Confirmation during Easter Vigil at St. Louis de Montfort Church in Sound Beach, New York / CNS photo

In some parishes, they dread it. In others, it can’t come soon enough. It is the year a parish community gets a new pastor.

Like many others, our diocese sets terms for pastors. A priest is appointed to serve for a six-year term, after which he may elect to stay on for another six. After two terms, he must move on. No choice. No whining. You either throw a teary-eyed party for Father Wonderful, or you tell Father Nightmare to beat it out the back door. I detest this policy.

To be fair, it does keep priests moving around on the shelves, reducing the likelihood of anyone going stale. It’s also a chance to spread the wealth of a gifted minister, as well as to be sure that the dead weight of the less-than-talented does not put a stress on any one single community for too long. It might also give personnel boards more to work with as they seasonally shuffle the assignment deck. I do understand the advantages.

To me, however, this kind of policy sometimes seems to reduce the pastoral relationship to a kind of computer chip that is merely moved from one circuit board to another, regardless of measure and fit. Every parish is different. Each has its own culture, which takes time and patience to discover. For me, it takes a couple of years to figure out the dynamics of a community in order to apply a more effective strategic plan for ministry. Often, just as goals are finally being realized, it’s time to leave and start all over again. It can be tough to summon the energy and enthusiasm to start all over again.

My biggest gripe with the policy is that it tends to leave out the human factor. When so much around us is automated and systematized, the informal and personal is refreshing. Why not admit several men and women to the personnel board whose sole responsibility is to meet occasionally with pastors over a cup of coffee and discuss how the “pastoring” is going? Granted, these individuals would have to have the personality suited for this kind of work—non-threatening, perceptive, fearless!—but this kind of care and dialogue might well head off a disaster before it begins, or even extend a good thing when it’s happening. I realize this sounds too utterly simplistic to be of any real value, and yet, a touch of the pastoral in an otherwise corporate policy is what I believe is needed.

My biggest gripe with the policy is that it tends to leave out the human factor

“Six and Six” might be an adequate starting point, but aren’t there times when circumstances indicate an extension might be called for? Perhaps a parish has endured a Sandy Hook–like tragedy or a Hurricane Sandy–like disaster. Or maybe, on a positive note, there is a new building going up on the parish grounds or new religious education program is being developed. Consistent leadership might well lend stability or a guiding hand when it’s needed most.

And what of the other side of things? After six years of Father Nightmare’s insults and bullying, should he simply be assigned to wreak havoc a few towns away? I wish I could say that I’ve never seen this happen, but it does. Too often. The removal of a pastor is a canonically complicated procedure that is used cautiously and as a last resort. Might some other creative ways be developed to promote conversation and encourage rational assessment when trying to remedy dysfunctional pastoral situations?

I know that not everything can be solved over a cup of coffee, but the face-to-face human factor might go a long way toward softening the edges of “Six and Six” policies in general. Or we can just skip the coffee and simply let the parishioners vote on who stays and who goes!

Published in the June 2, 2017 issue: View Contents
Fr. Nonomen (a pseudonym) is the pastor of a suburban parish. He has been a priest for more than twenty years.
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