Women in parish leadership

Exceptional Pastoring:
Women in parish leadership

By Mary M. Foley

I am one of the few people I know who have been able to do what they most wanted to do in life. For the last four years, I have had the rare, joyful and privileged opportunity to pastor a Catholic parish as a laywoman. This ministry is rare; fewer than 500 men and women currently serve as pastoral leaders of parishes that do not have a resident priest pastor, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Those who serve have titles like parish/pastoral life coordinator, parish director or pastoral administrator. My service in this ministry ended when a new bishop decided to appoint only resident priest pastors in parishes. I am not sure how he will be able to maintain this practice over time, but the action is certainly within his rights as bishop. I look back on recent events with sadness and great disappointment, but with no animosity and with my bishop’s letter of recommendation in hand.

With all my heart I hope to serve once again in this ministry for our church. Looking for a new placement has given me some time to write and reflect. A couple of midwestern dioceses invited me to begin the application process, but it is lengthy and there are no concrete opportunities on the horizon yet. I interviewed in two dioceses in California. Neither diocese currently appoints anyone but priests to pastor parishes, but both dioceses talked with me about possibilities for ministry.

I had a great time. We talked about the “parish life coordinator” model of ministry, as well as different configurations for parish pastoral teams. We discussed the church’s challenges today in terms of parish leadership, especially given the shortage of priests. Reflecting on these meetings, I realize that not only do I love parish ministry; I love talking about it. It is valuable to converse with different people around the country because our ideas and our imaginations can grow as a result.

I decided to put some thoughts to paper while I remain temporarily free of responsibilities and episcopal oversight. In saying the latter, I intend no slight toward any bishop I have ever worked with, for they have all been good men and I have loved them all. I wish only to acknowledge that I now feel freer than usual to speak publicly.

As a woman serving in a very unusual ministry in the church, I am accustomed to being watched as though under a microscope, especially by people who would write to the bishop (or even the apostolic nuncio to the United States) if they thought anything I did was suspicious. At least for now, I do not have to worry about anyone sending letters of complaint to my supervising bishop.

My last assignment in ministry was especially challenging, because I was the only person serving in such a role within four dioceses in the state, and people were generally unprepared for such a change. In spite of the challenges, this was a ministry full of joy and one in which I felt most fully alive. In a word, it is a ministry for which I was made. Pastoring is my vocation. I deeply love my church, and I am thankful for every ministry opportunity I have had; but I am especially grateful for having had the opportunity to serve the church as a pastoral life coordinator.

What Is a Parish Life Coordinator?

For now, talking about the ministry may be a form of service to the church. What does it mean for the church to have women (or deacons or laymen) pastoring parishes? Note that I use “pastor” and “pastoring” as a verb. According to canon law, the title “pastor” always belongs to a priest. Yet canon law includes a special provision that allows a diocesan bishop to appoint a qualified person other than a priest to share in the pastoral care of a parish when there is a shortage of priests (Canon 517.2).

In this case, a priest is named canonical pastor. This canonical pastor, or priest moderator, as the position is often called, is responsible for general oversight of the parish, but he is most often not involved in the daily pastoral care of parishioners or in parish administration. These responsibilities are entrusted to the one who is appointed parish life coordinator. The bishop also assigns a sacramental minister (a second priest), who comes into the parish for Sunday Mass and other sacramental celebrations.

The parish life coordinator is appointed to be the pastoral leader of the parish and the one responsible for its administration. While pastoring is ordinarily associated only with priesthood, it is good that this provision exists in canon law, because at this time in U.S. history, we do not have enough priests who can become pastors, and we will have more parishes in need of pastoring. I also know that God has entrusted gifts for pastoring to others like myself.

I do not know what the future holds for ecclesial structures and roles in ministry. I believe that the power of death cannot prevail against the church (Mt 16:18), and I trust that God will always make a way for people to receive the sacraments. The richness of the tradition of the Catholic Church is beyond comparison, yet I fear that fear itself will prevent us from adequately passing on this tradition from generation to generation. This is not something sentimental; it concerns the salvation of people and our mission as church.

Overcoming Fears

I have served in a ministry that is feared by some, who see it as devaluing priesthood. The only need we have, they would say, is to promote vocations to priesthood and religious life. Some fear that by encouraging lay ecclesial ministry, especially when it comes to leadership of parishes, we discourage these other vocations. This I do not believe. Religious vocations are God-given, and it is the task of anyone pastoring within the church (bishop, priest or parish life coordinator) to recognize, affirm, encourage, nurture and support all the gifts God has given to the community of faith.

To me, this is an essential part of what it means to pastor. In the last four years, in a parish of 935 families, I encouraged two young men who may have vocations to priesthood, and I helped another man enter formation for the permanent diaconate. I gave vocation talks in our religious education classes and spoke about bishops, priests, deacons, brothers and monks, sisters and nuns and lay ecclesial ministers. I encouraged each child who thought that God may be calling him or her to one of these ministries and wrote letters to their parents, asking them to give encouragement as well. I also invited four laypeople to begin formation in a diocesan lay ministry program.

