Dysfunctional pastor

DPC LogoSmallDysfunctional Pastor, Dysfunctional Council

By Mark F. Fischer

(Published as “When Your Pastor Is Dysfunctional,” Today’s Parish (September 1994): 11-13, 23.)

It seems at first glance that there is very little a parish council can do about a dysfunctional pastor. Councils are consultative bodies, after all, and if a pastor refuses to consult or to receive the council’s advice, the council cannot force him to do so. Some pastors habitually confuse the council’s role and prevent it from doing its job. No council can compel them against their will to act consistently, respectfully, and pastorally.

But council members should not simply shrug their shoulders and walk away from dysfunctional situations. While the legal remedies available to the parish council in the case of dysfunction are negligible, the moral, managerial, and practical remedies are not. No council can juridically force the pastor to change, but members can persuade him through personal appeals, adept management of conflict, and the power of the parish’s common or communal sense.

In this essay, we will define the term dysfunction by showing its psychological and sociological meanings. Then we will see how legal attempts to solve pastor-council dysfunctions involve their own problems. Finally, we will explore the genuine remedies which council members can use in cases of conflict with pastors.

Psychological Dysfunction

When we speak of a dysfunctional pastor, we usually refer to a psychological dysfunction. This term implies an understanding of the normal function of pastors and councils, a function which has become abnormal. In a normal relationship, pastors have questions about how best to plan and carry out the parish’s mission. They consult their councils to ensure a well-planned pastoral program, a program appropriate to the parish. But when a pastor does not consult his council, consults it poorly, or misleads the council about the consequences of its deliberations, the normal relationship breaks down. The pastor is said to be “dysfunctional.”

Psychologists often use the term “dysfunction” to describe breakdowns in the family. They start with the assumption that spouses ought to have a complementary and cooperative relationship, and that parents ought to care for the children who depend on them. When relations break down, for example in the presence of alcoholism, some members of the family cease to function and others try to compensate for the dysfunction. This kind of “family systems theory” was pioneered by Murray Bowen in the 50s and 60s and presented in Bowen’s Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1985). Although a pastor is not the biological father of his parish council, his relation to the council is akin to a family relation.

So when council members speak psychologically about pastor dysfunction, they frequently mean that he is not obeying the norms that govern their parish council family. Instead of consulting the council and then encouraging the council to discuss a matter, the pastor cuts off discussion and prevents the council from airing an issue. Instead of posing a question with the hope of an answer, he has no clear expectations and the council drifts aimlessly. Instead of praising the council when it completes its work and recommends a solution, he never allows it to exercise its competency and reach closure. The normal functions of consulting, probing, and praising become dysfunctional.

Sociological Dysfunction

Up to this point we have described dysfunction in psychological terms. But there is another, a sociological, aspect of the word. The council itself can be sociologically dysfunctional when it meets regularly but no longer serves a meaningful purpose. Pastors contribute to this dysfunction by not giving the council any meaningful work. To be sure, they convoke it regularly, but this is merely to show that they are open-minded and “consultative.”

An institution which no longer serves its purpose can be expected to diminish, according to the sociological theory advanced by Max Weber early in this century. The parish council whose members are “going through the motions,” merely listening to reports, and never engaged in an assessment of the parish’s mission and its plan to achieve it, is structurally dysfunctional. Sociologically, it deserves the parish’s neglect.

I believe that pastors bear the main responsibility for this kind of sociological dysfunction. Their role is to consult councils. The role of councils is to identify pastoral problems, consider them, and propose solutions. Pastors who do not consult, who hinder discussion, and who do not help refine solutions, are more than accomplices in structural dysfunction. They are the source of it.

The difference between sociological and psychological dysfunction hinges on effectiveness and freedom. Sociological dysfunction describes the council which is no longer effective. Psychological dysfunction describes the pastor whose own freedom to enter into a sound relationship with the council is hindered and who therefore hinders the freedom of the council to do its job. In our discussion of both kinds of dysfunction, we have presumed a kind of invincible ignorance on the part of the pastor. He allows dysfunction because he does not know how to correct it or is incapable of doing so. In addition, however, there are dysfunctions which a pastor knowingly allows. We will discuss these below under the heading “Deliberate Dysfunction.” For now, let us consider some remedies.

