Thoughts on fatherhood and how priestly identity is undercut by short terms as pastors

At Crisis there is a thoughtful piece about fatherhood and how priests are assigned to parishes.

Permanent Assignments for Parish Priests Long Overdue

The first part of the article is a something that every young man looking forward to marriage and fatherhood should read. Seriously. Take the time.

Quite a bit long the way, after talking about fatherhood, he gets to the topic of how priests are assigned.

It is a good juxtapositioning.

I’ve long contended that the way that parish priests are assigned – as pastors – in these USA has been undermining the identity of priests and harming vocations to the priesthood.   In most US dioceses – I think that is safe to say – a practice has been adopted of assigning priests for a short term, such as 6 years, with the possibility of renewing the term once for a total of twelve.

From what I’ve seen, problems follow.

  • First, it takes years for a priest to figure out where everything is in a parish.   Then he has to go.
  • Moving priests around signals that his role is only temporary.
  • The pastor doesn’t have the chance, as a father of a family would, to get to know the next generations who come along.
  • Priests lack moorings for their work.
  • Bishops don’t have to work things out with pastors when there is a disagreement: they can simply wait them out.
  • If bishops ignore the terms they assigned and leave priests where they are for longer, a sort of double standard might be perceived.

Sure, it is necessary to move and remove certain guys, find the right match, etc.  That will always be the case for obvious reasons. But the downside of sort terms is far farther down than is good for any of us.

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22 Responses to Thoughts on fatherhood and how priestly identity is undercut by short terms as pastors

  1. Thorfinn says:

    The same applies to bishops, for similar reasons.

  2. Elizabeth D says:

    My pastor of my parish is my good bishop and I wish he would come visit us. it has been a long time. I am biting my tongue what I want to say about the pastoral situation. I am gnawing on my tongue, and praying for a spirit of fatherhood here.

  3. Here again the Church is following the secular world, where, instead of growing up in a home with one mother and one father, kids get a conga line of stepfathers in and out of the house, most of whom are not invested in the kids’ welfare. Now we have a conga line of step Fathers in parishes. It’s like living with divorce and concubinage. Plus, the real center of authority in a parish with ever-changing pastors is not going to be the pastor, but the long-term civilians in the parish office, very often not traditionally-minded, who need only wait out priests they don’t like.

    But worst of all, as I have maintained for years, the constant shuffling of priests makes it easier to conceal the abusers. If everybody is being moved around on a regular basis, no eyebrows are raised about anybody.

  4. capchoirgirl says:

    I’m of two minds about this.
    It can be great if you have a great pastor. It’s always sad to lose a good one. But also, “personality cults” can form, and people start going to a parish because the priest is there–they start following the priest. I had examples of this from my last parish.
    Two, if the priest is bad–and the bishop doesn’t want to deal with it–they can be there forever. There is an instance in my diocese of a priest who is not orthodox, and whose Masses are full of liturgical abuse, and yet, the bishop doesn’t move him. Instead, parishioners just leave and go to other parishes. He’s been there almost 20 years at this point.
    So, if you have a good bishop, then it would probably be OK. If you have a bishop who’s not (and I mean not on top of what’s going on in his parishes, how Mass is being celebrated, etc.), then you can run into problems.

  5. Suudy says:

    Is there a similar requirement for parochial vicars? Our most recent vicar was reassigned to a new ministry, and we have received a newly ordained priest. I have not heard anything about how long we might expect our new priest to remain, but I hope he is the next pastor in waiting as our current pastor is in his mid 70’s.

  6. Mario Bird says:

    One question that should be asked in light of The Current Crisis: which model of priest assignment – Revolving Door (USCCB 1984) or Permanent (1983 CIC) – best deters the Cover-Up-and-Transfer model of dealing with clerical sex abuse?

    Or mayhaps the tail is wagging the dog here.

  7. aquinasadmirer says:

    A metaphor comes to mind regarding pastor being a farmer.

    Imagine if a family farm had a “father” who moved to a farm, and farmed it for six years. The harvest for the first few years would be meager, and the rest of the family would feel the effects. By the time he figured out how to get this parcel of land to bear a decent harvest, it might be time to leave. If he stuck around for another six, they’d finally be able to do more than just survive. Then, he’d leave, a new “father” would arrive, and the cycle starts over again.

