In 1989, Stephen R. Covey wrote a book entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. His book was a runaway bestseller. Critics were unanimous in their praise of Covey’s approach to management and organization. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, editor of the Harvard Business Review, described Covey’s work as “a perfect blend of wisdom, compassion and practical experience.”
In parishes across the land, and in our own Diocese of Helena, we find individual priests who can accurately be described as highly effective leaders. Year after year they inspire, encourage and strengthen the faith of others by living lives of dedicated service to Christ and the Church.
Since my arrival in the Diocese of Helena, I have had the privilege of observing many of these priests in action. Each time I visit them in their parishes, I am filled with gratitude that God has blessed us with these loving and dedicated individuals.
These highly effective leaders utilize their God given gifts and talents to transform their parishes into dynamic and vibrant faith communities. Under their leadership, parish communities grow significantly through new members wishing to join their vibrant and life giving parishes. Under their guidance, the gifts of others are unleashed. Parish RCIA programs draw new members year after year into their parishes. The value of stewardship increases even in venues affected by economic hardship. Individual parishioners proudly and publicly proclaim these pastors as their own.
What are the qualities that these effective pastors hold in common with other exceptional leaders across the nation? What are the keys to their dynamic leadership? Is it possible to distill the essence of their leadership and teach it to others? What do they know that we don’t know?
For the past 18 years while serving in diocesan leadership, I have observed pastors and communities in action. I offer my own impressions of the qualities that dynamic pastors and the communities they lead hold in common. You may wish to add your own.
The highly effective pastor is a man of vision. He has, in the words of Stephen Covey, “an eternal perspective on life, its problems and its challenges.” He is, above all else, a man of prayer who is “compelled by the love of Christ.” He is a humble disciple of Jesus Christ, who sees himself as beloved by God and redeemed in the blood of His Son. Everything he does and all that he says is rooted in his conviction that God knows us by name and loves us with an everlasting love. He sees all of life from this eternal perspective, making both his life and his teachings authentic and joyful.
The highly effective pastor conveys a message of warmth and welcome that affects both the parish staff and all the people in the parish community. He knows his parishioners by name, and makes their joys and sorrows his own. Even casual visitors who happen into a weekend liturgy sense that they are valued and welcomed by him and other parishioners. This message, both spoken and unspoken, flows from a vision that all persons are made in the image of God.
The highly effective pastor ensures that the parish community is deeply rooted in the Eucharist. Under his guidance, liturgy is well prepared and deeply prayerful. Eucharist is celebrated as the “source and summit” of the life of the Church. The Sacrament of Reconciliation holds a place of primacy in his life and parish. Sacramental life provides harmony, purpose, meaning and direction to the entire community. All other activities in the parish flow from and lead back to the Eucharist. In this parish community, music is highly participatory, and serves to deepen the prayer life of the community at worship.
This priest understands the power of good preaching, and why the Second Vatican Council called preaching the “primary duty of the ordained.” His homilies are drawn from Scripture and faithfully re-present the Church’s tradition. He helps his listeners see the work of the Holy Spirit at play in their lives and in the community. His preaching leads believers into deeper communion with God and with one another, and his word never returns empty.
Under his guidance, the highly effective pastor ensures that outreach to the poor, the homebound, the imprisoned, the sick and the dying are logical outcomes to the Church at prayer. By word and example he helps parishioners make connections between worship and compassion, love of God and love of neighbor. Catholic social and moral teaching are made visible in these communities.
Youth and young adults have a special place in the heart of the highly effective pastor. Both the pastor and the parish at large make youth and young adults experience their special place in the life of the community. On his watch, the faith formation of both youth and adults go hand in hand. The highly effective pastor is personally dedicated to life-long learning, and helps everyone in all age brackets understand and embrace the mind, the mission and the Magisterium of the Church.
This pastor understands the power of collegial leadership, and draws out the gifts of others and places them in service to the Church. Collaborative ministry characterizes this pastor’s leadership style and helps him tap into the wisdom and experience of others. He knows that the gifts and talents of the women and men in his parish are invaluable resources as he provides engaging pastoral leadership in the community.
Evangelization has a special place in the life of the effective pastor. He knows that the Good News of Jesus Christ is too good to keep to oneself. He awakens the sleeping giant of evangelization and asks his parishioners to become active evangelizers in their families, among their co-workers and circle of friends. Like the Good Shepherd, he continually seeks out those who have grown tepid in their faith or who have strayed from the Church through discouragement, anger, laziness or disinterest. The evangelizing pastor creates an evangelical community and invites others to come and see and find their special place in the heart and life of a community.
The highly effective pastor helps parishioners look beyond the borders of their parish and see their relationship with the diocesan bishop and the See of Peter. He underscores the importance of our communion in a Church that is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” and punctuates our unity with Catholics across the globe.
Humor plays a special place in this pastor’s life. He knows the special medicinal qualities of laughter and dispenses this medicine with carefree abandon.
You may identify other qualities that are found in highly effective pastors and the communities they lead. As I think of these special qualities, the faces of particular priests come to mind. Clearly, this side of the grave, we will never find the perfect priest (or perfect bishop for that matter). But we will continue to seek out candidates for the priesthood, who will be formed in the qualities of dynamic leadership. Until we find a way to duplicate the qualities of these special pastors, we will turn to them for inspiration and ask them to serve as mentors, teachers and guides.
May God bless them and may the Lord continue to send us good shepherds under whose able leadership the Church will surely flourish and prosper.
Published in The Montana Catholic, Vol. 21, No. 8, September 16, 2005.