Seminarian Preparation

Mark F. Fischer, “Preparing Seminarians for Pastoral Leadership,” Seminary Journal 16.3 (Winter 2010): 5-17.

The Catholic Church’s official documents prefer to speak of the priest as a good shepherd, rather than simply as a leader.  Instead of calling for leadership development at the seminary level, ecclesial documents tend to speak of seminarians learning to imitate the good shepherd, Jesus Christ.  By contrast with secular management textbooks, which define leadership as the ability to influence followers in the accomplishment of tasks,[1] church documents on priestly formation emphasize the assimilation by priests of Christ’s mission.  Through their life and ministry – in short, through their identity with Christ – priests allow God’s incarnate Word to teach, sanctify, and guide the community,[2] so that its members may also make the mission of Christ their own.  This distinguishes pastoring from leadership defined as the ability to influence followers in completing a task.

At the same time, official documents of the Church do speak of priests as “leaders,” albeit in a somewhat muted fashion.  Vatican II, for example, stated that the priest “leads” the brothers and sisters of God as a family.[3]  The priest is not merely influencing followers to accomplish a task, but allowing God to lead through him.  Similarly, John Paul II described the priest as “encouraging and leading the ecclesial community.”  In his view, the priest is able “to coordinate all the gifts and charisms which the Spirit inspires in the community.”[4]  More than influencing others, priestly leadership includes calling forth the gifts of the Christian people.  The United States Bishops also speak of the necessity for leadership formation in their Program of Priestly Formation.  To be sure, they subordinate leadership training to the assimilation by seminarians of the mission of Christ.  But the PPF clearly states that seminarians must acquire the “skills for effective pastoral leadership.”[5]  The priest is more a shepherd than a leader, at least in ecclesial documents, but his ability to lead is essential.

A publication in 2008 of the National Catholic Educational Association, In Fulfillment of Their Mission, has affirmed the importance of leadership from a practical point of view.[6]  The publication describes the nine “duties” of the Catholic priest, of which the fourth is to “lead” parish administration.  Administration encompasses eleven distinct tasks, including the leadership of pastoral and finance councils, the oversight of planning ministry, and stewardship, and the supervision of staff, property, and communication.  While “good shepherd” may be the preferred description of the Catholic pastor, “leadership” is one of his essential duties.

Given the Church’s endorsement (however modest) of the concept of leadership, it is disappointing to see so little attention paid to leadership in the seminary curriculum.  The PPF states that the pastoral formation program “should provide opportunities” for seminarians to acquire “the skills of pastoral leadership” (no. 239, p. 81), but the nature of these opportunities remains vague.  Nowhere does the PPF require a course in leadership as it requires courses in Holy Orders (no. 202) and in Ecumenism (no. 216).  Seminarians are supposed to learn how to be effective pastoral leaders, says the PPF, but the primary means to accomplish this is through “an initiation to various practical, pastoral experiences, especially in parishes.”[7]  In other words, seminarians are invited to observe leadership at the practical level, understand it, and then assimilate it.  One might conclude that education in leadership has been relegated to on-the-job training.

To help seminary educators avoid this false conclusion, this essay will elaborate what ecclesial documents say about leadership development.  While most of the PPF’s treatment can be found under the heading of pastoral formation, the PPF also hints about leadership in the pillars of human, spiritual, and intellectual formation as well.  The essay will retrace aspects of the treatment of leadership within the Church’s official documents about the formation of priests under the following headings:

  1. Human Formation.  Under this pillar we will see how the Church connects leadership to obedience.  Official teaching offers an implicit critique of any kind of leadership that is not obedient to the spirit of Christ.
  2. Spiritual Formation.  This pillar affirms the teaching that priestly power does not grant the priest an automatic right to be obeyed, but rather stems from his assimilation of the servant-mission of Christ, possibly creating what John Paul II called a “missionary tension” between serving the community and obeying the bishop.
  3. Intellectual Formation.  Not just the courses on priesthood and spiritual theology, but even the core courses in the pre-theology curriculum (our examples are epistemology, metaphysics and ethics) can explore the philosophic bases of leadership.
  4. Pastoral Formation.  Seminarians reflect on their experiences of leadership in courses guided by pastoral field educators, and seminarian interns who consult their parishioners gain an experience akin to leading a pastoral council.

By drawing out the hints about leadership within all four of the pillars of formation, educators can enhance the seminary’s capacity to form priestly leaders.

A. Human Formation: Learning Leadership through Obedience

The PPF, in its section on human formation, hardly speaks of leadership.  It does say, however, that human formation takes place “when seminarians learn to accept the authority of superiors, develop the habit of using freedom with discretion, learn to act on their own initiative and do so energetically, and learn to work harmoniously with confreres and laity.”[8]  All of these belong to leadership.  Before one can be a leader, one must be able to accept the leadership of others.  The seminarian must learn to see the exercise of leadership as essential to the Christian community.  Utopians may criticize leadership as authoritarian and incompatible with true human equality, but in no society is everyone on an absolutely equal footing.[9]  The well-being of every community depends on wise leaders and intelligent followers.  Seminarians aspire to leadership when they see it exercised wisely.

