success stories

Posted November 13, 2003

What Will The Future of Pastoral Ministry Look Like?

Eugene Hemrick

Now that we are into the new millennium, what especially needs to be rethought, restructured, and upgraded in pastoral ministry? To answer this, letís first define what we mean by pastoral ministry.

As Christ formed a community of believers, and taught, cared and prayed for it, so too, is prayer, caring, teaching and community the essence of pastoral ministry. To the degree it is creative, visionary and flexible in fulfilling these roles, it is to that degree it will impact our millennium.

When we think of who is primarily responsible for pastoral ministry, what person first comes to mind? Usually it is a priest. Although this is the perception of some, responsibility here is not conceived in terms of one person, but rather in terms of a team working together in concert like an orchestra. Its players include pastors, associate pastors, deacons and lay leaders, who periodically may be its orchestra leader, and at other times a player in one of its sections.

This vision of pastoral ministry raises the first crucial question about its future. Will it see an even greater emphasis on team collaboration, the empowerment of individuals, and respect for their gifts? Or will it be overly concerned with who is subject to whom? Throughout time, the question of authority and turf wars have always been a pressing concern of pastoral ministry. Will we see less emphasis on this and more emphasis on it being a team effort that exemplifies spiritual communion, and selfless service par excellence? In the past, studies show that a good number of diocesan seminarians saw themselves personally shouldering more responsibilities to offset the priest shortage. They indicated less interest in being an orchestra leader, and more interest in being "the teacher," the "ombudsman." For it to have an effective future, pastoral ministry needs to repeatedly ask "who" ultimately "is/are" seen responsible for its success?

Future Challenges Facing The Growth Of Community

A first principle of pastoral ministry is that without a community it doesnít exist. How then do we encourage our people to deeply commit to a faith community that lives in a secular society diligently competing for their attention? More to the point, how do we get to those who live in high-rise and loft apartments, town houses, sprawling suburbs, ghettos and barrios?

In the past, the census was often a successful means of contacting parishioners and involving them in parish life. Today, people are on the move, nullifying the use of the census. What new approaches are now needed to locate them? No doubt word of mouth is still our best means. But are there other modern means we now have to add to this approach, means like the Internet and e-mail?

The Internet has become one of our most powerful tools of communication for contacting people. It spans large distances; response time between connections is instantaneous; accessibility is easy; and it can reach people in remote areas. It is true that it is less personal, and as Pope Paul VI suggests, needs refinement in making it an instrument that "pierces the conscious of men." How to make this refinement is yet another challenge pastoral ministry faces.

Attractive apostolic moments are another proven means for creating community. Recently, I experienced the St. Egidio Community in Rome, which is one of the most poplar movements of our times. This community, which was originally formed to fight the Red Brigade, now serves the poor and elderly throughout the world. What especially touched me about this community was its large numbers of young people and elderly, and the reverence with which they prayed.

Why are these movements so attractive? Are they addressing a new breed of needs? Or is it because of their emphasis on the spiritual life as the backbone of their work? Studies show that the number of people looking for spiritual nourishment is increasing, as is the number of retreat centers, the sale of spiritual books, and interest in various schools of spirituality. What is this saying to pastoral ministry about the type of movements it should be contemplating creating?

It goes without saying that the Churchís recent difficulties have dampened its entrepreneurial spirit. Will pastoral ministry continue to possess the enthusiasm of the past that created programs like the Catholic Family Movement (CFM), Pre-Cana, The Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), and more recently, Renew? The word enthusiasm comes from the Greek meaning to be filled with Godís spirit. Ultimately, this spirit was behind the great movements of the past. In the words of Pope Paul VI, pastoral ministry needs to ask itself: "In our day, what has happened to that hidden energy of the Good News, which is able to have a powerful effect on manís conscience?"

Turning to our young people, will we see creative programs that break the normal, acceptable mode of parish programs? Take, for example, Theology on Tap that goes where young adults hang out, and engages them in religious dialogues, or the e-mail program of a pastor who e-mails parish college students to chit chat, counsel, and update them on parish activities? Will we see a growth in innovative programs that are capable of making contact with those on the margins of parish life? Or will we see the continuation of programs that never reach beyond defined boundaries, and only speak to the "saved-saved?"

Studies show that small base ecclesial communities that come together to meditate the scriptures in order to be energized in building Godís kingdom are one of our best community builders. Will pastoral ministry endeavor to strengthen this movement in the future? Could it be that these communities hold the key to reaching people in high rise apartments, and in the ghettos? Are they also one of the most powerful tools we possess for inspiring social justice action?

With sports occupying the free time of teenagers, how do we break into this all consuming world? Is the liturgy our best avenue of approach, and if so, how can it be better fashioned to achieve this?

While visiting Phoenix, Arizona, I attended a Life Teen liturgy. It was truly awesome! The pastor talked to his young people on an adult to adult level. The liturgical music was tasteful, and the young people were very attentive. Chaperons worked with them as a team. There was a warm sense of welcoming, and most encouraging of all, the church was not only packed, but exuded a profound sense of heartfelt spirituality.

Well structured teenage liturgies donít just happen. They are the result of a well-planned team effort. How do we effectively plan inspiring liturgies for youth raised in a video environment that bombards their minds with split second impressionable images? To whom do we turn to learn this? Is it from the teens themselves? Do we employ psychologists, educators, and coaches? And where do their parents fit into the scheme of consultation? More importantly, how do we foster the spirituality they yearn for?

Studies show that teens attending retreats become closer to God, and more open with their parents and confessors because of the experience. Unlike any other program, retreats create the expectation of being there to help one know oneself and God best. Should pastoral ministry be doing more utopian thinking on what would happen if teen and young adult retreats were given greater emphasis? Is this where to concentrate for making a dramatic difference in the sacramental life of our youth?

