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Spring Books

A vision to breathe life into parishes


By Thomas P. Sweetser, S.J.
Sheed & Ward, 224 pages, $17.95


In his new book, Jesuit Fr. Thomas P. Sweetser makes some intriguing proposals to improve parish life in the United States:

  • Top leadership should be shared equally by two persons, a pastor and a parish administrator, ideally both appointed by the local diocese.
  • Parish offices should never be located in the same place where the pastor lives.
  • The pastor’s workload should be limited to 50 hours a week maximum.
  • Parishioners volunteering for committees and activities should be expected to take responsibility and held accountable for their performance.
  • Voices of dissent in the parish should be listened to and protected instead of being silenced or marginalized.
  • Mass should never be a mere feel-good experience; rather, people must be confronted by the demands of the gospel.

These and dozens of other recommendations might seem hopelessly naïve and unrealistic except for the fact that they come from the experience of a man who has been trekking around the country for 20 years trying to breathe life into moribund parishes and make good ones more efficient. Using a combination of interpersonal techniques, modern business practices and down-to-earth theology, he and his staff have worked extensively with pastors, parish leaders and whole congregations (sometimes for up to two years in a single parish).

Sweetser’s Parish Evaluation Project and his more recent program, the Parish Assessment and Renewal Process, have yielded a mother lode about what works and what doesn’t in parish life in the post-Vatican II era. He lays out what he’s found in this book, and he is no Pollyanna.

“Many Catholic parishes are caught in a church system that is not working,” he says. “Priests are being spread too thin and are becoming exhausted and frustrated. Pastoral staff are growing impatient with a church structure that asks for their allegiance and obedience while, at the same time, not providing them with a chance to participate in its decision-making. Many who attend Mass leave church uninspired and undernourished.”

Still, Sweetser has found nuggets of gold in many places, and these are what he wants to share. Perhaps his most striking recommendation is for joint leadership at the top. The hierarchical, top-down model with a single pastor in charge does not work, he claims, even if the pastor is collaborative, because it does not provide any realistic sense of ownership on the part of the people. Even the most active parish councils are advisory bodies, he notes, and “council members often tell us, ‘Who wants to be part of that process? We have better things to do with our time than give ideas to the pastor. That is all it is, ideas, with little or no authority or ownership.’ ”

The answer he proposes is a “double-focus” leadership: one person in charge of the pastoral dimension, another in charge of all the physical, temporal and personnel areas of parish life. It is a model, he says, that works in successful business corporations, which have a chief executive officer and a chief financial (or operating) officer. Each is supreme in his or her domain. Already, claims Sweetser, some parishes are working this way -- more out of necessity than by design. He quotes one pastor saying, “I was not ordained to be an administrator. Once I realized that this was not my gift, I found someone else to handle that aspect of the parish. Now she and I are happy as partners in ministry, and the parishioners are much happier with this arrangement as well.”

Other varieties of the dual system might involve a pastor and a pastoral associate or pastor and school principal. However, everything depends on clearly delineating the duties of each and having assurance the pastor will not exercise his ultimate veto power provided by canon law when the going gets rough. Appointment of both by the diocesan office would obviously provide an extra measure of confidence to the non-pastor.

In the book Sweetser declares that the dual model could also operate in virtually every committee and parish organization. Hence, co-chairs would lead the parish council, the finance council, the school board, etc., and their authority would send the message that “the pastor is not the only one in charge here. Do not call him if you want a door opened. He does not have all the keys anymore.” A similar message, says Sweetser, could go to the diocese: “Do not send all the diocesan mail to the pastor. He is not the one who should see it. It will only get thrown away.”

In several chapters Sweetser takes on the thorny issue of making parish liturgy more meaningful. “Failure to connect,” he says, seems to be the biggest problem. Until everyone, including greeters, music leaders, presiders, homilists, ushers and communion ministers learn to relate warmly with the congregation, the Mass will be dead and lifeless in many parishes. He provides countless practical suggestions for improvement, many of which, he says (with added testimony from selected parishes), have worked. Underlying all this effort is Sweetser’s abiding conviction that every parish can be the local, visible manifestation of the covenant between God and people. That clearly is his hope, and in this book his hope is contagious.

Robert McClory is a special report writer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002