By Mark F. Fischer
Published as “Parish Councils: Why Good Delegators Don’t Always Make Good Leaders,” Today’s Parish (March 1997): 27-30.
Good managerial theories do not always make good pastors. This is especially true when it comes to parish councils. A pastor may have excellent theories, drawn from the best textbooks, about how to lead his council. But if his theories ignore the unique relation between pastor and council, then the theories will not suffice. In fact, they may hinder more than help.
Consider the pastor of St. Emerich’s Church, whom we shall call Father Thaddeus Colman. In the 1970s Father Colman earned a degree in educational administration and served as principal at a diocesan high school in the city. There he put into practice the “situational leadership” theories popularized by Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard. Their book, Management of Organizational Behavior, was first published in 1969 and has become a standard text (Prentice-Hall, sixth edition, 1993). Father Colman was committed to situational leadership, and discovered its shortcomings the hard way.
At the heart of situational leadership is the sound principle that a leader ought to adapt his leadership style to the readiness of his followers. Father Colman recognized that, whenever people are new to a job, they usually lack knowledge and confidence. Leading people without experience, Father Colman would take charge in a forceful way and be clearly directive. People did not resent his strong leadership, but appreciated his understanding of their situation. They wanted to know what to do, and he told them.
The insights of situational leadership paid off when he was a high school principal. New academic department heads found in him a leader who knew how to give directions. Later, as the department heads became veterans, Father Colman would adapt his style, becoming less directive, paying more attention to interpersonal relations. Finally, when he felt completely secure about their abilities, he would simply delegate tasks to them, confident that they would perform them in a professional manner. He was renowned for his delegating skills.
But those very delegating skills became a problem when Father Colman was named pastor. He was so eager to delegate matters to his parish council that the members began to feel he did not want to work with them. As his attendance at council meetings grew more and more irregular, morale began to drop. Father Colman did not understand. He believed he was doing just what the management experts had advised. What was he doing wrong?
Implementing Situational Leadership
When Father Colman became pastor of St. Emerich’s, he applied situational leadership theories to the parish council. Newly-elected council members never had to ask, “What do we do now?” Father Colman had a vision of the council as a planning body. He gave members lists of tasks to accomplish: reviewing the parish financial report, charting what each parish organization does, defining the number of volunteers in each ministry, creating a parish mission statement. He planned meetings so well that agendas occasionally ran two pages.
After a few months, the council members felt more knowledgeable about the parish and about their work as council members. In response, Father Colman shifted his leadership style. Becoming somewhat less directive, he began to engage the group in discussion about its tasks. He started with a hospitality survey. Father Colman wanted to discover how hospitable St. Emerich Church is. Instead of simply requesting the council’s help and telling it how to conduct a survey, he asked members to help him draft it. They did, and it was a success. Parishioners gave valuable feedback about the ushers, and the parish started to serve coffee and donuts after Mass. The readiness of the council was growing, and Father Colman shifted his leadership style to accommodate the situation.
Council members still lacked confidence, however, to do things on their own initiative. They were not yet ready to deviate from Father Colman’s instructions. So he continued to give them tasks: to develop a policy about renting the parish hall, to assess the effectiveness of the Sunday bulletin, to survey what other parishes were doing about adult education. And gradually he found that the council needed less and less direction. They finally knew what they were doing.
Eventually, members began to take initiative in carrying out the tasks Father Colman had assigned. Council reports became succinct, cogent, persuasive. There was little need to discuss them. Father Colman expressed his satisfaction. He recognized that the council had fundamentally changed. They were competent to accomplish these tasks without his direction or encouragement. They were ready, he felt, for even greater responsibilities, responsibilities which they could tackle on their own. He no longer had to oversee them.
Father Colman thought he had found in the council a perfect example of situational leadership. It teaches that leaders should adapt their style to the needs of followers. As the competence of his council grew, Father Colman changed his leadership style. Strongly directive at first, the pastor left no room for ambiguity in the minds of fledgling council members. But as they become more experienced, he acknowledged their skills and confidence, gradually giving them greater scope for their talents. When he felt they were fully competent, he happily delegated matters to them, confident in their abilities. In terms of situational leadership, no more was required.
A Demoralized Council
As Father Colman delegated tasks, however, the council members grew unhappy. They disliked the fact that his attendance at council meetings had become irregular. The problem was not that they were unable to do what he wanted. They were perfectly capable of assessing the parish youth ministry, fully able to study and recommend a children’s liturgy of the Word, and adequately prepared to evaluate the food pantry at St. Emerich. These tasks were no great challenge, even without Father Colman’s supervision.
Nor did the council feel that Father Colman was indifferent to them. He seemed to take the council’s work seriously. He had publicized the council’s statement of the parish mission. He had taken the council’s advice about hospitality. He had implemented its policy about renting the parish hall. The council certainly was being used. It was having an effect. No member felt that the group was being ignored.
But council morale began to drop. Attendance fell off. Fewer and fewer members actually did the work. These few were either the personal friends of Father Colman (and saw him at social gatherings) or the introverted council members who liked to write reports. But even the reports began to suffer, losing the breadth of the whole council’s perspective, losing anecdotal detail, losing touch with the parish. Council dropouts began to complain. “I did not join the parish council to be part of a think-tank or study group, but to build up the parish,” they said. “This busy work builds up nothing.”
Father Colman heard the complaints. He knew that situational leadership has a strategy for use when a group’s readiness to work declines. The situational leader must shift his leadership style. In Father Colman’s case, delegation had not worked. He had to become more present to the council members. He had to participate more, encourage, and affirm. The council did not need more skills or more confidence to do their tasks. No, they needed motivation. His strategy was to supply that motivation by cultivating relationships with them. He would shift his leadership style, heightening the council’s willingness to work by cheering them on.
