Retiring pastoral administrator had rare role

Sharan Benton will retire from St. William Church this spring. She is one of only two members of the laity to serve as a pastoral administrator in the Archdiocese of Louisville. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
Throughout Sharan Benton’s 21 years as pastoral administrator of St. William Church, she has done a little bit of everything — from leading the parish staff to visiting the sick and homebound and even helping with repairs on the church building.

Regardless of her work on any given day, her approach to parish administration has always centered on building relationships and community, she said during an interview last week.

Benton will retire next month as pastoral administrator of the small but thriving parish at 1226 West Oak St.

She has filled a rare role in the Archdiocese of Louisville as one of only two members of the laity to serve as a pastoral administrator. James Butler served as pastoral administrator of St. William before her.

She was appointed by Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly in April of 1998 to lead the parish. A pastoral administrator is very simply an individual — other than a priest — who serves as the leader of a parish.

That individual can be a deacon, a vowed religious or a member of the laity, said Dr. Brian B. Reynolds, chancellor of the archdiocese. In addition to Benton, the archdiocese currently has one other pastoral administrator — Deacon Patrick Wright who leads Holy Family Church. Over the years, 20 parishes have been served by13 pastoral administrators, including three women religious and eight deacons.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz said in a recent statement that he’s grateful to Benton and the “many pastoral administrators who have served our archdiocese in a variety of parishes. I know I join their parishioners in gratitude for their dedicated ministry, leadership and care for the parishes they serve.”

These servant leaders are responsible for the administration of their parish, which includes parish finances, overseeing staff and parish ministries and working with the parish council. In addition, they must:

  • Ensure the Gospel message is provided through religious education and programs for children and adults.
  • Ensure children and adults are prepared for the sacraments.
  • Promote the work of social justice and advocacy for social issues.
  • Establish proper worship and hospitality ministries.
  • Offer pastoral care of the sick and homebound, outreach to the poor and those who are grieving.

Reynolds said the role of pastoral administrator was prompted by a shortage of priests to serve in parishes, but also by an “expanded understanding of the gifts and capabilities of lay ministers in the church.”

The code of Canon law changed in 1983 to allow for an individual other than a priest to lead a parish, said Reynolds. The first assignment here was in the 1990s.

While the formal role is modern, Reynolds noted that the roots of this ministry can be traced as far back as the beginning of the early church and the call for all to use their “baptismal gifts to serve each other.”

More recently, Reynolds said, the role of the pastoral administrator can be traced to the 1970s when a “world-wide” conversation among bishops revealed that religious women and lay catechists in South America were effectively administering churches while pastors traveled from place to place to bring the sacraments to other communities.

One of the most significant contributions of a pastoral administrator model, he noted, is that it promotes “collaborative ministry.”

Benton said she’s worked with many people to bring about whatever success the parish has had. Big decisions, she said, are made by the community and other parish leaders, including Dawn Dones, the pastoral associate, and Joe Grant, who serves in formation and also in ministries that promote social justice.

For the last 17 years, Benton has led the parish with the support of Father John Burke, a sacramental moderator at St. William since 2002.

Father Burke said the relationship between them is complementary. “I do what I do best and she does what she does best,” said Father Burke.
Father Burke said that Benton has worked hard for the parish in developing the parish council and other ministries.

“She’s good at empowering people. She can be pretty decisive when decisions need to be made,” said Father Burke.

He described her as “competent and skilled” with the staff and “sensitive to the poor.”

Over the years, their relationship evolved to one of “friendship and trust,” he added. Father Burke said he always wanted to be helpful to Benton, but “I didn’t have to try to interfere, because she was very capable. It worked well,” he said.

Reynolds said Benton “served with great continuity for many years and she’s a wonderful example of how the model (of pastoral administrator) works.”

He added that Benton wrote a book for the elderly, entitled “Wisdom Keepers.”

“That’s a great way to have an insight into Sharan’s goodness,” said Reynolds. “She has always had an eye for those who may not always be remembered or focused on, but that are in need of our pastoral attention. She brought that to St. William, but brought it also to many, many individuals.”

Archbishop Kurtz noted in his statement that Benton “cared deeply for parishioners and she nurtured the many outreach efforts” of St. William Church, which is heavily involved in outreach and social justice.

He also acknowledged her service to the archdiocese in other roles. In addition to her service at St. William, Benton served the Archdiocese of Louisville in the office of personnel and planning, at Catholic Charities’ Sister Visitor Center, at St. Lawrence Church as a pastoral associate and director of religious education and at the old St. Cecelia Church as director of religious education.

“I also want to recognize and honor Sharan’s long legacy of service to our local church with varied ministries over the years in teaching, social services, family ministry and pastoral planning,” the archbishop said. “Sharan has dedicated her life to the church and I wish her well in retirement.”

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