The Parish Staff: A "Community?"

A lot of ink has been spilled trying to help pastors and parishes sort out just what a parish pastoral council should be. Less attention has been paid to parish staff, apart from articles devoted to the attitudes needed for "collaborative ministry."

And yet the parish staff is frequently the place where the incense meets the smog. That's true whether "staff" means only a pastor and a part-time parish secretary-receptionist or the multi-person teams of some of our large suburban complexes.

In this brief space we won't be able to explore all the specific behaviors that go into development of a healthy parish staff, but we may be able to shed some light on one foundational distinction that could illuminate all the rest of staff relationships.

Parish staffs are continually exhorted to become a community. Fair enough. But perhaps not as simple as it might first appear. It turns out that the single term, "community," can cover two very different understandings. It all depends on our understanding of the human needs that "community" is claiming to meet.

Two meanings

There are two quite different human needs we all experience. And if we get them confused it can give rise to some nasty troubles, even with people bringing the most sincere goodwill to their participation on a staff.

One profound human need is our need to be included. We are social animals and with that reality comes the need to belong, to be part of some social reality. The need can vary in its intensity at different tunes of our lives; it may come to expression differently in people of different personalities. But all of us need to experience things like these: being valued; being taken seriously; being listened to.

When we commit ourselves to work on a staff, it becomes the responsibility of the rest of the staff to reach out and include us. Membership confers the right to inclusion, and that right creates a responsibility for others. Behaviors which exclude, marginalize, or keep someone in the dark about the enterprise are just wrong.

But when someone expresses the desire for "community," they may be declaring their need for affection, which is quite another thing.

Affection has to do with the experience of friendship, of liking and being liked, with the experience of shared personal intimacy. And even with my solid commitment to be a member of a staff, I have no right to friendship.

Friendship is always a gift, freely given. By an individual, to an individual. It can't be claimed or wheedled or manipulated. And it's always a one-to-one reality, not something conferred by a group. If I participate constructively with a staff, we may discover a mutual attraction which blossoms into a friendship. If so, it's precious. But it can't be demanded of the staff as such.


So it becomes a serious matter to clarify just what we are expecting of each other in our development as an effective staff. The potential for destructive and painful misunderstandings is rich. A common example: At a meeting Jane suddenly explodes. "I thought we were going to be a community here! And Pat and Ruth go to lunch together and never ask me! This is a sham." It's quite possible that the staff is a fine community, including everyone in their planning and collaborating. Pat and Ruth may also have become friends, and they need to watch that their affection does not inappropriately shut someone else out of staff deliberations. But Jane, without realizing it, may have come to the staff with a deep longing for a friend in her life. She can be demanding of the staff something that wasn't in their understanding when they were formed as a staff --- and something which, as a collective body, they can't be expected to give her.

Mutual promises

But what about socializing together? Isn't that part of group responsibility? Not automatically. Some staffs commit to a weekly lunch together, or only a Christmas lunch. There are no universal norms. Building an effective staff is a matter of mutual promises. It is quite possible to be a very inclusive and collaborative body of ministers, with each member having his or her friendship needs met elsewhere. It all depends on the kind of expectations they agree to. Sometimes we might have to let someone know their demands are inappropriate, in the words of the song: "I never promised you a rose garden."

A staff, after all, is a body of ministers, not a T-group or a social club. It exists for service. The criterion question should be: No matter how other staff chooses to operate, what do we need to be for each other in order to provide the most effective ministry for this particular community at this time?

George Wilson, S.J. does church organizational facilitation with Management Design Institute, Cincinnati