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The Priest as Boss vs the Priest as Leader

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

Though every leader must necessarily also serve as a boss due to the level of managerial responsibility they incur, not every boss is an effective leader. In almost every aspect of parish life a priest must serve as a leader – liturgist, pastor, teacher, strategist, judge, interventionist, manager, canonist, counselor, webmaster, news service, representative to the bishop and representative of the bishop. Any priest can add to this list. Each of these roles requires managerial interaction on some level with employees, associates, volunteers, service providers and parishioners.

First let’s consider employees of the parish or organization. In the Business and Money section of Time magazine August 31, 2012 an article by Gary Belsky (@garybelsky) cited a survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association which contains revealing insights into employee motivation. The APA’s Workforce Retention Survey asked 1,240 for profit workers to evaluate common reasons for staying with a current employer. Here are the findings:

  • I enjoy the work I do (67%)

  • My job fits well with the other areas of my life (67%)

  • The benefits (60%)

  • The pay (59%)

  • I feel connected to the organization (56%)

  • My co-workers (51%)

  • My job gives me the opportunity to make a difference (51%)

  • There are not any other job opportunities for me (39%)

We read that even among for profit employees, pay and benefits are not the primary motivators for remaining on a job, though they do hold rank at #3 and #4. The top reason, “enjoy the work that I do”, clearly includes the relationship with the person to whom they report, i.e., the “boss”, as does “connected to the organization”, “co- workers” and “make a difference.” These are intangible non-monetary benefits that play an important role in employee retention.

Other studies reveal that in the nonprofit environment, however, “purposeful work”, “making a difference”, “serving others” and “consistency with my own personal values and beliefs” hold the highest levels of motivation. This is likely quite obvious to those who have labored long in the vineyard of the Lord. Why? Because these are YOUR values.

One chronic area of parish frustration is the difficulty in recruiting and retaining effective and dependable volunteers. The APA also studies the critical issue of nonprofit volunteer motivation. Here, pay and employee-type benefits are completely inconsequential. Over the years, the APA has identified five primary motivations for volunteering:

  • Values. Volunteering to fulfill personal values or humanitarian concerns.

  • Community concern. Volunteering to help a particular community to which you feel attached.

  • Esteem enhancement. Volunteering to feel better about yourself or escape other pressures.

  • Understanding. Volunteering to gain a better understanding of other people, cultures or places.

  • Personal development. Volunteering to challenge yourself, meet new people and make new friends, or further your career.

Now we see the vital role of the priest and also parish council members. With these five key volunteer motivations in mind, what is leadership doing to create and nurture an environment and relationships that acknowledge and respond to the inner spiritual and emotional needs of volunteers? Do they feel valued, needed, appreciated, trusted with meaningful responsibility? Are they treated with kindness and compassion? Do they feel that the priest and the parish council are ready to get in the trenches with them? (See picture above.) Isn’t this actually the desire of each of us? Who does not fervently hope to hear these words on the day of judgment: “Well done, good and faithful servant?”

Authoritarianism in the leader is so very tempting because it offers the benefit of expediency and the delusion of little resistance (and also keeps people at arm’s length, though that’s another story). Yet the atmosphere of all nonprofits and especially churches is filled with underpaid and overworked employees and volunteers whose continued service to the church is purely volitional. Authoritarianism in the leader creates a toxic environment that invites and encourages employee and volunteer turnover.

How are these many leadership and managerial roles of the priest to be balanced and executed effectively for the benefit of the employees, volunteers and general parishioners of the church, the wellbeing of the priest’s family and his own responsibility for self-care? One possible method would be to gain some personal insight into the way in which a priest exercises his responsibility to lead and manage. Most priests, undertaking an honest self-assessment, will probably find themselves in both columns below, given certain parish exigencies or even crises. One suggestion is to look for trends and patterns rather than the occasional slip into authoritarianism when time is pressing and tasks are urgent.

Truly daring priests, those who are willing to receive feedback from trusted co-workers in the parish in order to improve upon their leadership and managerial responsibilities, might review the two columns below and discuss perceptions – the priest’s perceptions of his own work and trusted co-workers’ perceptions, who sincerely wish to be of help to the priest.


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