Pastoral administrators from three dioceses meet for first time


DURHAM, N.C. The gathering was to exchange ideas, frustrations, hopes, dreams and experiences. When it was over, the 31 pastoral administrators and coordinators decided to do it again next year.

Parish leaders from three dioceses in the region gathered at Avila Retreat Center June 12 for a 12-hour meeting on their ministry. They represented the dioceses of Raleigh, Richmond and Charleston.

In all, 31 men and women, some in religious communities; others not, serve in the capacity of pastoral administrators and coordinators in the dioceses. It was the first time they had gathered under one roof, but they left determined that it would not be the last.

In the closing session they sat in a circle to share what they had learned and hoped for. They spoke of their unique and shared experiences.

They had questions about how to effectively serve the people of God. There was concern that the spiritual life of those entrusted to their care be properly nourished.

The chair of the Pastoral Administrators Committee in the Diocese of Raleigh was pleased with the outcome of the theological reflection in the meeting. Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Margaret Gallagher says, “the whole focus was on the pastoral aspects of our ministry and not on administration.”

While the day-to-day administration of a parish is important, says Sister Margaret, there is more. “We don’t want to get caught up in the business life. Pastoral service is the priority.”

When offering their reflections, the administrator of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Plymouth says the focus was on the theology. The intent was not to have the participants discuss the shared stories, but to offer images that surfaced during the reflection time.

Sister Margaret says there were reflections from the heart. The images included a bridge over troubled waters, vessels of grace, the call to ministry, the call of Christ, washing of feet, the Eucharist as a sign of faith. “There was great variety,” she says.

Most of the pastoral administrators in the Raleigh diocese serve in isolated areas where there is an absence of ordained clergy, says Sister Margaret. “The people appreciate the fact that our diocese is taking them into consideration. It is a special gift to people who are in isolated areas.”

The man who heads the program for pastoral administrators in the Diocese of Richmond is Dennis Beeman, director of Christian Formation.

He says he is pleased with the outcome of the meeting.

“Our overall goal for this gathering was to break the ice and let people meet each other. We knew that when people did meet each other the deeper issues would gradually rise to the surface.”

Franciscan Sister Bernadine Jax is a pastoral coordinator in Dillon and chairs the program in the Diocese of Charleston. She became the first person to hold such a position in the Charleston Diocese when she was appointed in 1991.

Sister Bernadine calls her work challenging. “It calls forth every gift you have and more,” she says.

With that in mind, she points to a section in the diocesan handbook for pastoral leaders that defines the responsibilities and the calling of such.

“The pastoral administrator is responsible for nurturing the whole parish life including Liturgy, spiritual enrichment, adult and youth religious education, social activities, service projects, outreach activities, ecumenism, evangelization and any other church community efforts.”

For Sister Bernadine the focus is truly on nurturing the whole parish life. She says nurturing is the key word in the outline of responsibilities.

“You try to support people, enable people to follow their baptismal calling,” says Sister Bernadine. “We’ve all been baptized. We are all members of the church. How we carry that out as a pastoral administrator or a pastor is to call forth the gifts of others – that baptismal commitment that all of us have.”

It is important for the administrators to develop a collaborative relationship with the sacramental minister, the priest assigned to the responsibility of administering the sacraments to the parish. But the preparation for those sacraments is the responsibility of the administrator.

Sister Bernadine says the relationship with the people is a deeply personal one that follows them through every aspect of their lives. Some of those are good times and some are sad. The involvement with the parish community is from the cradle to the grave.

Sister Margaret agrees with that assessment. “We walk with people in the critical times of their lives.

“We are called to ministry,” says Sister Margaret. “I hope that we can remember that first of all, we are called to serve people.”

Beeman says the meeting served another purpose for him. While many of the issues are ones with which he is familiar, he says it was good to hear them raised by other dioceses helping him to realize that Richmond is in the mainstream with the others.

He says the people shared similar frustrations and accomplishments. Beeman says that shows that they are all on the right track.

He says it also offered the participants an opportunity to see they were not alone. There are others “out there” who are working on problems and obstacles.

One area of concern for the administrators is proper spiritual care for the sick, the recovering and dying. The issue of how much a pastoral administrator is allowed to do could be settled soon by the American bishops in consultation with the Vatican.

For now, they must meet the people where they are and offer support. “In ministry, if it has any meaning, you meet people in their basic needs. The sick and recovering are certainly where Christ needs to be present,” says Beeman.

He speaks of the anxiety some feel if someone who is sick takes a turn for the worse. Beeman says there is some feeling of loss in the reality that the spiritual caregiver can not see the process through to its natural end with an anointing. “You cannot complete the cycle.”

Seeing lay people in leadership is a role in the church that is growing and Beeman says people are accepting it. He says the Richmond diocese has had a long tradition of lay ministry.

It is important, says Beeman, for people to see the laity in paid, professional settings in the Church. He says many parishes in Richmond have four or five people in such roles.

The position of pastoral leadership is not just a job. Pastoral ministry is a vocation, say several of those who work at it every day and they hope others will hear the call they have heard and listen to what it says.