  8. MichelleB says:

    The first priest of our parish was in place for 28 years. The second took over in 2010 and will hopefully be with us until retirement also.

  9. iamlucky13 says:

    Another item for the list:

    * The pastoral council, which seems more constant than the pastors who come and go, can be perceived as or may even themselves believe they are more central to the parish life than the minister of the sacraments that are the actual source and summit of Christian life.

    I also concur with capchoirgirl, however. There are potential downsides, as well.

    On the positive side of rotations, I’ve observed several priests who, while not necessarily mighty warriors of orthodoxy, are at least faithful and well-intentioned, are tactful but firm, and who have helped correct significant issues at multiple parishes sequentially. As they leave, younger, more timid, but still good priests take over after them at parishes that are now much more manageable.

    In the brick-by-brick analogy, because there is only so much one priest can accomplish in 6 years or so, what they are doing may not look like the walls of the rebuilt Church rising upward. However, when major liturgical abuses have been addressed, a basic level of catechesis has been re-established, and faithful families have stopped feeling marginalized and are comfortable stepping up into volunteer roles, perhaps these changes are the foundation on which those walls will later be raised.

  10. AlexandraNW says:

    Many years ago I read an article by Frederica Mathewes-Green which came immediately to mind as I read the above over at Crisis. This is the passage I remember: “A pattern of late marriage may actually increase the rate of divorce. During that initial decade of physical adulthood, young people may not be getting married, but they’re still falling in love. They fall in love, and break up, and undergo terrible pain, but find that with time they get over it. They may do this many times. Gradually, they get used to it; they learn that they can give their hearts away, and take them back again; they learn to shield their hearts from access in the first place. They learn to approach a relationship with the goal of getting what they want, and keep their bags packed by the door. By the time they marry they may have had many opportunities to learn how to walk away from a promise. They’ve been training for divorce.” (http://frederica.com/writings/lets-have-more-teen-pregnancy.html)

  11. Elizabeth D says:

    Do away with pastoral council. The priest should be the pastor of the whole flock, not just the preferred ones.

  12. Shonkin says:

    Thorfinn makes a very good point.
    A small diocese (e.g. Helena, MT) is used as a “farm team” for the big-league dioceses. Sometimes that is fortunate, when a less than exemplary bishop (such as Hunthausen) is moved up. More often, it has been our loss, as when we had to give up Bishop Morlino and then Bishop Thomas. Furthermore, it seems that every time we lose a bishop we sit sede vacante for a year or more.
    Even a fairly large diocese often loses a good bishop when he becomes an archbishop somewhere else.
    I don’t see that situation changing any time in the future.

  13. MrsMacD says:

    I will cry when our current pastor leaves us. I will cry, and I will mourn. I know God is good and I trust Him but it always feels cruel to lose a pastor that really loves and cares for his flock, but God knows best and His ways are not our ways. I just chalk it up to my lack of gratitude. We can never be grateful enough for good priests.

  14. Joy65 says:

    “capchoirgirl says:
    18 September 2018 at 3:20 PM
    I’m of two minds about this.
    It can be great if you have a great pastor. It’s always sad to lose a good one. But also, “personality cults” can form, and people start going to a parish because the priest is there–they start following the priest. I had examples of this from my last parish.
    Two, if the priest is bad–and the bishop doesn’t want to deal with it–they can be there forever. There is an instance in my diocese of a priest who is not orthodox, and whose Masses are full of liturgical abuse, and yet, the bishop doesn’t move him. Instead, parishioners just leave and go to other parishes. He’s been there almost 20 years at this point.
    So, if you have a good bishop, then it would probably be OK. If you have a bishop who’s not (and I mean not on top of what’s going on in his parishes, how Mass is being celebrated, etc.), then you can run into problems.”

    I agree with capchoirgirl. There are good points and no so good points to moving Priests so often.

    The very first Priest I ever knew was in our Parish for around 30 years. He witnessed my parents marriage and administered the Sacraments to all of us kids. He was like family.

    Six years really isn’t enough time for most. 10-12 would be better.

  15. OssaSola says:

    Argh. I guess it depends on the priest.