The passage from the PPF simultaneously extols obedience and freedom.  The seminarian, it says, must learn both to obey and to use freedom with discretion.  Why are these terms linked?  Pope John Paul II’s Pastores dabo vobis, in its section on human formation, gives us a clue.  There we read that “human maturity, and in particular affective maturity, requires a clear and strong training in freedom which expresses itself in convinced and heartfelt obedience to the ‘truth’ of one’s being.”[10]  The passage affirms that freedom is not the antithesis of obedience.  In fact, true freedom means a liberation from everything that would hinder the person from seeing reality (including the reality of God) and acting in accord with it.  True freedom is lived in obedience to genuine authority, whether we call that authority “the ‘truth’ of one’s being” or the Word of God.

We can discern the relevance of this insight to the concept of leadership in another passage from Pastores dabo vobis that links obedience to ecclesial authority and responsible freedom.  The priest should not obey his bishop (nor the seminarian his rector) in a blind and unreflective way.  Speaking of the priest’s obedience to his bishop, Pope John Paul wrote:

The ‘submission’ of those invested with ecclesial authority is in no way a kind of humiliation.  It flows instead from the responsible freedom of the priest who accepts not only the demands of an organized and organic ecclesial life, but also that grace of discernment and responsibility in ecclesial decisions which was assured by Jesus to his Apostles and their successors.”[11]

The priest or seminarian obeys because he accepts the reality of the Church.  But this is not servility or a merely pragmatic assent to those in power.  It is also “discernment and responsibility.”  The obedience of the Christian is not blind but thoughtful.  It acts, not by dumb reflex, but after consideration of the truth.

That is why obedience and leadership are linked.  One obeys an ecclesial authority just as one obeys the truth of one’s being.  Obedience is an expression of insight.  By obeying, one acknowledges the goodness and the superior insight of the leader or authority.  For that reason, John Paul II wrote that learning obedience prepares a person for leadership.  “Only the person who knows how to obey in Christ,” we read, “is really able to require obedience from others in accordance with the Gospel.”[12]  Leadership, whether defined in terms of the good shepherd or in terms of influencing others to achieve a task, necessarily invites obedience.  The priestly leader invites obedience in good faith because he already knows how to obey “in Christ.”  The leader receives obedience from those who hear God’s Word in the invitation to obey.

The goal of this essay is to help educators understand the Church’s call for leadership development within the pillars of seminary formation.  The first pillar, human formation, links the development of the future leader to obedience and to human development.  Seminarians manifest their growth in self-awareness by showing a capacity for leadership.[13]  The link between human formation and leadership has two practical consequences, which we can treat as follows:

  • Obedience and Leadership.  Formators should invite seminarians to regard responsible obedience as essential to achieving the seminary’s goals and purposes.  They should reflect on the challenge of offering obedience in the present, and relate it to the challenge of inviting obedience in the future.
  • Opportunities for Leadership.  When officials (e.g., Directors of Students) invite seminarians to exercise leadership, the officials should support them during their work and afterwards reflect with them about how well they did.  Human formation means, not just shaping seminarians, but allowing them to be leaders.

Management textbooks commonly treat leadership as the ability to influence followers.  The Church’s official documents about seminary education remind educators that all leaders were once followers.  Being a follower is not a sign of humiliation, but of obedience to the leader’s superior insight.  Becoming a good follower is the seminarian’s first step on the way to becoming a good leader.

B. Spiritual Formation: Leadership and Pastoral Charity

Leadership development also takes place within spiritual formation.  The seminary aims at helping the student to identify with Christ as the unifier of the Christian community.  The sacrament of the Eucharist signifies this unity.  It makes tangible the spiritual reality of communion.

The communion between the priest and the lay Christian poses a delicate challenge to seminary formators.  On the one hand, their task is to help seminarians assimilate Christ, the one to whom they will be conformed in the sacrament of Holy Orders.  Both Lumen gentium and Pastores dabo vobis speak of the ontological bond that exists between Christ and the priest.[14]    At the same time, however, formators must avoid any suggestion that the priest, who is configured to Christ in a sacramental way, is thereby superior in status to other Christians, who are configured to Christ in a general way.[15]  The ontological difference between the ministerial and the common priesthood is no excuse for clericalism.  Nor is it an adequate basis for the priest’s leadership of the community.  Formators should insist that the ordination of a priest does not automatically make him a leader who commands obedience.

The obedience that belongs to the priestly leader is not rooted in the difference between priest and people, but in the love that unites them.  The PPF states that spiritual formation and pastoral formation reinforce one another, and that seminarians are called to love of God and neighbor.  “When they respond positively to this invitation and grow in that love, they find the basis for pastoral and ministerial outreach that culminates in pastoral charity.”[16]  The leadership of the priest must be exercised in love if people are to respond to it in love.

John Paul II affirmed this insight in his discussion of how the priest is configured to Christ.  He began by acknowledging the “spiritual power” of the priest, a power defined as “a share in the authority with which Jesus Christ guides the Church.”[17]  But lest anyone misunderstand this “power” as an authority based on rank, John Paul immediately linked it to service.  The priest’s spiritual power, said the pope, belongs to Christ who heads the Church “in the new and unique sense of being a ‘servant.’”  Unlike other leaders who lord it over their subjects, the Christlike priest manifests pastoral charity.  Quoting St. Augustine, John Paul called the priestly office an “amoris officium.”[18]  It is an office, yes, complete with its own rank, trappings, and privileges.  But at its heart, it is an office of love.  In the pastoral office, the priest commits himself to the Church’s own goal for itself: green pastures and flowing waters.  He leads the flock where the flock itself, possessing the mind of Christ, wants to go.

