Mar
19

You Don’t Have to Like Your Priest

A reader recommended Brother Patrick Mary Briscoe’s article “You Don’t have to Like Your priest” (published on March 7, 2014 at Dominicana)   It is an excellent article and I recommend it, too.  Imitation is the highest form of flattery.  The following is patterned on Brother Patrick’s essay.  Why do I like it?  I know that my parishioners struggle with this; not only have they benefitted from the service of saintly priests, their own priest is often hard to love.  While I try to be a bit more likable, I will never please or satisfy everyone.  Surely part of the solution has to involve more realistic expectations and a greater appreciation for the priesthood, the fallibility of the men who serve as priests, and the love these men have (and sacrifices they make) for the people they serve.  – Fr. Anthony 

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There are many reasons for you not to like your priest. It may be because his homilies are too dry, lack patristic moorings, or stray too far from the Biblical text. His answers to your deepest theological, spiritual, and personal challenges may leave you cold and unsatisfied. He may be a poor confessor, offering only absolution and standard responses about “prayer rules”, “forgiveness” and “humility”. He may not offer the kind of charismatic and visionary leadership that would inspire your parish to grow. He may chant out of tune, his accent may be too strong, or he might try to sing all his liturgical parts fortissimo – espansimo. He may be too ignorant, over-educated, emotional, impersonal, shy, gregarious, fundamentalist, liberal, political, or dull. Whatever his human failings, there is sure to be plenty about him you do not like. And that’s okay: you don’t have to like your priest.

Orthodox Christians often feel guilty or dissatisfied if they are unable to feel good about their their priest. They have memories of priests who were great liturgists, pastors, leaders, confessors, teachers, and managers. The Orthodox are reared on stories of startsi (great elders) and sainted priests that, along with the hagiographic memories of former priests, set the bar of competency impossibly high. And yet, there is something within the heart of the Orthodox Christian that still wants to be close to his parish priest – despite all his very real shortcomings. This desire for a meaningful connection shows that there is more to the relationship between priest and parishioner than meets the eye.

This relationship is different from all the other ones we know. The priest is not the commanding officer of a military unit or the manager of a parish franchise or even the professor of a class everyone has to pass in order to receive their reward. He isn’t a lawyer trying to get people in good with the judge so he will excuse them of their crimes. He isn’t an entertainer the parish has hired to make everyone feel better every Sunday morning or a museum curator responsible for preserving ancestral stories, cultures, and languages. He is not a psychiatrist or family counselor that can solve everyone’s personal problems. Nor has he been assigned to the parish to be anyone’s friend. He may or may not exhibit bits of each of these, but they do not capture who he is or how his parishioners should relate to him.

So how should the Orthodox Christian relate to his priest?

Chapter Seven of Fr. David’s book (from Ancient Faith Publishing) uses the models of Lawyer, Doctor, Teacher, Artist, and Manager to help parishioners understand their relationship with their priest.

The priest is a shepherd. Some lead their sheep with gentle and melodious coaxing, others drag them through the brambles by the scruff of the neck. Some take on the wolves with the ferocity of a warrior, others focus on keeping the sheep in a guarded pasture and cower at every hint of a howl. No matter how he tends them, one thing is constant: the shepherd loves his sheep. He doesn’t judge them or mistreat them; he cares for them. Some parishioners may be offended at the idea of being “sheep” or “sheeople”, and admittedly the analogy is not perfect. But it is still powerful; after all, it is the one Christ Himself used (St. John 10). And this analogy says as much if not more about the qualities of the shepherd as it does those of the sheep. Being a shepherd means putting the well-being of the sheep first, even to the point of laying down his life for them (St. John 10:15). Being a priest rarely involves actual crucifixion, but the priesthood does bring the the modern spiritual and physical equivalents of the kind of nomadic life that is easy to romanticize but difficult to live. Trusting the priest as the sheep do their shepherd may go against deeply-seated American values like egalitarianism and democracy, but it really is part of our relationship with Christ and His Church. This is a dangerous world; everyone needs to be under the protection of a good shepherd.