    In our former parish we had the most important priest in my life and the best. He did not seem to have any preferred cliques around him dictating how he should run the parish (or else!) and to whom he deferred. He welcomed and served all of us for over 20 years, and we thanked God for every minute. We are told he was able to stay there because his native language is Polish and the parish had many Polish speaking families, a rarity in that city and state. Probably also so the bishop could ghettoize the “Traditionals” in this good priest’s “Traditional minded” parish.

    We’re in a new parish now and the priest is clearly “run” by several dominant women. The parish and school are run by various lay petty tyrants and we seldom see the priest himself. Spiritual direction is not available and our family feels lost in this new home. We actually prefer to attend the Spanish speaking parish in town, but he has told us he doesn’t like us to do so. Now that his 6 years are coming to an end, the general feeling of the Knights of Columbus group (the only group one of us can obtain entrance to) is that of “Don’t let the door hit you on your backside on the way out!”

  16. DelRayVA says:

    I had an interesting experience in the Diocese of Metuchen back in the early 1990’s. This was when Hughes was the bishop there, after McCarrick. My parish had a married laywoman who had the title “Assistant Pastor.” I realize that’s not canonically allowed, but that was on the letterhead. She had been at the parish for many years (I know not how many), while the parish had seen “Pastors” come and go about every 3 years or so. What I did observe is that having long continuity of leadership at a parish, in which for example, the former youth group members were now raising their kids under the same leadership as they had grown up with. It was familiar, literally, and they were familiar with her. I don’t advocate this arrangement; how much better it would be to have a priest with that organizational memory! However, I do distinctly remember noticing the benefits that long continuity of leadership provided to the parish.

  17. majuscule says:

    I started at my parish near the end of the pastor’s twelve year term. I think he was getting tired, even though he wasn’t old. They moved him to a large parish with a school and things seem to be going well. I think he’s been there for six years or more.

    Our parish, however, has been a revolving door for priests. Admittedly it’s not easy to pastor our parish for reasons too numerous to go into here.

    Our new pastor left because of health problems and then we were assigned “administrators” because (the powers that be told us) they were young and as admins would be easier to replace than a pastor. We had a previous parochial vicar fill in before we got our first admin…he was very good because he was familiar with the parish. But he also did not want the permanent assignment—because he was familiar with the parish!

    Then we proceeded to have what seemed like a yearly turnover. The next was called back to his native land.

    The next was young and some of the English speaking parishioners thought he favored his language group and waged a letter writing campaign.

    Then we got an older priest who had a nervous breakdown.

    The young parochial vicar took over as admin for a year and in my opinion he did the most to bring the various communities together. He had been in the parish long enough to get a feel for it and was introducing the TLM to bring the comm7nities together. However, he was too Traditional for some, who thought he was going to force the TLM upon them. So they agitated for the stability of a “more mature” priest who would be named pastor. (They had someone in mind but fortunately did not get him.)

    We now have a pastor. He is a very kind man but to me he is less of a priestly father figure than some of the younger men we have had as administrators. It takes more than kindness to run a parish.

  18. Percusio says:

    As a priest I am, I am not so sure about “permanent” assignments. First, I never could/can consider myself as a “Father” of a parish when since Vatican II there are no longer “family boundaries”. That my children no longer have any ties. The entire sense of getting up and going to whom you want, when you want, for whatever reason, is more like no-fault divorce. I guess for the rest of the reasons I can clump them all under being more Christ-like, less worldly based. Without a big explanation, the characteristics of poverty, no sense of having a place, obedience, detachment…and so many more make non-permanent assignments follow the virtues which demand one to be more Christ-like. Demographics have changed so much that this necessitates changes. In my experience, becoming more traditional, i.e., ad orientem, more latin, presentation of traditional church teaching such as contraception, abortion, male priesthood… has not caused parishioner increase but has caused parishioners to go to churches where Masses are under 45 minutes, the priest dancing with parishioners at the sign of peace… One can no longer support the Church with fewer contributing.

