pass the torch

Pass the Torch – Protect the Parish

Have you found yourself feeling increasingly worn out or beat down by the work you’re doing in your parish ministry? Do you find yourself on the road to burnout? Are you really getting tired of the hassles you seem to encounter more and more frequently in your volunteer work? Do you wonder why you are the one who has to do the heavy lifting in your ministry and why others don’t get involved? If so, maybe it’s time to pass the torch. Perhaps succession management is in order for your ministry.

Pass the Torch Because You, the Leader, Need a Break

As a leader of any group or organization, there comes a time when one may need to move on and let someone else take over. This is as true for volunteer work as it is for the paid work that we do as part of our secular employment. There are some really good reasons to consider changes in leadership positions within the parish. At some point, the leader may just feel worn out. He may simply suffer fatigue from dealing with the routine challenges, time demands, and difficult people. (Yes, there are difficult people even in the local parish.) When he took the position in the first place, the challenges might have been fun and exciting. Now, they’re just a source of frustration more than anything else.

The longer a leader stays in charge, the more personally resistant she may become to change. She becomes more and more invested in the status quo and her approach – her way of doing things. This may show up in expressions such as, “What’s wrong with what we’ve been doing?” or “It’s worked in the past, hasn’t it?”

Pass the Torch Because the Ministry Needs a Break

All of us have friends who are closer to us than others. Leaders tend to involve their friends in their ministries. This is not all bad. However, it can create a clique in the group that makes it difficult for new blood and fresh perspectives to come into the ministry.

A leader’s consistent approach in his or her position may have been successful over a long period of time. Yet, conditions change over time, and the approach used to address them effectively needs to change as well. Now, the ministry’s performance may be suffering. Feedback from end users will confirm that this is the case, assuming feedback is requested. Given some of the survey statistics we see about declines in church attendance and involvement, this can be a critical issue. Our ministries should be attracting and keeping people involved, not running them off.

Pass the Torch—Don’t Hang Onto It

There are many reasons why people stay in parish volunteer positions far longer than they should. Any one of these can create a dangerous level of inertia that will not be good for your parish:

  • Volunteer leadership is just that—it’s a volunteer position. Other interested parishioners need to want to do the work in order for the position to even be filled. At times, it may be difficult even to find others to volunteer for the ministry, much less lead it. To be fair, an active, vital parish likely will have more people volunteering to help out in different ministries. However, the incumbent leader still needs to get out of the way to let others step in and step up.
  • The other members of the ministry may not want to rock the boat. They may know in their hearts and heads that a change is in order. For that matter, the incumbent leader may even be attempting to get one or more of the others to step up. Yet, nothing happens. Sometimes this is because the potential successors respect the leader. They feel a loyalty to this leader. These heirs apparent do not want to push the leader out. They may be friends, or family members, and do not wish to do anything to damage the relationship. A lot of personal dynamics may be involved here.
  • The parish priest may not want to deal with the issue, either. Some parish leaders have been ensconced in their positions for years. They may have a lot of friends and relatives in the parish. Any suggestion to change leadership could result in a great deal of contention within the parish. Thus, we’ll see a go-along to get-along process in place, which clearly is not in the best interests of the parish.

Passing the Torch—A Leader’s Self-Examination

Any time we are in a leadership position, we should ask ourselves whether we are continuing to add value or not. We can review the reasons to pass the torch, noted above, for some insight here. If we don’t have anyone stepping up to take over, perhaps it’s because we haven’t prepared anyone to step up and take over. Realistically though, in most parish ministries, this shouldn’t be a problem. We usually are not performing activities that require a long period of apprenticeship or formal training to carry them out successfully. It is more likely that the incumbent leader has not stepped out of the new leader’s way. We see this when the incumbent leader wants to hang on, or hang around, after the new leader assumes the role. In other words, the old leader says he wants to step aside. The reality is that he doesn’t really want to do so. This then creates havoc for the new leader and the ministry.

If we as leaders find ourselves thinking that we are the only ones who can or will do the job, we have a real problem. For one thing, we can make this a self-fulfilling prophecy by not letting others take over the reins. We will prove to ourselves that we are indispensable. (Of course, no one really is indispensable.)

At another level, when we take this attitude and line of reasoning, we may be falling into sin over the whole thing! We could be prideful, seeking our self-worth in our own abilities, traits or strengths. Similarly, we could be vain, having an excess concern about how others see us. If we harbor thoughts such as “I can do it better than anyone else…” or “If I don’t do it, who on earth will?” or “They need me!” or “Look at all I’ve done!” we really ought to take it to prayer. If we take a prayerful look in the mirror and see either of these root sins, it’s not good.

Now May be the Time to Make a Change—Pass the Torch

No matter what the reason is, when it’s time to go, it is time to go. We should not hang on to parish ministry positions just because we can. In most dioceses, priests usually stay at an assigned parish for one or two, six-year terms and then they move on. Why should parishioners continue to hold the same positions they’ve held for a longer time than the priests will be in their positions? But even more to the point, why would we, as the parish volunteers, strive to stay in positions beyond our usefulness?

The real question we need to answer in this matter is whether our staying will contribute to the greater glory of God or not. To answer that question properly, it seems that some time in prayerful reflection, together with the counsel of a good spiritual director or confessor would be in order. God can use us in a variety of ways to build His Kingdom—but we need to be open to His Will for us. His Will may be that we do something else with our time that will give even greater glory to Him. He may be telling us it is time to move on.