Workplace Conflict: Cardinal George vs. Rev Pfleger

April 28th, 2011 - Erin Johnston

Catholic ChurchIn Chicago, a workplace conflict is being played out in a very public arena.

The leader of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, Cardinal George, has suspended a popular Chicago priest Reverend Michael Pfleger. The suspension comes after a workplace conflict surrounding the potential reassignment of the reverend, which was publicly discussed by Rev. Pfleger on a national radio program. In response to the Pfleger’s comments on the Tavis Smiley show, the cardinal felt that the process was “short-circuited” and opted to suspend the pastor.

Letter delivered the notice of suspension and the news was shared with the parish members that evening. The next day, 100 parish members protested the Cardinal’s decision in a public demonstration on his lawn.

The Workplace

The Archdiocese of Chicago serves 2.5 million Catholics through 378 parishes as well as the greater Chicago community at large. Looking at the archdiocese as a workplace, Cardinal George oversees a staff of 1,612 priests, 2,056 nuns, and almost 1000 other religious and pastoral staff. In addition to the regular parish church activities, the workplace oversees 258 elementary and secondary schools, six colleges and universities, and 19 hospitals. Being a church their mission is based on doctrine (principle, position, or policy taught or advocated, as of a religion or government), yet it remains a workplace for over 10,000 people.

The Workplace Conflict

In March of 2011, Cardinal George notified Rev. Pfleger of his possible reassignment from pastor of Saint Sabina parish on to President of Saint Leo High School. Rev. Pfleger, who has been the pastor of St. Sabina for thirty years, responded that he does not feel qualified to assume the role and wished to stay at St. Sabina. According to the Chicago Tribune, the direct correspondence between the Cardinal and Reverend (boss and employee) is limited to the Cardinal’s initial written notice and the Reverend’s written response. Six weeks after the initial notice of intent, and two weeks after the Tavis Smiley radio program, the cardinal notified the reverend of his suspension. It is likely that the lack of direct and private communication between the employer and employee increased the workplace conflict.

Rev. Pfleger’s career with the church has not followed the usual course. He assumed the role of pastor at St. Sabina in 1981 at 31 years of age, becoming the youngest pastor in the archdiocese. His thirty year tenure at St. Sabina is virtually unheard of in the archdiocese as most pastors serve fewer than twelve years before reassignment.

Through the years, Rev. Pfleger has challenged, and sometimes defied, his superiors at times. He adopted two children and fostered another. He has collaborated with controversial religious and cultural leaders in the community. He defaced alcohol and tobacco billboards, picketed The Jerry Springer Show, organized an outreach programs targeting prostitutes and drug dealers, actively advocated against perceived institutional racism – even within archdiocese organizations, and organized the erection of billboards targeting “disrespectful rappers”.

As a result of his work and integration into the community, Rev. Pfleger is loved in his parish. For many he is considered family. Despite this, his reassignment reportedly does not come as a surprise. However, he does disagree with the Cardinal’s decision as to his next career move.

Rev. Pfleger told the Chicago Tribune:

I’ve always said I could not do something that I don’t feel called or equipped to do. A full-time position at Leo is not something I’m equipped to do. I think Leo has made it clear they don’t see any need for me to come there. For both sides, it would be a lose-lose.

The Reverend further asserted on the Tavis Smiley Show that, if removed from his role at St. Sabina, he would consider leaving the Catholic church to continue his work:

I want to try to stay in the Catholic Church. If they say ‘You either take this principalship of (Leo High) or pastorship there or leave,’ then I’ll have to look outside the church. I believe my calling is to be a pastor. I believe my calling is to be a voice for justice. I believe my calling is to preach the Gospel. In or out of the church, I’m going to continue to do that.

In his letter to the pastor, Cardinal George wrote, “If that is truly your attitude, you have already left the Catholic Church and are therefore not able to pastor a Catholic parish.”

Cardinal George also states that he objects to Pfleger’s use of the term “remove” as that only occurs in response to specific incidents of abuse or malfeasance – which are not an issue. In addition the move to St. Leo was a “proposal, not a demand” although the Cardinal urged the Reverend to accept the transfer.

As of April 27, 2011, Rev. Pfleger has been suspended and given an ultimatum – stripped of his job (pastor) and skills (sacramental faculties). Cardinal George has responded to his employee’s public statements of disagreement and willingness to leave his employer if he does not get his way, by suspending him. The parishioners (customers) likely feel that their leader, friend, advocate, and family member is being taken from them against their wishes; that once again they are not being heard or respected by a larger organization.

Mediating This Workplace Conflict

Could mediation assist in the resolution of this workplace dispute? Have the Cardinal and Reverend met to discuss and clarify their interests and motivations behind their positions?

In many ways it seems that this conflict has devolved into one of positions: pre-determined outcomes that cannot be fulfilled to both the cardinal and reverend’s satisfaction. Instead of working together and talking to each other, they are making assumptions and decisions independently and publicly. As a result the workplace conflict grows, and they move further from fully satisfying either one of their true goals.

At a minimum, the employer and employee have a shared belief in the employer mission (shared faith) and a shared interest in serving the community. If they sat down with an independent mediator – who is not connected to the Catholic Church – for a private and confidential mediation, could they create a resolution that met both of their interests, the needs of the community, and the ministry as a whole? It seems more than possible – if they are willing.

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