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Pastoral Leadership in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous World

How to follow Jesus regardless of cultural context and minister effectively

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Pastors search for ways to lead in today’s troubled world. This article looks at our changing culture and examines two vital elements. The first is a priest’s calling to follow the way of Jesus regardless of cultural context. The second is the challenge to minister effectively in this environment.

We base our remarks on two things. The first is the instruction issued by the Congregation for the Clergy on July 20, 2020, entitled “The pastoral conversion of the parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church.” This considers the parish priest and the changing nature of the parish. The second is the acronym VUCA which describes four elements of our culture — that is, volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity.

We begin with two stories of past clerical leadership, and then focus on pastoral leadership in a VUCA world.

The Way It Was

Father Frank was a pastor in the 1950s. His associates, parishioners and children revered him as a holy man. With no secretary, and despite no pastoral council or finance council, Father Frank knew his parishioners and effectively administered the parish. Masses were packed, priests heard confessions every morning, children learned their catechism and parish life was stable. Father Frank oversaw the parish with little change from year to year.

After the Second Vatican Council, into the 1970s, Father James was pastor. Masses were celebrated in the vernacular, liturgical flexibility occurred and many changes took place. Father James was not a charismatic preacher or a great administrator, but parishioners admired him. He was authentic, cared for them and had a special commitment to the sick.

From Father Frank and Father James, we learn that “how” to proclaim Jesus’ message varies from time to time, but the message remains the same. Both men reflected that a pastor, first and foremost, is the messenger of Christ, not only because of what he does, but even more because of who he is.

The Way It Is Now

Today, a pastor’s ministerial responsibilities occur in an increasingly complex and changing environment where many ministries occur online. This requires the pastor, or someone appointed by him, to be tech-savvy, to proclaim Christ’s message in a way that helps parishioners deal with the challenges of secularity and rapid change.

This raises the question of “How to do this?” To address it, we consider the Vatican instruction mentioned and the four interrelated elements of our VUCA culture (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), developed in the U.S. Army War College in the 1990s.

The instruction focuses on pastoral conversion on evangelization and encounter with Christ (cf. No. 3). Stressing the changing culture, it says, “Since its inception, the parish is envisioned as a response to a pastoral need” (No. 7). For parishes to be effective, the instruction goes on to say, the Christian community must make a determined missionary decision “capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation” (No. 5), which Pope Francis originally wrote in Evangelii Gaudium (No. 27).

Motivated by these words of Pope Francis, we consider a pastor’s ministry, influenced by the following four interrelated elements of today’s culture, characteristic of a VUCA world.

Volatility. The world culture is unstable and changes at a very rapid pace, often in unpredictable ways. Pastors are faced with issues, like, “Will Mass attendance continue to decline?” and “How can pastors deal with hurting parishioners’ and their pent-up feelings?”

Uncertainty. Since our culture makes it difficult to predict what will happen, new issues continue to surface. These include, “How will digital learning affect parish ministry?”; and “How many parishes will close or change due to the priest shortage and financial loss?” To address such questions, new paradigms are required, for previous ways of doing things cannot lead to new ways of being.

Complexity. Our culture has many interconnected parts that are often confusing and uncertain. The constant bombardment of information from within the Church and beyond makes it difficult to process which information is helpful and even correct and how to respond. Pastors often find themselves deluged with what to do with little advice on how to do it.

Ambiguity. Our culture has little precedent regarding the present situation, where much anger, frustration and a lack of clarity exists about what certain events mean. Pastors often are uncertain about the future of their parishes and look for directions in what often is a directionless society.

Pastoring in a VUCA World

In this VUCA world, pastors need a clear vision for the parish and Gospel values to guide them to realize that vision. With this in mind, we ask, “Who should a pastor be?” and “What should he do?” as leader of the parish.

First Question: Who Should a Pastor Be?

The answer to “Who should a pastor be as leader of a Christian community?” has not changed. His core identity is to be another Christ — his living image. This is at the core of a priest’s spirituality and does not change with the times.

Since no two pastors are the same, how they live out their core identity differs from priest to priest. To realize what this means for a pastor, he needs to pray, study, read Scripture, counsel the needy and act as Jesus did. As new circumstances occur, his role may change, but who he is never changes. Joined to Christ, a pastor leads the parish and strives to live justly, honestly, and with compassion.

Pastors help parishioners spiritually navigate this fast-changing VUCA world. They are ordained to bring Jesus to their parishioners and live out their core identity amidst the joys and sorrows of the community. Relying on the Holy Spirit, they touch the minds and hearts of parishioners when they are:

Prayerful. Pastors need the wisdom, peace, and hope that prayer provides. Receiving consolation from Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me” (Mt 27:46), they know that God stands by them and will never abandon them, no matter how tough things get.

Authentic. Pastors are leaders by who they are, which is the foundation of what they do. Some are better at one form of ministry than another, but all need to be authentic, using the unique gifts that God gave them. A classic example of authenticity in Scripture is the difference between St. Peter and St. Paul. Each led the Church with their own particular gifts, which were very different.

Personal. A pastor once remarked that he was a person-centered priest until he became a pastor. Then, he became a manager. Even with multiple administrative responsibilities, a pastor is challenged to remain person-centered.

Unpretentious. Parishioners are comfortable with priests who welcome them and act without pretense. From the pulpit, at meetings and in conversation, an unpretentious priest listens and uses his gifts for the glory of God and the betterment of the community.

Second Question: What Does a Pastor Do?

The answer to “What does a pastor do?” is challenging. His ministry includes personal presence, pastoral responsibilities and administrative tasks. What he does is related to the question, “Who is an effective pastor?”

