Justice in the Church
Just Treatment for Church Ministers
Walking the Talk

Just Treatment for Church Ministers

Workshop of Experts Organized by FutureChurch and Presented at 1998 National Call To Action Conference

“She must have done something bad that we don’t know about to have been fired.” So ran the gossip among some St. Francis Xavier parishioners in the aftermath of the firing of a beloved Sister of Mercy pastoral minister. Parishioner Judith Walker’s compelling story of her fight to have justice done for the nun she described as “the Spirit of Jesus walking the streets in a skirt,” provided the real life background for “Walking the Talk: Just Treatment for Church Ministers” a daylong panel at the October 31, 1998 conference. Unfortunately, stories such as Walker’s were all too common among participants, many of whom had their own difficult stories to share.

An overwhelming consensus was that silence in the face of injustice doesn’t help. Catholics need to speak up and speak out, utilizing the media if necessary. Many participants were willing to have their stories publicized. All agreed about the importance of raising awareness among both priests and people about the need for systems of accountability, and that parishioners must be informed about what their responsibilities are.

Panelists and participants emphasized that job descriptions, contracts and appropriate personnel policies are important tools for building just treatment for church workers. In this way, parishes can be held accountable in the civil courts if recourse in the church itself fails.

Canonist Fr. Jim Coriden reviewed the canonical issues involved in the St. Francis Xavier situation, called for a “Bill of Rights” for local churches, and noted the need for appropriate training for new pastors as well as a process to resolve grievances when they occur. Civil attorney John Ayers encouraged participants not to overlook organized labor as a source of support citing the words of an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union representative: “The worst labor relations I have ever seen are in the Catholic Church.”


Sr. Monica Lucas, President of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains reviewed the status of the Vatican’s “Instruction” on the role of lay ministry. Lucas witnessed the bishops’ sense of outrage over the document when they emerged from the opening session: “There was a sense of ‘Here we go again … No one asked for, consulted or invited our expertise, our input, or even some dialogue.’” Bishops have reiterated their support for chaplains at national and regional meetings and even in their annual visits to Rome, where one discovered that the “instruction” was never focused on the American Church.

Minnesota pastor Fr. Mike Tegeder was once admonished by a friend in human resources: “Mike, face it, they don’t want you to retire.” Tegeder reported that because of the priest shortage, the diocesan retirement age for priests has now been raised to age 75, and even then the retirement benefits are so low, that it makes it difficult for priests to retire with dignity.

Sr. Louise Bond of the National Association for Lay Ministry highlighted the remarkable growth of lay ministry in the U.S. Recent signs of hope are the setting of professional standards and the growth of regional groupings. She reported on the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ecclesial Lay Ministers project’s ongoing work to describe a theology of lay ministry.

Program participants praised FutureChurch’s “Women in Church Leadership” project as a great resource, and encouraged membership in church organizations such as National Association for Lay Ministry, the NACC, the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators and others.