The time for priest assignments and transfers has again arrived. As parishes and other ministries of the Diocese prepare to bid farewell to the priests who are moving to other assignments, and welcoming other, newly-assigned priests, we thought it was timely to re-post a column that Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., had written in the spring of 2012.
Any boss will tell you: dealing with personnel is the most complicated and, at times, the most difficult aspect of management. Why? I guess there are many reasons. Situations might require responses that may not be understood or appreciated by people in terms of their consequences. Progress may require changes deemed necessary but that people may not want or with which the people affected might not agree.
People often think only in terms of the moment not with the bigger picture or the long term view in mind. Sometimes that bigger picture cannot be shared publicly for any number of reasons. People become comfortable with the status quo and just don’t like change. Sometimes, it’s no more complicated or mysterious than it’s just time for a change. People are needed somewhere else! Whatever the reason, change is not easy and when it involves people, it is even more difficult. Someone has to make decisions and, for better or for worse, that someone is the boss. In a diocese, that boss is the bishop, me, and I know “the buck stops here.”
In the Diocese of Trenton, I have just announced the next round of personnel changes affecting our parishes and institutions. Although I make the “final call” as bishop, I am blessed to have a personnel board of experienced priests and pastors --- the Episcopal Council --- who advise me on assigning priests and deacons. Discussions follow the written consultation of the clergy early in the year regarding their own assignments and preferences. Once ideas and recommendations surface from the consultation and within the Episcopal Council, I then begin calling or meeting with the individuals concerned to discern their interest in and availability for the assignment I am proposing.
I have only led the process here once before but my experience was a good one. The clergy are very much aware of their promise of obedience to the bishop made at their ordination but, more significantly, they want what is best for the diocese in general and for their parish or institution in particular. I give my reasons, they respond --- and they are free to share any reservations they may have --- and the decision is made and, then, if accepted, publicly announced before the Chrism Mass during Holy Week. Assignments in the diocese usually take effect July 1, unless circumstances require an earlier or later starting date.
Again, I am very much aware that change is never easy. Last year, I received a few pretty unpleasant letters from parishioners upset with personnel changes I made, accusing me of not considering the feelings of parishioners. Although they go with the job, such letters sadden me --- I read them but rarely respond. They seem surprised that a priest’s assignment could be changed by the bishop, as though this is something new in the Church!
The assignment of pastors and priests to parishes is not based upon feelings or the relative popularity of an individual priest or some opinion poll or vote. Pastors and priests are kept in an assignment or are transferred to a different assignment when there is a compelling pastoral need or other circumstance to do so. These are not light-hearted or arbitrary decisions made by the bishop. And, often enough, one change made has a domino effect, requiring other changes or replacements. We do not have an unlimited pool of available priest personnel which is why we all need to pray for vocations.
Our diocesan policy allows priests to request retirement at age 70. Such retirements require replacements. Our diocesan policy requires pastors to offer their resignations at age 75 (Canon Law requires the same for bishops). Such resignations require replacements. Our diocesan policy, responding to Canon Law and based upon the recommendation of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is that a pastor is ordinarily assigned to a six-year term and a parochial vicar (assistant pastor) to a three-year term. These terms may be renewed by the bishop. If the priest requests a change or a transfer is otherwise deemed necessary, such circumstances require replacements. Replacements are also required in cases of a priest’s death or sickness or in the unfortunate case of a priest’s disciplinary removal. And, often enough, a wonderful and talented pastor or priest who has been a blessing to one parish is needed to be a blessing to another parish with its own circumstances and needs.
Change is never easy. I understand that from the Chair that I occupy more than anyone realizes, I do. Change, however, is necessary in life and, often enough, in most circumstances change is unavoidable. Thank God! I would hate to think that, at age 57, I am the same person I was at age 27 or that I haven’t changed! If all of us can just appreciate that, changes that affect our lives might be a bit easier.
A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think of the prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr and used in Alcoholic Anonymous:
Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton