By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
Father William J. Byron’s new book, Parish Leadership: Principles and Perspectives, is a marvelous little book for pastors, lay parish staff and volunteer leaders alike.
As I read it, I frequently found myself imagining what it would be like for parish leadership teams to read it and discuss it together over a period of some weeks. It would be a great way for a pastor to get everyone on his parish team on the same page, if you’ll pardon the pun.
At just 159 pages, this book is very different from some recent classics in parish leadership like Rebuilt and Divine Renovation. Those are much larger and more comprehensive texts that take you ministry-by-ministry, step-by-step through the many processes that occur in today’s large parishes. Father Byron’s focus – informed by his own personal experience as a pastor – is much tighter, devoted to big picture considerations that should concern every pastor and parish staff member.
For example, early on he says: “Men and women in the world of work who are restless and wondering about the relevance of their Sunday faith to their Monday responsibilities are, I believe, being nudged now by the Spirit – the Holy Spirit – to begin an exploration into God. Their parishes should be helping them to do this.”
Father Byron’s work begins where every serious treatise on effective parish leadership should begin – with a discussion of “shared spirituality for parish leadership.” It was here in the first chapter that I first began to reflect on how helpful this book could be in building an exceptional team of parish ministers all focused on and devoted to a common vision and mission.
As Father Byron asserts: “Shared spirituality is the foundation for effective parish leadership.”
Baseline from St. Paul
The Jesuit priest adopts St. Paul’s "fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23, a list of nine principles, “for judging the consistency of one’s own (or anyone else’s) behavior with the presence of the Spirit in human life.” It’s an invaluable checklist for parish ministers, both lay and clerical, both on and off the job.
He then uses that checklist to present a series of brief inquiries any Catholic can use each morning and evening to keep on track as (to borrow Pope Francis’ term) a “missionary disciple.”
One unique emphasis in Father Byron’s book is taken up in the second chapter, “Applying the Tradition of Catholic Social Teaching to Parish Leadership.” The author’s emphasis is forceful, arguing: “The absence of both the letter and spirit of Catholic social teaching from contemporary parish life explains the failure of many parishes to connect with the people and to evangelize effectively, indeed the failure of many parishes to be effective at all.”
To assist parish leaders in doing a better job in this regard, he summarizes 10 principles of Catholic social teaching which, he says, “should shape the parish culture and thus influence the choices made by all who interact there.” This chapter alone is more than worth the price of the book – although I wouldn’t want to encounter it without having dealt first with issues of shared spirituality as described in the first chapter.
Together these chapters offer a priceless reflection on what it means to be an “effective parish” today – and yet there are eight more chapters to cover.
It’s interesting -- if a bit self-serving, since I am an advocate of S3 Jesus-like Leadership (Servant, Steward and Shepherd) – for me to note that after discussing stewardship as one of the principles of Catholic social teaching in the second chapter, Father Byron devotes whole chapters to servant leadership and shepherd leadership.
Of course, no less an authority than Pope Francis has described leadership in terms of all three of those metaphors, so Father Byron and I are both on solid ground here.
Drawing from a wide range of Catholic and secular expertise, Father Byron offers us a little book that can – and should -- have a huge impact on the performance of every parish leadership team, and thereby serve as a life-shaping force on leader and led alike.
Get this book. Read this book. Discuss its contents. Take it all to heart. Clergy or lay, you’ll be a better Catholic and a better parish minister for your trouble. And you’ll probably enjoy the process too.