A priest greets parishioners after Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in the Staten Island borough of New York. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Tips for Leaders at Appointment Time

Give your parishioners time to know you care

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Owen PhelpsWhen my granddaughter Anna returned from her first day of school, her mother was eager to quiz her. When she asked Anna if she made any friends, she replied “no.” My daughter was shocked. Anna was a social butterfly. “Why not?” my daughter wondered aloud.

“Because no one would do what I told them to do,” Anna replied.

Annual appointment time is approaching in most dioceses. That means that soon a lot of parishes will have new leaders, be it pastoral administrators or pastors. It will mark the first-ever formal leadership appointments for many of the priest-appointees — and, in all instances, it will mark the first time any of these administrators or pastors have led the parish to which they are being assigned.

Like Anna, they are about to have their “first day” of one sort or another. The question is, Like Anna, will they find no one who will do what they’re told?

From a strictly legalistic perspective, a pastor or parish administrator is in charge of a parish. It’s a matter of canon law. The bishop made the appointment. Now it remains for the laity in the parish to do what the pastor or administrator tells them to do. Period. End of story.

Except, of course, it’s not.

Research shows that formal “positional leadership” is not a particularly strong kind of leadership. To rely on it all by itself generally requires a lot of enforcement of one type or another, and that can require a lot of persistence and energy — in a word, headaches. In contrast, strong, lasting and relatively friction-free leadership is based on relationships. Relationships are built on trust and regard — things that take time to grow and develop.

Absent courts-martial, prisons, firings, divorces or firing squads, people generally follow who they want to follow. Considerable research shows that they are most influenced by leaders who obviously care about them — leaders who help them find purpose, make them feel good about themselves, make them want to do their very best.

Ultimately, the most powerful, effective leaders are those who people invite into their lives. Such leaders have life-shaping influence even many decades after they are dead. Seriously.

I’m not suggesting that you can have lifelong influence — much less influence beyond the grave — with everyone. I’m not even suggesting that you should try. But the old adage “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care” got to be old only by being true.

When and how will people in your new parish learn how much you care? Whatever your strategy, give them — and yourself — time.

In “Leadership for the Greater Good” (Paulist Press, $24.95), a book my friend and colleague Dan Ebener co-authored, Ebener notes that having a formal leadership position can actually make effective leadership more difficult: “The more positional power you have, the more tempting it is to rely too heavily on this power because it is so much easier to dictate than to dialogue. It is easier to tell than to ask.”

Unfortunately, it’s also less likely to achieve the results you want.

When becoming a new leader, there are basically two approaches: make a big change immediately so everyone knows you’re in charge, or wait a year to make any big changes, holding off even small changes until you’ve built a small network of people who want to help you, beginning with staff but never stopping there. Share ideas in a preliminary way. Listen to feedback.

I’m a firm believer in the latter course. In four decades of working with parish leaders, many priests have told me about early changes they wish they had not made and then experienced many years of regret. I’ve never heard a priest express regret for delaying what could have been an early change.

By the way, Anna is in the eighth grade now. The last time I saw her, several girls were following her. She has no positional power, but obviously she has a lot of influence — all built on the quality of her relationships and the trust she inspires in others.

Your role is obviously more difficult than hers. But I wish you the same powerful influence in all you try to accomplish. 

OWEN PHELPS, Ph.D., is executive director of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and author of the book “The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus: Introducing S3 Leadership — Servant, Steward, Shepherd” (OSV, $15.95).

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