Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Thomas P. SweetserJuly 02, 2001

We pastors have been meeting in focus groups around the country, trying to cope with the stress and strains of pastoral leadership. Though a small group, only 50 in all, we are from seven different parts of the country and represent the feelings and desires of many other pastors like ourselves. After meeting just twice, in the spring and fall of 2000, we have made significant strides toward reducing our workload.

Keeping track of our work hours for a given week of pastoring, we discovered our average was 65 hours, which amounts to about 11 hours per day, six days a week. At our first sessions in the spring, we worked at making more effective use of our time to reduce our workload. Realizing we can’t do everything, we made choices about what was essential to our ministry and what could be delegated to others.

Building relationships is at the heart of parish life. In reducing our workload, we had to be careful that we continued to be present to our people and kept in close contact with them. But there are ways of being present that let people know we care about them and are interested in their lives without absorbing large portions of our days. We learned how to attend meetings and gatherings without remaining for the entire session, to be present before and after liturgies so people could greet us and experience our interest in their lives, to refocus phone calls to one set period each day, to make appointments with ourselves for homily preparation and personal reflection, to prioritize commitments, choosing those that were important and giving urgent but unimportant matters to others to handle.

The reduction in the number of priests means that we will be called upon to preside at more and more liturgies throughout the week. We commend your brother bishop, James A. Griffin of the Diocese of the Columbus, Ohio, for a letter he wrote to his priests in which he said, “I believe the time has clearly come to prepare the clergy and faithful alike for a new approach, one which acknowledges that there will be times when, due to a lack of an available priest, there may be no Mass on Sunday in a given place.” He went on to say that priests should not be expected to celebrate more than three Masses for Sundays or holy days. The bishop’s guidelines urged each parish to have a group of trained persons who would see to the implementation of the parish’s own plan for priestless Sundays or holy day celebrations. Considering the growing pressures we experience as pastors, this is a step in the right direction.

In the fall of 2000, we once again gathered in focus groups to see what each pastor had done to make more effective use of his time. The results were gratifying. Through careful planning and creative delegation, the average number of hours had fallen to 53 hours of ministry a week, which is just under 11 hours a day, five days a week. This was a significant shift, but it was still beyond what we consider a reasonable workload.

Looking at our lives as pastors, we recognize that to be effective in our ministry and pastoring, we should spend no more than 50 hours per week doing ministry. We also should have at least one and a half days off each week. The present parish system does not support this. In the minds of many parishioners, the pastor should always be available, day or night, seven days a week. But to maintain our energy and enthusiasm for ministry, we need at least an overnight and a full day away from the parish every week.

Spending the bulk of our time in the parish, we feel the parish offices should not be located in the same place where we live. In many parishes where we work, we live “over the store,” which is not an arrangement conducive for establishing limits to our workload or for creating boundaries between ministry and personal living. A much better arrangement is to have our residence either at one end of the church property opposite the parish offices, or better yet, to have a house or apartment a few blocks from the church. This little bit of space helps us establish a personal life apart from the ministry. We can still be reached for emergencies, but the staff, leaders and parishioners know that when we “go home,” this is our personal time and space. As one of our number mentioned during our sessions, “This little distance makes all the difference. I had no idea that living just a block from the church could have such an influence on improving my disposition.”

Despite the growing shortage of clergy, we priests should be required to preside at no more than three regularly scheduled Masses on the weekend and at no more than two other liturgical celebrations, such as weddings, baptisms or funerals. If we have other liturgical obligations, such as a mission church or Mass at a neighboring parish, the total number of three scheduled Masses still holds. It is just too difficult to maintain one’s energy and be a leader of liturgical prayer if there is an unending series of Masses, especially if there is travel involved between sites.

While we realize that people will make a plea that an exception be made for their particular need, it is far better to seek creative alternatives than to demand more time and more celebrations from us. These options might include wedding ceremonies performed during the regular weekend Masses, or deacons performing wedding ceremonies not involving a Mass, or other ministers doing the reflections on Scriptures during the Masses in place of a homily by the priest. What people do not realize is the amount of preparation and emotional energy that goes into each liturgical celebration. Part of the hours we expend each week are given to large doses of homily preparation, meeting time with couples and parents and filling out documents.

Not only do we need time away from ministry—both weekly and during our annual vacation and retreat—we also need time for reading, updating and professional development. One of the most frequent complaints voiced during our gatherings was the little time we have to do any reading or for participating in classes on liturgy, Scripture or leadership skills. The opportunity for this needs to be built into our regular work week as part of our ongoing development for pastoring a modern parish. Also built into the equation should be a sabbatical of at least four months away from the parish every seven years. If the shortage is getting to the point where a priest can no longer take a sabbatical for prayer, study and relaxation, then a change in the system is necessary. Otherwise the strains will continue to mount, resulting in sickness, exhaustion and poor pastoring. Both we and our people deserve better.

The parishioners themselves are working too hard these days, often not leaving work behind but bringing it home with them by means of cell phones and the Internet. Pastors should offer a model of a balanced lifestyle, not perpetuate the same hectic pace experienced by our people. If we can find a balance between our personal lives and our workload, the implications will ripple out beyond us, changing the culture of the parish as a whole and those who belong to it.

We need your help. First of all, pay attention to the workload you are expecting of your pastors, lest you continue to lose the few that you have. Workaholism is not a gift of the Spirit. We realize you may be risking possible conflict with higher authority as you take a stand to support your priests in establishing a realistic workload. Your awareness and encouragement of our situation is important as we strive to discover what is and is not possible in our pastoring.