The Right to Appeal

Some dioceses allow for due process of law in the case of pastor-council conflict. The dioceses of Harrisburg, Raleigh, Louisville, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Fargo, Omaha, and San Bernardino, for example, describe such processes in their published parish council guidelines. Typically, the guidelines allow councils to appeal a pastor’s decision when two-thirds of council members disagree with it. Councils may appeal to the chancellor, regional vicar, conciliator, or even the bishop. This official then meets with pastor and council in order to resolve the dispute.

The proviso for appeal, however, is not common in U.S. dioceses because two persuasive arguments weigh in against it. The first is canonical. Parish councils are described in canon law as consultative to the pastor (ca. 536). They are not law-making bodies. Pastors are not obliged to take their advice. By granting them the right to appeal a decision “over the head” of the pastor, diocesan guidelines for parish councils seem to imply that councils are more than consultative. The guidelines appear to wrongly give councils a juridical status which they do not possess.

The second reason why the right to appeal a pastor’s decision is not widely granted in published guidelines stems from the Church’s wariness of litigation. St. Paul sounded this note in First Corinthians. There he speaks of the impropriety of Christians settling disputes in a pagan court of law. “To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you,” he wrote. “Why not rather suffer wrong?” (1 Cor. 6:7). Paul concludes that Christians should settle their grievances among themselves, rather than going to an external authority.

While an appeal by a council to diocesan authorities differs greatly from an appeal to a civil court, nevertheless it is an external appeal. The Pauline example suggests that it is always better to settle divisions at the parish level. Bishops rightly dread the appeal by a council of a pastor’s decision. If the pastor is right, then the bishop has the unenviable job of explaining the pastor’s side to an antagonistic council. If the pastor is wrong, it reflects poorly on the bishop who assigned him in the first place, not seeing the trouble his chosen man would cause. So in a conflict, councils should always begin by trying to settle the matter themselves, rather than appealing to the diocese.

Conflict Management

Most printed resources for managing conflict presuppose a healthy leader with the ability to diagnose the conflict and the desire to resolve it. Representative is “The Pastor as a Manager of Conflict in the Church,” an article by Arnold Kurtz in the journal Andrews University Seminary Studies (vol. 20.2 (1982): 111-126). Kurtz explores the basic principles of conflict management, such as identifying the issues, examining the assumptions of disputants, and exploring alternatives to their conflict. He sees the pastor as the conflict manager par excellence. But what if the pastor is unable or unwilling to guide this process? What if he himself is the source of conflict?

Even in this case, the principles of rational problem-solving still apply. For example, a new pastor may “inherit” a council with which he meets regularly, but whose members he scarcely knows. The council maintains the momentum it built up under the previous pastor, who asked it to study and plan for a parish youth ministry. The council completes its plan and recommends it to the pastor. Meanwhile, the pastor has been influenced by other parishioners who prefer replacing the parish center roof to hiring a new youth minister.

The pastor fears to express his doubts about youth ministry to the council. Rightly he believes that his doubts will frustrate the council; but wrongly he believes that the best policy is to ignore the council’s recommendations. Instead of welcoming the healthy tension which his doubts would raise, he feels unwilling or unable to face the tension and attempts to avoid it. His very freedom to raise the question is impaired. The result? An alienated council, distrust of the pastor, and tension between the council and those parishioners who want to see the roof replaced.

Conflict management is a technique for freeing disputants to face the issues which divide them. The basic principle, enunciated by John W. Lawyer and Neil H. Katz in Communication Skills for Ministry (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1987), is that wider knowledge leads to reduced tension and better decisions. But to describe conflict management as a technique seems to make it an impersonal exercise of skill, like piloting a sailboat or oil painting. By contrast, conflict management is intensely personal. It includes every color in the palette of diplomacy, from private conversation and dinner invitations to personal notes and the doing of favors. I once cajoled an unwilling pastor to attend a meeting by reminiscing about my boyhood when I was his altar server. Conflict management is a personal art.

