A Pastor’s Collaboration
A communal endeavor involving gratitude, openness, compassion, patience, humility and confidence
On Memorial Day weekend, my sister and I planned to attend a festival in Indiana. Upon our arrival, we parked our car, ate a picnic lunch and walked to the festival. As we crossed the street using the crosswalk, I suddenly was lifted, carried along and dumped on the street. A car had hit me. I could scarcely move; I wondered if my hip was broken. An ambulance quickly came and took me to the hospital.
Since it was a holiday weekend, only a skeleton crew was working. After taking X-rays, a doctor said my hip was not broken. With no resident radiologist on hand, a computer read the X-rays and concluded that my hip was not broken. I was released in excruciating pain, unable to walk. My niece drove me home.
While on our way home, the doctor from the hospital called and said that a radiologist saw my X-rays lying on a table, read them and said my hip was broken. “Get right to a hospital,” the doctor on the phone said. Two hours later, I arrived at a Cincinnati hospital. Surgery, recuperation and therapy followed.
Three months of pain, uncertainty and healing, unlike any I had experienced before, followed. My hip and nose were broken, collarbone chipped, arm bloodied and hematomas had developed in both legs. I dealt with an incorrect medical diagnosis, insurance companies and bodily weakness.
After several weeks in three different hospitals, I wondered where I would go when my current hospital stay ended. I was in no shape to live by myself at home or to walk up 40 steps in the rectory. Not knowing what to do or where to go, I felt powerless.
Hearing of my condition, a community of retired sisters invited me to use their guest room, until I could be on my own. I spent six weeks there. Every day was a blessing, as they invited me to join them for communal prayer, Mass and meals. Their kindness was what I needed to heal my deep wounds.
Their concern brought me hope; it was deeper than anything they did for me. Not able to walk without help, I found consolation as I stood with my walker before dinner in a slowly moving line of religious women, some permanently committed to their walkers. They genuinely cared for one another and for me. Concern for themselves seemed to take a back seat to caring for other community members.
Sitting in the sisters’ chapel, before Mass, I remembered the article on collaboration that I agreed to write before my accident for The Priest magazine. I also realized that the kindness shown me by the sisters is a living manifestation of Christian collaboration. In fact, it is the heart of it.
Culture of Compassion
During my sickness, the medical personnel, rehabilitation experts and religious women collaborated, each in their own way, to help me heal. Regardless of the kind of collaboration, it can be described as individuals or groups working together at a common task or to accomplish a common goal.
As I reflect on collaboration in light of my experiences with health care professionals and the sisters, two levels of collaboration surface — functional and spiritual.
Functional collaboration is exemplified by the medical staff’s working together to help me heal. Such collaboration requires knowledge, skill and the proper way of doing things. These are necessary, evidenced by the fact that I initially was misdiagnosed by the computer and sent home.
This mistaken decision indicates that both skilled professionals and modern technology are needed. Those who initially treated me were concerned people, but the absence of a radiologist to correctly diagnose my condition led to the mistakes that were made. This contrasted with the skills of the doctors who eventually fixed my hip. When collaborative knowledge and skills are required, compassion is not enough.
This applies to parishes as well. In spiritual matters, like liturgical preparation, and temporal matters, like finances, the expertise of professionals is needed.
Spiritual collaboration involves more than individuals working together to get a job done. It is a communal endeavor. For Christians, it requires prayer and the practice of the virtues, especially love.
Spiritual collaboration underlies functional collaboration, which was evident while I was a guest of the retired sisters. Their collaboration was based on the spiritual — care, love and hope — manifested when I could not walk and my broken hip began to heal. At its center point was prayer, the Eucharist and caring relationships. Spiritual collaboration, centered on Christian love, was at the heart of their collaborative efforts.
The Church needs collaborative ministry. To address this, pastors can strive to form a culture of compassion as the foundation for collaboration with the staff, in parish organizations and throughout the parish itself.
Pope calls for collaboration between religious
Pope Francis spoke of the fruitful collaboration between men and women religious when he spoke at the 25th General Assembly of CONFER (Spanish Conference of Men and Women Religious) in November 2018. God’s presence, he said, is “that of tenderness, which accompanies us and involves us.”
Speaking to religious, the pope challenged those gathered to look for bold decisions to face challenges. He said: “I encourage you to give an answer, both to structural situations that require new forms of organization, and to the need to go out and look for new presences to be faithful to the Gospel and to be channels of God’s love. The life of prayer, the personal encounter with Jesus Christ, community discernment and dialogue with the bishop must be a priority when making decisions. We have to live with humble audacity, looking to the future and in a listening attitude of the Spirit; with Him, we can be prophets of hope.”
As we go about our ministry, we remember why collaboration is necessary. It’s vital because it was Jesus’ way, revealed when he walked the earth and established his Church. To begin the New Covenant in his blood, he called apostles and followers to work together and act in his name.
