Monday, September 10, 2012

Paid church staff: Solution or problem?

I would estimate my current parish has at least three times the number of paid positions that my childhood parish had. We have a pastoral administrator, pastoral associate, faith formation administrative assistant, business manager, administrative assistant, and sacramental coordinator above and beyond what my parish had.

My question is, which came first? Was there such a lack of community volunteers that parishes were forced to seek out and hire people? Or did the Powers That Be decide they needed someone "qualified", eliminating the informal network that had met those needs for so long and discouraging those willing to volunteer?

When I was 12, I decided my parish needed a Christmas pageant. I wrote a script, scheduled rehearsals, found some costumes and asked for help with others, asked my friends to be the musicians, and ran five or six rehearsals. I met with our pastor to have the pageant included with the Christmas Eve liturgy. I also got a list from our parish secretary (aka book-keeper/administrative assistant/business manager) of all the children registered in the parish. I called every house and personally invited the parents to bring their kids to rehearsals. During my six years running the pageant, at least two families began regularly attending Mass because of that invitation.

I was trusted to unlock the church for practice. At the end, I turned off all the lights, locked up, and put the key back in the mail dropbox for the rectory. Some parents stayed for rehearsals, but not all. I cannot fathom any seventh grader today being allowed that kind of responsibility.

I still have that script. I think it would be an improvement on what my parish does. But I don't want to ask about using it. You see, we have a paid faith formation coordinator. It's her job. I don't want to step on her toes.

Would you have trusted 12-year-old me?

Since joining this parish, I've wished we had weekly coffee hour. My parents' parish has five teams, each who do one coffee hour per month (well, Team 5 only on months with five weekends). The team bakes goodies, makes coffee, sets up and cleans. At one church in my parish, coffee hours were reduced because no one was willing to pick up prepaid donuts. That's right. No financial cost and minimal time cost - the store is about a mile from church. No volunteers.

There were also not enough volunteers to clean up when coffee hour was done. Someone asked, "Don't we have a paid cleaning staff?"

Yeah, we do. Maybe that's the problem.


  1. Funny isnt it, that we dont really have a PASTOR. All the business of the parish is handled, but we are missing a most (the most?) important thing......

    We are definitely ministering to one another, but we are like a body without a head.........

    Just sayin'

    Mary Ellen A.

    1. A pastor might be the answer, but I think it also has to come "from the pews." As long as people rely too much on paid staff, we'll continue to have a volunteer shortage. :-/

  2. Foolish lady! Anybody who knows me knows not to ask me my thoughts on anything, unless they wanted to be in a condition more confused than before and to loose precious hours of their life. That being said, you're lucky, as I have a meeting in 5.

    A) A simple principle in accessing the ministry needs of a parish, for me, would be to assume responsibility for a certain level of quality. Think of music. If we can get the level of competence, quality and responsibility volunteered, that would be the preference. If we need to pay to get that level, we do so, (in the confines of a budget). That being said, having a degree does not necessarily mean having the competence.

    B) My favorite moniker for desribing our historical epoch is "The Age of Disabling Professions". Any minister needs to be self-aware, and aware of those on staff, where the professionalization of ministry has lead to divisions and to imputing needs that create new dependencies. Our Vatican II-inspired view needs to be, I feel, that we are primarily responsible not for "delivering servinces" but in naming and cultivating gifts so that we can work ourselves out of a job.

    The view of a deprofessionalized Church is one I share, Liana, and I think it's hopeful that the first "disabiling profession", to quote Lewis Mumford, which was the priesthood, that made people dependent upon them for everything from simple devotions to theological knowledge, (where they may or may not have had gifts), is transitioning out of that "disabling" role, albiet painfully, before our eyes as the world is at the same time falling on their knees before teachers, doctors and counselors. There will always be the "preisthood" but when it got conflated with all the social service-type roles when "pastor" was merged with "preist", under Charlemagne, (really Alcuin), it became the proto-type of all disabling social service professions. The Holy Spirit is truly with us in this transition out of that model. The Church is the place to be! Late for meeting...

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, good sir. :-) "Having a degree does necessarily mean having the competence." Yes, I've thought about that, too. I would have been willing to help lead our faith formation program, reducing the number of paid staff, but they only wanted someone with a theology degree. Not me. Sigh.

      I appreciate the distinction between getting stuff done and nurturing the gifts of others so that things get done. Perhaps I'll have Jeremy mention that at pastoral council at some point, as they continue to shape our mission for the future.

  3. From a private messageSeptember 17, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    *posted by CatholicMommy, excerpts from a private message I received. good points, I thought*

    In terms of the dynamic between volunteers and staff, I have to say that I not certain there is a correlation. I think it depends more on the mindset of the community and staff.

