Pastors are like TV showrunners. They need training.
Recently Vanity Fair released an excerpt from Burn It Down, a new book by the media columnist Maureen Ryan, describing in detail the horrible experiences that the cast and crew of the TV show “Lost” experienced at the hands of their showrunners, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. The show is one of many that Ryan considers as she explores the thesis that the problems in Hollywood are not about “one bad man” but about the bigger structures through which television shows are currently produced.
In her book, Ryan interviewed Lindelof himself. And he accepted much of the criticism, saying he was completely in over his head as a first-time showrunner at “Lost’ and made a ton of mistakes.
Being a pastor today is actually not all that different from being a TV showrunner.
As it turns out, this issue is one of the reasons why the Writers Guild is currently striking. For over a decade now, networks have refused to allow writers to come to the set and help produce the episodes they have written, because it would mean paying them more. As a result writers have no experience at leading shows when they eventually get that chance. It is a recipe for disaster. And on “Lost” (and so many other shows), disaster is exactly what has happened.
Life in the Catholic Church may seem a far cry from all that, but in fact being a pastor today is actually not all that different from being a TV showrunner. On any given day you may get a dozen different requests, many of which may demand very different skills, even different ways of listening and responding. The conversation you’re going to have with your business manager about the budget is of a very different kind than the one with the head of the parish council about liturgies, and different again from a conversation with potential donors at a diocesan function or a conversation with a parishioner about a faltering marriage.
At the same time, while showrunners have staffs of writers, producers and artists of various kinds upon whose expertise they can rely, in more and more parishes the pastor is the only priest. He also may not have much in the way of staff, and may also be serving more than one congregation. And today priests are expected to take leadership roles almost immediately upon ordination.
“In the past you had an apprenticeship,” says Michael Brough, executive partner at Leadership Roundtable, which offers programs to train priests to become parish administrators and pastors. “You were ordained and then you became Curate #3, Curate #2, Curate #1, and then you were made an administrator of a small parish and then maybe you got to a big parish with a school and a large staff and thousands of people.
Today priests are expected to take leadership roles almost immediately upon ordination.
“I had a vicar general who said to me recently, ‘If I have six months with a new priest before I appoint him as an administrator, I’m doing well,’” Mr. Brough went on. “And these days they’re given two or three parishes. They’ve not even had the chance to learn how to be a priest, never mind how to be a pastor.”
Sometimes you hear horror stories about pastors who don’t behave in a Christ-like way, and it can be hard to defend some of the things described—pastors who cut certain types of music from the liturgies because they don’t care for them, or eliminate the parish council, or preach in a bellicose way.
And to be clear, just as Lindelof still needs to be held responsible for his actions, so should people in leadership in the church. A parish is not the pastor’s sofa to reupholster or discard as he pleases, but a community in which God has been living and moving, whose people deserve respect. But given just how much is being asked of pastors today, is it really a surprise that some of them would perform poorly?
Just as Lindelof still needs to be held responsible for his actions, so should people in leadership in the church.
According to Mr. Brough, dioceses are realizing that you cannot simply drop a newly ordained priest into a job as a parish administrator. “There are many dioceses where they lose their newly ordained after a couple years, or they’ve got a generation of priests that just get burnt out because they’re doing too much,” he explains. “I think dioceses are increasingly recognizing that we need to equip our men in how to be pastors, and recognizing that this has to be not just training how to be pastors, but a framework for ongoing formation of each phase of ordained ministry and life.”
To this end, Mr. Brough praises the revised document on ongoing formation that the U.S. bishops are slated to approve at their meeting in Orlando June 14-16. “It takes what they used to call the four pillars—human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral—and makes suggestions for each of the phases of a priest’s life,” he says. “I think it’s a great document.”
Of course, the challenge is implementation. “We are positive, dioceses are recognizing the need,” Mr. Brough says, but he notes with concern that “there are fewer and fewer full-time directors of clergy or directors of ongoing formation of clergy in diocesan offices. Also fewer and fewer opportunities nationally.”
“We have this basic plan for the ongoing formation of priests, and we need to make sure this training is getting to those who need it,” he said.
In the last dozen years over 1,000 priests have gone through the training provided by the Leadership Roundtable, which includes such things as intercultural competency training, conflict management and meeting management. “It sounds so prosaic,” he notes, “but guys are expected to come in and run staff meetings, pastoral council meetings, finance council meetings, and make them effective and useful. And they don’t know how.”
Mr. Brough is gratified to see increasing diocesan interest in supporting such training, even requiring it. It’s a big leap from asking someone to try to be a man of God to expecting them to have the skills of God himself.
“There’s this notion that once you’re ordained you’re suddenly equipped with every single skill that you should possibly need,” he notes. It’s not the case, he says, any more than in any other profession: “As human beings we are learning and growing. We don’t come in with all of the answers right in the beginning. How could we?”
Correction: June 14, 2023. An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Leadership Roundtable as Leadership Council.