We are not the givers of religious vocations, nor can we choose what gifts will be given. Our proper task is to recognize all the gifts God has given to the church, especially in these challenging times. If we need vocations to the priesthood, and we do, then we must have pastors in parishes who will encourage them, whoever is doing the pastoring.

In the ministry of pastoring, I have also discovered that another concern compounds the fears of some: female leadership of parishes. When I was originally appointed, the bishop let me know that he expected me to attend cluster meetings with the priests. When the priests found out, some staged a minor revolt and protest to the presbyteral council. I avoided meetings until the matter was finally resolved. Then, over time, collegial relationships developed with some of the same priests who had originally objected to my presence.

At the parish level, I was informed by someone when I arrived that my coming was disruptive to the psyche of some of the people: “You have to understand that we have had this tradition for 2,000 years. Now, not only do we not have a priest pastor, but we have a woman on top of it!” Should such challenges prevent the consideration of women as leaders of parishes? In truth, I was never fully accepted by some people.

Most, however, came around in their thinking. Our parish grew from 750 to 935 families, and our religious education enrollment of 535 students reflected a 25 percent increase over a few years. Many people said that I was able to minister with them in ways that some priests never could. Does this comment devalue priesthood? On the contrary, effective ministry does not diminish anyone. Rather, it helps our entire church.

The important task at hand for all pastors is to recognize the gifts that God has freely given for the benefit of the church. Then we must also educate the lay faithful about the state of the priest shortage in our country. Denial is another form of fear. Alternate models of ministry may be needed in particular times and places. We should help people understand the situation by providing them thorough orientation on new forms of ministry.

Laypeople love the church, and they can learn, adapt and flourish under various models of pastoral leadership. God will provide priests for the church in the future, and God will provide what we need so that viable parishes can remain active communities of faith and local centers for evangelization. Consider starting a conversation about these things in your parish or diocese. Be not afraid.

Mary M. Foley has served in a variety of parish ministries for more than 20 years, most recently as pastoral life coordinator for a suburban parish of 935 families. She lives in the Midwest.

Exercising our ministries of service

Exercising our ministries of service
By Fr. Alex McAllister SDS

We have two widows in these Gospel Readings: the widow who fed Elijah and the widow who put her mite into the temple treasury. Neither of these widows are given a name and they were both poor, but the most important thing about them was that they were open-handed with what little they had.

Both these widows are rightly praised in the scriptures. Widows were at the bottom of the social heap and because of this they were frequently exploited and oppressed and this was invariably condoned by the structures of society.

By definition a widow has known suffering since she has experienced bereavement. She has suffered the loss of her husband, the loss of protection, the loss of status, the loss of income and in those days she experienced deep social stigma. In all these ways she is poorer in the eyes of this world; but of course, for the very same reasons she is that much richer in the eyes of Jesus

In the text Jesus points out this particular widow in the temple, not so much for praise as for comparison with the scribes he has just so roundly condemned. The exaggeration involved –she gave all she had to live on– is probably a bit of an exaggeration and surely illustrates Jesus' intent to show the scribes up.

The link between the two halves of this extract from the Gospel is additionally highlighted by the fact that there are widows in both segments. Jesus accuses the scribes of showing off in the synagogue while at the same time swallowing the property of widows; he then goes on to point out the generosity and great sacrifice of the widow with the two small coins.

Jesus makes a very severe charge against the scribes. But there was a good reason for this charge. An expert in the law was supposed to take no payment for his teaching; it was to be something he did for free alongside other more remunerative work. However, the Pharisees had, by this time, convinced the people that there was no greater religious privilege than supporting a Pharisee or a scribe and so enable him to devote himself entirely to the study of the law.

Widows among many others were imposed on to keep the scribes and Pharisees in the manner to which they had become accustomed. There was undoubtedly a good deal of male chauvinism mixed in with this as well as taking advantage of their religious position.

Jesus openly condemns them for their actions. First for their privileges and arrogance and then for exploiting their position to better themselves financially.

These are charges that can be made against the religious establishment not only then, but also now, and indeed at almost any time in-between. Those who are chosen for religious service must always keep in mind that they are chosen for precisely that: service, not privilege.

You are not chosen because you have somehow earned high office and privilege, but because others have determined that you have the necessary gifts to serve the community and are able to help meet their religious needs. That is what the word ministry means, service.

A priest or a bishop does deserve a certain amount of respect. But it is respect for what he represents. This is actually respect for Christ being paid to him through his representative. Actually all of us gathered here are Christ's representatives and we all owe respect to each other, not more to one or less to another depending on the office they hold.

We have heard in recent years how certain priests have abused their position of trust and how this has on occasion been deliberately ignored by those in authority. We don’t need to go into the matter now but just to say that while a lot of lessons have been learned we must all be on the alert and implement the appropriate procedures when necessary especially in the matter of safeguarding children.