    I have seen many parishes with large staffs that have plenty of volunteers. And I have seen parishes with small staffs that have had few volunteers. And I've seen the opposite as well. I think it really comes down to the "culture" of the individual parish. Some parishes do a better job at creating a culture where people feel free to volunteer their ideas and are empowered to do things (ala a Christmas pageant). Others are more restrictive, saying that a staff person needs to be involved in everything. Some volunteers are spoiled by having paid staff that they can depend on to do things for them (e.g. clean up our mess after coffee hour) and others are the opposite. ...

    Obviously a paid person has more accountability than a volunteer, and you would hope if you are paying someone, that they bring something to the table that a volunteer would not. ...

    In all honesty there are very few positions at a parish that need to be paid – Priests, the financial book keeper, and maintenance would be my guess. Almost all other positions are a luxury. But, in many ways, having that luxury can be a blessing (if the right people are placed in the positions). As I see it in terms of how it relates to your post, I would contend that a good staff person an be graded on their ability to gather volunteers and create an atmosphere of buy-in from those volunteers, where a poor staff person will see volunteers as a threat to their territory. Similarly, a good volunteer will want to help make a particular program/event work whereas a half-hearted volunteer will want to do the minimum.

  4. What I see at the heart of your specific issue, is a greater and more pervasive problem. It is symptomatic of the gradual, creeping invasion of purely corporate values into the institutions that once molded and shaped a more ethically and morally alert individual/ nation/ world.

    The government, educational institutions, the media, athletic alliances, and, even more sadly, many religious communities have all gradually succumbed to corporate dynamics in their efforts to self perpetuate.

    America, as the environment most relevant to us, has finally found itself "painted into a corner" of its own, inherent making. Individual representatives, from all the fundamental cultural groupings enumerated above, have, due to the nature of changing financial circumstances, had to choose their real priority value. For many, keeping up with the Joneses is no longer a choice to be made, but has become a fundamental issue of survival and the very nature of our culture.

    For the sake of your request for feedback, let's just stay in the religious, communal arena from here on.

    *continued in next comment*

    1. The churches in America are, for better or worse, populated by Americans. It is fairly safe to suggest that one thing Americans all have in common is that, by the time we graduate from high school, we have all had a pedagogical exposure to the underlying pillars of our society: political, economic, and (for almost all) Judeo/Christian ethics.

      I'm afraid that has been a kind of schooling in schizophrenia. There is a certain, undeniable compatibility between the underlying ethos of our democracy and that of our Judeo-Christian heritage. The difficulty arises with the fundamental principles of capitalism, our economic, cultural building block. The problem arises at moments of choice/conflict between and among them relevant to what I see as the oil and water incompatibility of capitalism's dynamics with the other two.

      In the parish scenario you are pondering, It seems to me that the questions that must be asked are: what is it that drives our ministry? What do we see as the essential nature of ministry?

      There is the school of thought that suggests that, "That which is freely given you, you must freely give." That ministry is a gift to be given.

      It has been my observation, however, that ministry can become an instrument of competition with other religious groups for the ever shrinking number of "clients" in the religious market place. It is a commodity to be bartered to the highest bidder and superior "technique" allows for greater success in recruiting membership and, therefore, a greater financial support which will insure survival.

      Perhaps, you and I need look no further for an example than at what are, for me at least, the saddest words of the Aquinas Alma Mater: and of those striving, be the one surviving. Aquinas, over all.

      These are the lyrics of triumphalism and militarism. Determining what gospel they reflect is beyond my skill.They are, perhaps, words more appropriate to a fight song sung under Friday night lights.

      I always use 3 criteria for evaluating the generic health of an alleged Christian community: Is love the underlying and discernible gift ministered in it? Is it a place of forgiveness? Does it live in the joy attendant to The Good News in the midst of the world's suffering?
      That's the complete list. It is purely qualitative. Wether this is done by full time or part time, salaried or unsalaried, or on a totally volunteer basis, is not, for me, the relevant issue and is ,therefore, up to each individual community to determine. The 3 criteria, on the other hand, are the essential and paramount issues of my concern. Everything else is peripheral and of little significance. I have encountered such community in groups of as few as 5-10 people and, also, in groups pushing a hundred. I have rarely found it in groups larger than this. If one is fortunate enough to find such a community and experience a call to it, one will have found that which is greater than the self and a place in which to surrender the gift of self. Real ministry always evolves from deeply committed community and not the other way around.

      I hope I have not made my meaning too terribly obscure and that it may be a useful part of the conversation.

    2. Thank you. I hadn't considered the church-as-business problem, but once you named it, I can recognize that it is present in our community. There is competition between ministries within our parish as well as a drive to get people in the door... ideally, the latter is aimed at saving souls, but it's not discussed that way.

      Jeremy and I have tried to find or cultivate the community you described at the end, with limited success. Time seems to be a requirement to build such a community and those we've encountered have either been unwilling or unable to dedicate time. Frustrating.