Best Practices for Clergy Assignment Boards

This is an assembly of some best practices for clergy assignment boards, gleaned from examples in dioceses across the U.S., encountered while doing numerous assessments of chanceries relative to best practices at the request of their bishops. It is clear that there are some mindsets and practices common to the highest functioning clergy assignment boards across multiple dioceses. How these best practices are adopted and organized is not exactly the same in every diocese. The most significant variable influencing how, and how well, these practices are applied in a particular diocese appears to be the existing quality of the relationship between the bishop and his presbyterate, and that is often based in a trans-generational history.

What Differentiates Good from Great Assignment Boards

For many years, assignment boards have been matching the gifts and needs of individual clergy with diocesan needs for pastoral leadership, and, for the most part, succeeding. In an increasing number of dioceses, both priests and deacons (and their families) are included in the work of the clergy assignment board. The level of functioning of an assignment board is measured by asking open-ended questions of both those involved in, and impacted by, the work of the board in three areas.

  1. The experience of the bishop with the recommendations he receives from the board in terms of completeness of recommendations as coherently meeting the needs of the diocese as a whole; the comfort/alignment of the bishop with how the board operates, and the timeliness of his receiving recommendations
  2. The goodness of fit experienced by both the clergy being assigned, and those parishes to which they are assigned, as shown by the degree to which problems seem to arise after appointees are in place
  3. The overall experience of individual clergy and the parish with the assignment process itself

Bishops, clergy, and parishes all report rating boards based on some very basic criteria within these categories described above.

  1. Somebody listened well enough to get the “whole” picture
  2. Somebody took time to study the data sets that were requested or supplied
  3. The process was characterized by prayerful reflection and attention to the equivalent of the rules of Ignatian discernment
  4. Somebody took the time to fully explain the thinking behind the appointment, the outcome, and answered questions

Clear and Consistently Applied Principles and Process

The best assignment boards have clearly articulated and consistent guiding assumptions, including principles that pertain to the relationship between bishop and presbyterate, standards for pastoral leadership, and a consistent process for clergy appointments. The preference is to have those in writing for clergy, the bishop, and parishioners. In other words, everyone involved or impacted knows the rules and the process, and these are consistently applied.

A Mindset of Abundance and Discernment

It is a sad reality that some boards and their bishops have felt it necessary to treat clergy appointments as a process of assignment of a scarce resource. In the best assignment boards, the primary guiding principles are abundance and discernment, regarding what is best for the local Church. What drives the best assignment boards is contrary to a scarcity mindset, a much more hopeful mindset of abundance—not scarcity: As one bishop framed it: “God has given us the exact number of clergy we need right now, and it is up to us to discern how best to use them for the mission of this local Church.”

A Context of Communio

A prayerful discernment of appointments is an exercise in communio for missio (See Redemptoris Missio for an explanation of this). Collegiality in the relationship between bishop and the presbyterate is characterized by careful listening to the signs of the times, as the Church has always done, by both the presbyterate and the bishop together. One of the defining differences between the best assignment boards and the others is this context of collegiality, of brotherhood among the clergy, and with the bishop. Absent this context, the work of the appointment board is often a relatively negative experience, and the outcomes, in terms of goodness of fit, appear to be less robust.

Qualified Pastoral Leaders

Not every priest is called to pastoral leadership: some are gifted as pastoral associates or other ministerial roles, while others are gifted to be pastors. To the degree that the board is guided by having to fill every vacancy every time, the quality of appointments and the experience of the process by the bishop, clergy, and parishes are compromised. The more highly functioning boards know that the bishop is prepared to live with vacancies and other consequences where no properly qualified clergy are available, rather than mismatch scale and complexity of a parish with the experience and training of the clergy. It is common for a bishop to explain this as a decision based on his concern for the well-being of his clergy. He does not want to see them burn out or become unhealthy due to an inordinate degree of situational stress. It is up to the bishop to define what “properly qualified” means for a given situation. For example, some bishops have asked their boards to classify parishes by size and complexity as A, B, or C parishes, and, at the same time, to classify the clergy, based on their experience and preparation (formal or informal) for those different levels of parish assignments. Some bishops have gone so far as to insist that new pastors, or pastors looking for more complex assignments, must do certain courses in pastoral management. For example, some bishops have found it helpful to require that those who have been pastors for less than 10 years, or not yet pastors, complete certain pastoral management training that covers the basics of management, fiscal literacy, Human Resources management, planning, risk management, and consultation within a Catholic pastoral setting.