At the same time, however, experience proves that the flock does not always possess the mind of Christ.  The Church does not oblige the pastor to obey the flock, but instead insists upon his obedience to the bishop.  With the bishop, wrote John Paul II, the priest is in “hierarchical communion.”  That does not simply mean that the priest obeys blindly (see footnote 11).  He does not merely obey the bishop and lead the flock where the bishop decides it must go.  No, John Paul linked the idea of hierarchical communion with unity.  The priest obeys his bishop in order to build up the unity of the flock, inviting its members to follow their vocations and put their gifts at God’s service.  The priest’s ordained priesthood is meant to promote the laity’s baptismal priesthood.  Tension may arise between the priest’s duty of obedience to the bishop and his service to their people.  John Paul II called it a “missionary tension.”[19]  It is an unavoidable aspect of the mystery of the Church as both a diversity and a unity.

Obedience and service help to explain the continued relevance of the term “servant leadership” coined by Robert K. Greenleaf.[20]  The servant leader “serves” followers by helping them achieve their goals.  Such a leader presupposes that followers already know in general where they want to go.  The servant leader facilitates the followers’ growth and goal-oriented activity.  Greenleaf’s concept of leadership is akin to the so-called “path-goal” theory of leadership from the 1970s.  In that theory, followers have a goal, and the good leader serves them by showing them a path to reaching it.[21]  The pastor who is a servant leader helps his people achieve their goal of union with God.  He aids them by clarifying it, focusing his people’s attention on it, and helping them achieve it.[22]  Obedience to the bishop, which may exist in “missionary tension” with service to the community, is an essential part of clarifying the community’s goal.

Partisans of servant leadership may be tempted to overstate their case.  Some may say that it is a form of leadership uniquely suited to the Christian community and superior to other leadership styles.[23]  It might be better to view servant leadership not so much as a leadership style as a set of attitudes that good leaders embrace.  Good leaders serve their followers by helping them to achieve their goals and those of the organization.  Leadership styles, in contrast to the attitudes of servant leadership, are adopted by leaders depending on the situation they face.[24]  There is no one preferred leadership style (e.g., highly directive or laissez-faire), but rather a continuum of styles, each appropriate depending on the level of the followers’ readiness.  Wise leaders (and even servant leaders) change their style depending on what the situation demands.

Despite this criticism, the servant-leader concept successfully blends secular leadership theory with the Christian concept of the good shepherd.  It is not so much a style as it is a set of attitudes.  Good leaders do not merely influence their followers to accomplish a task, but affirm their dignity and help them achieve their own goals, insofar as they are also the goals of the Church.  This has consequences for the spiritual formation of seminarians:

  • Leadership and Unity.  Formators should teach seminarians that leadership of Catholics by priests is never simply a direct consequence of the ontological difference between the ordained and the laity, as if ordination made priests leaders.  Leadership by priests in the Catholic community is properly exercised when they invite lay Catholics to freely assimilate the mission of Christ.
  • Priestly Spiritual Power.  Spiritual formation should identify the spiritual power of the priest with the concept of service as expressed by Jesus Christ.  The future priest exercises legitimate spiritual power when the Christian community recognizes in his words and deeds the invitation of Christ.
  • Bishop and Community.  Formators must help seminarians to see that obedience to the bishop and service to the community are not alternatives, but belong together in missionary tension.  The priestly servant-leader obeys the bishop in order to help clarify the goal of the people and help them reach it.

Spiritual formation assists in the development of priestly leaders by helping them to see the nature of leadership in the Christian community.  Such leadership is not the ability to command obedience due to an ontological difference between the leaders and the led.  On the contrary, it is the capacity for service, for inviting people to assimilate the mission of Christ, and for building up the Christian community.

C. Intellectual Formation: Leadership and Practical Wisdom

Although the seminary curriculum does not require a course in leadership or parish administration, nevertheless the curriculum offers many opportunities to study those subjects.  Courses in the theology curriculum (e.g., priesthood and spiritual theology) will certainly teach the kinds of lessons about leadership that we have sketched above under the headings of human and spiritual formation.  Even the courses now taught in the college seminary or pre-theologate enable students to encounter the philosophical roots of leadership in epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics.  Let us examine the link between the philosophy curriculum and leadership development.

In order to see the link, consider the duties that a priest exercises.  Among the nine duties treated in the 2008 NCEA publication, In Fulfillment of Their Mission (see footnote 6 above), the fourth states that the priest leads parish administration.  Within that duty, he has the task of leading the pastoral and finance councils.  The leadership of councils is an art with its own philosophic dimensions.[25]  Canon Law ascribes to these councils a consultative-only vote. The priest leads them by consulting them, and is not obligated to follow the councils’ advice.  At the same time, however, his consultation of them implies an obligation.  Common courtesy and intellectual honesty oblige the priest to consult in good faith, sincerely seeking the wisdom of his councillors.  We shall examine the consequences of this under the headings of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics.

