GOING MY WAY?
In a few days our diocesan Clergy Personnel Board will meet for the first time this year. This consultative committee of myself and six priests meet as needed to discuss the assignment of our diocesan priests. Religious orders make their own assignment of priests to parishes which they staff and inform me of their choices and ask that I extend faculties and welcome. But the approximately 120 men in active ministry who receive their assignments from the bishop are the responsibility of a Personnel Board. Different bishops approach this challenging task differently. Some let their clergy boards meet without the bishop, receive the recommendations and then make the assignments. Other bishops meet with the Board itself and take part in the dialogue and then call the priests affected and seek their acceptance of their new assignment. If the priest receiving a new assignment is an associate pastor, then the receiving pastor must be called first to ascertain if he is willing to accept Father X who is being considered for assignment to his parish. It’s hard work matching a decreasing supply of priests to an increasing chorus of demand for help and assistance.
The annual process begins around January of every year when a letter goes out to every priest on diocesan assignment asking if they would like a transfer, would like to remain in place where they currently are, wish another opportunity for either a sabbatical or higher education effort. Not every priest responds to these inquiries but if they do they begin the process of planning. This year two of our senior priests will be retiring (which any priest can do at the age of 70 if they wish). At an agreed upon moment, those parishes needing pastors are sent out to all the priests with a brief description of the parish. Priests interested are then free to inform us in a timely manner of their interest. This year we have one to be ordained and he will be interviewed as to his hopes for his first assignment and he will be given an assignment around Easter time.
Several new realities are beginning to be felt in the area of priest personnel assignments for the first time. One is that some parishes are beginning to say that they can not afford more than one priest. While the salary of a priest is not that great (about $2200 per month for pastors), fringe benefits such as pension and health a welfare can end up costing a parish about the same amount as the salary total per month and then there is room and board to be provided. Some estimate that it is now costing about $55,000 per year per priest. I don’t have the exact amount but that would be close in many places. Another new reality is that there is no longer a bench off which a priest can be called. It is something like playing football with only eleven players on the team or baseball with only nine. A surprise retirement, an unexpected death, a serious illness now becomes a great challenge because I can no longer call up someone from the “minors” or off the bench. Dogs and smoking are new realities which make life tough for the personnel board and for myself. Many pastors now have dogs. Many assistants do not like dogs or are allergic to dogs. Smoking in the rectory is no longer an option because of the knowledge that society has about smoking and its harmful effects on health. So now we not only try to match a priest with a place, but have to figure in animals, habits, and cost.
Regardless of all these challenges, for thirteen years I have enjoyed Clergy Personnel Boards which have always placed the best interest of a successful ministry for a man above all else. It is not an easy time, this Spring assignment period, and decisions that I and others make often cause lots of people to become sad, upset and even angry. There was one time when I was sure that a transfer of a pastor would find my picture in local Post Offices with the caption: Wanted, Dead or Alive. Like most employers, we can not tell what we know. Sometimes I laugh when I hear that a priest who has requested a transfer stands up before his people and says: “the Bishop made me do it!” That happens a lot. Every once in a while, however, like last Sunday morning at St. Michael’s parish in Hudson, lots of people stop on the way out and thank me for the two new priests they received last summer. This is not exact;y “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” because this ship is never going to sink. It may just not look exactly like what it has in the past. So say a prayer for the Clergy Personnel Board as its begins its yearly work of assignments and pray for your priests, that they will feel happy and fulfilled in their assignments.