Last Sunday we heard Jesus telling us that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our minds and all our strength and our neighbour as ourselves.

This highlights the fact that in the exercise of our ministry sheer goodness is not enough. We have also to use not just our heart, but also all our intelligence and all our strength.

There are very many people engaged in ministry in this parish. Some serve in the ordained ministry as priests and deacons, some as religious, as catechists, as Eucharistic ministers, as altar servers, as teachers, as readers and writers, as musicians and singers, as flower arrangers, as cleaners, as members of the parish council, on the social club committee, in the Octopus theatre group, in the various uniformed organisations and societies and in all kinds of other ways.

And we are all also engaged in ministry with those we live and work with, but most especially towards our own children.

Yes, we have to carry out our various ministries with great goodness and purity of heart, but also with great intelligence, also open to new developments in thinking, and in a way which is constantly on the alert to root out cosy assumptions which exclude or inadvertently hurt others.

The clergy are easily criticised for clericalism and rightly so where it exists, but every single one of us must be on the alert for our own particular areas of neglect.

Like those widows we exercise ministries of service, but the fact that we carry them out from the goodness of our hearts is insufficient. We must carry them out with intelligence, with insight, with great responsibility, with appropriate openness to new ideas and in a self-critical manner.

If we don't, we fall into precisely the same trap as the scribes and Pharisees. They received the lash of Jesus' tongue –we surely don't want to expose ourselves to anything worse.

Full story from ParishWorld.net


Confront tensions of your ministries

Pope Benedict: Priests must confront tensions of their ministries, improve catechesis

The Holy See’s Press Office released the transcript this weekend of the August 14, 2008 question and answer session Pope Benedict XVI held with priests from Bolzano-Bressanone, where he is spending his vacation. Among the issues addressed by the Holy Father was the way in which priests should address tensions within their ministries, as well as the administration of the sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation to nominal Catholics.

During the meeting, which took place at the local Cathedral, Pope Benedict XVI said in response to the tensions priests experience in their ministry, “two fundamental aspects” need to be considered: “On the one hand, the irreplaceability of the priest,” who is “completely dedicated to the Lord and therefore totally dedicated to man,” and “on the other hand—and this is even more important today—the multiplicity of charisms and the fact that together they make up the Church.”

After explaining the need to show young people that priests can “serve others in an important way,” the Pope emphasized that celibacy only has meaning “if we truly believe in eternal life and if we believe that God helps us.”

He also said that faced with very busy schedules, it is important that priests “have the courage to limit themselves and the clarity to set their priorities,” the most important one being “the time a priest spends with the Lord and therefore having time for prayer.”

Prayer helps the priest “to learn what is truly essential, to learn where my presence is truly needed as a priest and where I cannot delegate to anybody. And at the same time I should humbly accept that there are many things and moments that require my presence but that cannot be done because I recognize my own limitations. I think that such humility will be understood by people,” the Pope said.

“And with this there is something else I should understand: how to delegate and call others to collaborate,” he added.

Commenting later on the loneliness that priests often experience, Benedict XVI recalled that priests are “a true community of brothers who should sustain and help one another” in order to avoid the danger of “isolation in loneliness and sadness, and therefore it is important we get together regularly.”

“No priest is a priest all by himself. We are a presbyterate and only in this communion with the bishop can each one carry out his service,” the Pope added.

Catechesis for the Sacraments

In response to another question about what do with the children and young people who request First Communion and Conformation but do not appear to be ready to persevere in the faith, Benedict XVI confessed that “when I was younger I was stricter. I said, the sacraments are the sacraments of the faith, and therefore where there is no faith, there is no praxis of faith, and thus the sacrament cannot be conferred. And I discussed this latter with my priests when I was Archbishop of Munich. (…) As time has gone on I have come to understand that we must follow always the example of the Lord, who was very open to those on the fringes of Israel at that time as well, He was a Lord of mercy, very open—according to many official authorities—with sinners, embracing them and allowing himself to be welcomed at their dinners, attracting them to communion with Him.”

“If we can perceive even a flicker of desire for communion in the Church, a desire also of these children who want to enter into communion with Jesus, I think it is fair to be more generous. Naturally of course, one aspect of our catechesis should be to make it understood that Communion, First Communion, is not an ending event, but rather demands a continual friendship with Jesus, a journey with Jesus,” the Pope continued.

“In these sense, naturally we should do everything possible in the context of the preparation of the sacraments, in order to reach the parents as well and thus make them aware of the journey they are on with the children. They should help their children to follow their own desire to enter into friendship with Jesus,” the Holy Father said.

“If parents have the desire for their children to make their First Communion, this desire, often a social one, should be extended to a religious desire, in order to make a journey towards Jesus possible,” the Pope stressed.

Full story from ParishWorld.net