Seminarians during a theology class at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The Need for Leadership and Management Training

Recommendations for priests in the changing dynamics of parish life

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Seminary curriculum focuses on philosophy, theology, Scripture, counseling, etc. While fundamental for ministry, few courses exist that address topics necessary for effective leadership, administration and management — for example, conflict management, human resources, budgeting/financial planning, etc. Yet, Catholic priests often need leadership education, especially administrative and management skills. This would benefit them in becoming more effective pastors and administrators of parishes and schools and, as a consequence, better priests.

The hierarchical structure of the Church contributes to its challenges because the pastor has sole responsibility for decision-making in a parish or school. Bishops and priests can, in some ways, be compared to CEOs of sizable corporations; however, their training focuses on preparing them for their ministerial role.

Michael Kane and Robin Jacobs point out in their research article, “The Approachableness of U.S. Catholic Bishops as Perceived by Priests,” published in Pastoral Psychology in 2020, that within business and health care areas such as management, leadership and human resources have grown and evolved over the years. But, they argue, this is not the case for the Church. Perhaps the Church could benefit by appropriating aspects of secular leadership theories and strategies.

Addressing the problem of preparing priests for leadership and management duties is essential because of potential adverse consequences. As a high-profile religious institution, attempting to improve its leadership is of the utmost importance. For this reason, I explored the question as to whether current seminary education and the formation of candidates to the priesthood prepares them for leadership and administration. Additionally, I was interested in how continuing formation factors into this issue.


I conducted in-depth interviews with individuals with knowledge and experience related to seminary training and the challenges priests face when administering parishes. They included seminarians, a representative from a seminary, retired diocesan priests, active diocesan priests, a religious order priest, business consultants who train priests/parish leaders and an ordained Presbyterian pastor.

Before beginning my study, it was essential to review official Church documents, including Pope St. John Paul II’s Pastores Dabo Vobis (“I will give you shepherds”). It has impacted how present-day seminary education is constructed by using his four areas (pillars) of formation: human, spiritual, intellectual, pastoral.

St. John Paul argued that human formation is the foundation for the entire process of priestly formation. Focusing on the developmental, personal and psychological aspects as well as the overall disposition of the candidate for priestly formation is essential. According to Pastores Dabo Vobis, “The priest should be able to know the depths of the human heart, to perceive difficulties and problems, to make meeting and dialogue easy, to create trust and cooperation, to express serene and objective judgments” (No. 43).

Furthermore, Pastores Dabo Vobis stresses the importance for the priest to possess specific personality traits such as humility, understanding, forgiveness and the ability to get along amicably with others. Integrally connected to human formation is spiritual formation. This includes spiritual direction and developing a deeper prayer life and personal relationship with Christ and the Church. Intellectual formation is accomplished primarily through academic courses on philosophy and theology. A considerable emphasis is placed on the study of philosophy, citing its benefit in enhancing critical thinking.

Pastoral formation prepares priests for their role as shepherds. Pastoral formation needs to be understood as the practical application of the skills and competencies learned in the other three areas as the priest engages in his role of shepherding. As a shepherd, the pastor is both leader and provider to the Church community in spiritual and temporal affairs. Pastoral formation also must also include activities that teach future priests that they are called to a ministry of service with humility and refraining from using power in a manner that is self-serving is essential. As a shepherd, the priest bears the responsibility leading the community and managing and administering the temporal affairs of the Church, which include financial planning, fiscal responsibility, effective communication, conflict management, managing a staff and maintaining a physical plant.

The USCCB documents “The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests” (2001) and “Program of Priestly Formation in the United States of America,” sixth edition (2022) are also critical to understanding priestly formation. According to “The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests,” it is important for priests to have a clear understanding of the expectations when they are named pastor of a parish. It explains that Canon 532 describes the administrative function of the pastor: “The pastor represents the parish in all juridic affairs in accord with the norm of law; he is to see to it that the goods of the parish are administered in the accord with the norms of canons 1281-1288.”

