Leadership Role Expectations and Relationships of Principals and Pastors in Catholic Parochial Elementary Schools: Part 1

By Schafer, Duane F. | Catholic Education, December 2004 | Go to article overview
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Leadership Role Expectations and Relationships of Principals and Pastors in Catholic Parochial Elementary Schools: Part 1

Schafer, Duane F., Catholic Education

Parish elementary schools in the United States have a governance structure that often precipitates conflict. The principal is the designated leader of the school, the educational administrator, and the supervisor of the faculty and students. By canon law, however, the pastor of the parish remains ultimately responsible for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the entire parish.

This review addresses the relationships of pastors and principals in parish schools. After a brief review of general governance in the Catholic Church, the review analyzes the roles of pastor and principal respectively, and concludes with some preliminary advice about role expectations.

Recently, a lay principal with a 19-year career at the same Catholic parochial elementary school was terminated by the pastor (Coday, 2003a). Three weeks later, after a significant number of parents protested this seemingly unjust termination and the services of a professional mediator were employed, the principal was reinstated to his position. Although it is unclear why the principal was terminated in the first place, according to parents who had spoken with the pastor, "the only reason the pastor gave for the firing was 'philosophical differences'" (Coday, 2003b, p. 10).

Conflicts between pastors and their elementary parochial school principals are not uncommon. Such conflicts not only create stress for the pastor and the principal, but also place a great deal of stress on the school community. These conflicts can affect the pastor's and principal's working relationship. They can also affect the faculty and staff, the children and their parents, and even the larger parish community. This review of literature sets the stage for a more in-depth analysis of the leadership role expectations of principals and pastors in Catholic schools by summarizing recent research on Catholic elementary school governance in the United States, their place within the Catholic Church, the role of the pastor, and the role of the principal.


There are three major types of Catholic elementary schools in the United States: diocesan, parochial, and private. Diocesan schools are operated and supported by a diocese; parochial elementary schools are operated and supported by one or more parishes; and private schools are established and supported either by a religious congregation or an independent group of lay parents. This review focuses on pastors and principals of elementary parochial schools.


Although the Catholic Church is described as a community of believers, it is an organization much like other organizations (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1972). It is composed of leaders and followers. The Catholic Church is a hierarchical, top-down organization led by ordained clerics. Even though the Second Vatican Council stressed the communal aspect of Church, the formal Church structures divide its members between the ordained and the laity. "It is clear who does what and who makes specific decisions. There are administrative personnel guiding the decisions" (Ristau, 1991, p. 10).

Ristau (1991) pointed out that the Catholic Church is an organization, but it is also a belief system; as a result, this belief system actually creates an aspect of authority and power which are greater than that found in other organizations:

   The belief system allows some individuals to be more important than
   others within the organization and gives them a legitimate right to
   perform certain duties and hold exclusive offices. Even though
   church documents state otherwise, in actuality, some people belong
   in the front of the church, others in the back pew. (pp. 10-11)

The Roman Catholic Church is a very complex, hierarchical, clerical, international organization (Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1983, p. xiii). It is governed by the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, and the other bishops according to a Code of Canon Law that facilitates "an orderly development in the life both of the ecclesial society and the individual persons who belong to it" (p.

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Leadership Role Expectations and Relationships of Principals and Pastors in Catholic Parochial Elementary Schools: Part 1


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