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Posted November 16, 2005

The Most Recent Findings on a Study of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years

What Does a First Assignment Look Like?

This Study was Conducted by
The Life Cycle Institute
and the
Seminary Division of the National Catholic Educational Association
in Washington DC

The Transition to Priesthood

After ordination comes the first assignment, and everyone agrees that it is crucial. How do these priests evaluate their first assignments? See Table 4.1. The vast majority rated them as "very helpful" or "helpful." Few gave negative ratings, but 7% of the diocesan priests and 4% of the religious priests rated them "detrimental." From 1990 to 2005 the ratings clearly improved, and this shows important progress. Either the 2005 priests had truly better experiences, or they were personally less inclined to be critical. We cannot know which of the two factors contributed to the improved ratings, but in any case the improvement is good news.

If the first assignment was helpful, why was it? The respondents wrote in answers, which we categorized in the middle of the table. Clearly the most important factor was the pastor. The ideal situation was having a supportive, competent pastor who genuinely welcomed the new priest and enjoyed training him. Next most important was the parish--the lay members, the parish life, and the ministries. Here is a sample of specific comments about helpful first assignments:

I was in a multicultural parish, with a veteran pastor who shared his knowledge with me in the areas that I needed development in and especially in the business end and running a parish.

Great pastor and many opportunities for experience in ministry.

I was the associate pastor of three parishes in one community and had to "hit the ground running." This helped me to be prepared later to be the only priest in a young, fast-growing parish.

It gave me a chance to actually live the priesthood, but it was in a difficult rectory setting.

There was a lot to do. I felt I got a lot of experiences in many different situations.

Good pastor. There was a new staff (secretary and youth minister) who were open to new ideas, and we were able to grow together.

I enjoyed my first assignment. My pastor was very helpful, parish life was spiritual and sound. My communication skills and the spiritual the people perceived in me helped me to connect and to exercise my ministry fully.

I got to act like a priest with the assistance of good mentoring.

Good community to live in, with four priests. Great pastor who gave me room to grow, always affirming and supportive. Good prayer life with the pastor and good staff support.

Good pastor who treated me with respect. A good relationship with parishioners, and good overall pastoral experiences--visiting the sick, hospitals, counseling, etc.

My first assignment was in the Black Catholic parish. It was a small and somewhat poor congregation, but the people were welcoming and tolerant of my early foibles. I was engaged in a variety of ministries which involved me in people's lives. I was responsible for making decisions and implementing programs.

By contrast, here are reports of unhelpful first assignments: The pastor was waiting for someone to do all his work for him. I was treated like a second clsss citizen. He was not nurturing, helpful, or understanding. He was abusive. There is no charity in the diocesan priesthood.

The pastor was jealous of me and did not support me over the staff. He never treated me as an equal or as a brother priest.

[I had] no one to reflect with about experiences or needs.

It was sink or swim.

Living with elderly, retired priests was not helpful.

There was no formal mentoring process in place. My first pastor was of a different ethnic group and was unwilling to work outside that group.

The pastor did not seem welcoming, and the staff did not make me feel welcome.

The pastor was a first-time pastor who really was never around, leaving me with little or no guidance.

The placement board was more interested in filling a hole than in placing me with a competent pastor. I lived in a rectory, but I lived there alone. It would have been better if I was placed with a competent priest in a good living situation.

The pastor felt that I was trained, and so he expected me to know the procedures of day-to-day.

The 1990 survey included written-in evaluations of first assignments, and the main themes were the same as in the 2005 survey. That is, the 1990 priests were more critical overall, but the specifics of their criticisms were the same. Whether the actual experiences of the men were better in 2005 or whether the 2005 priests were a less complaining lot--independent of their experiences -- is difficult to know. Probably both are true.