The priest is a physician. The Church is a hospital that Christ created for those who are sick, and the priest administers the strongest medicine of healing and salvation. The good doctor does not judge his patients; does not treat them like employees or marks; nor is he inconvenienced by their complaints or offended by their diseases. The good doctor does not care for people to receive a paycheck or good benefits, but because he genuinely desires that they be well. The good doctor treats the whole person, helping them make better life-style choices and prescribing medicines and disciplines that will allow them to live life in abundance. A good patient takes his health seriously and works openly, honestly, and earnestly with his physician. He takes his prescriptions seriously and communicates his improvements and setbacks so that his treatment will be effective. This world is full of disease, everyone needs to be under the care of a good physician. 

Finally, priests are fathers. This one used to be obvious and easy for people to accept. That is no longer true. Most people have been affected, either directly or indirectly, by divorce, dead-beat dads, and abusive and unreliable male “role-models”. We should not be surprised that many people bring the damage such a history has wrought in their lives with them as they encounter priests, Christ, and the Church. It is rare to meet a person who has a completely healthy intuition about what it means to be a father to a child or child to a father. This makes it very difficult for them to have a healthy relationship with their priest. For some, this is compounded by the modern idea that the male priesthood offends the dignity of women. These two lenses distort the image of priest as the father of the parish. In order to heal this, the priest must be reliable and loving; and the parishioner must re-learn what a father is. The father helps give life, then he nurtures, guides, and protects it. This is the fundamental role of the priest; not chores or discipline (although these may come into play), but to enliven and strengthen. Our Lord loves us too much to leave us as orphans; everyone needs a father.

In the end, we don’t have to like our priest much at all; our relationship with him is not about our emotions or satisfying our preferences. Our connection with him is different from the one you share with anyone else. Even if you find your priest a bore or a jerk, he is your shepherd, your physician, and your father who has, in imitation of Christ, offered His life so that you might be saved. When you are feeling disappointed or unfulfilled because of your priest’s unaffability, it may help to remember the difficulty of his calling and that he is as human as anyone else. 

As Brother Patrick Mary Briscoe put it;

Priests aren’t ordained because they are perfectly qualified or worthy or, in any simply natural way, deserving of the privilege of ministry; they are ordained because God has chosen to care for His people by means of frail human beings. And whether we like them or not, their frailty is a welcome reminder that God’s ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts our thoughts (Isa 55:8). The One who redeemed the world by the foolishness of the cross continues to draw a people to himself through faulty instruments – instruments like you and me.

 Amen, Brother!

Comments

  1. What if your priest is a sociopathic liar and is scattering the congregation and the bishop won’t do anything about it? … [snip] He’s likeable. He just needs psychiatric help and should not be a priest.

  2. Emad Malak says:

    I disagree. Churches leaders must recognize the short coming and correct them , or else. You lost me.

    • Yes, of course (sorry I lost you). The goal is perfection in Christ, and the path involves correction and repentance. I regret that you thought I was recommending that church leaders ignore this part of The Way. All Orthodox essays are written within a certain salvific context – few are able to present the fullness of the faith in all its aspects; most concentrate on one or two (and occasionally even exaggerate them for pedagogical impact) .

      Here is the aspect I was focusing on:

      One of the things I see among some priests is the temptation to see the worst in the people they serve. It’s real and it can be very powerful. When we give in to it, we lose rational objectivity (discernment) and the ability to bring the best medicine for the real sickness. Priests get beat down enough by the world – we don’t need our own psychology to work against us.

      The mindset that I was trying to present goes beyond encouraging clergy to see the glass as half full instead of half empty – it’s more a matter of being struck with wonder that there is such a thing as water and a glass that can hold it. I am reminded of this during my Prayers before Communion. In the prayer book I use, there is a prayer that speaks about the tears of repentance … then a few sentances later it has us glorify God for seeing even a portion of a tear and counting it as repentance!

