Monday, June 4, 2012

Austerity or Abundance? When Church Budgets Drive Ministry Decisions

Today, I feel moved to engage in a little hand-wringing... and to pose lots of questions. With the stressed economy and falling contributions, some parish pastors have been cutting back on ministry salaries and hiring recently. I personally know of both catechetical and liturgical positions that have been converted to part-time, people who have been told the parish "can no longer afford to pay" them. It is heartbreaking to watch.

It began a couple years ago, when local pastors started letting full-time degreed lay ministers leave or retire, replacing them with part-timers with minimal formation for ministry. In my own diocese, this unfortunately coincided with the demise of our lay ministry formation program. This spring, I have watched with increasing dismay as excellent veteran ministers are pushed out at the behest of finance councils, or leave the ministry to retire while the pastor intends to get semi-volunteers to replace them.

Are we becoming an austerity Church rather than one of abundance?  We seem to be abandoning a theology of Christian hope and retrenching as if we are businesses instead of mission-driven agencies of the Kingdom of God on earth.  Have we forgotten the blessing to the Church that lay ministry provides?  Have we forgotten that the Holy Spirit is in charge?

At the same time parishes cut back, the cultural challenges to church participation and attendance are greater than ever and call for additional skills and strategies from our catechetical and liturgical leaders. Replacing them with well-intentioned but unformed people who are simply able to organize and operate a  program can only have negative effects.

We have not lost the need for catechetical leaders who can see the big picture - people with the ability to evangelize families and draw people into deeper participation in the life of the church, not just people who can "make the trains run on time."  We need people able to evaluate catechetical materials intelligently, who can deal with the very real issues of non-practicing parents of children in formation, and who have the ability to choose, lead and form catechists to provide more than what is in the textbooks.  We need leaders who can discern and support volunteers, with a vision for the future, who are available to attend local and diocesan formation to develop new strategies and skills, not part-time people who have another day job and/or the responsibility for a young family.

Parishes also need to provide more, not less adult faith formation. The promise of "Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us" that adult formation should become the priority in parishes has not been realized in most places - and without someone giving that area attention, parishes provide either nothing or very little to engage and catechize adults. Small wonder that stewardship of time, talent and treasure for many people is tepid or irrelevant to their Mass attendance (if they attend at all.)

This church needs liturgical ministers who understand the beauty of the liturgy and have the ability to lead volunteers to enculturate the celebration appropriately to make it lively and appropriate for the community, not just people to play keyboards. The most frequent complaint parishioners have is about the quality of liturgy.  When pastors cut back on liturgical staff, they make good liturgical leadership even less possible - and more of the burden goes onto the pastors themselves.

Back in 2005, Paulist Father Robert Rivers proposed that we need to go From Maintenance to Mission - to move forward as a church to accept the challenges of evangelizing in today's culture. Today, it is even bleaker than that, as we seem to backslide into retrenching, rather than maintaining.

So where are we going? Where is the vision? Where is our trust that "God will provide?" Why do we have such a failure of Christian hope? More than that, how does the trend toward retrenching affect our ability to carry out the Church's mandate to provide the "New Evangelization"?  Since pastors seem to be more and more adopting a business model of operation, why are they having so much trouble seeing that the more they invest in good people the more they will get back?

The ROI (return on investment) in good lay ministers who are able to work with a pastor and independently to provide and inspire great parish leadership will naturally be larger in terms of participation, engagement and stewardship of its people.  The experiments by the Gallup organization with "church engagement" strategies have shown how true that is.

The larger question here is why are pastors listening more to the voices of their business managers than to the voice of the Holy Spirit?   There is a term that seems to apply here: "Functional Atheism" - meaning we say there is a God, but we act as if God has no power to affect our situation.  We are going into a Year of Faith. Perhaps it should instead have been a "Year of Hope" instead.


  1. I definitely feel your pain here Joyce. Parishes get less and less money and it's the services that suffer. Meanwhile, more money gets funneled into the endless pit of the Catholic school. I know Catholic school is important but it's becoming the only thing we do. If we don't engage adults and figure out ways to bring new people in, the mission of the Catholic school will not be fulfilled either.

    To do this we need personnel. There has to be more staff actively working in parish ministry and they need to be trained. You just can't do a bunch of programs with a few people. You can't serve the needs of families and parishioners with minimal, part-time, or volunteer staff only. That is, if you hope to change the downward trends we're experiencing right now. If all you want parishes to be are sacramental filling stations and the main thing we do is provide Mass, then it's the perfect model...maintenance and not mission.

  2. Agreed on all points. However, I must add that some part time staff with no formal ecclesial formation sometimes succeed in ministry because of the excellence of their service, bringing skills out of their non ecclesial work. Formal pastoral training does not always equal quality. I think both the column and the comment contain prior comment contain truisms that I have seen play out in real time. I also know wonderful people who have trained on the pastoral job over the years and add vibrant life to their parishes. I don't have a resolution to the issue, just offering another perspective.

  3. Thanks, Denise - yes, sometimes this is true on both counts. However, my experience is that it takes longer before non-professionals reach peak performance because they have to do so much catch-up on the basics. There is, however, simply no substitute for good interpersonal and communications skills, and if these have been honed in the workplace they will definitely stand someone in good stead. What is more troubling, however, is that when pastors hire these part time and non-professional people they do not necessarily state any expectations about ongoing formation or professional development... only the minimum - that the immediate job of running a program get done.

  4. Sometimes the diocesan coordinator of catechesis can make a difference. As one in a different lifetime, I talked several into becoming certified through course work, and with the support of their pastors. These are success stories that help me hold back tears about the other kind of stories that I was too well aware of (and sometimes involved in!). As I enjoy my (semi) retirement.

  5. Frank, I know there are many who appreciated your archdiocesan work. It is sometimes a real cause for pain (but sometimes also joy). I love Fr. Bob Hater's saying that sometimes diocesan ministry is all about "carrying the bodies." Important work. All we can hope to do is make a difference when possible. Increasingly, pastors are trying to find their own - often cheaper - solutions.