to the administration of ecclesiastical goods, accurately collecting revenue, investing money, keeping well-ordered books, preparing reports, etc. It takes 52 lines for canon law to unpack the pastoral responsibilities of the pastor and three lines to unpack the administrative responsibilities. The lived experience is not the same proportion at all.

Does the pastor who is responsible for everything Canons 528, 529 and 530 outline also have to be the one who is responsible for what Canon 532 outlines (which, in reality, absorbs most of our time and energy)?

A Blessed Position

When we seriously discuss these questions and attempt to respond to the challenges, maybe we can live as Pope Francis envisions our lives. He constantly encourages us to be among the people and to smell like the sheep. In his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), he spends a great deal of time re-emphasizing what the Second Vatican Council said, that the primary role of the priest is to preach. “Priests, as co-workers with their bishops, have the primary duty of proclaiming the Gospel of God to all” (No. 4). Pope Francis strongly has urged us over and over to go out and look for the lost sheep. I do not think he has ever said anything about our time and energy being spent on billboards, budgets (whether accrued or not), selling houses or building churches or elevators.

The present parish of which I am pastor is in the process of a three-year capital campaign. This means an engineering assessment; a feasibility study; organizing a steering committee, task-force committees and recruiters to solicit funds; writing a case statement; preparing a video; writing grants; and especially asking individual people and corporations for large pledges. Of course, all of this has to be facilitated by someone. As much as I am spearheading and totally supporting this endeavor because of its necessity for the future of the parish — and I have a great deal of competent help to do so — it still takes an incredible amount of my time, apprehension and energy. I am certain Bishop Peter never said anything about this at ordination. 

FATHER BILL WATERS, OSA, is pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Philadelphia and also has served as vocation and formation director for the Augustinians.