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.

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