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Collaboration in the Vineyard

How the Holy Spirit accompanies us in our participation in the mission of Christ’s ministry

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People in the Diocese of Memphis know that I am a convert from the Southern Baptist Convention. I grew up attending East Park Baptist Church on the corner of White Station Road and Park Avenue. It later moved to a larger structure and was renamed Briarcrest Baptist Church.

The Stewart family lived next door to the Donati family, parishioners of St. Louis Catholic Church on White Station Road. I remember my parents taking a vacation for themselves with the four kids staying with friends and neighbors. My brother and I stayed with the Donati family. When Sunday rolled around, Mrs. Donati’s philosophy was that anyone staying with them would accompany the family to Mass. I was about 9 or 10 years old at the time and it was the first time I’d ever attended a Catholic Mass — Msgr. Paul Clunan was the priest presiding at the Mass. To be honest, I really did not know what was going on.

Then in 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected pope and took the name John Paul II — and he spoke English. The Catholic Church received a lot of free press with his election because he was not Italian. Moreover, he came from behind the Iron Curtain and traveled quite a bit. I remember when he visited the United States in 1979 it was just about the only news item broadcasted. His preaching inexplicitly resonated with me. To my astonishment, he preached Jesus and not just Mary — this is not what we were taught about the Catholic Church from the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention.

During my sophomore year at the University of Memphis, I found myself at St. Anne Catholic Church taking lessons about the Catholic faith, preparing to join the Catholic Church through the waters of baptism. On Sunday, July 24, 1983, I was baptized by Father Elbert Callis and received the Eucharist for the first time. I give a lot of credit for my conversion to the preaching of John Paul II and the bread of life discourse in John 6.

I went into the University of Memphis a Southern Baptist and came out a Catholic. I went to the University of Memphis expecting to become an architect, but instead, I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in engineering technology in computer systems while discerning my call to a Church vocation while active with the Newman Center. The best-laid plans of mice and men can often go awry if God has anything to do with it.

As I shared before, upon joining the Catholic Church I felt that my conversion went deeper, and I almost immediately began to discern my call to the priesthood. I was accepted as a seminarian for the diocese and during Holy Week 1988 I went to St. Meinrad School of Theology. While at St. Meinrad Seminary, my discernment continued to grow, and on June 12, 1993, I was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Memphis.


I have served as parochial vicar at four parishes 1993-2005. From 2002 to 2013, I was director of vocations and director of seminarians. From 1996 to 2016, I was the master of ceremonies for Bishop Terry Steib. In 2012, I received my first pastorate at the Church of the Nativity in Bartlett, Tennessee, where every day is Christmas. Then, in 2017, I was transferred to St. Brigid Church in southeast Shelby County. When 2020 rolled around, I had every intention of staying at St. Brigid Church. Then in March 2020, the newly appointed pastor of St. Louis Catholic Church was named the new bishop of Alexandria in Louisiana before the new priests’ assignments for the Diocese of Memphis could be announced. Our priest personnel board had to almost start over its work because St. Louis Church is quite sizable, and having to replace its pastor causes a significant domino effect when trying to balance priests’ assignments. Bishop David P. Talley called me to inform me that I was the new pastor of St. Louis Church and, later, the new vicar general of the diocese.

Upon my appointment as pastor of St. Louis Catholic Church, who would have thought that the Southern Baptist fourth grader attending his first Catholic Mass in 1972 would be appointed its pastor nearly 50 years later? I look back at the legacy that I inherited and am humbled by the pastors I have followed.

Msgr. Paul Clunan was one of the most respected priests of the diocese and its vicar general. Archbishop emeritus J. Peter Sartain, who succeeded Msgr. Clunan, was pastor of the parish and vicar general of the diocese and then appointed bishop of Little Rock, Arkansas, then bishop of Joliet, Illinois, and then archbishop of Seattle.

Another, Msgr. John McArthur, built up the parish’s ministry to the sick, built up a sense of stewardship among the parish leadership and its parishioners, and, in doing so, greatly expanded the school and built the youth center. Along with that sense of humility, in light of this legacy, comes a sense of trepidation — please God, don’t let me mess it up.

The Holy Spirit and Leadership

It is my philosophy that the pastor should lead a parish in collaboration with its leadership. It is my firm belief that collaborative leadership is vital in bolstering the overall morale of the parish and helps focus our efforts to build up the kingdom of God initiated by Jesus himself. It also provides transparency so that both church and school staff, as well as parishioners, do not feel irrelevant or belittled.

For collaboration to work, there has to be an openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus teaches us: “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (Jn 14:26-27).