On this same note, does pastoral ministry need to focus more forcefully on community service projects? In a Notre Dame study on their effects, it was found that students come to realize there is more to schooling than getting good grades or going to football games. They learn that education means becoming a caring, selfless person. In a very true way, they have a spiritual experience of the highest type.

Turning to multiculturalism, how can pastoral ministry reach out more effectively to the growing variety of cultures? Cardinal Pio Laghi once observed that knowing anotherís language isnít enough for effectively ministering to other cultures. "You need to be immersed in their culture," he said. Is there a greater need for creating ongoing cultural days in which each culture shares its stories and customs with parishioners? Should more attention be given to the feasts of their saints? Should more emphasis be given to reaching out to the underprivileged in these cultures who often are afraid to come to church because they donít speak our language, or feel they fit in?

When I worked at the United States Catholic Conference, we had such celebrations. Because of them, we realized, as did the bishops in their pastoral on the Hispanic culture, that these cultures contain gifts we need. Their customs, devotions, and unique ways of envisioning Christ evangelize us as much as we attempt to evangelize them.

We need to stop and reflect momentarily on the one major implication behind the questions we raised to this point, i.e., an entrepreneurial spirit is crucial to the future of pastoral ministry. That future with its "bottom lines challenges", faces many difficult hurtles. They include: 1. often inadequate funding for attracting talent and creating programs, 2. the threat of cutbacks and reorganization due to the toll taken by lawsuits on dioceses, 3. tighter restrictions and more red tape, especially in working with youth, due to the recent scandals, and 4. overcoming the problem of a negative image, which the press tends to present. When these are present, enthusiasm and morale drop. How to maintain an enthusiastic, entrepreneurial spirit is one of the biggest challenges the future of pastoral ministry faces.

Walking with Christ the Teacher: Educating Ourselves in Order to Educate Others

One of the principal roles of pastoral ministers is teaching. This is especially needed in light of new moral questions that include medical ethics, marketplace practices, preserving resources, the right to life, war, the growing gap between the wealthy and poor, the family breakdown, substance abuse, etc. This is to say nothing about keeping up oneís knowledge of scripture, liturgy, ecclesiology, and catechetics. With duties tripling for pastoral ministers, where do they find time to study?

Self study, and taking classes have always been successful for keeping up. But does pastoral ministry need something more modern to be educationally effective? Does it, for example, need a movement that utilizes the Internet as an educational tool? If this is true, from where should the movement come, and how do we get pastoral leaders actively involved in it?

In addition to this, do dioceses need to provide more continuing education for pastoral ministers so that they feel part of a human learning community? Do those who plan these days also need to rethink about how to make them unique, much more attractive, and a true learning moment?

Turning to seminaries, should there be even more emphasis on ongoing education after seminarians are ordained? The noted scripture scholar, Fr. Rolland Murphy repeatedly counseled his class: "study is ministry!" How do we get a young priest, who usually starts out with multiple, time-consuming responsibilities, to take this to heart?

In Pastorales Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul II encourages seminarians to work at being an apostolic community in their seminary formation. How much do our seminarians realize that their formation in this area is an opportunity to test their pastoral skills in the community building they will be required to do?

Turning to lay pastoral leaders, will we ever see the day they receive sabbaticals, and are treated as professionals who need time off to retool? Will they, like priests, be required to make periodic retreats as part of their duties?

Walking with Christ the Healer

The most inspiring way for a parish to fulfill its pastoral role is to serve those in need of caring. This can range from shut ins, hospice care, chemical substance abuse, depression, the elderly, hot lines, medical care, and assisted living, to single parents, those in single life, widows, divorced and separated, physically impaired, etc.

Today, caring requires larger staffs because of a wider range of problems people face. Parishes that try to respond to these problems find themselves relying heavily on volunteers. But with both husbands and wives, and non married people working long hours, where do we find our volunteers? Interestingly, the Notre Dame Parish Study informs us that: "Volunteers are out there, and will volunteer if asked, but most of the time they arenít asked." But how do we effectively ask? In a talk to vocation directors, Archbishop Timothy Dolan offers one very useful insight. "It is revealing to look at the words Jesus uses when summoning his disciples," he says. "Does he say, Work with me? No. Plan with me? No. Run with me? No. Strategize with me? No. Exercise with me? No. Discuss with me? No. Rather, he invites: Abide in me. Remain with me. Live in me. Stay with me. Keep watch with me. Be with me. All being words, no doing or having words." If pastoral ministry is to succeed in attracting volunteers, is this type of summoning needed, and if so, how is it done on the practical level?


Prayer life is the heart of pastoral ministry. What it should look like and how to keep it alive are the crux of its success. As effective as is private prayer, communal prayer is extremely important to pastoral ministry for realizing that its work is a community effort, and not that of certain individuals. To keep it vibrant, should there not be a reasonable ratio of the time pastoral leaders expend on their activities to the ratio of time they pray together? It goes without saying, that the prayer life of pastoral ministry is its cutting edge, and what ultimately keeps it from being reduced to being solely social work.

No doubt, many more challenges face the future of pastoral ministry. In this treatise, I have veered away from its internal and juridical challenges, and rather addressed the outward thrust it should have. I have emphasized a team effort, and being entrepreneur, rather than being a one person show, acting cautiously, and being old fashioned. Also highlighted here is a heavy emphasis on the spiritual as the crux of pastoral ministry success. If pastoral ministry focuses first and foremost on improving its altruism, creativity and spirituality, and works equally hard to avoid navel gazing, sameness, and the relegation of spirituality to a secondary concern, it will insure itself of a bright and effective future.