A great deal is being said these days in Church circles about the desirability and development of Collaborative Ministry. But it seems to me that it is more spoken about than acted upon. While one must be full of admiration for the vision of Church institutions to tap all human resources - of clerics, of Religious, of laity - and pool them for more effective mission, so often the motivation for bringing this about is the diminishing number of available priests to maintain an institution that in the past was the sole responsibility of clerics, rather than having as its motivation the priesthood of all believers.
From my experience of facilitating the Chapters and Assemblies of Religious Congregations, I have come to the conclusion that too many excellent initiatives in collaborative ministry do not come to full maturity because they start from a limiting basis, namely that there is not the opportunity for all the collaborators to be able to accept full responsibility for the total project because the dominating power and final decision-making body is the Religious Order that owns the property.
In the case of the parish, the limiting basis is the position held, in accordance with Canon Law (Canons 519-544), by the Parish Priest, who in all matters has the ultimate responsibility, the final word. Full collaborative ministry can only come about when from its launch all parties feel they have a contribution to make according to their capacities, rather than according to their status in a hierarchical structure.
What we find with the present attempts at collaboration in a parish is a three-fold pyramidal structure. At the top is the Parish Priest. At the next layer are the recognised helpers such as Permanent Deacons, Parish Sisters, full-time lay Pastoral Assistants. And in the third layer, those of the parishioners who volunteer to offer their services, whether liturgical, catechetical, administrative, etc. as helpers.
As in any pyramid-structured society, power and approval (and often initiative too) comes from the top and trickles downwards. What those beneath give to those above is assistance: they are the priest’s helpers, not collaborators in the sense of sharing creativity, responsibility and ownership for the total mission of the parish.
Full collaborative ministry can only come about when it is recognised that the parish is the people with a priest, and not a priest with a people. It will take nothing less than a paradigm shift to move from a parish being priest-centred to becoming people-centred. What would this new shape look like?
A Proposed Parish Structure
The parish is the community. At the hub of the community is a priest who is the Chaplain to the community. (The very name change from Parish Priest to Chaplain will have a psychological effect!) Chaplains come and go, the community stays. It is not because he is the priest-in-charge that he presides at the Eucharist, but because he is the Chaplain, concerned in the first place with the spiritual growth of the community. He will work with people, not for people.
The community will appoint a full-time salaried Manager to look after all their material and organisational concerns. The role of both the Chaplain and the Manager will be that of facilitator, enabling each parishioner to exercise their talents for the good of all. No one person is an expert in every avenue of leadership. The Chaplain and the Manager will be chosen by and answerable to the Parish Council elected by the community.
Is this but a dream? The way things are, the way things are controlled, it would seem that such a structure has to be boldly tried and tested before we can expect a change in Canon Law. It will not happen the other way round.
Only this form of structure – a shift in shape from pyramid to circle - allows for equal collaboration by all the parishioners according to their ability. It gives them a sense of ownership, it is their parish. This experience in itself invites more people to become involved, which in turn leads to personal and community growth.
Collaborative ministry, in its fullest sense, only happens when each collaborator experiences and accepts responsibility for the total parish project. Until that time comes we can at best speak only of “semi-collaborative ministry”.
Adrian B. Smith