Spiritual Leadership, Part IV: The Parish

[Read the previous section, part III, here.]


The sphere of our spiritual leadership then extends further, to the realm of the parish. Up front, I’ll say that I have no intention of telling others how to lead their parishes. Ultimately, the decisions made by the priest in exercising spiritual leadership over his parish must be made in close consultation with his bishop.

The parish poses a different situation when compared to exercising spiritual leadership over one’s self or over one’s household, and it comes about because the faithful of our parish are there of their own volition. The priest is appointed as the spiritual leader of the parish, but that does not mean that the faithful of the parish will place themselves fully under his leadership in every instance. In practical terms, this means that extending spiritual leadership will require healthy amounts of suasion and trust. The priest who attempts to lead by giving directions accompanied by “because I am the priest” will almost certainly fail.

Trust is central to the furthering of the priest’s spiritual leadership in the parish, but it is something that has to be cultivated carefully over time. We must begin with the “little” tasks. First among those is that we must do what we say we will do. It is trivially easy to promise to do something (especially at coffee hour, even though our minds are distracted by the competing needs to visit with our parishioners, to eat, to meet newcomers). It is much harder to carry it out. How do we solve this as a practical matter? There are several options. The priest can either carry a small notebook to record such promises, or make it a blanket rule that such requests should be made via email or the next day, without the distractions of the trapeza or the mental fatigue that comes from serving the liturgy. Beware the danger of committing to too much, for it leads to shoddy work, frustration, blown expectations, burnout, and loss of trust.

Building trust also requires establishing competence and setting standards. If we want to be seen as trustworthy when it comes to “managing” the administrative aspect of our parishes, we must show that we do not regard mundane but important tasks too casually. For example, the recording of parish giving is vital. We must be firm in our expectation that financial standards be followed. If we do not understand basic accounting standards, we must undertake to learn them. (Give thanks for Accounting for Dummies and Bookkeeping for Dummies!) In other cases, we demonstrate our competence by acknowledging our deficiencies to others (“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand a thing about paving.”) and allowing those with expertise to guide our decisions without any sense that doing so somehow diminishes us as the priest. (Reminder: such feelings come from pride.)

After all, if we are not willing to acknowledge our deficiencies in areas such as this, how can the faithful know to trust us with their confessions? Bringing one’s sins to light in the presence of someone else requires a great deal of trust, particularly that the father-confessor will not reveal those to others and that the father-confessor will respond with an appropriate medicine to help with the sin. Note that I am not speaking of the specifics of how to hear confession, or what kind of guidance to provide penitents, but only to say that exercising such spiritual leadership requires copious amounts of trust that is developed only in the broader scope of demonstrated competence elsewhere.

But spiritual leadership also means that we must ensure that we are not set up as exalted figures to our faithful. We wish to exercise leadership, not absolute control that is more in line with a cult leader. Thus, we must also balance the image of ourselves as priests with our image as human beings. In no small way this means avoiding that special short-list of saints again. We must willing to disclose our specific gifts to the faithful, even if it’s something worldly like car repair or basketball rather than something of an imaginary list of gifts we do not possess.

I am generally unnerved by the small number of priests I know that seem to have accumulated “groupies.” It’s not much more than a form of infatuation, but it ultimately causes great harm when the sins and weaknesses of the priest eventually manifest themselves to his followers. Too often these individuals fall away, at least for a time, disillusioned and disappointed in what they have come to see. It would have been far better for the leader to have his weaknesses known, and to lead in spite of them, then for such a false image to have been presented and then shattered into pieces. As St.¬†Paul says,

And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing, I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me.¬† –1 Cor 12:7-9

In extending his spiritual leadership, the parish leader has to be attuned to those developments in parish life that lead to burnout or, worse, the hatred of God. This happens in a variety of ways: church scandal, political infighting, disagreements over church financial priorities, and, in some cases, a parish worship cycle that places too great a burden on too few people. It’s rare that someone would be so bold as to say “I hate God,” but perhaps they’ll say, “I’m just sick of Church.” The seeds of an ambivalent apostasy are found in such statements. I have experienced it myself, and it is only with great care from others that it is overcome. These situations must be handled with the greatest of pastoral sensitivity or the parish priest will find his spiritual leadership in quick decline.

I’ll close this particular section with words of Christ that I think all spiritual leaders are wise to remember:

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. –Matthew 11:28-30

We must constantly evaluate our pastoral actions in view of this. Is what we propose to our flock adding to the burden (whether from pride, guilt, false expectation, or simple legalism) or taking from it? Only the latter extends spiritual influence in a lasting way.

Next time: Part V, The Community.

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