Strategy Eases Shift from Old Pastor to New

Article excerpt

CHICAGO -- In his 25 years as director of the Parish Evaluation Project, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Sweetser and his staff have assisted 158 parishes in analyzing their operations,determining what works and what doesn't, and making appropriate changes.

In most cases, says Sweetser, now 59, the results have been highly beneficial, but in some situations "we'd check back six months later and find the perish operation was in a state of chaos." The reason: the departure of one pastor and the arrival of a new one.

So, early next year, Sweetser and his associates will formally introduce a radically new system to smooth the frequently traumatic transition from outgoing to incoming pastor. The system, to be pioneered in the Fort Worth, Texas, diocese, stretches the transition time to almost 11 months and requires the good will and cooperation of the bishop, the personnel board, all the pastors, all the staffs and leadership in parishes where a pastoral change has been scheduled.

The details are spelled out in a new book by Sweetser and Benedictine Sr. Mary Benet McKinney, Changing Pastors: a Resource for Pastoral Transition. The system has been quietly piloted in three dioceses, says Sweetser, with pastors expressing a high level of satisfaction and parishioners feeling a heightened sense of involvement.

Such a heavy concentration on pastoring might appear inappropriate in the Vatican II church with its emphasis on lay leadership and collaborative ministry. Not so say Sweetser and McKinney in their book. Parishes still "undergo profound shifts with the change of pastors."

In the traditional abrupt and often traumatic transition arrangement, they say? a pastor arrives at his new parish without any sustained opportunity to let go of his former parish. And he is greeted by a congregation that has had little time to adjust to their loss. Even pleasant, desirable transitions, psychologists note, have a "pit stage," involving feelings of depression, loss and ambiguity.

Hence, Sweetser and McKinney's rationale for a long, diocesan-wide transition procedure that can produce smoother relationships and quicker adjustments on all sides. In a participating diocese, all outgoing pastors and all those about to become pastors are identified at one time, for example, in January. In each affected parish, a 7-to 12-member transition team is formed.

Separate workshops are held immediately for outgoing pastors, transition teams and staffs. For the next three months the transition teams, aided by staffs, gather information about their parishes.

The goal is to provide time for reflection and adjustment for everybody concerned. This period -- when the old pastor is not yet gone and the new one hasn't arrived -- is an ideal time, says Sweetser, for a parish to discover "what it wants to retain, what it wants to let go of, what it wants that's new, what qualities it: seeks in a new leader and what it has to offer the pastor."

Workshops for incoming pastors are held in April, so they can sort through the information provided by the transition teams and determine which parishes they are best suited for. Placements are then formalized in May. In June another series of workshops for the involved groups takes place.

Crucial to the whole process, says Sweetser, is a two-week period, usually in June, when the old pastor has departed and the new one hasn't yet arrived. The parish is essentially in the hands of the transition team. This "in-between phase is a period of anxiousness," of not knowing but hoping for the best," said Sweetser, but also an opportunity for parishioners to recognize their own responsibility for the parish.

After the pastors have settled in, another series of workshops is scheduled in November, including one involving the new pastors and the transition teams. This, says Sweetser, is "when it all comes together, when we can evaluate how it's worked out. …