Helping a Parish in Crisis

Tend to the wounds before dealing with institutional failures


The basic principles behind leading a parish in crisis are clear: keep mission-focused, be transparent and accountable, gather competent people, be guided by justice and restore and/or maintain trust. However, there often seems to be doubt about what this actually looks like in practice. Here are a few simple pointers on leading a parish that is in crisis.

Every parish crisis involves a conflict of beliefs and values, and in healthy parishes this leads the parish in search for a solution into a time of prayer and discernment, seeking the will of God for this particular communio. Parish crisis is an opportunity for catechesis, evangelization and conversion.

Nearly every parish crisis, whether a financial crisis, abuse crisis, crisis of transition or personnel crisis, has some degree of failure of leadership and/or management. Most crises experienced by parishes have a primary cause in people and systems.

The very best pastors have a consistent pattern in how they talk to a parish about a crisis. They use three levels of response in meetings and from the pulpit:

• Pastoral: They give 100-percent compassionate focus on parishioners and how they are experiencing the crisis.
• Personal: They articulate their own authentic personal reaction.
• Institutional: They propose policy, procedure and system improvements.

There often is a need to stay at pastoral and personal levels for some time and then later shift to an institutional response. Those who begin by quoting policy and procedure in response to a crisis do so at their own peril. Similarly, those who only give a pastoral and personal response without ever addressing policy or procedure do so at their own peril.

While the substance of that preaching varies with the nature of the crisis itself, the very best pastoral leaders consistently focus on what unifies this particular communio and what uniquely identifies this particular communio. Often this comes down to preaching the love of Christ and about behavior toward one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, and only then about the crisis in that context and a plan for going forward.

There are times when a whole parish meeting is appropriate. If so, be clear about the purpose of the meeting. Sometimes such meetings are for venting, sometimes to explore the root causes of a crisis and sometimes to explore solutions — and sometimes all three. This clarity of purpose is vital to designing the meeting process. Also vital is to set boundaries on behavior, especially if the matter is highly emotional. Some examples of such boundaries are: speak only to the meeting purpose and agenda, treat all with respect in both speaking and listening, and one person speaks at a time.

Whatever the purpose, there needs to be three elements present in every large parish meeting: tell the group something new they did not know before they arrived (data, background, insight), have plenty of opportunity for participants to interact with one another during the meeting and, last, ask something from them (perhaps to carry a message to those members of the community not present). Sometimes an outside facilitator is helpful, as well as a couple of people who act as observers to provide synthesis.

So, when (not if) a pastoral leader finds the parish in a time of crisis, pay close attention to the people part of the crisis. Respond first from a pastoral and personal perspective before speaking from an administrative, policy or procedure perspective. Preach and speak first to what unifies the parish and its unique identity, then speak to the crisis at hand in that context. If the parish is to come together in the midst of crisis, have the gathering with a clear purpose in mind, have it well-planned and ask the community to help, to be part of the solution. Last and first of all, remember to pray.

JIM LUNDHOLM-EADES is director of programs and services for the Leadership Roundtable.