Institute for Ongoing Clergy Formation fosters fraternity and support

| June 7, 2017 | 2 Comments

Illustration by iStock and Caron Olhoft

How does a priest learn work-life balance, time management and how to delegate to parish employees?

Just as medical doctors don’t stop honing their practice once they exit the hospital doors of their residency, priests don’t stop their formation upon ordination. Building on the four dimensions of seminary formation — human, spiritual, pastoral and intellectual — is essential for priests throughout their ministry, says Deacon Dan Gannon, director of the Institute for Ongoing Clergy Formation at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul.

While it’s key for clergy, it’s also good for Catholics in the pews.

“It’s really an ongoing development,” he said of clergy formation. “It’s conversion with, really, the goal of all of these dimensions being holiness. Because if our priests and deacons are holy and happy and healthy … they’re going to be effective in their being an instrument of grace to those they serve. The people of God are the ultimate beneficiaries of ongoing formation.”

Clergy support

Since the institute formed in 2015, Deacon Gannon has been listening to priests and deacons to learn about their needs; creating cohorts of clergy, laity and seminary representatives to explore how to best respond to those needs; and hosting events including retreats and workshops. He described the institute’s work as “new ground” in that it attempts to provide comprehensive ongoing clergy formation across the four dimensions, which are standard in most seminaries because they derive from St. John Paul II’s “I Shall Give You Shepherds” (1992).

The IOCF encompasses both priest and deacon formation, although some programs are specifically for one or the other. Initial programming has focused on priests. Already, there were several priest-focused formation events in place in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, such as a clergy study day and a convocation with the archbishop held every few years.

But, before the institute launched, priests — who are required by canon law to make an annual retreat — were tasked with finding and coordinating those opportunities on their own. Now the IOCF makes regular retreats and other events available to them.

Father James Adams called IOCF’s offerings well coordinated, informative and encouraging. He’s the parochial vicar for the parish cluster of Nativity in Cleveland, Immaculate Conception in Marysburg, and St. Mary and St. Henry in Le Center.

“It’s been great to have things offered here locally [and] especially to be with guys in the diocese,” said Father Adams, who was ordained in 2004. “I think it gives confidence among the priests, and the morale is stronger, and more guys are more excited about what’s happening and can be inspired and encouraged more than before. There’s a shared desire to keep growing.”

The IOCF seeks to serve priests wherever they are in their ministry. Recently, Father Michael Skluzacek, pastor of St. John the Baptist in New Brighton, attended an IOCF retreat in Buffalo. With a theme of the priesthood and the Gospel of Luke, he called it “the best retreat of my life” in his 37-year priesthood — and critical for the growth of the Church.

Father Donald DeGrood, who’s served as the archdiocese’s vicar for clergy since 2013, said the initiative has been a longtime desire of archdiocesan leaders and the laity. In his role, he’s been a liaison between the archdiocese and IOCF, communicating clergy’s needs to Deacon Gannon to help him develop and implement resources.

One of the greatest needs is in transitions that clergy make — newly ordained to parish life, associate pastor to pastor, and active ministry to retirement.

When all of IOCF’s pieces have been fully developed, Deacon Gannon said clergy will benefit from learning ways to achieve life balance, as well as time management, through human formation. Intellectual formation could include classes and book clubs. Spiritual formation includes retreats, training and education. Pastorally, IOCF could help clergy learn how to invigorate their parishes and recognize parishioners’ gifts.

Meeting essential needs

When priests are ordained, most are focused on the opportunity to celebrate the sacraments and not the litany of meetings, budgets and parish logistics for which they’ll be responsible. Like other organizational leaders, however, priests need help keeping up with legal, human resources and managerial requirements, along with parishes’ other needs, which might include multiple campuses and schools.

Deacon Gannon described the need as a “pain point,” but is working to ease the pressure. Enter the IOCF’s flagship, the Pastor Workshop, to address these issues.

“The priest is called to see the connection between his leadership and management, and the nuts and bolts of what it means to be a pastor, and his role as a priest — that this is part of his priestly vocation and duties,” Deacon Gannon said. “And to not see it as, ‘I didn’t sign up for this. I just want to administer the sacraments.’ That’s most important, certainly, but at the same time, [so is]helping them see the connection between their priestly vocation and the work they’re called to do with regard to leading a parish in these challenging ways that have arisen.”

As part of that responsibility, priests — like good managers — need to delegate responsibilities to parish staff and make informed decisions without getting mired in details, and no one should expect them to be experts in professional fields, Deacon Gannon said.

Addressing good management issues, however, encompasses only a small part of the institute’s work. Leaders also want to address human growth, specifically through priest mentoring.

Father Skluzacek said the seminary does an excellent job preparing priests, but then once out of seminary, a priest can “get off track” in terms of personal holiness and spiritual growth. The institute is one more way to help keep them on the right road, he noted.

“The sanctification of priests, I think, is one of the most important efforts in the Church nowadays, probably since day one,” Father Skluzacek said. “But I think many of the problems we’ve had with priests over the years is because priests are not holy. And so, it’s so important to have that ongoing formation for priests.”

Father DeGrood noted the institute’s preventative approach.

“The goal and the desire would be that there’s an even greater focus on providing tools and resources to help priests [and deacons] be successful, so they don’t have as many challenges,” he said.