As the Acts of the Apostles says, “The community of believers was of one heart and mind” (4:32). The early Christian community collaborated to change the world by living and proclaiming Jesus’ death and resurrection and to follow him. So it is with us; we, too, need one another. To be effective in our priestly ministry, it helps to remember “why” we collaborate.
Just as Jesus called others to bring God’s kingdom to fulfillment, we, too, need others to accomplish our ministry as priests. Jesus calls us at our ordination to work together to continue the ministry that he gives us — to love and be loved — as we minister in his name. As living images of Christ, we set the tone in the parish and need to be committed to the spiritual and functional collaboration of parish ministers.
When pastors intentionally commit themselves to a style of leadership that focuses on collaboration, each staff member knows one’s role and is committed to carrying it out in a loving way. Although smaller parishes do not require the same degree of collaboration as large ones, its presence is necessary for ministry to be most effective.
In his leadership role, a pastor is responsible to hire a professional staff and strive for the collaborative efforts of different ministers. Although he often delegates responsibility to other staff members, he is the final judge of who serves in any capacity. When I served in pastoral leadership roles, I considered my support of the staff as one of my most important responsibilities. The vibrancy and effectiveness of parish ministry are influenced strongly by how staff members collaborate spiritually and functionally.
Rooted in spiritual collaboration, knowledge, experience and skills are vital in pastoral ministry. To decide who serves in a parish, the pastor needs to keep in mind that knowledge and skills are required for functional collaboration, and faith is required for spiritual collaboration. By a pastor’s leadership style, he shows if he is collaborative. Where he is, the parish environment takes on a special vibrancy, which centers on the spiritual, not on the functional way of doing things. It includes supporting and coaching staff members. The need for spiritual and functional affirmation is required not only from the pastor but from each staff member.
Effective collaboration requires gratitude, openness, compassion, patience, humility and confidence. These are worthy of consideration.
Gratitude inspires parishioners and staff alike. This is especially true if the pastor shows his appreciation for their good work. An expression of such gratitude goes beyond a staff member’s salary. The most important “thanks” given to a person often involves making that individual feel that one’s work is appreciated and one’s success is celebrated. When a person receives support and encouragement, it motivates the individual to maximize one’s efforts.
In such a positive climate, spiritual collaboration becomes a part of the ministry. Gratitude inspires parishioners to even greater levels of achievement and connects with the call of the parish to proclaim the kingdom of God in simple and ministerial ways, thus bringing Jesus’ mission and ministry to fulfillment.
When parishioners recognize that the pastor loves them and supports his staff, a positive climate develops and effective collaboration grows. Such collaboration includes prayer time together and openness to listen. It means that a pastor begins a parish endeavor with an open mind, willing to change if a better way of acting is presented. Such openness is just as important for staff members as it is for the pastor.
Openness is required for listening. Compassionate listening leads to compassionate action. Both are Christian virtues. Needed in every facet of parish life, they extend to a pastor’s preaching, presiding at liturgical functions, presence in the office and rectory, and genuine concern for the well-being of staff members and parishioners.
While not easy, pastors are challenged to be compassionate with difficult parishioners, staff members and pastoral cases. This also extends to family members and behavior at meals, recreation, ordinary conversation and concern for the infirm and sick.
As far as pastoral work is concerned, compassion goes a long way. A pastor’s compassion goes beyond the immediate scope of his work. Simple acts of kindness in everyday living inspire others to be solicitous about friends and strangers alike.
Effective collaboration requires patience, for often not everyone is on the same page. A pastor’s patience goes a long way in creating a hopeful, positive spirit among the staff and in the parish. Even when a staff member resists collaboration, acknowledging this person’s opinion can motivate the individual to a greater team spirit.
For pastors, patience may require adapting or changing their attitude and ways of acting, especially in this era of consolidation of parishes, multiethnic parishes, church scandals and other dynamics that challenge pastors to be effective communicators of God’s word.
Humility and Confidence
In the words of Father Thomas Kreidler, the pastor of a large parish: “One prerequisite for collaboration is humility. People who don’t think there’s any need to collaborate either because they don’t feel the need or are uncomfortable doing so would seem to lack the humility on one hand and perhaps the confidence on the other. To include others, and in my mind what is necessary for ministry and being a servant leader, is confidence and humility.”
I learned about collaboration as I struggled to regain my health after the car hit me. May my reflections give you new insights so that, like Jesus, you can more effectively collaborate to bring about God’s kingdom. The retired sisters helped me do so during my recuperation; may my story help you better appreciate your calling to collaborate in Jesus’ name.
FATHER ROBERT J. HATER, Ph.D., a Cincinnati archdiocesan priest, is an internationally known author and lecturer. He is professor emeritus at the University of Dayton and resides at St. Clare Parish in Cincinnati.