      I thank God for his charitable mercy by sharing it with the people He has entrusted to my care. There are other ways, of course.

      But the way of demonization (which is what we are doing when we see people as worse than they are) stunts and embitters the soul. I’ve seen soldiers go down that road in times of war and I’ve seen it happen to clergy as well. It’s heartbreaking.

      Your point is that the opposite temptation – that of neglecting our pastoral duty altogether – must be avoided, as well. I couldn’t agree more. But being against one extreme doesn’t necessarily make one an advocate of the other.

      What we really need is true discernment. Until then, I believe we have to intentionally balance our righteous chastisement with patience, charity, mercy, and a whole lot of love for all of God’s broken children.

      Make sense?

      • Emad Malak says:

        What you have written make perfect sense to me and consistent with my personal experience..
        “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church… “ is the title of a book by David Kinnaman. He lists few reasons for why young Christians are leaving the Church.
        I am not young, I am in my early 50s, but I can relate to what have been written in the book because my son left the Church for the reasons listed in the book. When the elderly people in congregation recognized that it is not only my son but he only represented a phenomena, they tried to bring their concerns to the priest. Only then, we found out what you have described by his mindset of demonization of the available volunteers to support his pastoral duty.
        Humility and repentance for arrogance is what we need to work together, clergy and people, as one body of the Christ and communicate His love and humility to others.
        Unfortunately, until that happens by His Grace, we will keep losing the young and their frustrated parents.
        It’s heartbreaking.

  3. I understand there is a MAN, and there is the Man that is ordained as a Priest. In matters of Spirituality I would hope I can depend on his guidance and care of my spiritual needs. The MAN who is ordained is still a MAN. he is not always pleasant or even deserving of my respect, but still I give it too him. As a child in a tight catholic neighborhood, school system and all, there was never any question or questioning the Priest. As an adult I am now faced with a MAN ordained as a Priest, who is rude, and teats me with dis-regard. He has been know to yell at me across rows of parishineor’s as we were preparing for a Mass with Baptisim. Or when I was doing what I was supposed to be doing for our Christmas Eve Children’s mass. There have been many times I have stood there with respect and said nothing and be in tears when I got back to where I needed to be. One Sunday he was so rude and disrespectful to me, that I could not fold back my tears and left before Mass began. This past week he came into a social function and came over to where I was talking to a friend. He put his hand on my shoulder and turned me away as he stepped in front of me and began a new conversation with my friend. He had his back to me. If he was just a man I would have called him on his rudeness. I am conflicted. When I try to talk to others at church, they tell me they see this happening, but have no answers.

    I will respect the Man that was Ordained, but not the man that treats me with such disregard.

    • God bless you and your patience with your priest. FWIW, we had a similar concept in the military; “I respect the rank, but not the person.” As long as we aren’t talking about dangerous incompetence or wickedness, this comparison can work.

      How have your attempts to speak/understand your priest gone? You not that your priest is a man, this is a good point: like all people, some priests are warm and fuzzy and others more like “holy sandpaper”!

      • He NEVER has time to speak to me, When I am involved in the Mass ( 2-3 times a month) or other church related fellowship activities) He is abrupt and outright rude. If I need to talk to him about the Mass he has turned his back and walked away. Thus I have to either do what I think is needed, and if it is not what he wants, he will and has raised his voice to me across the pews filled with folks. (like closing the windows just to the point that they are not a safety hazard as they extend into the walkway — others and myself have hit our heads on the sharp edges). I have tried talking to our Spiritual advisor and another staff member on how I can deal with him, and if they were aware that I may have done something. One of these ladies was a good friend. They remain closed as this is his boss. It is said that I often feel hopeless and lost while attending Mass. It has gotten so bad that I have greatly reduced my involvement in volunteer activities. I have asked a close friend to observe his interactions with me, and she said she has noticed his rudeness. I am a mature lady, and I feel like I am dealing with the school yard bully.

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