THE one thing that matters in pastoral leadership...

In perhaps the best article I have read IN YEARS on parish pastoral leadership found on the Faith and Leadership website at Duke University's Divinity School, Paul Feela offers the following:

Despite feeling inadequate in administration, Paul Feela

...discovered that keeping the gospel’s call to communion before me and before the parish is the most indispensable thing I do.

I believe that this one function focuses all the other skills. Seminary training is meant to acquaint leaders with the kind and quality of communal life that marks a disciple of Jesus Christ. The role of the pastoral leader, however, is not just to be a disciple; it is to call parishioners to gospel discipleship. A communion of disciples is the core of parish life, but the notion of communion envisioned by the gospel is radically different from other types of associations. Discipleship to Christ comes as a consequence of being gathered by God.


He goes on to highlight three leadership practices that help keep parish life focused on this one thing:

Center on worship and preaching. Pastors expend a good deal of energy responding to individual needs rather than nurturing the kind of community envisioned by the gospel. Sunday worship offers the surest opportunity for the congregation to be informed and formed by the pattern of Christ. Worship and preaching are fundamental to a parishioner’s awareness of discipleship over time.

The connections pastors make between God’s word and parish worship patterns should focus on what Richard Rohr has called nondualistic thinking and resist the tendency to reduce choices to either-or and us-versus-them. Instead, we need to proclaim the gospel challenge to seek unity across our differences, to seek the common good and to embrace a way of being in relationship that can be described as no less than extraordinary.


Reshape parish structures. In parish life and activities, many unexamined assumptions about community dynamics may, in fact, be antithetical to the gospel’s unique vision of communion.

Are we attentive to the patterns of community that lie below the surface in our parish structures? For instance, are special interests or insurance concerns or business models driving parish initiatives? Are facilities used to reinforce exclusive, parochial patterns or to bring people together in new ways? Is the prayer with which we begin our meetings mere decoration or the lens through which we focus all our parish efforts? Are the monies and energies of the parish devoted largely to insulating the community from the wider world or to opening the parish up to its mission?

One of my most critical pastoral responsibilities is helping reshape parish structures so they support the kind of gospel-based communion we profess.


Redefine transparency. In terms of pastoral leadership, gospel transparency is always a two-edged sword. Pastors are called to be transparent in the use of parish resources. They are to inform the membership how their gifts of time, talent and treasure have been maximized for the spread of the gospel.

Pastors are called to personal transparency as well, in the exercise of their leadership. But pastors also need to call forth transparency from the parish, to shed light on practices and expose patterns of common life that lead a parish to drift from its essential mission. Greater parishwide transparency helps keep more parochial influences in check. With patience, truth and love, pastors must keep the community focused on “the one thing that matters.”

Gospel living can die the death of a thousand qualifications. While our communities are often viable, they are not always informed by God’s Spirit. Pastors may not always feel competent in the ministry they do, but that does not mean they are not up to the task. Pastoral leadership is about keeping the main thing before our eyes: a visible, believable communion of life and love that would be impossible if God did not exist.

Do you agree?  What would be your 3 leadership practices?




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Comment by Mark F. Fischer on July 10, 2012 at 11:17am

Father Paul Feela's three leadership practices are good ones:

  1. Center on worship and preaching,
  2. Reshape parish structures, and
  3. Redefine transparency.

But I wonder if practices 2 and 3 couldn't be clarified further.  Practice 2, "Reshape parish structures," is an abbreviation.  Feela added (and Peter Denio repeated) that the pastor reshapes parish structures "so they support the kind of gospel-based communion we profess."  In other words, he reshapes structures with the parish's mission in mind.  That, to my way of thinking, is the best reason to re-shape structures: namely, to help the parish accomplish its mission.

In order to do this -- to have parish structures that support the parish mission -- there must be a mission that the community affirms.  To develop this sense of mission requires consultation and community building.  It takes pastoral leadership to share with the community a sense of mission.  The pastor must introduce the idea, ask community members to ponder it, invite them to compare their parish's mission with the mission of other parishes, and to discern what is particular about their own particular parish.  This could well be the spiritual and intellectual work of the parish pastoral council.

About Feela's third practice -- "Redefine transparency" -- I suspect that the word "transparency" has so many meanings that one can hardly say what it signifies.  Feela points to two aspects: transparency in the use of parish resources and the personal transparency of the pastor.  I would like to see this made a bit more explicit. 

One way to make it explicit is through the parish finance council.  PFCs should have access to the parish's history of giving and the parish's current budget and expenditures.  Indeed, the primary work of PFCs (at least in the LA Archdiocese) is to advise the pastor in the establishment and maintenance of parish budgets.  The PFC should make regular and detailed reports to the parish on parish income and expenses, using (1) a balance sheet, (2) a statement of financial activities, and (3) a cash flow statement.  The adoption of the three-report model would enhance parish financial transparency.

So while I admire Father Feela's three leadership practices, I would express them as follows:

  1. Center on worship and preaching,
  2. Align parish structures with the parish mission, and
  3. Practice financial transparency through detailed reports to the parish as a whole.


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