We are coming up on graduation day for our seminaries, so I fielded a survey to gather the collective wisdom of priests to share with our new graduates and ordinands. These sets of “five things” are offered with thanks to the priests who answered the survey and prayers for all our clergy. It’s a beautiful and blessed – but often incredibly difficult – life.
Five Things that Surprised Us in Parish Ministry
- Worldly Behavior. Parishioners will lie to your face, maliciously gossip about you and your family behind your back, be rude to you in public … and NEVER apologize. Not just the antagonists, but even otherwise reasonable parishioners will engage in this sort of thing at some point.
- Wolves among the Flock. There is a small minority of real antagonists in almost every parish. They foment division, cause a lot of pain, viciously attack the priest, his family, and other leaders, and cannot be ignored. Seminary doesn’t prepare priests for conflict resolution with the willfully and pathologically malicious.
- Vulnerable and Alone. No one has the priest’s back; not the parish board, not visiting priests, and not his bishop. It can be a very lonely life. Friendships with parishioners are a tempting trap.
- Club Members. Many active parishioners couldn’t care less about the Gospel or Holy Orthodoxy. They tend to be very resistant to change and seem to look for excuses to get upset and/or stop coming to church. A few respond to good preaching and teaching, more to the constant, long-term application of love, but some never seem to get it. It is easy to forget that we are not the first Gospel preachers and teachers in our parishes and that most of our parishioners have have been coming to Liturgy their whole lives.
- It’s All Real. While much of what we do seems incredibly mundane, the spiritual warfare, the cosmology, the grace, and the miraculous are omnipresent. No matter what happens, the Divine Liturgy is always there to bring us back to the beauty and truth of Orthodox reality.
Five Pieces of Advice to New Priests
- Love your flock. See things charitably from the perspective of the people you serve. Don’t try to implement any changes for the first couple of years. Honor their achievements and earn their respect. Don’t expect them to respond to any power or authority that you think that you have.
- Honor and Propriety among Priests. Support other priests, to include your predecessor. Don’t build yourself up at the expense of others, especially other clergy. Never foment division within other parishes, especially those you have served or hope to serve (parish poaching is NOT okay!). Never complain about bishops and other priests in front of the troops.
- Independence. Be bi-vocational, stay out of debt, and buy your own house. Do not be a serf of the parish board. Never borrow money from parishioners.
- Support. You need a support network and good habits. This includes a healthy family, other priests, regular confession with a spiritual father, a full cycle of services, and a strong and reliable prayer rule.
Five Mistakes that Priests Make
- Unsustainable Lifestyles. Priests do not adequately prioritize their family and their own health. Stress (and a sedentary lifestyle) kills. Priests that treat ministry as a sprint risk burnout; they need to pace themselves. Everything they do has to be sustainable. Too many priests drag marriages and families that aren’t ready into the crucible of priestly service.
- Poor Leadership. Some priests seem unwilling to hear their people and properly diagnose their needs; this might make them good prophets, but it makes them poor pastors. The church needs to build up disciples and apostles, but many priests are inflexible micromanagers who refuse to delegate. If changes really are required in a parish, build support for it and take it slow.
- Unthankful. Some priests are incredibly negative. They complain too much, gossip too much, and seem unwilling to see the good in people and situations.
- Apathetic Service. Some priests seem uninterested in preaching, teaching, worship, and serving people well. Enthusiasm, joy, and competence are contagious; alas, so are apathy, melancholy, and ineptitude.
- Naiveté. New priests can be very idealistic. They mistakenly believe that people care about the priest and church; with few exceptions, they don’t. Most parishioners want a “tamed, timid milquetoast person masquerading as a man to do chaplain work – not a priest and certainly not a pastor.”
- David Allen. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.
- Keith Cook. The First Parish: A Pastor’s Survival Manual.
- Kenneth C. Haugk. Antagonists in the Church: How To Identify and Deal With Destructive Conflict.
- Lawrence W. Farris. Ten Commandments for Pastors New to a Congregation.
- John Whiteford. Starting a Mission and Building a Parish.