C.i. Epistemology

Official documents speak of philosophy courses as if they had nothing to do with leadership.  The PPF, for example, regards the course on epistemology as the basis for drawing “objective and necessary truths” from the study of “contingent reality.”[26]  Here epistemology is presented as the antidote to skepticism and relativism, yet that hardly exhausts its contribution.  Epistemology aims not solely at objective and necessary truths, but also at contingent truths as they emerge in dialogue.  Paul VI spoke of dialogue as “the mental attitude which the Catholic Church must adopt regarding the contemporary world.”[27]  Dialogue, in which human beings struggle to reach agreement even about contingent truths, also belongs to epistemology.  The course provides an opening in the seminary curriculum to teach the capacity for dialogue as essential to the leader.

A few examples should make this clearer.  Epistemology usually includes an examination of the Platonic dialogues.  In them we witness the search by Socrates for the essences of the moral virtues.  Plato presented Socrates as the one who distinguished between examples of justice in the world and justice as an ideal form.  This may be what the PPF alludes to this when it speaks about drawing objective and necessary truths from contingent reality.

Important as this lesson is, the Platonic dialogues also provide the earliest example of the search for truth in dialogue – an essential skill for the priest who must make the right decision in a contingent situation.  As a searcher for truth, the priest must first adopt the attitude of Socratic ignorance (Apology 21a sq.), acknowledging that his knowledge is limited.  That is his motive for consultation, namely, to gain the wisdom of his parishioners.  Then he must lead the conversation, guiding others in the search for truth.  Socrates compared this process to the office of a midwife (Theaetatus 149 sq.) who helps others give birth to insight.  Plato’s portrayal reveals Socrates to be, not the one with all the answers, but the one committed to a truth that the community itself must bring to light.  There is no better literary example of leadership through dialogue.

Professors in the college seminary or pre-theologate must not only teach the difference between contingent and necessary truths.  They should also employ the Socratic dialogues to introduce seminarians to the importance of dialogue as a tool for leadership.  Socrates saw that, in order to discern what wisdom demands, there is no better way than to put forward an argument and subject it to scrutiny.  One must have “recourse to theories,” he said (Phaedo 99e).  Theories, i.e., logoi, are the expressions of thought in language.  We express them so as to examine them.  In dialogue, the leader invites a variety of viewpoints so that the best opinion will reveal itself.  The relevance of this practice to priestly leadership should be made explicit in the study of epistemology.

C.ii. Metaphysics

A second example of the relevance of the philosophic curriculum to leadership training is the course on metaphysics.  It is easy, however, to overlook this relevance.  The PPF states that metaphysics gives seminarians “the structure and ability” to discuss theology.[28]   In other words, metaphysics is viewed primarily as a preparation for theological studies.  John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et ratio amplifies this viewpoint.  It says that metaphysics provides a “horizon” so that students can move “beyond an analysis of religious experience,” that is, “from phenomenon to foundation.”[29]  Without metaphysics, the seminarian might not be able to understand what lies behind (or better said, what expresses itself through) phenomena.  Unfortunately, however, the course on metaphysics may be so preoccupied with the distinction between phenomena and foundations that it overlooks the link between the two.  The phenomenon of language is not separate from metaphysical truth, for it moves the thinker from appearance to reality.

Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics brings this out in a revealing way.  There Aristotle distinguished between “pure science” (knowledge or episteme) and “practical wisdom” (phronesis).  Both are a way of obtaining truths, he wrote, but they differ regarding (1) the types of knowledge at which they aim, (2) their method, and (3) the intellectual gift they require.  The distinction between scientific knowledge and practical wisdom is essential.  Scientific knowledge, on the one hand, aims at necessary truth, proceeds by demonstration, and requires abstract reasoning.  Practical wisdom, on the other hand, has to do with action or the correct thing to do in a given situation.  To gain this wisdom, one engages in a dialogue with others about the goal to be achieved.  The intellectual skill required for practical wisdom, said Aristotle, is the ability to deliberate well (bouleusis).  Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics constitutes a veritable primer for the seminarian who aspires to lead Christians in the search for practical wisdom.

The course on metaphysics undoubtedly must distinguish between a phenomenon and the unseen reality which it expresses.  But such a distinction, by itself, may pose a temptation.  It may tempt students to believe that, by making such a distinction, they have more practical insight than others.  The course on metaphysics should avoid that false implication.  In order to prepare seminarians for pastoral leadership, it should introduce another, complementary distinction: the distinction between the realms of knowledge.  By distinguishing between science and practical wisdom, Aristotle helps the seminarian to see that he cannot learn practical decision-making from a textbook.  The good leader makes wise decisions about how to act, not in isolation, but by conversing with those who are skilled in deliberation.

Metaphysics can show the seminarian the realm of knowledge in which consultation is essential, namely, practical wisdom.  One does not pursue it as one pursues the scientific knowledge of objective and necessary truths.  Practical wisdom is about how to act rightly in a contingent situation.  This is precisely what the priest seeks by consulting his people.  He asks others to deliberate with him about a course of action.  By highlighting this realm of knowledge and exploring the art of deliberation, the course on metaphysics can prepare the seminarian for pastoral leadership.

