New initiative aims to support clergy ‘from seminary to cemetery’

| October 10, 2017 | 1 Comment

Priests and deacons in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis can expect to find more avenues for support, thanks to an initiative underway to provide stronger comprehensive care for clergy.

Called the Clergy Support Initiative, it is in its early stages of implementation, but has shaped at least three newly created leadership positions for priests. Undergirding the effort is the conviction “that with the right support, clergy are going to be successful, and if clergy are successful, that’s … an important factor in parishes being successful and living their mission of making Jesus Christ known and loved,” said Father Mike Tix, who has been working with implementing aspects of the support initiative.

The aim, he said is to build a network of support for all areas of a priest or deacon’s life, so that no one feels like he is on his own — whether it’s in dealing with personal health issues or navigating a sticky personnel situation.

In the summer of 2016, Archbishop Bernard Hebda expressed his desire to improve support for clergy, and he asked priests and deacons to reflect on what that could look like. In October 2016, he established a committee to gather information and make recommendations. Led by Bishop Andrew Cozzens, the committee surveyed clergy in January.

Father Tix said the survey was the most comprehensive survey of clergy in the archdiocese in the past 20 years.

The committee synthesized the feedback into nine categories: ongoing formation, evaluation and feedback for clergy, personal care of clergy, mentoring, spiritual direction and support groups, building community within the clergy, strategic planning, the work of the comprehensive assignment board, and improving chancery services.

Based on the feedback, the committee developed recommendations, and then sought more input from priest leaders before submitting them to Archbishop Hebda in the spring.

Bishop Cozzens called it “a highly consultative process,” but emphasized that to do it right, the framework will take time to build. “There was always a lot of support going on for priests, but we did acknowledge … that a lot more emphasis was put on dealing with problems than helping our priests feel supported,” he said. “It’s not that this has never been done before, it’s just that we wanted to do this in a very concerted and clear way.”

The effort to provide better comprehensive support for clergy also draws on lessons from the past, when priests or deacons might not have known where to turn to for help in certain areas, or didn’t feel like they could.

Tim O’Malley, the archdiocese’s director of ministerial standards and safe environment, coordinates the archdiocese’s Ministerial Review Board, which reviews priest misconduct. He said the initiative offers “the right combination of support and accountability that was, frankly, inadequate in the past.”

He compares it to support networks that exist in other professions “that position them to do their job better,” he said. “And we owe it to them, from seminary to cemetery.”

However, what differentiates priesthood or the diaconate from professions is that “this is a vocation beyond just employment. This is really a combination of a job and a personal relationship to God, comparable to a marriage,” O’Malley said. Even after a priest’s retirement, he added, “we owe it to them and everyone to keep them healthy and supported.”

As expectations of priests have changed in recent decades, so have the natural supports that bolstered priests in the past, Bishop Cozzens said. Today there are fewer priests with more responsibilities, and they are less likely to live in community.

They’re also named pastors more quickly than their predecessors.

Already, some pieces have been put into place that reflect the committee’s recommendations. They include naming Father Peter Williams to the newly created role of minister to clergy. As such, he is available for priests to talk confidentially about personal challenges, help them find spiritual directors, and reach out to priests who may need help — the areas often identified in clergy formation as the “internal forum.”

Father Williams also oversees formation for new and recently ordained priests, assists priests struggling with addiction or burnout, and accompanies clergy who are going through a process with the Ministerial Review Board. It’s “an extension of the archbishop’s care for his priests, wanting them to be healthy and thrive in their ministry,” he said.

In June, Father Tix took on a newly created role, episcopal vicar for clergy and parish services, that emerged from the recommendations. Father Tix works with aspects of the “external forum” — the practical aspects of priesthood and parish life — including archdiocesan strategic planning, priest assignments, and working to strengthen the relationship between the clergy and archbishop.

Father Tix collaborates with the Institute for Ongoing Clergy Formation at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, which provides development opportunities for clergy in the four areas of seminary formation: human, spiritual, pastoral and intellectual. “The IOCF is responsible for the ongoing education, training and formation of priests and deacons and works closely with the [Clergy Support Initiative] to provide opportunities for ongoing support, based on the feedback received,” said Deacon Dan Gannon, the institute’s director.

Another tangible outgrowth of the committee’s work is a new effort to help clergy who struggle with addictive behaviors. In September, Archbishop Hebda assigned Father Robert Hart, pastor of St. Patrick in Inver Grove Heights, to coordinate a small group of priests willing to walk with, and minister to, clerics facing issues related to chemical dependency. The response of priests willing to help has been generous and inspiring, Archbishop Hebda said.

Bishop Cozzens said that in the past, some priests felt like they were on their own. “I’m worried that some still feel that way. … So, I’m excited if priests will at some time begin to feel like they’re not out there on their own, and if we can get to the point where they’re feeling regularly supported.”

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