  19. I remain unconvinced by the arguments in favor of moving pastors around. I find especially laughable the “cult of personality” argument, the absurdity of which can be demonstrated by applying it to natural fathers: we need to change Dad every 6 or 12 years because otherwise we develop a “cult of personality” in the family. Nonsensical? Yes, and no less so for the fact that people actually do this in our culture of divorce and concubinage. This is not how God ordered families, which are an image of the Church. Each person, with all his foibles and failings, is supposed to have a permanent place in a family — including Dad.

    If we were really worried about cults of personality, we would not have adopted an order of Mass that allows for almost infinite variations in how it is celebrated, until no two Masses are alike. Nothing fosters a cult of personality like a malleable Mass that allows individual priests to have their own “style” at the altar.

  20. un-ionized says:

    Miss Anita, I’m not in favor or moving priests around much but I have been in a parish where there was a cult of personality expressed in a poisonous system of favoritism, gossip, and slander. The priests (several) involved were members of a habited Order and that fact was part of the cult.

  21. hwriggles4 says:

    I do know that if a man does not have an inkling to be a mentor, a helper, or a guide to other men (and women), he should not be ordained a priest. Men who would make good fathers are the ones that are leaders, protectors, and providers. Good men who are in ordained ministry made the sacrifice to give up a chance to have a biological and natural family in order to be shepherds of a larger flock.

    Oftentimes I go to bat for Pastoral Provision priests and late vocation priests who are widowers. These priests will often say how difficult it is to struggle two vocations. Likewise, some Baptist, Lutheran, and Methodist ministers will say how much of a struggle it is to balance.

    By the way, I have heard the joke “Father Whatawaste” and I have gotten tired of it. It’s not funny anymore.

  22. TonyO says:

    Thorfinn makes a good point, but it’s too weakly stated. It is NOT “the same” with bishops, it FAR MORE SO with bishops. We should be generally reluctant to move pastors around, though willing to do so for good reason. We should be pretty nearly TOTALLY averse to moving bishops from diocese to diocese, the exception being to remove truly evil bishops and replace them with someone good. I can’t think of a truly good reason to move a bishop. Sorry, the modern model is rotten to the core and needs to go: the Vatican’s procedure on bishops needs reform from top to bottom, and this is a big part of it: bishops should almost always be chosen from the priests within the diocese, or (if they are all inadequate) from another local diocese in the same province.

    Yes, for pastors, it is a bit of a crapshoot, so to speak: it is hard on the parishes that get a poor priest after they had a good priest. OK, so we need to rediscover something about the priesthood: there OUGHT to be at a minimum 4 priests in the diocese for every parish. The bishop who has 50 parishes ought to have 200 men from whom to locate 50 good pastors. The training for priests ought to continue after ordination, as FUTURE training for pastors, and the trainers thereof should be able, over the course of 10 or 15 years, be able to weed out the men who will be really wretched pastors (but who might be decent priests nonetheless). Not every man called to the priesthood has what it takes to be a pastor. It is not normal for a diocese to have NO CHOICE but to give a pastorship to virtually every priest ordained just because they don’t have any other priests around.

    If priests were trained up for pastorship properly (separate from being trained as priests), the ones who might end up as “cult figures” in their parishes should be culled out in the process. There is no reason why we cannot exercise judgment on this sort of thing. There should NOT be a kind of incredible pressure on priests to be made pastor as if it meant they are failed priests if they don’t make pastor. Not all priests are well able to deal with the managerial aspects of the job and the authority aspects of the job AS WELL as being excellent priests for the core functions of sacraments, mass, confession, preaching.

    That said, I can see that perhaps a pastor needs to be “refreshed” after a long time in one slot – they can get into a bit of a rut and dry out or tire of the same old problems year after year. Perhaps in the ideal situation a pastor could expect his assignment to run somewhere in the RANGE of 15 to 20 years (with some flexibility), and likewise expect to spend at least 1 full year with the next pastor in residence to be able to hand over the reins to a fully prepared man in charge. And then take a year of sabbatical and step into his second pastorship assignment (implying that most men only do 2 parishes as pastor before they are close to retirement, since I would suggest no priest is capable of be ready before about age 35, maybe even closer to 40).

    Percusio, I fear that you are burned out and either need a serious and extended rest cure or need to move to a better diocese where the bishop and many of the priests support traditional orthodox Catholicism.