Pastors for Multiple Parishes or Parish Sites

In many parts of the country, a priest under the age of 55 is 100 percent likely to be assigned to a leadership role which crosses over more than one parish, or at least more than one community or worship center. There are Midwest dioceses in which newly appointed pastors are regularly assigned to lead five or more geographically and culturally disparate communities. In these dioceses, assignment boards have unique challenges. The higher functioning boards have become adept at including caveats to assignment recommendations that cover support systems for these new and inexperienced pastors of complex situations. They assign mentors and include recommendations for leadership development programs, management training, and various means by which the clergy have frequent access to spiritual support and development. Here, the vicar or director of ongoing formation of clergy, or a subcommittee of the presbyteral council, works closely with the assignment board to ensure accountability for making use of the support systems that were part of the appointments. Often, the higher functioning assignment board itself is part of a mechanism to see that the individual member of the clergy carries out the caveats to the recommendations approved by the bishop.

Predictable Process

The work of the highest functioning assignment boards is based on the predictability of appointments, not the exceptions. There are always some vacancies and unplanned appointments in every diocese due to illness, death, and other factors that cannot be anticipated. However, the process used by the higher functioning assignment boards is based on a predictable pattern for assignments: benchmark dates for applying for retirement or reassignment and declaring availability for assignments can, in general, be made predictable. Many dioceses that have not had a history of such benchmarks report that the work of the assignment board is much more difficult than that in which a predictable pattern is followed. The most savvy of assignment boards have established benchmark dates published well in advance. A relatively new development is the introduction in some dioceses of formal interviews of clergy who apply for pastoral leadership positions by members of the assignment board using a similar framework to that used in regular employment interviews. This practice is not widespread and is controversial in the dioceses where it is practiced. There is insufficient use of this practice to evaluate it at this point.

Board Membership

In some dioceses, the tradition has been to make up the assignment board entirely of clergy. This has been reported to have two immediate effects: first, the information and data on which decisions are made becomes entirely internal, often based on specific historical relationships, impressions, and biases, created during seminary years. Second, both bishops and assignment board members have noted that discussions at these board meetings are often driven by gossip. That is neither smart nor healthy. It appears that when the makeup of the board approaches one-quarter or more of lay members, those problems reportedly tend to disappear. Further, board members have noted that the inclusion of women on the assignment board effectively removes the gossip from the room. They report that much more attention is paid to matching parish data to the gifts of the particular members of the clergy, and the individuals get the benefit of decisions that account for their most recent spiritual, personal, and professional development, superseding outdated impressions and identities.

Mission Driven, Data Informed

Most assignment boards focus on the needs of both the individual clergy and the mission needs of the diocese. Most high functioning boards are not only mission driven, they are reported to use standardized versions of three sets of data to inform their deliberations: a current standardized “dashboard” summary of parish data, clergy assignment application forms, and information about the parish gleaned from a visit by board members to the parish.

The dashboard of parish data usually includes all or some of the following, often in graph format where appropriate (rather than in table format) to show trends at a glance:

  • The names of the last five pastors and their dates of residence
  • Ordinary income, such as plate and envelope collection, other ordinary revenue streams over the last five years
  • Any long-term debt and the current debt ratio
  • Statement of parish reserves
  • Number of member households reported to the diocese for the last five years
  • Number of students in the school over five years, if a school is attached/sponsored by the parish
  • Sacramental statistics as reported annually to the diocese for the last five years
  • Mass schedule
  • Number of staff
  • Five bullet point summary of key demographic metrics