The result? Not a notable success. Father Colman’s restored participation seemed somewhat forced. Council members saw it as a mere ploy to heighten their productivity. He still wanted the council to do tasks, conduct surveys, make reports, recommend policies. But they wanted a spiritual experience. They wanted to feel that they were building up the pastoral life of the parish, and were connected to the pastor as its head. Tasks, surveys, reports, and policies are all means to an end, namely, the development of the parish’s Christian life. Father Colman had broken the connection between the means and the end, and the council members lost their motive for action.
Shortcomings of the Theory
As we look at Father Colman’s difficulties, we see that he relied too much on the theory of situational leadership. Comprehensive as it is, the theory has three significant limitations. First, situational leadership focuses more on accomplishing tasks than on building community. Second, it treats loyalty in terms of cultivating relationships between leaders and followers, terms inadequate to describe loyalty to Church and parish. Most importantly, situational leadership neglects the most profound motive for pastoral activity, the desire to enter more deeply into the mystery of God’s life via membership in the Church. Father Colman was good at getting work done, and situational leadership fitted him well. But the theory sometimes blinded him to the ultimate ends at which he and the parish aimed.
Focus on Tasks. Situational leadership focuses on tasks. This is appropriate for a theory which has proven itself in the workaday world. If leadership is persuading others to do what they would not do without the leader, then accomplishing tasks is essential. The effectiveness of situational leadership, with its acknowledgement that each situation calls for a specific leadership style, can be easily documented. The leader simply varies his style and judges which style is more successful in getting others to do his will. If the work of a parish council were only the accomplishment of tasks, then the situational leadership theory would suffice.
But the work of councils is more than accomplishing tasks. Essential to every council is the development of what can be called its pastoral mystique. This mystique is the way in which council members discover, in each other and in their actual work, a connection with the mystery of God. It is the way successful councils build community as well as complete tasks. The success of the council cannot be measured exclusively in terms of work accomplished, recommendations accepted, policies developed, and impact felt. That is what Father Colman failed to see. He understood successful leadership only in the pragmatic terms of being able to persuade others to perform a material task. He neglected the pastoral mystique.
Meaning of Loyalty. Loyalty is an often overlooked second dimension. To be sure, situational leadership does acknowledge some dimensions of loyalty. It holds that effective leaders do more than coerce followers with rewards and threats. Effective leaders also employ the charisms of a pleasing personality and expertise to win the adherence of followers. Situational leadership concedes that a worker may be loyal to his employer for the sake of the benefits of employment, or may have a personal loyalty to individuals in the institution. But this concept of loyalty is somewhat calculating. It is loyalty for the sake of future gain. It cannot account for the profound loyalty of the faithful parishioner.
Loyalty binds the mundane tasks of parish life and the mysteries of faith. Parishioners undertake the mundane tasks because they believe that such tasks build up God’s kingdom. Sometimes the connection between the tasks and the kingdom is not apparent. It is not always easy to see how reports, surveys, and recommendations have anything to do with incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. The pastoral leader has to make the connection plain. But Father Colman inadvertently broke that connection. He did so by creating the impression that he was interested in the council only for the sake of the work it could do. He squandered the loyalty of members.
Priestly Leadership. Situational leadership, last of all, misses the uniqueness of the relation between priest and people. The priest is a mediator. He stands between the faithful and God, offering prayers and sacrifices on their behalf. His effectiveness depends on their willingness to grant him that privilege. Moreover, when he is called upon to make decisions for the parish community, he needs their help in judging the correct decision. Without their help, he cannot know what is appropriate. Although a pastor is the bishop’s delegate, nevertheless his ministry must be embraced by parishioners to be successful.
Managerial leaders, by contrast, rely less than pastors on the acceptance of their followers. Followers in the workplace are looking for a job, not for commitment to the institution or to the manager. The success of the workplace manager does not depend on whether employees accept him, but on whether they do their work. Father Colman was good at training his council and getting it to do the tasks of planning. But he failed to see that the council members wanted something more than a job. They wanted a deeper participation in the body of Christ which is the parish, and in the reflective and governance function of the pastor. The council at St. Emerich’s frustrated them.
Leadership, Not Management
Managerial theories of leadership can seduce unwitting pastors into harmful relationships with their parish. The situational leadership theory is a good example. It suggests that good leadership depends on the leader’s ability to correctly gauge the workplace situation and employ a style of leadership appropriate to it. The situation is defined in terms of the demands of the job and the readiness of followers to do it. But council members are more than workers who do a job. They enter into the life of the parish, and develop a pastoral mystique.
The pastoral mystique is more than the good feeling generated by Christian fellowship. Upon this mystique, upon the council’s ability to grasp the parish’s pastoral situation, rests the value of the council’s advice. No matter what situational leadership might suggest, the delegating style of leadership cannot be the goal for the pastor at the parish council. Pastors should not simply train their councils, delegate work to them, and walk away. They are to consult their councils–and that means developing with them a pastoral mystique, discovering with them the meaning of God’s mystery working itself out in the life of the parish.
Does your pastor give the parish council many tasks but little support? Does your council long to make a deeper contribution to the parish, but feel that the pastor holds you at arm’s length?
Remember that it is common for pastors to be cautious, and common for new councils to be overly-eager and unrealistic about their own abilities. Situational leadership makes a sound recommendation for pastors and new council members. It suggests that the pastor be strongly directive at first, then gradually allow the council to take more and more responsibility.
But beware the pastor who wants to give too much responsibility, especially when he begins to miss council meetings. He is not allowing himself to be moved by the council, and may well end up alienating it.