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Thomas P. SweetserJuly 30, 2007

To be pastor for a typical Catholic parish these days is to attempt the impossible, for the pastor’s role has grown too large. It includes pastoral duties (preaching, counseling, presiding at liturgies, administrating sacraments, visiting parishioners), managing human resources (staff direction, performance reviews, coordinating meetings, public relations) and administration (finances, buildings, decision making, long-range planning), to name but a few. Add the prospect of taking responsibility for an additional parish (one or more, which has become increasingly frequent), and the pastor’s role is fraught with frustration. A pastor who wants to be present to the people may instead find himself rushing from one commitment to another, falling behind in answering e-mail messages and returning phone calls, arriving at presentations unprepared and lacking adequate time and energy to manage conflicts or handle crises. It is not a recipe that leads to success or to a sense of accomplishment. Managing the staff, overseeing finances, directing lay leadership—these are too much for one individual to do, especially when added to the pastoral work required of and central to the pastor’s role.


One solution is to find a partner, a co-worker to share the administrative burden. As the primary decision maker in a parish, the pastor, according to canon law, has the authority to hire an administrator to share his duties. At the Parish Evaluation Project in Milwaukee, we have worked with nearly 20 pastors who have found partnering with an administrator to be an effective new solution to the problems of an expanded workload. Interested parishes may want to keep several considerations in mind as they plan for such a new position.

1. Partnership. Hiring an administrator cannot solve all the issues associated with a modern parish, but it can provide someone with whom the pastor can share his workload and negotiate some of the pitfalls and land mines of parish life. For example, such a person can give the pastor honest feedback, hold him accountable to his own goals and promises, and help him maintain healthy boundaries between work and his personal life in a way that no one else can. Even those pastors who have a gift for administration and who thrive on keeping everything running smoothly know that they cannot do it all alone. Having someone else to share the load and act as a confidant and wisdom figure brings out the best in any pastor, no matter how competent and gifted.

2. New Position. Look outside the staff for the administrator. Only rarely is there someone already on staff who can fill the new role of being a partner with the pastor. The position would not work well if filled by a business manager or deacon or associate pastor who had been on staff and had already established a staff identity and way of relating to the pastor. Rather, consider the parish administrator an entirely new position, not a reworking of current jobs and tasks.

3. Trial Period. At least for an interim period, while working out the bugs of the role, consider hiring a part-time administrator from among qualified parishioners—perhaps a retired person skilled in administration, human resources and management. Then, when you are ready to fill the administrator’s job, do not jump at the first candidate to come along. Be highly selective. Negotiate a six-month pilot period to try out the new way of proceeding with your best candidate. Monitor how it is working for the pastor, staff, core leaders and parishioners, as well as for the administrator. At the end of the pilot period, conduct a thorough review and assessment before inviting the individual to sign on for a longer commitment. It has to be the right person, one who can free up the pastor’s role, not make it worse by adding strain and tension to the pastor’s shoulders.

4. Not a Business. Make sure that the candidate has knowledge and extensive experience working in a pastoral setting. Although the job demands an awareness of business organization and management models, a parish is not the same as a business. It is a spiritual operation that is Gospel-driven. Some decisions that would make sense from a business point of view would not work in a parish. The administrator, in other words, must have a pastoral perspective, an awareness of the spiritual dimension of the parish, a passion for ministry and growth in the Spirit, as well as the human resources background.

5. Staff Oversight. Besides being a partner with the pastor, one key aspect of the administrator’s role is to be a coach, mentor, resource, advocate, facilitator, assessor and model for the staff. The administrator helps to clarify each staff member’s job description, then uses it as an evaluation tool when assessing how well the staff members actually did what they said they would do throughout the year. The administrator makes sure that the staff meets together regularly and that meetings are quality periods with good bonding, shared decision making, spiritual enrichment and effective planning. The pastor and administrator share the role of hiring and letting staff members go, always paying attention to the proper procedures of good management and business practices.

6. Leadership. Besides forming a partnership with the pastor and overseeing the operation of the staff, the administrator’s third task is to work with the pastoral council and other leadership bodies so that they can accomplish much in a reasonable length of time. The parish leaders can find their valuable time put to the best use and see results coming from their work as leadership bodies.

7. Stewardship. One other task an administrator might oversee is to challenge parishioners to practice stewardship as a way of life. Stewardship includes a personal commitment to daily prayer, involvement in at least one ministry or project (in the parish or elsewhere) and giving back to God a portion of one’s financial blessings in the form of a monetary contribution to the parish. Although established groups and committees might direct and maintain various aspects of the parish stewardship, the administrator would make sure that all of these areas are being addressed, ensuring the effective coordination of volunteers and encouraging people to give their fair share in support of parish ministries and programs.

In all the facilitation we do as pastoral consultants with parishes across the country, our most helpful contribution is perhaps in helping pastors to see the importance of finding someone else to work with them in such a partnership. The pastor must find the right person to share the pastoring role and work with him or her to provide a spiritually enriching and well-managed environment for all who are employed in the parish community, or are members of it, or are helped by it.

We have heard from many satisfied pastors who have hired a pastoral administrator as a partner in the leadership of the parish. While what follows is not an exact quote, it does characterize a typical response.

“Yes, we operate as equals; Virginia handles the finances, facilities, our new building project and the oversight of the staff. I do the Masses, sacramental ministry, pastoral duties and nurture the spiritual side of staff and ministers. We both are part of the pastoral council, but she takes care of making up the agenda with the chairperson. I don’t have to worry about any of those things.

“She is worth any amount of money we pay her, which is very reasonable considering all she does, especially in managing the staff. They are so much happier since she came on board. Staff members take turns running our meetings, but she makes sure they start and end on time and that what happens at our gathering is quality time together. Virginia also sits down with each staff person to work out the job description and then holds the person accountable to this throughout the year. I was never able to do that before Virginia arrived. Not only is the staff held accountable—and this is a positive thing because they know just where they make a difference in the parish—but so are other groups in the parish, including the pastoral council, finance council, school committee, you name it.

“She really has this place humming. That one addition to the staff has meant all the difference. But be careful who you hire. It has to be the right chemistry between the two of you. When I hired Virginia, she suggested that we try it out for a few months to see if this was what both of us had in mind. At the end of the trial period, because it was looking pretty good, we decided to extend it for another six months after asking the staff and parish leaders to give us feedback about how it was working for them. This had to work for everyone, not just the two of us. Now it has become an institution in the parish. There are no more end-runs, where people come to me because they don’t like what Virginia told them. They soon realized that I would just sent them back to her for a final answer. I don’t know why I didn’t do this a lot sooner. It makes such good sense.”

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