The Advocate, the Paraclete, stands with us in our participation in the mission of Christ’s ministry of proclaiming the Good News and building up the kingdom of God. Several theologians and Scripture scholars complain that the Holy Spirit is often the forgotten person of the Blessed Trinity; for collaborative ministry to work, we must never forget the importance of the Holy Spirit in our discernment of God’s will and our faithfulness to Christ’s mission that he has entrusted to us as Church.

The first thing the Holy Spirit reminds us as laborers in the Lord’s vineyard is the teaching of Jesus when he gives his disciples a new command: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34).

St. Paul teaches us what that love looks like: “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (1 Cor 13:1-8).

In our day and age, this Scripture passage is a staple for Catholic weddings, but it was not written by St. Paul with a man and a woman celebrating their nuptials in mind. Instead, he is applying this teaching to the Church community as a whole as it gathers to carry out Christ’s mission. In other words, this is what love looks like when the rubber hits the road. One may have great gifts, but without love for one another, without trust in one another, that person is a clashing cymbal or a clanging gong.

Holy Spirit Stained Glass
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Servant Leadership

Putting Jesus’ new command together with St. Paul’s application, the pastor needs to have a one-another mindset. The pastor needs to be a servant leader. He needs to treasure the giftedness of his fellow collaborators, because God’s work is too extensive to be undertaken without collaboration. We need to remember that Jesus sent his disciples out two by two to preach, to heal and to teach. Working together as co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord, we need to walk alongside one another, with our different skills, as we orchestrate our parishes’ ministries to serve and grow the kingdom of God.

Collaborative ministry is at the heart of Pope Francis’ understanding of a pastor’s servant leadership. Pope Francis has consistently urged Catholic bishops and priests to go out among their flocks and know the people they serve with comments such as: “Like shepherds living with the smell of their sheep. God’s grace comes alive and flourishes to the extent that clergy are among their flocks giving themselves and the gospel to others. You must be shepherds who smell like your sheep.”

St. Louis Church is my third pastorate. Each time I arrive at my new assignment, one of the first things I do is meet the parish staff, pastoral council and finance council. This being my first pastorate that included a grade school, I made a point to include meeting the school administration as well.

I arrived at St. Louis Church on August 1, 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our diocese, the state and the city still had COVID protocols in place to slow the spread of the virus. Aware of what past pastors have done to build up the parish, I needed to make sure that I didn’t mess up what they had accomplished for the good of the parish. Including the grade school and parish office, we have about 90 staff members on campus. To get through the pandemic, we all had to come together to navigate the various tempests that blew up during the course of the pandemic.

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Bouncing Back

Our nation was deeply divided over the policies regarding COVID-19 protocols, and that divide was reflected in the churches of the country as well. I felt the biggest pastoral challenge that had to be confronted was keeping the parish together. That is where collaborative ministry came through. It didn’t necessarily make the task less messy, but the collective pastoral leadership of the parish was able to support one another both spiritually and psychologically — seeing to it that conflicting opinions did not tear the parish apart. It was definitely a group undertaking, and our parish has recovered from the pandemic.

Our parish bounced back due to openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who stood alongside us. It was not perfect, but the parish did not fall into disarray — mistakes were made and lessons were learned. It’s all part of St. Paul’s teaching in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us” (4:7). As earthen vessels, the instruments God uses are human and fragile — imagine a collective of small terracotta lamps that come together to spread that divine light that is within each of us, illuminating the way of Christ.

St. Peter’s words in his first letter are a good summation of a pastor’s servant leadership making sure that as a good shepherd he will have the smell of his sheep on him in collaborative ministry and mission: “So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed. Tend the flock of God in your midst, [overseeing] not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pt 5:1-4).

FATHER KEITH STEWART is vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, in Tennessee, and pastor of St. Louis Catholic Church.


Collaboration and Steps Toward Unity

Collaboration is often used by dioceses to make it possible for parishes to become effective at evangelization. Terry A. Ginther, executive director for pastoral life and mission in the Diocese of Trenton, in New Jersey, writes on “sharing the load” on the Faith in Our Future diocesan page for the diocese: “Collaboration can be defined as people or organizations working together to achieve something successfully. It moves beyond occasional cooperation and the coordination of Mass or confession schedules. In collaboration, two or more parishes formally agree to work together in a specific way for the foreseeable future.”

“Collaboration between parishes is consistent with the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ; but it is not an end in itself. The purpose of collaboration is to make it possible for all parishes to become more effective at evangelization. It can be like a yoke that spreads the weight across two oxen, allowing them to pull together a heavier load than either is able to move alone. Collaboration has the potential to free up precious resources which can be used for new approaches or allow the parish to reach people on the margins. It focuses neighboring parishes on common goals, reducing competition and increasing the impact they can have on the residents of a local area together.”


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