Free-range pastoring

Tuesday 15 September 2015 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — “The Lone Ranger” TV premier (1949)

Recently, dear readers, I’ve been pondering the various pastoral leadership models used by priests. My thoughts have led me from ancient Chinese economic principles, to the medieval feudal system, to Tonto, to contemporary social doctrine. It’s funny how the mind wanders — or at least how my mind wanders.

There are as many pastoring styles as there are pastors. Priests usually pastor with a combination of styles, dependent upon their personality, the parish demographic, parish history, and the situation at hand.

That being said, it seems to me that there are four main styles of pastoring: free-range, Divine right, consultative, and delegative. 

1.) The free-range model: 

Supermarkets these days carry a wide selection of free-range food products. What “free-range” means exactly, I suppose, is stipulated by some government agency or other. Surprisingly, I’ve not yet encountered a free-range zucchini. 

Free-range pastoring is laissez-faire. Although the phrase is French, laissez-faire developed as a philosophy of economics during the Han Dynasty (China, c. 220 B.C.). Basically, it’s letting things take their course, come what may.

In 1744, King Louis XV decreed laissez-faire to be the standard operating procedure throughout France. This eventually resulted in starvation and social unrest. Laissez-faire economics went so poorly that someone invented the guillotine. The rest is history.

This failed economic experiment segued into a leadership style that leaves decision-making to others. People are expected to solve their own problems. Leaders provide the tools needed and ask to be kept apprised — that’s it. 

Most people need guidance and feedback from their leaders. Free-range leadership doesn’t work when people lack the knowledge or experience they need to make decisions and the skills required to complete the task.

A pastor with a free-range leadership style can be a disaster. Poorly defined roles will cause confusion and indifference. If the pastor doesn’t seem to care, nobody else will. The parish will suffer a long and painful death.

There are, after all, roles that are proper to those in Holy Orders and roles proper to the baptized. A deacon shouldn’t simulate the celebration of Holy Mass. It’s not his role. A priest can’t administer the Sacrament of Holy Orders. It’s not his role. An extraordinary minister of Holy Communion shouldn’t be called upon if there are sufficient priests and deacons present.  Only those in Holy Orders are the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion. On the other hand, someone in Holy Orders shouldn’t hold political office. That belongs to the laity, not the ordained. And so it goes.

Under a free-range pastor, nobody knows what to do (or what not to do). As a result, nobody will accept responsibility for anything. When one lacks a sense of personal responsibility, one takes little or no initiative to participate in parish life. Parish organizations will disintegrate. Special-interest groups and cliques will vie for influence and power. Everyone will blame their mistakes on someone else — usually the pastor. 

2.) The Lone Ranger model – (Divine right):

At the other end of the scale is the pastor who sees himself as the Lone Ranger (nobody knows what kemosabe actually means, but one can guess).Everything falls on the pastor’s shoulders alone. He rules by Divine right.  He micro-manages. Routinely autocratic decision-making can demoralize a parish. This style I remember from childhood. 

3.) The consultative model:

Between free-range and Divine right styles stand the democratic pastors. This style is not to be confused with majority rule. Plebiscites and referenda on matters of faith and morals are inappropriate. Consultative (or democratic) pastors make the final decisions but include others in the decision-making process. Consultative pastors encourage creativity. People develop a sense of ownership. 

4.) The delegative model:

Pastors today need to delegate as much as possible to the members of the parish not because of dwindling number of priests but because of a fuller understanding of the rights and responsibilities that come with Baptism. Delegation makes for a vibrant parish. And besides, there are usually parishioners who are much more expert than the priest in certain areas. 

The Church’s concept of delegation stems not from economic theory but from social doctrine. The Church teaches that what individuals can do for themselves, governments shouldn’t take over. It’s called “subsidiarity,” a principle put forth by Pope Pius XI in 1931. 

Subsidiarity works in other areas of Church life as well. What a lay person can do, a priest should not take over. For example, a priest shouldn’t proclaim the first Scripture reading at Mass. There’s surely someone present who is capable of reading. A priest shouldn’t leave the Sanctuary to pass the collection basket. There’s surely someone else who can do it. 

Liturgy isn’t a one-man-show but “the action of the people.” A priest isn’t a sponge, soaking up everyone else’s tasks. If so, the sponge should be rung out and the tasks returned to the people of God, where they properly belong. 

It seems to me that the style of pastoring that works best in today’s Church is a combination of the consultative and delegative models. 

But that’s enough philosophizing. Philosophy gives me a headache.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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