Because the pastor must administer and manage the parish, the document goes on to emphasize that he must be adequately prepared to exercise this role. However, priests sometimes avoid this aspect of ministry or experience disillusionment. Managing staff, facing the lack of monetary funds or having to maintain a physical plant can be overwhelming, especially for priests who have little experience with these kinds of responsibilities.

Ongoing Formation

John Paul II also dedicated a substantial portion of Pastores Dabo Vobis examining the ongoing formation of ordained priests. While stressing its importance, he looked to examples outside the Church. “There is no profession, job or work which does not require constant updating if it is to remain current and effective. The need to ‘keep pace’ with the path of history is another human reason justifying ongoing formation” (No. 70), he wrote. In other words, professionals such as medical personnel, educators and real estate agents, as well as those from countless other occupations, are required to participate in recertification programs or continuing education classes.

Pastores Dabo Vobis suggests that seminaries encourage ongoing formation among candidates for the priesthood, so they understand it as an integral part of their ministry. However, realizing the extensive number of responsibilities placed upon priests, they need to make time for ongoing formation. It must be attractive, inviting and concerning practical issues relevant to their ministry so that priests want to participate and set aside the time in their busy schedules.

The present reality of the Catholic priesthood in the United States is that the number of men being ordained to the priesthood has steadily declined since the Second Vatican Council. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate’s (CARA), the number of total priests in the United States decreased by approximately 24,000 from 1970 to 2020. As a result of the priest shortage, a majority of newly ordained priests are no longer afforded ample time to serve as an associate. As an associate pastor, the newly ordained priest was provided opportunities to be introduced to pastoral issues by accompanying a more experienced priest pastor.

According to “Same Call, Different Men: The Evolution of the Priesthood Since Vatican II” (Liturgical Press, $24.95), written by Mary Gautier, Paul Perl and Stephen Fichter, and “Seminary Formation: Recent History – Current Circumstances – New Directions” (Liturgical Press, $24.950), written by Katarina Schuth, OSF, the authors all agree that it has become commonplace for bishops to assign newly ordained priests as pastors shortly after ordination, and often to more than one parish.

Current Challenges

Within the context of the Catholic Church, clericalism denotes the attitude that because of their ordination some priests consider themselves superior to laypersons and often believe that the rules of society do not apply to them, notes researcher Jennifer Slater from the University of South Africa, in Pretoria, South Africa. According to Slater’s 2019 report titled “The Catholic Church in need of de-clericalization and moral doctrinal agency: Towards an ethically accountable hierarchical leadership” in HTS Theological Studies, Pope Francis has been critical of clericalism on several occasions, noting that it can lead to “a negative pathway to sterile authoritarian ecclesiastical careerism, privilege, entitlement and power.”

When it comes to the training of seminarians, Slater argues that there is a tendency for clericalism in priestly formation, therefore, a transformation within the culture of the Church is needed. She warns that the Church must be intentional in avoiding clericalism, especially in seminaries. Eliminating clericalism can also lead to more ethical and moral leadership within the Church.

Another perspective important to consider is what some scholars have termed “hierarchicalism.” According to a 2022 report titled “Hierarchicalism” by Jesuit Father James F. Keenan in Theological Studies, “The father of clericalism, ‘hierarchicalism,’ a much more distinctive, protected, and powerful culture that has generated many of the contemporary problems in the church that compromises her mission.”

For Father Keenan and others, “clericalism” does not adequately describe the culture that has emerged as a result of the hierarchical structure. While there are those priests who demonstrate clericalism, a significant number of the laity have been conditioned not to question the priest, whether concerning his word, behavior or lifestyle. It can be argued that the laity has been conditioned not to question the priest, resulting in the prevailing attitude that “Father knows best,” especially when it comes to matters of the Church. When attempting to understand and improve present-day leadership within the Catholic Church, it is essential to examine the challenges of hierarchicalism and clericalism.

When conducting my research, I sought to investigate the adequacies and possible inadequacies of ordained Catholic priests to be effective leaders. Participants were asked questions that centered on understanding their challenges and listening to their recommendations for the future.

