Ruth Wallace's 1992 book, They Call Her Pastor studied the experience of Catholic parishes administered by religious sisters or married lay women. She has now completed a similar study of twenty parishes being administered by men who are not priests, ten married deacons and ten married laymen. With funding from the Lilly Endowment and the Louisville Institute, she selected and visited parishes in both urban and rural areas throughout the United States. Her interviews at those parishes included the pastoral administrators themselves, their wives and children, priests who are the sacramental ministers for the parishes, the bishops, and most important, the parishioners affected.
Dr. Wallace explains that the background of the appointment of these non-priest pastors are "first, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that defined the Church as the People of God and stressed the active role and co-responsibility of the laity, based on their baptism and full membership," and second, "the escalating shortage of priests throughout the world." In 2000, of 19,008 U.S. parishes, 3,023 (16 percent) were without a resident priest pastor. Of these, 2,241 (74 percent) were administered by a nonresident priest pastor. The other 782 (26 percent) were administered by resident non-priests, although each parish also had an appointed sacramental minister or assisting priest. This latter category included 114 deacons, 18 religious brothers, 296 religious sisters, 313 laypersons, and 41 teams.
Given the growing shortage of priests available for active ministry, she observes that a married priesthood seems to be a future possibility. There are single lay men, religious brothers, and deacons administering parishes, but she limited the study to married male pastoral administrators since their success could help overcome the often-heard objection that Catholics will not accept married priests, or that the necessity for a married priest to care for a wife and children would necessarily detract from the time and attention directed to ministry and therefore to the vitality of parish life. Instead, she finds that "the married state is not an impediment to church leadership. In fact, their marital status offered two advantages: their family members provided a community living situation for these parish leaders, while their wives and children contributed to the creation and maintenance of the parish community as well."
In some ways, however, success was almost preordained. Many of these men were not strangers who were simply assigned by the bishop as is the usual case with priest pastors. Rather, almost half were appointed from within the parish (six of the deacons and three of the lay leaders) and therefore were already well-known insiders. Moreover, the members of all parishes were awarethat there were no priests available for their parish, and that the probable alternative to the non-priest pastor was closing the parish. These factors may have created a situation more conducive to parishioner acceptance of the layman or deacon than might otherwise have been the case.
The author notes that all twenty of the women pastoral administrators she studied earlier were collaborative leaders. This style contrasts with the more authoritarian or hierarchal pattern often associated with traditional clerical direction. She found that all ten of the lay men in this study were collaborative leaders, as were eight of the ten deacons (including all five of the non-white deacons).
The study makes clear that the success of the married ministers, both in their own satisfaction and as well as in the perception of the parishioners, depends on the diocese getting many things right. These include the bishop's prior consultation with the parish pastoral council, canonical appointment and financial agreement, public installation by the bishop that acknowledges the pastoral administrator and his family, clear delineation of the roles of the lay pastor and the assisting priest, with the understanding that the latter will always defer questions of parish administration to the former, and written guidelines throughout.
The book includes three principal recommendations that seem sound. First is "a nationwide survey of parishes without resident priests that will give us the statistics for a more comprehensive view of non- traditional parishes." Second, since some dioceses have ten or more years of experience with alternate parish leadership and have developed guidelines, these should be collected, compiled, and made available so that other dioceses might benefit. Third, more an observation, is that "as the priest shortage continues to accelerate, the policy of assigning priests as sacramental ministers is vital to this project, but to assign them to several parishes is an invitation to burnout."
The book deepens and broadens our understanding of emerging forms of leadership in Catholics parishes and begs the question of what makes these non-traditional parishes succeed. How can a parish flourish without a resident priest pastor? Could this be the research question for Dr. Wallace's next book?