It was good to learn of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Administration (America, 9/26), and its members’ efforts to improve the stewardship of the church. As a city pastor, I see five difficulties in putting the excellent recommendations of the roundtable’s final report into practice. First, many priests today do not want to be leaders of a community. They have no desire to develop skills in the key responsibilities of leadership—articulating the mission, planning the goal-setting process, and working with staff and volunteers to accomplish prime strategies. Rather, they see themselves as helpers of individuals. Increasingly, younger priests (by years since ordination, not age) disdain the mundane administration of the five L’s (lights, leaks, locks, loot and lawns). They seek to be involved instead in “spiritual” activities, like the sacraments and counseling. Bishops today must make it clear to seminarians that becoming a pastor should be their highest ambition. Early in their seminary formation, seminarians must begin to develop the skills to be effective pastors, and must learn to accept constructive evaluation and ongoing formation as integral parts of their priesthood.
Second, pastors expend a ridiculous amount of their time on fundraising. Even while recruiting volunteers, planning events, coordinating scant parish staff and being present to parishioners, parish culture and “tradition” force priests to chase scarce dollars with bingo, raffles, Texas hold-’em poker and othe time-worn fundraising schemes. Few pastors have the courage to suggest to their finance councils that the energy used for fundraisers should be directed at evangelization, stewardship and adult formation. They risk ridicule and a very unbalanced budget.
Third, in my experience, parishes are run by a dedicated core of 200 to 300 people. The U.S. bishops’ statement in 1992 on Christian stewardship offers an eloquent vision of the uses of time, talent and treasure, but how many pastors or parishioners have read it? How many bishops (with the support of consultative councils and staff) have mandated stewardship as a diocesan fundamental? We pastors, supported by lay leadership on both parish and diocesan levels, need to say unequivocally and repeatedly that being a Catholic is not a spectator sport. If you want to “be church,” you have to participate by employing one or more of the gifts God has bestowed on you. We have to find new mechanisms of volunteer invitation and training to expand significantly the circles of participation.
A fourth issue is the wide and growing disparity between rich and poor parishes. While I am very happy pastoring in an urban setting, I do admit to jealous glances at the suburban parishes that have dozens of prosperous doctors, lawyers and business persons in their flock and think nothing of conducting seven-figure capital campaigns. City parishes have many expensive, aging buildings, dropping census rolls and growing calls to help the needy. It is hard for me to begrudge any family the desire to escape a difficult cityscape for better schools and the safer streets of the suburbs. But all parishes are judged by the same criterion: did you balance your budget? My own diocese has undertaken a multi-year effort to facilitate collaboration among parishes by grouping them into clusters. Yet even this admirable idea has in practice reinforced the disparities of wealth.
A final problem: employment by parishes is rarely judged by the church’s moral principle that calls for a living wage. Driven by flat or declining revenue, parishes reluctantly conduct a “race to the bottom,” seeking workers who will do necessary jobs for the lowest compensation. It is hard to be critical of states and the federal government for not raising the legal minimum wage for almost a decade when we use that same unrealistic family wage to employ staff and carry out our mission. In 1986 the U.S. bishops said that the church should apply to its own workings the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic structure. They went further: “Indeed, the church should be exemplary.”
When I have shared these problems with parishioners or other priests, I have been accused of being pessimistic. But I am not. I share the positive, even joyful, attitude of the conference participants as expressed in the roundtable’s report. But the highest form of praise for the roundtable’s recommendations is for pastors and laypeople to put them into practice at the parish and diocesan levels.
Over and over I find myself holding the paschal mystery of Christ before my parishioners. We have to die to former ways of life—even bingo and festivals—in order to carry the good news of Christ more assertively to the world. Healthy, transparent administrative practices and the principles of stewardship are means to our goal, the building up of the reign of God. It is good to have the best management practices and governance skills as tools in that worthy pursuit.