Recognize the people’s right to the celebration of the Eucharist. Provide a forum to discuss changes in the requirements for ordination and to discover ways in which parish communities can call people to the priesthood, even without the requirement of celibacy. Also recognize the movement of the Spirit in the evolution of the ministry of women in the church today. Many priests are currently living an emotionally and spiritually unhealthy lifestyle, and both priests and parishioners are suffering because of this.

We are not the enemy. We love the church as you do. Please think of us that way. Listen to the people and be closer to them. Encourage sabbaticals, study opportunities, retreats and spiritual development for priests, staffs and pastoral ministers. We will try to do our part to discover ways to use our time more effectively, but we need the legitimacy that your position can provide to maintain a balanced workload.

Seriously look at and realize the consequences of not dealing with the issues related to ordination, such as burn-out among priests, the compromise of their physical and mental health, less time for meaningful ministry and people being deprived of Eucharist and sacraments. Also, recognize the need for priests to have a life of their own. Identify what would be the ideal workload for pastors and promote this “benchmark” throughout the diocese. Limit weekend Masses to three. Push for the celebration of weddings during the regularly scheduled weekend liturgies. Delegate deacons or nonordained ministers to anoint the sick. Advocate opening up ordination to all who are qualified and called to this ministry.

Put as much time and effort into making sure priests take time for retreats, personal updating and recreation as is given to other concerns throughout the diocese. Provide as much funding for the development of lay ministry and staff development as is given to the formation and preparation of future priests. Entrust the administration of the parish to someone other than the pastor. When appointing pastors, consider appointing a qualified pastoral administrator along with the new pastor, who would share in the running and administration of the parish.

Encourage priests to live in communal settings with other priests who might serve a number of different parishes, but in a place removed from any one of the parishes. Also, foster more dialogue and sharing with other denominations to see how they cope with the pressures of pastoral ministry; in this way, we can learn from one another.

One of your own, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, wrote to his priests before he died: “Get away from the paperwork. Ask yourself, when people come to church, are they finding Jesus? If they are not, then they are wasting their time. People simply want us to be with them in the joys and sorrows of their lives. In light of that, priests need to be the face of Jesus to people. They need to have time to do this and to get away from paperwork. Compassion comes before compliance.”

This is a large order, and we realize you cannot do it alone. We want to work with you to reconstitute the role and duties of the pastor and encourage the priesthood of all the baptized to share the load. Cardinal Roger Mahony wrote in his pastoral letter on ministry (4/20/00), “Authentic collaboration is rooted in the conviction that all the baptized are given a share in Christ’s priestly ministry, and that one and all are necessary for the fulfillment of the Church’s mission.” This mission of the church is suffering because pastors are overburdened. Work with us to discover what can reasonably be expected of us and what could or should be handed over to others. Thank you for listening.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
15 years 6 months ago
As I read the article by Thomas Sweetser, S.J., (7/2) on behalf of his 50 fatigued pastors, I couldn’t help but feel sad that this group apparently can no longer differentiate between a job and a vocation. A job can be quantified by the hours, but a vocation—a life responsibility—cannot be boxed in that way.

No one I know would begrudge any priest needed time off, nor oppose the application of reasonable time-management practices in parish administration. A few of the suggestions in the article have potential. But trying to wiggle out of sacramental obligations, such as anointing the sick, which we all thought they had signed on for with ordination, is disillusioning, to say the least.

“Back to the drawing board, guys.” That’s what I would advise, since they don’t seem to grasp the ineluctable concept of fathering, spiritual or otherwise. On the other hand, though, it could be a hoot to watch them cope with the practicalities of, for instance, scheduling weddings during “regular weekend Masses”—one of the time-saving recommendations.

It would provide truly high comedy for an invisible observer standing by while they try to persuade couples to plan a formal 8:00 a.m. Saturday wedding ceremony before a scattering of grungily-dressed pewfolks on their way to weekend sports outings. Even more so would be the dealing with such ceremonies during regular Sunday Masses with the parking snafus, the battles over “suitable” music, the competing priestly and bridal processions, the guests-versus-parishioners ushering nightmares, the question of whether or not wedding guests should have the collection basket passed under their noses. And that’s not even mentioning the terrible wrath of the mothers of the brides.

Once upon a time, the grade school nuns (remember them?) used to teach us how admirable it was for young men to throw themselves into the lifelong task of being “other Christs.” That’s not at all the same as being other C.E.O.’s. Alas!

15 years 6 months ago
I, for one, respectfully and adamantly disagree with Thomas Sweetser, S.J., and his 50 collaborators in their open letter to our bishops (7/2). Having been a priest for 34 years and worked in tremendously large parishes, I have not witnessed what is so dramatically portrayed in the picture of the downtrodden priest. To me, it is at best an exaggeration and at worst a self-serving and self-fulfilling prophecy. Francis Xavier and John Vianney would not have signed such a declaration. They would have done the best they could and relied on God’s grace.

For far too long have we listened to this kind of talk and even believed it. I am sure these priests love the church, and I am equally sure their bishops do not expect the impossible. Common theological sense indicates that bishops cannot delegate deacons to anoint the sick, nor can they permit the ordination of anyone who is not deemed capable or suitable for priestly ordination by the church. I hardly think Father Sweetser’s approach will help the church or her priests.

The latest from america

A Reflection for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, by Heather Trotta
Heather TrottaAugust 12, 2022
A Reflection for Saturday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time, by Kevin Clarke
Kevin ClarkeAugust 12, 2022
Susan (Lydia Gaston) and Joe Valencia (Jo Koy) in "Easter Sunday." (Universal Pictures.)
I decided that the best way to gauge reactions to the film was to gather feedback from none other than my own Filipino-American family.
Melissa EnajeAugust 12, 2022
Listening to, and seeing, the other are always important. Because no one is really the other. Nothing separates us, because we are the same.
Annie KennedyAugust 12, 2022