Participants noted that parishes and schools have experienced mergers and closures, especially in the context where the study occurred. This is partially due to the shortage of priests because bishops no longer have an adequate number of priests to fulfill all the leadership positions within parishes and schools. Another contributing factor is the lack of financial resources. For both parishes and schools, the lack of revenue coming into the Church means that facilities and properties can no longer be maintained.

Leading communities through mergers and closings can be a difficult process. For example, some parishioners may feel personally attacked when a church closes where their family has been members for several generations, or parents may be frustrated having to travel farther to get their children to and from school. Whatever the reasons, priests have had to navigate through these mergers and closures because of their position as pastors.

Participants readily admitted that administration was not really at the forefront of their minds as they began seeking the priesthood. Rather, they were attracted to the idea of becoming a priest to bring people closer to God. Although they realized their responsibility for the temporal administration and management of parishes and schools, these tasks hindered them from fulfilling their primary mission as priests.


The most significant finding of this study was that priests should not be expected to meet the spiritual, theological, pastoral and sacramental needs of their parish while also serving as the building manager, finance officer, human resource director, etc. Competent and trustworthy laypersons should assume some of these responsibilities: hiring an effective staff — that is, an office manager, a bookkeeper, and a building and facilities manager — or, if there is not sufficient funding, priests must learn to identify members of the parish or school with experience and knowledge in specific areas. Pastoral councils, financial councils and school boards allow pastors and their lay advisers to collaborate on leadership, administrative and managerial issues. Although pastors are responsible for the well-being of churches and schools entrusted to them according to canon law, participants emphasized the importance of using the skills and expertise of trusted laypersons.

Another essential component of this discussion is the ongoing formation of priests. Although official Church documents stress the importance of this, in reality there is little incentive for priests to participate in continuing education classes, workshops, etc. Seminary faculty and official Church leaders need to communicate to seminarians that ordination does not equate to possessing infinite knowledge of all kinds of topics. Rather, they will need to continue learning throughout their priesthood to develop and sharpen their skills in various areas, especially leadership and management.

As Pope St. John Paul II pointed out in Pastores Dabo Vobis, almost all professions require some type of continuing education program for their employees.

In conclusion, men seeking ordination to the priesthood receive their training in seminaries, where the curriculum focuses on philosophy, theology, Scripture, counseling, etc., which are all fundamental for ministry. However, as pastors and administrators, priests are not only responsible for carrying out the mission of Jesus Christ and meeting the spiritual needs of the people they serve, but for temporal affairs as well. Therefore, it is essential that they are adequately prepared for leadership, administration and management.

BERNADETTE McMASTERS KIME, Ph.D., is director of Worship and Sacraments for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, and an adjunct instructor for Saint Meinrad Seminary, Indiana, in the permanent diaconate program. She resides in Wheeling, West Virginia, with her husband and two daughters. She graduated May 2023 with a doctorate in Instructional Management and Leadership from Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This article is based on her doctoral dissertation.


Pope Francis Speaks Out about Clericalism

Meeting with the bishops of Chile during an apostolic trip on Jan. 16, 2018, Pope Francis said the following about clericalism: “The lack of consciousness of belonging to God’s faithful people as servants, and not masters, can lead us to one of the temptations that is most damaging to the missionary outreach that we are called to promote: clericalism, which ends up as a caricature of the vocation we have received.”

The pope added: “A failure to realize that the mission belongs to the entire Church, and not to the individual priest or bishop, limits the horizon, and even worse, stifles all the initiatives that the Spirit may be awakening in our midst. Let us be clear about this. The laypersons are not our peons, or our employees. They don’t have to parrot back whatever we say. ‘Clericalism, far from giving impetus to various contributions and proposals, gradually extinguishes the prophetic flame to which the entire Church is called to bear witness. Clericalism forgets that the visibility and the sacramentality of the Church belong to all the faithful people of God [cf. Lumen Gentium, Nos. 9-14], not only to the few chosen and enlightened.’”


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