Archdiocese launches program for ongoing formation of priests

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, November 15, 2023

In order to help priests grow and be supported in the future, the archdiocese is investing in their formation and development through a new effort called “Leading in a Renewed Church.”

The effort focuses on four areas: ongoing priest leadership formation, priest placement planning, priest growth plans and coaching.

Much of the program is part of a pilot with the Catholic Leadership Institute, which received a grant from the Lily Foundation for the program, but the archdiocese is tailoring aspects of it to the needs of local priests.

Each priest begins the initiative by completing a Priests Leadership Inventory from the institute. The inventory asks priests about where they prefer to minister, how the Holy Spirit is calling them to minister in the future, what their gifts and skills are and what they identify as their challenges.

Priests are then given a summary of what they said with recommendations that forecast their abilities and possible challenges in the future. From that, each priest puts together a growth plan through the lens of the three identities of a parish priest — disciple, shepherd and steward. 

“The growth plan is whatever the priest wants it to be,” said Father Michael Knotek, vicar for the pastoral and professional development of priests.

Each priest will pray about his growth plan and develop it with executive coaches at the Catholic Leadership Institute. All executive coaching is confidential, Knotek said.

“The coach isn’t going to tell the guy what to do,” Knotek said. “[The coach] is going to work with the guy to decide what to do and offer options and resources from their own experience on whatever given topic he wants to get better at.”

The archdiocese also is offering priests financial resources for outside professional development in areas where they want to improve, such as financial management, and the archdiocese is developing internal courses. Some of the courses will be health-related, Knotek said.

“We have two nurse practitioners in the Vicar for Priests office, so they are all about tending to the physical, psychological and spiritual health of priests,” Knotek said. “They’re going to be offering things with us.”

While there was a lot of skepticism at first, the program is catching on, Knotek said.

“The only mandatory thing is a growth plan. What it looks like is up to the individual priest,” he said. “There’s no timeline. It is body, mind and spirit. It’s also just improving the overall life and ministry of priests, respecting how they perceive God acting in their lives at this time.”

The Catholic Leadership Institute is working with 15 dioceses around the country on its pilot program, with the Archdiocese of Chicago being the largest.

“Our goal with the pilot is to help priests grow in self-awareness of where some of their natural gifts and passions are in ministry,” said Dan Cellucci, CEO of the Catholic Leadership Institute. “So often, we treat priests all the same, and God gave them unique personalities, unique stories and journeys, and special gifts that can serve a diverse church like Chicago. We also know that any authentic Catholic leader is committed to ongoing formation, to sharpening his or her saw, so we hope through our various tools such as the priest leadership inventory and coaching, a priest can grow in appreciation of where he feels called by God to continue his pursuit of excellence in ministry.”

Investing in the development of priests is good for the whole church, Cellucci said in an email interview.

“Every leader needs support, perspective and to be committed to growth,” he said. “Our research proves what we all know from our lived experience — the better the leader, the better the shepherd. The healthier, happier and holier our priests are, the stronger their leadership will be in our communities and the more fruit our faith communities will bear. If they have support in discerning God’s questions for their life and ministry, they will be that much more supportive in helping us through their important roles.”

Father Kenneth Simpson was vicar for the pastoral and professional development of priests when planning began for “Leading in a Renewed Church.”

“It was really the desire of the cardinal to really attend to the ongoing formation, ongoing education of the priests,” Simpson said. “The one thing that’s uniquely Chicago is using the themes disciple, shepherd and steward.”

The disciple theme grew out of discussions with priests through the Renew My Church process about becoming missionary disciples, he noted.

When Renew My Church started, there was an understanding that there would be a leadership component, but with all that was involved in merging and closing parishes it had to wait until the structural portion ended, Simpson explained.

“It’s still hard. There’s obviously still a need to walk with guys through the unification processes and things like that, but there does seem to be a little more energy by the priests themselves towards this idea,” he said. “This really is a big undertaking to make priests ongoing growth an intentional part of their lives. It’s not saying that guys haven’t been doing that, but we’re really trying to actually create a culture.”


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