Effective pastoring is closely aligned with sharing Gospel values, as he strives to be a good overseer, responsible for all parish ministries. This requires team building and includes encouraging, empowering and enlisting parish staffs and parishioners to work with the pastor to establish a clear vision for the parish and devise means to carry out the parish’s mission.

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For More

Read the Congregation for the Clergy’s full instruction, “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church,” at vatican.va.

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He shepherds the parish as the leader in worship, is a compassionate servant in the confessional, is the parish’s chief catechist and provides consolation to the sick. He is the final word in administrative matters and the head of parish staff.

To fulfill his responsibilities, pastors need knowledge and skills. While necessary, a successful pastorate is rooted, not primarily in them, but in the pastor’s relationship with God and his connection with parishioners.

What it takes to be an effective pastor in large, small, rich and poor parishes is influenced by the community’s social and ethnic composition as well as its cultural climate. To minister as a wise overseer in a VUCA world, the following are suggested for a pastor.

Welcoming

A welcoming pastor is a blessing. A pastor once commented that the secret of a parish’s vibrancy in today’s VUCA world is simple. More than anything else, it comes down to making people feel welcome, welcome and welcome. This welcome begins with a pastor and the staff and, through them, radiates into the parish. A parish becomes a vibrant welcoming community when all parish members accept their role as a welcoming family.

Another Christ

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A pastor needs a clear vision for his parish and Gospel values to guide him. Spencer Grant

A pastor lives as another Christ by keeping in touch with the minds and hearts of parishioners and showing concern for them, as Jesus did with the woman at the well, the leper, the paralytic and Jairus’ daughter. To do this means that a pastor works with the staff and parishioners, remembering that Jesus did the same with his apostles and that Vatican II taught us that the entire parish is “the People of God and the Church.” The pastor, above all else, is another Christ as he ministers in a VUCA environment.

Good Overseer

A pastor is an overseer who looks at the whole picture when it comes to parish administration, ministry, future planning, contact with neighboring parishes and with the diocese. To be effective, he seeks advice from the staff, parishioners, experts in the field and other sources.

Relational

A pastor’s ministry makes a difference when he affirms and supports the parishioners. In a shifting VUCA society, his compassion and kindness are especially appreciated at Mass, when administering the sacraments and on other occasions. Also, in his overseeing role, a pastor embraces our current hybrid society, knowing that this is necessary for the parish. This means working relationally along clear pathways with sacramental ministry, ministry online, as well as with small group ministries that center on the parish’s mission and overall goals.

Positive

As an ambassador of Christ, today’s pastor provides an immense service to parishioners when he maintains a positive attitude while preaching and dealing with parishioners, realizing that many people today are lonely, scared and disenfranchised. At times, he may be the only one who is objective enough to maintain a positive spirit when dealing with a grieving family or a friend. Remaining positive is a beacon of hope, a valuable aspect of a pastor’s ministry, especially to our youths and young adults.

Hopeful

A VUCA pastor inspires hope in parishioners, encouraging them to develop the knowledge, skills, values and spiritual assets needed to cope with what is happening during challenging times. In so doing, he becomes a symbol of transformation thus preparing parishioners for a new day to come. People need their pastor to be with them when difficulties, sickness and death occur. In imitation of Christ, his presence offers them hope when words often fall flat.

Open to New Possibilities.

In the shifting sands of a VUCA world, pastors are open to change and, when necessary, to take risks as they offer hope and consolation to parishioners. They cannot do this alone but by overseeing a hybrid of parish ministries, only hinted at in the past. In this effort, a pastor empowers parishioners by his support, encourages families and calls forth new ministers to serve the parish.

Flexible and Seek Help

With the growing need to close and merge parishes, to refocus staff responsibilities, to adopt a more hybrid approach to ministry, and to reorient Catholic schools, today’s pastor needs to be flexible. In doing so, the instruction stresses that the responsibility for the parish “is not the responsibility solely of the Parish Priest, nor should it be imposed from above in such a way as to exclude the People of God” (No. 37). In other words, it is to be shared by parishioners. Pastors are to engage the People of God, be open to learn from them and to take the risks necessary to ensure that the Gospel is preached with vigor.

Mission Minded

The instruction invites pastors to inform parishioners of their role as missionary disciples in their families, with friends, colleagues, neighbors, the parish and in the world. When doing so, the instruction says, “Pastoral communities will find herein a call to go out of themselves … in a spirit of communion and collaboration, of encounter and closeness, of mercy and solicitude for the proclamation of the Gospel” (No. 2).

Supportive of Staff and Volunteers

A pastor needs assistance from others, especially the parish staff. Together, they plan and support each other, as they work to carry out the parish’s mission. A pastor enhances the staff’s effectiveness when he prays with them and supports them by kind words, birthday lunches, occasional days off and other acts of kindness.

Vibrant Leadership

Pastors are to exercise leadership in vibrant and prayerful ways. This requires a renewed commitment to act as ambassadors of Christ. Pastors do this by encouraging all parish members to recognize their role in proclaiming Jesus’ word. As the instruction says, “The pastor who willingly serves his flock with generosity must instruct the faithful, however, in such a way that each member of the community feels responsible and directly involved in caring for the needs of the Church” (No. 40). This is true pastoral leadership in a VUCA world. 

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.

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Background of VUCA

VUCA is the acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, and is based on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus. First used in 1987 in response to the U.S. Army War College’s collapse of the USSR and involved new ways of seeing and implementing. VUCA-World (www.vuca-world.org) states: “As a (leader), you are responsible for the lion’s share of the decisions about the parameters that define how your organization can operate. The increase in volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity means that you and your business must seek new orientations and take a fresh approach to management. Only then can you guarantee positive results in changed circumstances. The VUCA world challenges you to find your own way.”

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