About ten years ago the Diocese of Cleveland changed from permanent pastorates to term limits. I was on the committee to assist the then bishop in deciding. I was less than enthused with the prospect. As with most new new things (please, can we never have yet another new miracle method for teaching in schools that will be all the rage for three years and then never be heard from again) it sounded like a cure that would solve all of our problems. The caution that I had at the time was that we were simply exchanging one set of advantages/difficulties for another set of challenges/difficulties and were we sure that we wanted this exchange.
Apparently we did.
The argument for pastor term limits are quite good. If there is a problem priest, there is a date at which canonically he may be removed. (Despite what many people think, the bishop does not have the power, except in limited circumstances, simply to move a pastor at will.) It also provides a chance for a priest who thinks that it is time to move to have a convenient way and date to do so. So there is a lot more flexibility and ability to change things up. It gives a bishop a lot more power to help a parish that is failing under a particular priest and in some ways it gives the people more power. If they don’t like the guy that is their pastor, when the time comes for the priest to renew his pastorate, it is the opportunity for the bishop to say, “Maybe not. Your people are revolting.”
So why would there have been permanent pastorates in the first place? (Chesterton warned against tearing down a fence unless you first know why it was there.) The argument for permanent pastorates is quite good. In an article in a recent First Things, the author listed some of the advantages to permanent pastorates. The first is a certain amount of protection from punitive acts of a bishop. It brings more power locally for a priest (and congregation) to say, “We will not do that here.” (With term limits, there may be some fear that soon you will be moved to a difficult assignment for sparing with the bishop.) There is more of a chance to develop long term relationships instead of the “father” of the parish changing every six years (making it a bit scary for staffs also.)
A lot depends on the people involved. Will a term limit cause a man not to do some difficult work such a replacing an expensive roof or firing a popular figure who is working against the goals of the parish? Will he tempted to say, “Let the next guy handle it.” Or would permanent pastorates cause another man to say, “Nobody can touch me, I’ll spend my days watching T. V.?”
Is more episcopal oversight better than greater subsidiarity? It is difficult to say. A lot depends. If you have a crummy pastor you are probably glad for term limits, if you have a crummy bishop, you probably wish for permanent pastorates.
We seem to have stuck a balance in the Diocese of Cleveland (and a lot depends on the solicitude of the bishop who is sitting in the cathedra.) We have six year term limits that are indefinitely renewable in theory. So a problem pastor or a pastor who thinks he has run his course can be moved or move on. Or, in theory, he could stay there for years if good still seems to be happening.
Which is best? The answer is bears, beets, Battlestar Galactica.