success stories

Posted January 16, 2004

Book: They Call Him Pastor: Married Men in Charge of Catholic Parishes
Author: Ruth A. Wallace
Paulist Press, New York, pp. 276

Excerpt from Jacket:

They Call Him Pastor reveals how the leadership of married men can be a resource for the healthy continuation of parish life. It focuses on twenty parishes, located in all four census regions of the United States, that are administered by married men (ten deacons and ten laymen). In each parish, the author conducted individual interviews with the deacons and the lay leaders, their wives, their children, the sacramental minister (priest), the bishops, and a representative group of parishioners. The research revealed that these parish leaders tended to practice collaborative leadership, and that their marital status was a key factor for the acceptance and cooperation of their congregation.

Excerpts from Book:

Summary 1

Because all the lay leaders shared the same religious status as their lay parishioners, it was not surprising to find that, without exception, all ten laymen practiced collaborative leadership. . . .

All of these parish leaders, however, shared a key characteristic with the majority of their parishioners: their marital status. The powerful statement regarding his parish leader by one of the married parishioners, “He’s one of us!” says it all.

Collaborative leadership is also enhanced in parishes with stewardship programs that stress the contribution of time, talent, and treasure (money) on the part of parishioners. Both stewardship programs and collaborative leadership are, in fact, bringing new life to Catholic parishes.

Summary 2

In his study of the wives of ten priests who converted to Catholicism, Joseph Fichter found that their husbands were helping out in parishes saying Mass on the weekends, and though they did not live in the rectory, and in most cases did not live within the boundaries of the parish, there were “generally available for infant baptisms, confessions, funerals, wakes, weddings, and sick calls.” All of the priests in Fichter’s study had a full-time salaried job outside the parish, whereas that was true of only three of the men in my study. Only half of the women in my study, those who were married to deacons, are wives of Catholic clergy. On the other hand, all of them are wives of men heading Catholic parishes, an experience that, according to the guidelines of the American Bishops, is denied to convert priests and to former Catholic priests who are married.

In many ways the wives in this study are breaking new ground. None of them is the wife of a priest, but they are married to men who have been appointed by the bishop to be the leaders of Catholic parishes in dioceses throughout the United States. Their presence belies the argument that married men cannot successfully administer Roman Catholic parishes. The current statistics on the priest shortage in the United States found in the appendix shows that the category with the largest number of non-priests entrusted to head parishes are laypeople. Though religious sisters are the second largest group to head parishes, their numbers are dwindling, so we can expect that the numbers of parishes headed by laity will continue to increase.

Because they have no role models, these wives are creating different ways of being a pastor’s wife, in many cases recasting their position by showing that it is not necessary for wives to give up their own meaningful occupation outside the home when their husband accepts the appointment. Like other women pioneering in new roles, this has not been a smooth process for them and their families. Nonetheless, these wives occupy a key position in a changing situation that is gaining some momentum in the United States: Roman Catholic parishes administered by married men.

Summary 3

The children of the parish leaders are well aware of the adjustments related to the role of a “pastor’s kid.” Nonetheless, they tended to be positive about their experiences in the parish, and proud of their father’s new role. In fact, teenaged sons spoke of their new status as an advantage in a dating situation, because of the good reputation of a parish leader. The younger children who were outgoing and loquacious sometimes functioned as “ice breakers” for parishioners who were awkward about conversing with their new leader and his family, especially in the first few weeks of their arrival.

On the downside, moving to a new location meant the loss of friends and close scrutiny for these children. The close scrutiny was especially difficult for children in the five families living in the rectory. However, there were two additional benefits for these families. Living in the rectory meant free housing, more space for the family members, and a short walk to work for the fathre. The children in the five families who had been members of the parish previous to their father’s new position had the dual advantage of continuity in their living arrangements and in parish membership.

Not only did seventeen of the mothers work for pay outside the home, but the children themselves also tended to contribute to the financial support of the family by taking part-time jobs. He experience of these families call into question the argument that Catholic parishes cannot afford to hire married pastors because the resources of other members of the family, children as well as wives, have been overlooked.

Summary 4

The priests in their role as sacramental minister, had the task of paving the way through “uncharted territories” with the parish leaders. This was especially evident in regard to such issues as preaching and ritual garments to be worn on Sundays.

After listening to the priests’ experiences and their thoughts and feelings about their new role, I am most concerned about the overburdened priests who are already experiencing the burnout syndrome. The continuing decline in priestly vocations in the United States and the recent mandate regarding the dismissal of priests involved in the sexual abuse of minors will certainly exacerbate the priest shortage. This does not bode well for an alleviation of priest burnout in our country.

On the other hand, in those dioceses with longer experience and clearer guidelines regarding the roles of pastoral administrator and sacramental minister, there was less uncharted territory for both priests and pastoral administrators, and this resulted in smoother relationships between them. In particular, the parish leaders were eager to elaborate on the many instances of their priests’ invaluable support as troubleshooters and mentors for them in their parishes.

Summary 5

There is no doubt that the bishops had some different views about the future of parish life. Imagine the lively conversations we might hear if we could each be a “fly on the wall” as an observer at a gathering of these bishops whose voices we have heard, both in this chapter and throughout the book!

Some bishops were also more organized than others regarding the preparation of parishioners and the screening of candidates for this new position. On the whole, however, due to the supportive actions of the bishops, evidenced by their installation ceremonies, parish visits, evaluation sessions, and their economic support, the deacons and laymen in charge of parishes tended to express their conviction that they could count on the bishops’ validation of their leadership.

Toward a Different Form of Parish Leadership

In order to keep parish communities alive, what is needed are new resources for parish leadership that will re-invigorate the sacramental life in these parishes without priest pastors. This would necessitate a change in church law along the lines of Thomas Sweetser’s recommendation, one that is not a new phenomenon, but a return to the practices of early Christianity.

Although they were not priests, the parish leaders in this study not only “kept the parish open” but, following in the footsteps of the apostles like St. Peter, they showed that the married state is not an impediment to church leadership. In fact, their marital status offered two advantages: Their family members provided a community living situation for these parish leaders, while their wives and children contributed to the creation and maintenance of the parish community as well.

The issue of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in the United States occupied the headlines in the first half of 2002 and is almost certain to be a negative influence on the recruitment of candidates to the priesthood in this country. In addition, the removal from active ministry of hundreds of priests accused of the sexual abuse of minors over the past forty years will exacerbate the shortage of priests for parish ministry. The parishes portrayed in this book are evidence that another form of leadership is not only available, but it also can be instrumental for the healthy continuation of parish life in the United States.

Some bishops have already raised the issues of the ordination of married men. But will it work? Will the parishioners accept married priests? My own experience in twenty parishes headed by married men leads me to predict that it may not be a smooth process in some parishes, especially in the first few months. However, given the parishioners’ demand for sacramental services and their commitment to contribute their own time, talent, and monetary resources for the survival of their parishes, this research project suggests that married priests will eventually receive full acceptance as pastors.

My visits to parishes without a resident priest were married deacons and married laymen were in charge enabled me to witness the beginnings of a transformation in the leadership of Roman Catholic parishes. Married parish leaders are no longer a “question” or an “issue,” but a reality. In my attempt to uncover a portion of the mysteries of God’s creation I was privileged to have a glimpse of the beginnings of a life-giving form of leadership for these parishes. As I near my seventieth year of life, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for this unique opportunity.