Many assignment boards require parishes with openings for the assignment of clergy to be listed in local Catholic media or on the diocesan website, and have the clergy apply through the board to the bishop for those appointments. There is a standardized questionnaire/application format that includes:

  • Education, formation, and training beyond the seminary
  • Pastoral management and leadership experience
  • Statement about their sense of their fit with the recent culture and history of the parish

Many of the higher functioning assignment boards interview the parish leadership: Members of the board go to parishes with open pastoral leadership positions and listen to a key group made up of some members of the pastoral council, finance council, and school board with a view to understanding the history of the parish, as well as any recent local conditions that might influence an appointment. It must be clear that the purpose of the interview is to gather information about the parish, not any other purpose that could violate the nature of an ecclesial appointment by the bishop.

A Controversial Emerging Trend

There is one other trend of note emerging among the higher functioning assignment boards: a priest or deacon applies, or is considered for, a leadership position, and the diocese responds by requiring that a criminal background check be less than six months old, and that certain chancery officials such as the bishop, vicar general, moderator of the curia, chancellor, vicar for safe environment, and/or advocate for victims of clergy abuse sign a simple document effectively saying that they do not know of any accusation of improper behavior or boundary violations (the wording varies greatly according to the legal advice given to dioceses). This usually requires a thorough search of files held, or under the care of, each of those who sign that document. Some have gone so far as to have all members of the assignment board sign another document to attest that they have read the given set of signed documents and have seen nothing that would give them pause in making this appointment. There do seem to be differences of opinion across and within dioceses about whether including this as part of the assignment process is legally smart, essential in the current historical context, insulting to clergy applicants, or simply a best practice to be copied by all. There is certainly no consensus about the merits of extending this vetting process this far, or in this way.

A Path to Improving Practice

Any clergy assignment board can improve its practice: there does not have to be a crisis or high dysfunction to precipitate or motivate improvement. There seem to be four elements key to any improvement. First, an assessment of the current functioning of the assignment board based on interviews, focus groups, or a survey built around the key differentiators of high functioning assignment boards outlined in this paper. Second, the assignment board and the bishop, and some key groups, such as the presbyteral council, need to talk about the results of that assessment. Third, the bishop and assignment board members need to regularly engage with each other, such that there is clear understanding of the mind of the bishop about the guiding principles the board should be using in its deliberations. Fourth, a great investment for improving the assignment board is engaging members in high quality leadership development which is well researched and designed to identify the individual leadership development roadmap for each board member, using leadership competencies aligned with his or her role. This does not have to be expensive. The clergy assignment board is a leadership role in any diocese. Its level of functioning dramatically and directly impacts the pastoral experience of parishioners and health of the presbyterate at all levels. It is worth doing whatever it takes to adopt the practices of the very best assignment boards in the country.

Jim Lundholm-Eades About Jim Lundholm-Eades

Jim Lundholm-Eades is director of programs and services for the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management. Jim spent eight years on the clergy assignment board of an archdiocese in which he was a senior chancery staff member for 17 years. He holds graduate degrees in multiple fields, including pastoral counseling, educational administration, counseling, and business administration. Jim can be reached at 612-599-0627 or at


  1. Avatar J. E. Sigler says:

    This is a very interesting article. I am in a diocese where a great many priests are moved every year. This seems to prevent a sense of continuity or stability from developing in some parishes. On the other hand, those parishes who have had their priests for a very long time sometimes develop a sense of staunch loyalty to their pastor, almost as if a “cult of personality” has developed. I wonder, Mr. Lundholm-Eades, if you could speak to the balance that these boards attempt to strike between stability/continuity and the dreaded “cult of personality,” which seem to be in tension in clergy reassignments.

    • The imbalance and “cult of personality” you speak of is a pattern I have seen repeated in a number of dioceses over the years. Two key differentiators between those places, and the places of best practice, is the use of clear policies and standards for management of personnel, for both ordained and lay. Clear policy, for example, on term limits for pastoral appointments gives the process more stability. Using standards, over time, takes the culture of personnel management by personaity cult largely off the table, in my experience.