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Initiative helps priests, parishes transition

Father Michael Amadeo meets with Tom Green, founder of Gateways Pastoral Resources, which helps priests foster relationships of trust and respect in their new assignments. Courtesy photo

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The life of a parish priest can be challenging in ways that never even occur to many people in the pews. One of the most challenging events in the life of a priest, or in the life of the parish itself, is the assignment of a new pastor.

Tom Green runs Gateways Pastoral Resources, which provides support and resources to pastors, parish staff and parishes in transition.

“When a priest ends or begins a new parish assignment, the number of lives affected is far-reaching,” Green said. “From pastors to parish staff, from parish leaders to parishioners themselves, the transition needs to go well.” Green pointed out that in some cases, these transitions can result in a great deal of struggle, conflict, confusion and turnover. His work focuses on helping pastors, parish staff, parish leaders and all parishioners get off to a strong start together.

“We recognize most priests are already experienced as pastors,” he said, “so we don’t focus on making them better priests or pastors. Rather, we focus on helping them be more effective, balanced, satisfied, even joyful, during their pastoral transition — typically focused on the first six to 12 months.”

Transitioning together

There are many challenging transitions and groups in parish life for which Gateways provides support, including priests transitioning out of one parish to pastor another; pastors retiring; parish staffs, leaders, boards, councils and committees; and parish communities.

A relationship of trust, respect and mutual goals between the pastor and parish community is important for effective ministry. “Planning ways to grow in pastoral leadership and faith during transition is important to guide the pastor to being healthier, holier and happier,” Green said.

Green faces his own challenges in the work that Gateways does. “One challenge has been to show the value of a planned, orderly pastoral transition,” he said. “Some very talented, faith-filled, experienced, committed pastors try to transition alone without the best practices and tools. I stress the belief that pastors don’t have to figure it all out alone, nor do it all themselves during their pastoral transitions.

“It’s very rewarding all the way around when we help pastors spend more time in ways they are at their best instead of being pulled into unnecessary administrative webs and conflicts, further away from the reasons a priest chose to be ordained,” he said.

Avoiding a bad start

Green, who lives in the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, has a background of 25 years in corporate human resources, specifically as a trainer in leadership and team development. “As I trained, coached, and studied leaders, I saw highly effective leaders struggle while starting new job assignments following promotions, transfers and joining successful organizations,” he said. Witnessing the high frequency of poor job performance and personal dissatisfaction tied to getting off to a bad start, Green created orientation programs for leaders.

On occasion, Green helps with transitions already in progress. “I was recently contacted by a pastor who got off to a rocky start during his pastoral transition,” Green said. “More than six months after he took over at his new parish, he recognized the need for help. We met, I listened, we assessed priorities, and he concluded he wanted to grow in the areas of our transition focus and resources — learning, cultivating relationships, communicating and unifying.”

New pastors

One parish Green has helped recently is St. Mary Catholic Church in Marshalltown, Iowa. Father Alan Dietzenbach was assigned to be pastor of the parish — his first assignment as pastor. The situation to which he was assigned was complicated, as the parish was in the process of merging with another parish in the town.

Fr. Dietzenbach

“I realized that I could greatly use the wisdom of others before moving into the situation, a better understanding of my own strengths and weaknesses, what the parish looked by those ‘with boots on the ground,'” Father Dietzenbach said.

Green’s work was brought to Father Dietzenbach’s attention, and he called to seek Green’s advice.

“He suggested doing a survey of people in leadership at the parish to which I was moving to better prepare myself for moving there,” Father Dietzenbach said. Green also invited Father Dietzenbach to attend a day of training for new pastors; he invited several other young priests in similar situations to attend as well.

“I also received some great new ideas for how to build relationships and best use my time,” Father Dietzenbach said. Unfortunately, just nine days after his arrival at the parish, a tornado hit the church and rectory. “That wasn’t covered in the workshop!” he said. As a result, some of the planned initiatives became lower priorities. But the lessons learned from Green were invaluable in preparing Father Dietzenbach for this challenging assignment.

“There are a lot of practical aspects of priestly formation that get overlooked,” he said. “Once ordination happens we don’t magically receive all the life skills we need to be good leaders and holy pastors. It is a process, and God knows I’ll take all the wisdom and help I can get!”

Involving parishioners

In 2017, Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart Catholic Church in Ankeny, Iowa, was losing the pastor that had served the parish for 13 years. Their incoming pastor, Father Michael Amadeo, was coming to them from a parish he had led for 11 years.

Father Amadeo has known Green for years, as he is a former parishioner. When Father Amadeo learned of his changing pastoral assignment, he sought guidance from Green on how to transition out of his old parish and into the new. There was a bit of an extended transition period for Father Amadeo. He would leave his old parish, Holy Trinity in Beaverdale, Iowa, and take a five-month sabbatical prior to beginning his new assignment. Three of these five months were spent studying in Israel. Four days after returning to the United States, Father Amadeo began his new assignment.

Green worked with Father Amadeo and the community at both parishes to assist in the transition. “He helped me name what I was proud of in my ministry at my last parish,” Father Amadeo said. “Was there anything that felt unfinished? And what were some things that I thought would be good for the new pastor to know? Strengths of the parish, areas to grow, struggles, celebrations?”

At the new parish, Green asked the staff to identify what they were anxious about in regards to a new pastor, as well as what they will miss about the previous pastor who had led them for so long. He also helped them name what they are proud of and places they want to see continuity in parish life. These are important and effective insights for any incoming pastor.

“He created a space for the pastoral council to voice what was going on internally with them,” said Father Amadeo. An electronic survey went out to the parishioners, as well, giving them the opportunity to provide Father Amadeo with feedback about the parish. “Parishioners have already told me that it gave them a sense of connection with me, some involvement and input in the transition,” he said.

Paul Senz writes from Oregon.

Starting Well Workshops
Tom Green’s Gateways Pastoral Resources hosts Starting Well Workshops for pastors moving to a new assignment.  The workshops include coaching in the following areas:

Administrative
Learn the most critical concerns of the parish. Which concerns require your involvement now and which can wait?

Learn what tensions and conflicts are present, which need to be addressed, and how to address them.

Ministerial
Develop high levels of trust with staff, parish leaders and parishioners.

Prepare a variety of ways to humbly introduce yourself — your gifts, your interests, your needs, your faith story.

Personal and spiritual
Establish strong relationships and boundaries with parochial vicar, deacons, staff, parish leaders and parishioners.

Gain clarity about the challenges and opportunities for growth as a priest and pastor.

For more information on Starting Well Workshops and other resources, visit GatewaysPastoralResources.com.

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