C.iii. Ethics

The course on ethics provides a final example of the relevance of the philosophic curriculum to leadership training.  The PPF speaks of the course in terms of decision-making.  It enhances ethical decision-making by giving seminarians “a solid grounding in themes like conscience, freedom, law, responsibility, virtue, and guilt” as well as “the common good and virtue of solidarity as central to Christian political philosophy.”[30]  This is to the point, but two examples show the potential for misunderstanding.  The first group of terms, including conscience, freedom and virtue, may be understood individualistically.  They may suggest that, if I guard my conscience, my freedom, and my virtue, I can create within me an ethical fortress, secure from invasion.  Other people, those apart from me, may threaten my conscience, obscure my freedom, or weaken my virtue – so I isolate myself.  That is the danger of individualism.

The second group of terms, “common good” and “political philosophy,” can also be misconstrued.  The concept of the common good, essential to Catholic social teaching, has consequences for economic life.  Because of these consequences, however, students may be tempted to associate the common good with economic matters alone.  Instead they should be led to see its relevance to wider realms, including parish governance.  Something similar can be said for the concept of solidarity.  It is so closely identified with political questions that its relevance to parish leadership can be overlooked.  So teachers of philosophic ethics face a challenge.  It is the challenge of presenting moral decision-making in a way that is not individualistic, and of discussing the common good and solidarity without confining them to the spheres of economy and politics.

Here we begin to see the application of philosophical ethics to pastoral leadership.  St. Thomas illuminates it in his discussion of prudence in the Second Part of the Summa Theologica’s Part Two.  Prudence, he says in Question 47, is thought applied to action (art. 1).  The pastoral leader wants to act prudently.  Such prudence is not concerned with purely theoretical issues, but focuses on action (art. 2).  Questions about how to act cannot be decided on abstract principles.  The principles must be applied to the case at hand.  The question of application has to do with the disposition of means or resources.  Prudence does not aim at an ideal, but at the limited good that can be accomplished with the means at the leader’s disposal (art. 7).  In searching for a sound course of action, the wise leader consults those with prudence, defined by St. Thomas as an intellectual as well as a moral virtue (art. 4).  The prudent decision is not correct in the abstract.  It is correct because prudent people understand it and affirm it.

St. Thomas’ discussion of prudence illustrates the relevance of philosophic ethics to leadership.  From the course on ethics, students can learn how wise pastors reach sound decisions.  They do so by consulting prudent parishioners, by working with the parish’s resources, and by cultivating an understanding of the issues faced by the parish.  The ethics course is rightly meant to prepare students for decision-making.  But such preparations can be misunderstood individualistically or restricted to the economic or political realm.  The teaching of St. Thomas shows the kind of knowledge that pastors aim for in discussions with prudent parishioners.

Despite the fact that the seminary curriculum lacks a course on leadership, the existing courses on epistemology, metaphysics and ethics can provide seminarians with leadership’s philosophical foundations.

  • Dialogue.  Epistemology introduces seminarians to dialogue as the Church’s “attitude towards the world” (Pope Paul VI), an attitude that invites conversation as a way of holding up thoughts to intellectual scrutiny.
  • Practical Wisdom.  Metaphysics, with its distinction between scientific knowledge and practical wisdom, helps seminarians identify the realm of contingent truth within which communal deliberation is essential.
  • Prudence.  Philosophical ethics is not solely about the individual’s cultivation of private virtues, but also about the virtues shared by the community, such as prudence.  The prudent pastoral leader considers with his parishioners the disposition of the Church’s means in order to reach practical ends.

The ordinary courses in the college or pre-theological curriculum provide ample opportunities to prepare seminarians for leadership.  The courses can show them how it emerges in dialogue, pertains to contingent truth, and results in prudent decisions.

D. Pastoral Formation and the Practice of Leadership

The fourth pillar, pastoral formation, emphasizes leadership more than the other three pillars.  The PPF states that leadership development is an “essential element” of pastoral formation.  Such development takes place as “various practical, pastoral experiences, especially in parishes” (footnote 7) initiate the seminarian into an understanding of leadership.  So leadership experiences occur mainly in the field.  The off-campus locations may create the false impression that leadership development is consigned primarily to on-the-job training, independent of the seminary.

The success of pastoral field education in U.S. seminaries belies that false impression.[31]  Although seminarians learn about leadership primarily through practical experiences in parishes and other off-campus locations, nevertheless pastoral field educators ensure that seminarians reflect on their experiences in a formal way.  The typical seminarian, engaging in practical experience off-campus, is simultaneously enrolled in an academic course that invites theological reflection on the experience.  Such courses usually include discussions under the guidance of a professor.  Topics for discussion include the seminarian’s recollection of experiences in the field as well as the written comments of off-campus supervisors.  The seminarians’ disciplined reflection with others led by a professor complements their practical experience.  It would be false to say that leadership development is simply on-the-job training apart from the seminary.

In addition to field education in hospitals, schools, and other institutions, most seminarians also have a parish internship.  At St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, for example, the parish internship is a full-time exercise of ministry under the supervision of a pastor that lasts for an academic year.  The seminarian receives academic credit and must successfully complete the internship to earn the M.Div. degree.  Success is measured in terms of the goals defined by the intern, the Field Education Office, and the pastor-supervisor.  The seminarian makes a “contract,” promising to undertake certain responsibilities at the parish (e.g., preaching, presiding at graveside services, teaching at the parochial school, etc.).  The pastor-supervisor promises to help the intern achieve his goals.

