Archdiocese seeks to build ‘strong bench’ of school pastors, principals

Msgr. G. Michael Bugarin, pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish in St. Clair Shores, reads “If You Give A Moose A Muffin” to students at St. Joan of Arc School. The Archdiocese of Detroit is implementing several measures to form, train and educate future school pastors, principals and teachers. Archdiocese of Detroit file photo

Additional support, training measures part of Unleash the Gospel’s plan for Catholic schools.

Detroit — According to a 2014 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, students who attend a Catholic school are seven times more likely to practice their faith as adults than Catholic students who attend public schools.

Kevin Kijewski has quoted the statistic more times than he can count.

“I find that just incredible,” said Kijewski, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit since November 2017. “We’re not just talking about this being a good thing to do for your kids, but it’s a good thing to do for the future of the Church.”

If the impact of a Catholic school on students’ faith has been well-documented, the academic benefits are similar, with Catholic schools consistently outperforming public schools in many measurable benchmarks, including test scores, college acceptance rates and career success.

Having strong principals and pastors to guide young hearts and minds is singularly one of the most important factors to both faith formation and academic achievement, Kijewski maintains.

“We consider the principal job within a Catholic school as one of the most important jobs one can have,” Kijewski said. “Academic studies, whether we look at public schools, charter schools or Catholic schools, have indicated that the leadership in any school is one of the most important things that lead to academic achievement.”

Like in any institution, but especially one that educates 29,000 students in 89 schools across six counties in southeast Michigan, finding and retaining strong leaders requires more than good fortune, especially with so much natural turnover to be expected.

“Among all of our high schools and elementary schools, we have wonderful leaders. The problem is, with so many schools, we’re going to have people who retire and move elsewhere, and we’ll need to make sure we have the best and most talented people in those positions,” Kijewski said. “It’s very important that we foster this bench and stock it up with as many qualified, faithful people as we can.”

In the past year, the Archdiocese of Detroit has implemented several measures to do just that. In the past, first-year principals have been encouraged to meet regularly with the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools, allowing them to ask questions, give and receive feedback and grow in the job spiritually and professionally.

That will continue, Kijewski said, possibly with some modifications. But formation shouldn’t stop with just those who are already principals, he said.

“We’re also going to be debuting the Principal Formation Institute, or PFI, for people who are interested in being principals, but who aren’t yet, such as experienced teachers,” Kijewski said. “If we have a bench that’s appropriately populated, we can draw from that when a position opens up.”

The envisioned institute will be similar to an initiative Kijewski oversaw during his time as superintendent of the Archdiocese of Denver’s Catholic schools, allowing teachers and school leaders to test the waters of Catholic school leadership and receive formation from trained experts, working closely with archdiocesan education officials and others to learn the ins and outs of principal ministry.


Teachers would be nominated by current principals and selected for the exclusive program, Kijewski said, which will begin this year with a “cohort of 20-30.”

“There’s nothing wrong with (posting a position), but I’d rather have this two-way interview process where those in the program know what the job is going to look like, and we know how they would fit into these various roles,” Kijewski said. “So it’s not just talent acquisition, but we’re also coaching them along the way.”

Preparing pastors

Principals aren’t the only school leaders in need of formation, said Deacon Bill Kolarik, coordinator of Catholic schools strategic planning for the archdiocese. This summer, the archdiocese also hosted a seminar for newly assigned school pastors, featuring presentations and a question-and-answer session with seasoned archdiocesan clergy about what it takes to run a Catholic school.

The meeting was for any pastor with a new assignment at a school, not just those who’d never done it before, Deacon Kolarik said.

“Not everybody who gets ordained went to a Catholic institution, and pastors can’t be formed on everything in seminary,” Deacon Kolarik said. “The biggest thing we’ve realized is that these pastors have to have a charism for schools, and a willingness and desire to be part of a school. We advise them to take it slow.”

The archdiocese has sent several pastors to the University of Notre Dame’s School Pastors’ Institute, a weeklong immersion experience that allows them to learn from experienced school leaders and compare notes with other priests, Kijewski said.

“Our pastors, canonically and spiritually, are in charge of the parish, and that includes the ministry of a school,” Kijewski said. “We need to have well-intentioned, well-formed principals, but when it comes to the men who are ultimately in charge of the parish, they need to know enough about how the school functions, how to interact with the principal, staffing and budgets and all those different characteristics.”

Students at St. Anne School in Warren practice vocabulary words in this 2016 file photo. Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic

Archdiocesan leadership hasn’t always supported new pastors assigned to school ministry as well as possible, Deacon Kolarik said, which is one of the things changing in the wake of Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel.

In addition to providing mentors for guidance and support, the archdiocese is also in the process of taking some of the daily burdens off overworked and overwhelmed pastors and principals by establishing parish and school leadership teams.

Such teams, based on the Amazing Parish model of servant-leadership, emphasize collaboration and team-building, Deacon Kolarik said.

“It’s about surrounding the pastor and principal with more resources so they’re not by themselves,” Deacon Kolarik said. “The principal or pastor is still the leader and still maintains that day-to-day operation, but they’ll have a core group of people who are able to help them to execute the vision of the school.”

The leadership team model also functions as a way to further “build the bench” by allowing associate pastors, assistant principals and teachers to participate in the day-to-day functions in a healthy, collaborative environment, Deacon Kolarik added.

“A principal can’t do all of these things unless there’s a healthy environment, and bench-building is a lot about that,” Deacon Kolarik said. “We’re starting to train a whole generation of these team members who eventually may become principals, and they’re seeing how this works in real time.”

Ultimately, training and forming pastors and principals for ministry is an ongoing task because the work of the Church is ongoing, Kijewski said.

“We’re not here just to drive test scores; we’re here to drive souls to heaven,” Kijewski said. “It’s heaven first, Harvard second.”