A priest kisses the foot of a worshipper during Holy Thursday Mass at a church in Manila, Philippines, in 2016. CNS photo/Romeo Ranoco, Reuters

The Priest as Servant-Leader

Why all parish work is the work of building up the Kingdom

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Stereotypes abound. Some pastors are “memo” priests, who send memos to various people on the parish staff at various times of day or night. Others cannot seem to get through a day without a series of spontaneous meetings with one parish group or another. Some pastors think of leadership as fiscal responsibility and strength, peppering their conversations with dollars and cents, sometimes boasting how much sits in various parish accounts. The extroverts chat and smile, shaking everyone’s hand. The introverts spend lots of time in prayerful reflection, either preparing for, or recovering from, the many interactions that parish life involves. Some pastors are never in their office; others are there all the time, with the door closed!

Yet, beyond stereotypes and styles, what is parish leadership about? What does it mean to be a pastor today? And what does being a servant have to do with leading a parish?

What a Leader Is — and Isn’t

We can look at leadership as the set of skills by which someone, designated as responsible for and to an organized group, helps that group achieve its goals over a period of time. This means that, distinct from personality, leadership is a set of skills that belong to the leader; these skills can be reflected on and improved upon. In part, these skills involve calling people together, engaging them in conversation and helping the organization see its present situation with a view toward moving into the future. Pastors apply these skills to their parishes.

The leader is both responsible for and to an organization. This means that no leader can see himself above or apart from the organization. Because pastors hold a juridical office, it is easy sometimes for pastors to think they have total prerogative in their parishes. But as at worship, so also as members of the parish, they belong to the parish and serve it; they cannot be conceived apart from the community in which they serve. More than ever, a pastor’s effectiveness involves his interaction with his congregation.

Like all leaders, pastors serve the organization by helping it see its present situation and articulate goals in terms of the future direction of the parish. There are built-in directions to parish and pastoral life; pastors do not have permission to invent any sort of directions for their parishes. There are things parishes are called to do, and pastors help their communities accomplish these things in the parish’s present context. A president or mayor may interpret an election as a mandate to undertake a particular direction; pastors serve congregations centered on the Mass and other sacraments, and also in God’s word. Helping parishes be congregations shaped by word and sacrament defines the pastor’s central leadership task.

Built around Word and Sacrament

But before pastors look at the various functions of a parish, they have to step back and grasp why a parish exists in the first place. Parishes are instances of diocesan presence, so they partake of the episcopal mandate — the apostolic mandate — given to the bishop. As a result, just as every diocese continues the mission of those apostles whom Jesus sent forth, so each parish is a particular instance of that apostolic mandate. This means that Jesus, who sent his apostles to proclaim the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 9, 10; Mt 28:10 ff.), expects parishes to be instruments of the kingdom of God — that is, communities that perpetuate his work of gathering people (often the sinners, and often at table), healing and strengthening them so that they, too, can be gathered into the Kingdom. The criterion for parish success is not merely financial or organizational size; rather, how parishes incarnate the ministry of Jesus and his apostles determines the integrity of parish life. The word of God and the sacraments find their effective result in the Gospel actions of a parish.

Parish leadership, then, can be defined as those sets of skills a pastor employs to help a parish understand its relationship to the kingdom of God, and to serve the Kingdom by furthering its purposes. Every parish has an enormous array of gifts to accomplish this, beginning with the weekly proclamation of the Gospel, which directly pictures the Kingdom — and Jesus, its greatest servant — vividly before every active parishioner. From the Beatitudes through the parables and teachings of Jesus, up to and beyond Jesus’ Paschal Mystery, every parish leader can assess where the parish is in terms of making the Kingdom concrete. Where are the commitments to healing, to inviting, to including, to reconciling, to gathering at table, to caring for the poor, to welcoming sinners and those considered outcasts?

Isn’t this what the Eucharist and the Gospel is about? This kind of Kingdom perspective gives pastors, in fact, a way to bring alive what parishes typically see as their bread and butter — celebrating sacraments and religious education. The sacraments and the word are foci around which all the other ministries of the parish can gravitate — the twin foci that proclaim and celebrate the in-breaking of the Kingdom into our lives.

Serving as Christ Did

Because leadership is precisely leadership in service of the kingdom of God, it quickly becomes clear that all leadership in the parish must be servant leadership, rooted in the words and the actions of Jesus. The Gospels give us instances in which Jesus directly commented on false modes of leadership, such as when James and John beg special position for themselves in the Kingdom (cf. Mk 10:35-37), or when Jesus contrasts his leadership with that of Gentile leaders (Lk 22:25-26). Most poignantly, we also have the image of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples as an ultimate gesture the night before he gives his life on the cross (Jn 13:1-20).

What typifies servant leadership? Two elements appear central. First, the leader understands that it’s not all about her or him; second, the leader understands that the Kingdom deserves all efforts and all sacrifice. These two key elements allow the Kingdom to reveal its presence. When we see ourselves at the center of things, we can be sure that we have not begun to grasp what the Kingdom is about. And when we wallow in self-pity at all the work we have to do, it’s a clear sign that we have not placed the Kingdom at the center of our lives. Are there two greater temptations for pastors than these?

Focus on the Kingdom

Pope Francis kisses a boy as he meets the sick and disabled during his general audience in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican on Feb. 20. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Pope Francis’ Rules of Leadership

1. “Jesus taught us that he who commands
must become like one who serves. Or,
if one wants to be first he must be the
servant of all.” (Homily, Nov. 8, 2016)
2. “He that wants to be a leader of the
People of God has to give God his space.”
(From the book “On Heaven and Earth”)
3. “The more powerful you are, the more
your actions will have an impact on people,
the more responsible you are to act humbly.”
(TED Talk, April 25, 2017)

If the Kingdom is not about us, then what is it about? We understand and enter the Kingdom when we come to see our lives as gifts for others. We are not at the center; rather, others are at the center, and particularly others insofar as they call us out of ourselves in generous service. This is why mercy most typifies the Kingdom — “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Mt 9:13) — because mercy centers on the other, particularly in her or his greatest need. The marginalized and broken drive the Kingdom, because the Kingdom exists to alleviate the estrangement, brokenness and sin of the other. Parishes that spend most of their time taking care of their most active and successful parishioners simply are not seeing what the Kingdom is about. If, however, they can lead the successful to live for others, they make the values of the Kingdom come alive.

Doing the deeds of the Kingdom, further, is not a part-time job, at least in terms of attention and energy. When Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, John’s Gospel deliberately puts this in the context of Jesus loving “to the end” (Jn 13:1). As Jesus approaches Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel, he gives a parable showing that his followers, who have worked all day, are only “unprofitable servants” who have done no more than they should (Lk 17:10). If Jesus, who is rightly called master and teacher, can clean off the dirty feet of his disciples, then parish life has to find ways to continue washing the feet of people today.

Not surprisingly, servant leadership will do more to bring the Kingdom into focus in a parish than many other pastoral strategies. Calling us to live radically beyond ourselves and to live consistently in service to others, this leadership outlines the dimensions of the Kingdom that Jesus showed us. When pastors help their congregations become a community of servant disciples living freely and generously for others, they will come closest to true leadership. They will be helping their parishes see the larger picture of the Kingdom, which alone makes sense of parish life, and they will be showing parishioners how to embody the Kingdom most fully in their parish life.

FATHER FRANK P. DESIANO, CSP, was ordained a Paulist priest in 1972. He develops programs to welcome and engage people who are not connected to the Church. Visit his website, fpdesiano.com, for more information.

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