Policy gives priest chance to help determine assignments
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - Gone are the days when priests were assigned to pastor a parish for life.
Father Robert Gregory
But also gone, at least in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, are the days when a bishop would arbitrarily assign pastors to parishes, said Father Robert Gregory, who for eight years has been the right-hand man for two bishops in setting parish assignments as chairman of the Diocesan Priest Personnel Board.
Under a policy enacted in 1994, soon after Bishop Raymond J. Boland was installed as Bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, priests now have more opportunity than ever to help decide which assignment they will have.
"I think the morale among priests has never been higher," said Father Gregory, who is stepping aside this year from his leadership role on the Priest Personnel Board. In the latest round of pastoral assignments, he noted, "nobody expressed discontentment in their new assignment."
Although the changes in assignment policy was proposed by the Diocesan Presbyteral Council, Bishop Boland was quick to adopt it as Diocesan policy, Father Gregory noted.
"Bishop Boland is responsible for this kind of openness. I would call him very much a priest's bishop," he said.
Father Gregory noted that nothing in canon law prevents a Diocese from appointing pastors to a lifetime position at one parish. However, he said, if a Diocese adopts a policy of rotating pastors, canon law prescribes that pastoral terms be set for six years, with a second term of up to six years. That means, said Father Gregory, that no pastor should serve longer than 12 years in a single parish, although logical exceptions are made. For example, if the parish has begun a building drive, or if a pastor is nearing retirement, the pastor will be allowed to stay at his assignment for an extra year or two, he said.
But the policy of rotating pastors routinely is in place for sound reasons, Father Gregory said.
"Each priest has his own particular gifts," Father Gregory said. "No one priest can embody all the theological viewpoints of the Church, of ministry, and of interpreting the word of God. There is a richness for a parish to experience those different gifts."
It's good for priests as well, Father Gregory said.
"Usually growth occurs when a person is exposed to new challenges," he said. "A pastor gives his life to a parish while he is pastor."
But instead of arbitrarily assigning new pastors, the new policy calls for all priests to be made aware of pastoral assignments as they occur, and all are given the opportunity to apply for open pastorates.
The latest round of pastoral assignments, announced in early June, demonstrated how the policy works, Father Gregory said.
He said three basic factors were driving the changes:
- Three pastors - Father James Hart of St. Therese Parish in Parkville, Father Michael Rice of Our Lady of the Presentation Parish in Lee's Summit, and Father Jerry Waris of St. Peter Parish in Kansas City - had reached or exceeded the 12-year pastoral term limit.
- Two pastors - Father Richard Carney of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Kansas City, and Msgr. Victor Moser of St. Mary Parish in St. Joseph - were retiring.
- A new parish, St. Margaret Parish in Lee's Summit, was being established.
According to policy, Father Gregory said, profiles of each parish were sent "inviting all priests to apply if they are interested."
"This creates a domino effect," as pastors of other parishes apply for the open parishes, he noted. "Then that parish is profiled, and other priests are invited to apply."
The Priest Personnel Board then reviews the applications and makes its recommendations to Bishop Boland, Father Gregory said.
"Almost without exception since he has been here, he has named someone who has applied for the position," Father Gregory said. "This gives the individual priest some power over his own life."
Father Gregory admitted that it is never easy for a parish to say good-bye to a beloved pastor.
Pastors, who have formed deep bonds with parishioners, frequently go through their own grieving process as they move on, he said.
"One of the difficulties when a pastor accepts a new assignment is that he can grieve deeply his pastoral relationship with his former parish," Father Gregory said. "Even though he is very happy in his new assignment, he may be grieving. Just letting go can be a very difficult."
Father Gregory said that parishioners can help the transition for both pastor and parish by making a new pastor feel welcome.
When he became pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish in Kansas City in 1994 after seven years as pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Blue Springs, St. Elizabeth parishioners went out of their way to welcome him, he said.
"Several persons brought together small groups of friends so I could meet them and build a base of acceptance, support and friendship," Father Gregory said.