In the case of the fearful pastor of our example, the council should invite him to express his doubts about youth ministry. This can be done in the context of prayer, a context which makes explicit the faith uniting pastor and council. There the council can air its frustration, confident that a shared faith is larger than a dispute over hiring or re-roofing. Ventilation of the issues in a climate of prayer can uncover the motives and assumptions of both parties. Then the search for a compromise can begin.

Deliberate Dysfunctions

So far we have spoken of indeliberate dysfunctions, dysfunctions caused by a pastor’s lack of freedom to function normally or by ignorance of the norms of the pastor-council relationship. It is a sad but true aspect of parish life, however, that some dysfunctional behavior is deliberate and leads to a complete breakdown in trust between pastor and council.

This arises when a pastor knows how to improve the functioning of the council, but chooses not to improve it because of hostility or laziness. He has developed a dislike for the council or he is unwilling to make the effort to change the status quo. He prevents the council from doing its job or he maintains it in a function which no longer has meaning.

Often the source of a pastor’s hostility is the experience of being “burned” by the council. He asked the council to undertake a task, and the council did not complete the job, did it poorly, or did it in such a way that the pastor was embarrassed. An example is the council asked to study how the parish could afford some needed repairs. The council recommended canceling an order for new altar furniture, cutting back on the weekly floral account, and reducing the number of hired liturgical musicians–all of which were the pastor’s pet projects. The pastor angrily concluded that the council lacked good taste, and resolved henceforth never to consult it about any planning decisions.

A less volatile pastor might have concluded instead that the council did not understand the priority of good liturgy. He would realize that, before the council could study an issue related to finance, it would need preparation and explicit instruction. He should have provided a list of areas of possible cut-back, and asked the council to rank them in order of importance. Gauging the readiness of a council to undertake a particular task is a sign of leadership. The pastor who writes off a council because it does not do things without instruction the way he would do them is not acting like the father of the council family. He is acting dysfunctionally.

In the case of deliberate dysfunction the most persuasive word has been uttered by the Boston canonist, Father Richard C. Cunningham, in an article on “The Laity in the Revised Code.” Writing about the moral power of the laity, he concludes his article in this way: “Ultimately they still possess the power of numbers, of finances, of public opinion, of sensus fidelium, of conscience and the radical power of shaking the dust from their feet as they exit.” This article, contained in a brief textbook on canon law entitled Code, Community, Ministry (Washington, D.C.: Canon Law Society of America, 1992), expresses the means of last resort in pastor-council conflict.

But even the sentence of Father Cunningham can be made more precise. Hurting pastors by finding another parish or withholding contributions should not be the first extreme remedy to be recommended. Rather, frustrated council members should first make efforts to clarify the issues among themselves and express their consensus in good faith to the pastor. If he rejects their opinion, they should test the rightness of the opinion with other parish leaders. If he rejects an opinion which is the considered opinion of all, then radical means are justified. The fundamental principle is to maintain communion among the People of God. Only when that becomes impossible should one counsel a wider appeal to diocesan officials and, failing that, rupture with the parish.


This essay describes two kinds of dysfunction: the psychological dysfunction of the pastor who disregards the normal ways of relating to the parish council; and the sociological dysfunction of the council which, with the pastor’s tacit approval, no longer serves a meaningful function.

Is your council experiencing these dysfunctions? If so, I recommend that you try resolving conflicts with your pastor at the parish level before appealing to diocesan authorities. Confide privately to your pastor any disagreements you may have with him. If that does not help, see if the other council members share your disagreements. Widely-held disagreements should be brought up at the next council meeting in a context of respect and confidentiality. If the matter is serious, and if after repeated attempts to conciliate, no progress is made, then an appeal to diocesan authorities is appropriate. And if that avenue is not open, and maintaining parish communion is no longer possible, then one must take the gospel advice of Father Cunningham: shake the dust from your feet.