Some of those challenges could be as basic as developing poor nutrition and exercise habits. Deacon Gannon noted the importance of a physical wellness program for clergy and cited the Archdiocese of St. Louis’ efforts in that area. To that aim, he has been working with that program’s director, registered nurse Sue Wilker, as well as a local doctor to explore what it would take to implement a physical wellness program in the archdiocese. The IOCF also provides resources for psychological and emotional issues for which clergy can obtain confidential help.

“The same kinds of issues that we see prevalent in our culture — they’re not absent from the clergy, either, so these are issues that human formation wants to offer opportunities for growth,” he said.

That human formation also includes having a healthy personal identity as well as accountability. Deacon Gannon said that while the clergy sex abuse scandal didn’t precipitate the IOCF, it points to an essential need: “building areas of human growth that are a positive illustration of the Church’s response to her fallibility and the woundedness that has happened as a result of that.”

That can happen through priestly fraternity and mentorship, he said.

“Having a culture of the clergy rich with mentorship is one of the ways in which we can encourage fraternity and mutual support within the clergy to build one another up and to act as a preventative and a counter to unhealthy isolation and lifestyles,” he said.

But Deacon Gannon noted that formation isn’t just about addressing clergy members’ personal needs; it’s about them having the tools to effectively help Catholics with their own personal struggles, including sexual immorality and addiction.

Priests note that these are the issues most commonly revealed in the confessional, and the IOCF has taken note. Its clergy study day this spring addressed how priests can approach prevalent cultural issues and sins compassionately in the confessional. The objective was to give priests tools, deeper insight and ongoing support for better ministry to those they’re shepherding.

Father Skluzacek described clergy study days as “eye opening” and said they’ve expanded his notion of priesthood.

“It trickles down to the laity,” Father Skluzacek explained about clergy formation. “When the priest understands more, the laity understand more who they are as disciples through his ministry, the sacraments, prayer, etc. They’re better formed disciples of Jesus.”

Larger scope

When clergy take advantage of the retreats, workshops and other IOCF events, they also experience another dynamic not found elsewhere — a community of priests gathering for mutual support.

“The clergy of the archdiocese that come to these [events] experience a great sense of fraternity and communion and solidarity, especially because the archbishop and bishop themselves are there, and they care,” Deacon Gannon said. “It’s a dynamic of the IOCF that is sometimes lost, but most important: Many of the opportunities are important because they simply bring together the clergy. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have gotten together.”

Father Adams has worked in urban and rural parishes and explained how the added opportunities for fraternity are essential, especially for priests who serve outside of the metro and can’t easily share the regular company of other priests due to geography.

“Now being in a rural area, there’s certainly a need here for how to keep applying this for the circumstances of priests who are pretty far out and have to drive far for fraternity, for example, or diocesan events,” he said.

Although the institute has been providing formation opportunities since 2016, Deacon Gannon considers it to still be in start-up mode.

When leaders began looking into ongoing formation for clergy, Deacon Gannon said there were a lot of “starts and stops” because it was “everybody’s problem and nobody’s problem to solve,” he said. However, the Church calls for dioceses — and seminaries especially — to develop resources, although formation is ultimately the clergy member’s personal responsibility.

With Father Peter Williams, vice rector of formation at the St. Paul Seminary, as a driving force, “there was a sense in the leadership at the seminary that we need to be paying attention to this,” Deacon Gannon said. He noted that Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan, the seminary’s rector, has also been an advocate for the IOCF, and that Archbishop Bernard Hebda and Bishop Andrew Cozzens are also instrumental.

Despite the initiative’s infancy, he’s pleased with the opportunities it has been able to offer thus far, and the collaboration between local Catholic institutions, such as the University of St. Thomas. He also appreciates the diversity among members of six cohorts that help direct the institute’s work.

“I’m excited to see it come to fruition through the collaboration … . We have an extraordinarily strong alliance of resources here in the local Church … to do something big, something that has a lasting impact. But it’s gotta be one soul at a time,” he said.

Deacon Gannon hopes laity recognize the importance of the institute and bolster it with prayers and financial support.

“In the end, it’s serving our clergy so that the people of God can be worthily ministered to,” he said. “It’s to build the kingdom of God [and] reinvest more deeply in the well-being of our clergy. It’s not something that just takes care of itself. We have to take care of each other.”

Already, Father DeGrood has seen an uptick in clergy morale, especially around clergy study days and retreats. The programs have brought back a “strengthening enthusiasm” and motivation for clergy to want to keep learning.

“The plane’s ready to leave,” he said, “but we need the fuel behind it to get it off the ground and really make it flourish to the potential that it has.”

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  • Jo

    This sounds as if it is just another rendition of ‘we need more and better programs’ when what we really need is to continue to lovingly remind each other (both laity and clergy alike) to spend more time in prayer and developing our relationship with God so we can be an instrument of God to all who come our way. Let’s quit grasping at and developing new programs and get back to radical Christianity.

  • Paula Ruddy

    I applaud Deacon Gannon for this initiative. I wonder if Catholics could run their own parishes with the help of staff so that the trained priest could do the sacramental leadership? Leadership would mean developing the community’s consciousness of being a priestly people, joined with the universal Church in bringing about the reign of God. Then we would have holy parishes. I don’t think any of us can be “holy” on his/her own. We could be holy as an archdiocese, all together a priestly people.