When you began working in the Church, how many friends did you have who were also serving in ministry? For me, it was several dozen. These youth ministers, Catholic school teachers, missionaries, and seminarians all began their work with so much zeal for the mission ahead of them.
Yet, nearly ten years later, I can count on one hand the number of those friends who are still involved in full-time ministry. Maybe you’ve experienced something similar. Most of these friends of mine devoted several years of their lives to a university formation and tens of thousands of dollars to be trained for effective ministry. Yet, when I talk with former parish employees, the majority of them have fled from parish ministry with plenty of hurt and a noticeable level of bitterness toward their experience.
There’s a few obvious reasons—salary limitations and simply discerning a different calling are common ones. However, I’ve experienced another much more troubling and harmful reason: too often, Catholic parishes are some of the most dysfunctional places to work.
I can say this confidently having worked as a leadership consultant with hundreds of pastors who have told me this themselves, as well as having been an employee at two parishes myself. While a Catholic parish office is meant to be a hub of prayer, evangelization, and true Christian friendship, it is far more common that it is a festering pool for mediocrity, confusion, and frustration. This dynamic begs the question: why? What is causing this exodus from parish ministry?
The biggest reason people leave employment in a parish is not because of issues with liturgy, music, programs, or hospitality—things that often get lots of attention. They leave because the organization is unhealthy and tolerates low standards. Without healthy and clear leadership, the best homily or most dynamic video series will only get you so far. This is completely counterintuitive to almost everything that we are taught in studies and formation! We spend hours and hours crafting plans and reading theology (which are extremely important), yet almost no time learning how to effectively lead the people entrusted to us. When I discuss this with pastors, I can’t tell you the number of them who have incredulously told me, “No one ever teaches you this in seminary!”