One aspect of the internship at St. John’s Seminary that deserves special attention because of its importance for leadership development is the Intern Advisory Board (IAB).  The board is a group of parishioners that advises the seminarian-intern.  Although the supervising pastor names the IAB members, it is the seminarian’s responsibility to convene and consult them.  The tasks of convening and consulting offer the seminarian an experience akin to the pastor’s formation of pastoral and finance councils.  If the leadership of such councils is one of the principal duties of the Catholic priest, the formation of the IAB initiates the seminarian into a similar form of leadership.  Let us consider for a moment the purpose of the IAB, the job description of members, and the intern’s aim in consulting the group.

D.i. Purpose of the Board

The purpose of the Intern Advisory Board resembles the purpose of parish councils, namely, to share the members’ wisdom with the one who consults them.  This apparently simple fact, however, is far from simple, because the word “consultation” does not make explicit the motives of the intern or of the board members.  Interns consult the IAB because they are looking for a specific kind of help.  On a trivial level, one could say, an intern consults the board in order to satisfy a seminary requirement.  But if that were the intern’s sole motive, he would not benefit much from the board.  The deeper motive for consulting the IAB is not to prove to the seminary that the intern can go through the motions of consultation, but rather to gain wisdom.  So the consultative intern must approach the board with a question.  He has learned from a study of the Platonic dialogues that his knowledge is limited.  He wants to know how well he is accomplishing the goals stipulated in his learning contract.  He believes that the IAB can help him.

The board members, for their part, are motivated by love for the Church and a desire to help the intern.  They are not experts in homiletics, liturgy, or education, but they can tell when the intern preaches, presides, and teaches well.  Moreover, by acquainting themselves with the intern’s learning contract, they can help him see whether he is meeting his goals.  Consulting the IAB can be a challenge to the intern.  On the one hand, he comes to the IAB as a learner.  He consults them to profit from their insight.  On the other hand, however, he leads the consultation.  He has to help the IAB members understand the terms of the learning contract, and he has to formulate questions that will invite reflection and honest dialogue.  In doing so, the intern discovers that leadership is not just influencing followers to accomplish a task.  It means helping followers – the board itself – achieve their goal of providing wise counsel to a future priest.

D.ii. The Board’s Job Description

The Intern Advisory Board is like a parish council, first of all, in that it meets monthly and follows an agenda.  The intern prepares it before the initial meeting.  He is, after all, consulting the members.  For example, he may want to know about his preaching, or about his work in the parish office, or about his teaching skill.  At the close of each meeting, he asks the members to propose topics for discussion.  Part of effective consultation is giving the IAB a say in forming the agenda.  The intern leads by asking questions and guiding the conversation.  He is inviting the board members to show him how to be a better pastoral minister.  This is not something that can be demonstrated in an experiment (as Aristotle might have said), but emerges in a process of deliberation.

The IAB is also like a council in that it requires individual effort by the members between meetings.  If the intern wants feedback on his homilies, for example, he will have to request that board members attend the Masses in which he is preaching.  If he wants to know how well he is teaching at the parochial school, he will have to invite members to observe him.  The intern is consulting the board just as a pastor consults his council.  He has to help the board see what the seminary and the intern pastor expect of him.  He should not be shy about asking board members to read his learning agreement, or to witness his performance of ministerial duties.

At the end of the internship, the IAB evaluates the intern.  Members have to complete a questionnaire and write their impressions of him.  In this way, the IAB differs from a council.  Councils usually are not expected to evaluate pastors.  But the IAB’s evaluation of the intern need not distort the relationship between the two.  Its evaluation does not mean that the board is supervising the intern.  The pastor remains the supervisor.  Rightly speaking, the intern is asking the board to help him gauge his ministerial abilities.  Even though the board evaluates him, he is still the one consulting the board.  He is inviting the board’s wise counsel, and that is an essential aspect of leadership.

D.iii. The Goals of the Intern-Leader

Consulting with an Intern Advisory Board can provide the seminarian with an experience of servant leadership.  This is the kind of leadership that presupposes well-motivated followers and a generous leader.  The leader (in this case, the intern) helps followers (the IAB) to achieve their goal of providing wise counsel to a future priest.  The board members are motivated because the Church wants good priestly leaders.  But it is not always easy for the IAB to give advice.  Board members may be unfamiliar with what the pastor and the seminary expect of the intern.  They may be unsure of their role.  They may be afraid of hurting the intern’s feelings.  The intern becomes a servant leader when he gives clear directions, develops a straightforward agenda, formulates questions, and invites honest dialogue.

Ultimately, the intern seeks self-knowledge.  He wants to learn about his readiness for priestly ministry.  He wants to improve his ministerial skills.  He wants to hone his ability as a leader.  Those are his goals.  In order to achieve them, he has to appreciate the situation of his lay collaborators.  They may not know what kind of help he wants.  They may not know what the seminary expects.  The intern has to understand that, although he is asking them for help, he remains a leader.  He leads the group by eliciting, pondering, and integrating its opinions.  He has to invite specific feedback, even about matters which are potentially embarrassing to him (e.g., his mannerisms and blind spots).  By showing the board that he wants their frank advice and wise counsel, he reveals himself as a servant leader.  He leads by helping the group achieve the Church’s mission and their own.

