Clergy Appointments

How Are Priests Assigned in the Archdiocese of Washington?

Whenever a parish priest is reassigned, the questions are inevitable: why is our pastor leaving, why can’t he stay in our parish forever and how are priests assigned anyway? Below is some helpful information to explain how the process works.

What is the difference between a diocesan priest and a religious order priest?
A diocesan priest is ordained to serve a specific geographic area called a diocese (or archdiocese). At his ordination, he promises obedience to the bishop of that diocese and to the bishop’s successors. A priest with a religious order, such as the Franciscans or Jesuits, is ordained for that community and serves at the direction of his religious superior. Some parishes are under the pastoral care of religious orders, in an agreement with the local bishop and the superior.

Who assigns priests?
A bishop has responsibility for the pastoral care of the faithful within his diocese. He cannot respond to all of the pastoral and sacramental needs of the people on his own and thus turns to priests who collaborate with him in the care of souls. One reason priests make a promise of obedience at ordination is so they can be assigned wherever the bishop assesses there is a need. This helps ensure the proper pastoral care of the faithful throughout the diocese.

In the Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl consults closely with a Priest Personnel Board, which meets almost monthly to advise him on priest assignments.

Do priests have term limits?
Not exactly. Canon (church) law permits a conference of bishops to establish guidelines for the length of pastor appointments. In the United States, that term is six years, renewable for another six years. A pastor may be moved prior to that time, or may be kept on longer, depending on the bishop’s assessment of the pastoral needs within the parish and diocesan-wide.

Why do priests get reassigned?
The most common reason is an opening for a pastor because of retirement, grave illness, death or other serious pastoral need. A priest is assigned to fill that opening, but then his old position needs to be filled and so on. In fact, there can be a domino effect with one opening resulting in several priest moves as parish needs and priest gifts are matched.

What criteria are used to assign a pastor?
A pastor is chosen after careful consideration of three criteria: (1) needs of the parish; (2) gifts of the priests in the diocese; and (3) availability of priests.

Each parish has different needs, including size, diversity and the complexity of its ministries, and each priest has different gifts and experience. The goal is to match the parish needs with a priest’s experience as much as possible. This can be a challenge at times as priests retire and fewer priests are available for the needs. At the same time, the Archdiocese of Washington is blessed with an active vocations program, which brings great hope for the future.

There seem to be a lot of changes right now. Is that unusual?
Not really. Priest assignments can either be made over several months or at one time, as is being done this year. The reasons for the current changes include retirements, ordinations and the return of priests from assignments outside of the archdiocese.

We love our pastor and don’t want him to move. Does he have to?
It can be difficult to learn a much-loved parish priest has received a new assignment. Your feelings are a sign of the good work he did in the parish. Yet, a priest is not ordained for a parish, but for the diocese. Sometimes it may be necessary for a bishop to move a priest to a new parish or ministry that has a need for his gifts and pastoral care. We must continue to pray for our parish priests and to pray that more men to answer the call to the priesthood. You can learn more about our vocations program at www.dcpriest.org.