The Agony & Ecstasy of Pastoral Leadership

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time


I’ve heard it said every now and again, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” I’m sure that’s never stopped people from complaining about government leadership who don’t participate in the democratic process. And for those who do participate, they are often not shy when things are not to their liking. But every administration will have its critics simply because they supported the other candidate. And it’s no surprise, they won’t ever be content until that changes. But a perfect storm has formed in recent years from the volatile combination of our hyper-partisan climate, the 24-hour news cycle, the prevalence of social media, and many people forced into isolation by a global pandemic with a lot of time on their hands. Instead of visiting family or going out with friends and filling their day with wholesome activity and fun social interaction, many find themselves consuming cable TV news and social media that largely coincides with their current state of annoyance and frustration. And when politicians and celebrities and generally vocal media personalities who have abundant time and resources to broadcast their strongly held opinions prey upon an unsuspecting and undiscriminating audience and further add to their annoyance and frustration with the urgency of an earthquake or tornado or rising flood waters, they instigate chaos and revolution that demands the violent overthrow of law and order. Okay, now I’m sounding just like them. What I’m getting at is that we have taken to complaining endlessly about everything that’s going wrong and generally anything we don’t like and have turned it into our new favorite national pastime. I’m not offering a solution yet, just bringing it to your attention.

Now among Catholic parish priests and pastors we have a saying, “If you asked for that parish assignment, you can’t complain.” First let me assure you I have never been sent to a parish I asked for. But in the process of matching parishes with potential pastors, priests are invited to say where they might want to serve. Now even if the personnel committee and the bishop actually listen to what we have to say, we are still appointed to the post. And that’s bringing together a whole lot of faith on everyone’s part and a willingness to work together—the bishop, the pastor, and the people of the parish—to perhaps bring about something good toward the proclamation of the Gospel and the work of prospering a small patch of the Lord’s vineyard given to our care.

A few weeks ago, I invited former members of Parish Council the last 15 years to join me and reflect on their shared experience of leadership and what they saw to be helpful in that unique role of assisting the pastor in the task of shepherding this wonderful parish community. When the pandemic shut everything down in spring of 2020, we were in the process of inviting nominations to council, then holding elections around the end of May. For obvious reasons, parish council elections that year just didn’t happen. Now in the years leading to 2020, council vacancies didn’t always get filled. And with over half of council members then ending their terms, some having served the standard three years, some who were appointed for a year deciding they won’t stay on, and some deciding to step down early, we were left with the remaining council members whose term would end in spring of 2021, effectively leaving every seat on council vacant. I suppose I didn’t articulate my objective at that meeting quite as clearly as I had hoped. Instead of drawing from the group what they believed worked and all the wonderful things Parish Council had accomplished, the conversation seemed to focus more on what didn’t work and what should be done in the future for better results. Obviously, not involving them.

Some of those present spoke of the wonderful opportunities they had to meet new people and forge new friendships that they might not have had outside of council. Some appreciated how council became a close-knit group that enabled them to share faith and work together closely to invite parishioners to come together in fellowship. Some acknowledged the on-going challenges to invite volunteer participation in different parish ministries. Those among them who were very involved often felt there was always more work than there were people interested in sharing the load. Needless to say, I got the impression some of them didn’t enjoy their time on council very much. I had told them at the beginning I wasn’t asking them to serve on council again. I just wanted a sense of their experience from those who actually served in the trenches.

Lest we lose our focus, I want us to remember that the purpose and function of every Catholic parish and everyone in it from the pastor to parish staff, every volunteer in ministry and every person sitting in the pews on Sunday is one and the same—to proclaim the Gospel, live upright and holy lives, celebrate the church’s sacraments, teach the faith by word and example, cooperate in shared ministry to feed the hungry, protect the vulnerable, heal the sick, visit those in prison, welcome the stranger, offer God’s mercy to sinners, and raise the dead. Those entrusted with roles of leadership will go about the task differently in different places with varying styles according to their interests and talents. But our primary purpose and function remains. Everything else is secondary.

Jesus told his apostles in last Sunday’s gospel that “the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.” Then he challenged them saying, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” And today he again says in the gospel that he would be handed over, be put to death, and be raised to life. Not once did he claim a desire to raise his personal profile, or draw praise and popular acclaim, or establish a lasting dynasty. Yet all that came about perhaps because those who chose to follow him in his life’s work and mission stayed true to his example and radical witness which enabled Jesus himself to continue living and transforming our world.

In the second reading, St. James zeroes in on troubling signs even among the Christian community, signs such as jealousy and envy, selfish ambition and conflicts, coveting and infighting. And he goes right to the cause of these inconsistencies in our discipleship, which he identifies as our inability and unwillingness to cast aside our passions. When we focus more on establishing our superiority and decimating those who think differently, we allow no room for those still struggling to find their path. “The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.” We need to remember we are among fellow believers and disciples. Charity should begin at home.

So what becomes of parish council? I’m not sure yet. The purpose and function of every Catholic parish and everyone in it remains the same. All I need are a few good women and men willing to set aside their own ego and passions to take their place at the end of the line, to be the last of all and the servant of all. Email me and we’ll talk.

Rolo B Castillo © 2021