The Catholic priest, in summary, is expected to lead parish administration, especially through finance and pastoral councils.  For this reason, it is important for seminarians to experience consultative leadership.  Parish interns from St. John’s Seminary learn about this by convening an Intern Advisory Board.  Convening such an advisory group provides experience in leadership in general, and group facilitation in particular.

  • Consultative Leadership.  By asking pastoral interns to consult a representative group of parishioners, formators give the interns an experience of leading a dialogue that aims at practical wisdom and prudent knowledge.
  • Group Facilitation.  By developing agendas, guiding conversations, and seeking the advice of a representative body of parishioners, seminarian-interns learn how to form a group, focus a conversation, and invite reflection.

The consultative intern asks the board to help him judge how well he is meeting the goals of internship.  Although he is not asking the board to supervise him, he does request that they evaluate him.  In so doing, he learns an important lesson in leadership, namely, that the good leader asks followers to commit themselves to the truth.  However painful it might be to hear that truth, it remains the ultimate basis for unity in spirit.

Conclusion: The Potential for Leadership Development

One reason why the Program for Priestly Formation does not require a course in leadership development is that the term is ambiguous.  When such development can mean so many different things, from being a “servant leader” to “influencing followers to accomplish a task,” it is easy to understand why the Church is wary of it.  Undoubtedly the Church desires priests who are leaders, but it prefers to speak of priests who are good shepherds in imitation of Christ.

An examination of the pillar of human formation reveals a tacit criticism of secular theories of leadership.  Christlike leaders are not merely tools of higher production, capable of influencing followers to perform a task.  They are rather the ones who become leaders by learning obedience.  Seminarians must obey their superiors.  Such obedience is not servility, nor even a subordination of one’s own will to the demands of ecclesial life.  No, it is the thoughtful and discerning acknowledgment of a superior’s goodness and insight.  One does not obey a Christian leader merely to achieve a quota, but because such a leader can help people align their will more closely with God.

Our consideration of the spiritual formation of seminarians revealed some of the difficulties of conceptualizing leadership, even within the Christian community.  The Church’s great esteem for the priest, described in language that distinguishes him from the laity, in fact expresses its great esteem for Christ as he speaks through him.  The priest would be no leader if he acted as if he were entitled to obedience.  On the contrary, the priest becomes a leader to the extent that he serves the community.  Seminarians in spiritual formation undoubtedly must learn about the unity of the Church, and especially the duty of obedience to the bishop.  But the priest’s communion with bishop and people exists, we saw, in a missionary tension.  His mission to this people at times may create tension between him and the bishop.  It is as unavoidable as the tension between unity and plurality within God, and spiritual formation should consider it.

Leadership development does not seem to play a large role in the process of intellectual formation as reflected in the Church’s documents.  But courses in the theology curriculum, especially the courses in priesthood and spiritual theology, are the proper locale for the teaching about Christ as a servant leader.  Moreover, philosophy courses in the pre-theology curriculum should invite students to consider the conceptual bases of leadership.  Too often these courses preoccupy themselves with the dangers of skepticism and relativism, and run out of time before the professor can explore the topic of leadership.  Yet in Plato’s teaching about dialectic, in Aristotle’s doctrine of practical wisdom, and in St. Thomas’ exploration of prudence, seminarians can gain a solid understanding of consultative leadership.  These topics deserve their place under the philosophical sun.

The Church’s documents speak most about leadership development under the heading of pastoral formation.  The documents may seem to suggest that acquiring leadership takes place exclusively in practical experiences far from the seminary campus.  Thanks to pastoral field education, we can see that this is a misconception.  Acquiring leadership skill demands reflection as well as practice.  Parish internships offer seminarians an extensive practical exposure to ministry, and an innovative feature of these internships is the advisory board composed of parishioners.  The board gives them an experience very similar to the pastor’s leadership of parish councils.  The topic of consultative leadership is difficult to teach in the classroom, where consultation at best can be mimicked through role playing.  When an intern, however, has to consult a group of parishioners about how well he is fulfilling the terms of his learning contract, the situation becomes vividly real.  Interns must learn how to ask boards for advice, and about how to guide a consultation.  This is the seminarian’s best possible introduction to consultative leadership.

Leadership development has become more important in recent years as the number of priest has declined and as the time between ordination and the first pastorate grows shorter.  By exploring the potential for leadership development within the existing seminary curriculum, professors and formators can promote this aspect of formation.  It is not treated in great detail in the Church’s official documents, but it will loom ever-more-important.

[1] See, for example, Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard, Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources, sixth edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993): “Most management writers agree that leadership is the process of influencing the activities of an individual or a group in efforts toward goal achievement in a given situation,” p. 94.

[2] Vatican II, “Decree on the Training of Priests” (Optatam totius, 28 Oct. 1965), trans. by B. Hayes, S.M., S. Fagan, S.M., and Austin Flannery, O.P., in Vatican II, The Vatican Collection, vol. I: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, new revised edition, General Editor Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Co., fourth printing, 1998): “The whole training of the [seminary] students should have as its object to make them true shepherds of souls after the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, teacher, priest and shepherd,” no. 4, p. 710.

