The Right Relationship

The Parish As Covenantby By Thomas P. Sweetser, S.J.Sheed & Ward. 182p $17.95 (paper)

The Parish As Covenant: A Call to Pastoral Partnership is a synthesis of wisdom about parish life based on Father Thomas Sweetser’s years of leadership in The Parish Evaluation Project, The Parish Assessment and Renewal Process, his work with parishes experiencing pastor transitions and other workshops and projects in which he has participated over nearly 30 years. Sweetser suggests that maybe the most pressing parish-life issue before us is not changing the nature of priesthood (in the face of the clergy shortage), but changing the system by which parishes operate and are governed. He says that we must move from priest/pastor-dependent parishes to parishes that have two or more focus persons, besides the pastor. For this, he suggests that we look at the corporate C.E.O./C.O.O./C.F.O. model, and draw on some of its truth and wisdom regarding effective leadership.

According to Sweetser, the pastor should lead in the areas of spirituality, sacramental life and counseling, with other skilled people brought on staff to handle finances, buildings and the day-to-day operation of the parish. Many large suburban parishes have recognized the truth and wisdom in these suggestions and have already moved in this direction. But church leaders will be challenged by his recommendations for applying this model to smaller congregations, multiracial/ethnic communities and those that are too financially troubled to afford new hirings.


The author thinks that working toward such change will result in a covenant relationship among pastor, staff, parish leaders and parishioners that will give a parish a more existential feeling of partnership in the mission of the reign of God. What Sweetser idealizes is a wholistic sense of stewardship, which is indeed about to emerge in Catholic culture.

Sweetser calls pastors to lead rather than to manage. While he acknowledges that pastoring will always involve some management responsibilities, he believes the pastor should concentrate most of his time on being the bearer of the dream and the instigator of change. His comments recall the views of Tom Peters of the Excellence movement in corporations, who called C.E.O.’s and other business leaders to manage by wandering around, getting involved in the vision and work of the organization. Peters used to speak of good leaders as fanatics with vision. Part of pastoring involves communicating interest in and connection with the people of the parish, thereby setting a collaborative tone. Good pastoring involves holding others accountable, as well as protecting voices of dissent within the parish. Pastors, in turn, need to allow themselves to be pastored, or influenced, by others regarding the evaluation and performance of their duties as pastors. Good pastoring is a covenant relationship that involves the assigned pastor sharing pastoring with the people of God.

There are benchmarks for effective pastoral leadership. These pertain to pastoral leaders on staff as well as pastors. Sweetser proposes the following:

  • Pastoral leadership should work no more than 50 hours per week.
  • Those involved in professional ministry should have at least one-and-a-half days a week away from pastoral duties.
  • Pastoral ministers, including priests, should be responsible for no more than three regularly scheduled Masses per weekend. In addition, there should be no more than one or two other liturgical celebrations, like funerals or marriages.
  • No more than one Mass per day, including funerals, should be presided over by a priest.
  • Pastors and professional staff should get at least four full weeks’ vacation each year.
  • Five days a year should be given for retreat and five workdays for personal development.
  • Four months away from the parish every seven years should be provided for pastors and staff members, with full pay.
  • Place of residence and workplace should be separated for pastors and priests.

Sweetser also challenges bishops to reimagine how parish work is done, listen to and support priests and people in the parishes, lighten priests’ workload by freeing them of administrative obligations. The goal is healthier, more effective living and serving. If effectively structured, the author argues, such a parish spreads out the responsibility for visioning and decision making, reflecting its mission and core values. The author also suggests specific means for implementing and improving parish ministry teams, groups or councils. That not every pastor will accept certain details of Sweetser’s leadership model (depending on circumstances) does not at all weaken his thesis.

The Parish As Covenant also contains helpful material on pastoral strategic planning as a part of good leadership. The value of Sweetser’s material here is to energize parishes by transforming them into proactive organisms, rather than reactive organisms that, in a sense, are waiting for something to happen.

In the area of celebrative worship, Sweetser highlights the importance of allowing diversity to be part of liturgical celebrations: there is no one fit. Liturgies need to be both nourishing and challenging, if people are to feel motivated to come to church. Of particular importance is his chapter Taking the Parish to the People. Through a variety of strategies, he encourages parishes not just to wait for people to enter their campus, but rather to connect with people and help them live in the world. This section stresses the importance of evangelizing people on the fringe, reaching out to them in a variety of ways, helping them to feel connected to the parish even if they do not become regular participants in worship.

Sweetser’s book is a valuable resource for staffs, councils, leadership groups, study groups and parishioners at large. It can be easily used to diagnose where a parish or cluster of parishes may be; it is also a worthy guide for moving toward more effective pastoral systems. (In my parish we are trying to implement much of what Sweetser has written about, through the relational strategies and experiences of small Christian communities, mini-parishes within the larger parish and family-based religious education.) The realities of community, family and neighborhood have made covenant less ideal and more real, existential and experiential.

The Parish As Covenant is a wise, challenging book, one that holds out hope for the future of parish life.

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