[3] Vatican II, “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests” (Presbyterorum ordinis, 7 Dec. 1965), trans. by Joseph Cunnane, revised by Michael Mooney and Enda Lyons, in Vatican II, The Vatican Collection, vol. I: “In the name of the bishop they [the priests] gather the family of God as a brotherhood endowed with the spirit of unity and lead it in Christ through the Spirit to God the Father,” no. 6, p. 872.

[4] John Paul II, I Will Give You Shepherds: On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day, an official translation of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis, March 25, 1992 (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1992; third printing, 1997), no. 26, p. 70.

[5] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Committee on Priestly Formation, Program of Priestly Formation, fifth edition (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006).  See the section on pastoral formation, esp. no. 239, pp. 77-82, p. 81 cited here.

[6] Joseph Ippolito, Mark A. Latcovich, and Joyce Malyn-Smith, In Fulfillment of Their Mission: The Duties and Tasks of a Roman Catholic Priest: An Assessment Project, including materials developed by a task force of the Midwest Association of Theological Schools in partnership with Education Development Center, and funded by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion (Washington, D.C.: The National Catholic Educational Association, 2008).  The book describes the leadership of parish administration on pp. 38-43.

[7]  USCCB, Program of Priestly Formation, no. 239, p. 79.  In practical experiences, we read, “the student first enters the scene as an observer, then raises questions to understand what is happening, and finally relates it to his other formation” (p. 80).

[8] Ibid., no. 80, p. 34.

[9] The utopian call for a discourse on purely rational grounds (in which authority plays no role) can be found in Jürgen Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society, translation and introduction by Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), pp. 8-20.

[10] John Paul II, Pastores dabo vobis, no. 44, p. 121.  The passage contains a footnote reference to Gaudium et spes 24, where we read: “If man is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake, man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself.”

[11] Ibid., no. 28, p. 73.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Such growth [i.e., human development] may be demonstrated by . . . a capacity for courageous and decisive leadership.”  USCCB, Program of Priestly Formation, no. 86, p. 36.

[14] The ontological difference was affirmed in a distinction between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood (Lumen gentium 10).  It was re-affirmed in Pope John Paul II’s Pastores dabo vobis, no. 11, p. 31.

[15] Pastores dabo vobis affirms that all Christian are configured to Christ: “He, the Spirit of the Son (cf. Gal. 4:6), configures us to Christ Jesus and makes us sharers in his life as Son” (John Paul II, Pastores dabo vobis, no. 19, p. 50).

[16] USCCB, Program of Priestly Formation, no. 114, p. 48.

[17] John Paul II, Pastores dabo vobis, no. 21, p. 53.

[18] Ibid., no. 23, p. 58; and again at no. 24, p. 63.

[19] In Pastores dabo vobis, John Paul II emphasized the community’s “diverse vocations, charisms and services” (no. 16, p. 42) as essential to the “hierarchical communion” (no. 17, p. 43) that the priest has with the bishop.  A “missionary tension” (no. 12, p. 32) exists, however, between the Church’s communion and the priest’s apostolate of service to his people.  Priests are sent forth by God the Father, through Jesus Christ, in order to live and work by the power of the Holy Spirit in service to the Church.  Such “communion in tension” is analogous to the distinctiveness and unity of the Trinity.

[20] Robert K. Greenleaf’s essay of 1970, “Servant Leadership,” has been reprinted in Greenleaf, The Servant Leader Within: The Transformative Path, ed. Hamilton Beazley, Julie Beggs, and Larry C. Spears (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2003).  The 1970 essay became in 1977 a book, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1977), which recently appeared in a 25th anniversary edition (Paulist, 2002).

[21] R. J. House and T. R. Mitchell, “Path-Goal Theory of Leadership,” Journal for Contemporary Business (Autumn 1974), p. 81.

[22] Dan R. Ebner, Servant Leadership Models for Your Parish (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2010), pp. 11-12.

[23] Daughter of Charity Margaret John Kelly has recently claimed that “there is considerable agreement” that Greenleaf’s concept of servant leadership “draws on and develops the best within individuals and within organizations.”  Kelly, “Leadership,” Chapter 1 in A Concise Guide to Catholic Church Management, edited by Kevin E. McKenna, compiled by the Vincentian Center for Church and Society (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria, 2010), p. 8.

[24] This is the “situational leadership” theory of Hersey and Blanchard, Management, chapter eight.

[25] Mark F. Fischer, Making Parish Councils Pastoral (New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2010).

[26] USCCB, Program of Priestly Formation, no. 156, p. 59.

[27] Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, Encyclical on the Church, August 6, 1964, no. 58.

[28] USCCB, Program of Priestly Formation, no. 156, p. 60.

[29] John Paul II, Fides et ratio, Encyclical Letter On the Relationship between Faith and Reason, text and format from the Libreria Editrice Vaticana (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1998), no. 83, p. 123.

[30] USCCB, Program of Priestly Formation, no. 156, p. 60.

[31] Katarina Schuth, Reason for the Hope: The Futures of Roman Catholic Theologates (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989), p. 191.

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