Priests have relationships with their employers and their organizations that go far beyond those of other professions. Their position is what social scientists call “sticky”, meaning that their career decisions have a built-in conservative bias against change. This leads priests to stay in positions long after the economic and social incentives would have led similar people in similar careers to have left.
Priests that do not have these sticky relationships are considered mercenary and unreliable and are kept at arm’s length. These priests are the exception; most priests exercise the option of what the political economist Albert Hirschman called “loyalty” rather than that of “exit” (even when exercising the option of “voice” is unavailable or counter-productive). While this hampers the most efficient allocation of priests to bishops and parishes, it really is the norm.
Part of this is because of the sense of responsibility priests feel for the people they serve and for the bishops that promoted them to serve in their organizations (and, perhaps, because they expect their loyalty to be rewarded). This isn’t usually how we speak about these things; I am putting this is such dry language to make the contrast with the real reason priests stick things out more obvious. Priests are loyal because they experience the sacramental and ecclesial dimensions of reality even more deeply than they experience its economic and social ones. Or, to phrase it just a bit differently, they evaluate economic and social status and incentives through the Gospel (to include its sacramental and ecclesial filters).
As St. Paul knew, the closest analogy is marriage (this may not work much longer; it is increasingly the case that both sides of the marriage/church comparison have to be explained) . I am not saying we are “married” to our bishop or our parish; I’ve heard that used and it gives me the heebie-geebies. I mean that our relationship to our wives is sticky in the same way and for similar reasons that our relationships to our bishops and parishes is sticky. I like this because it gives us and others the right feeling for the reality of things; but comparisons are also useful for drawing out differences.
For one (and this is somewhat controversial), the marriage relationship of the priest comes before both his relationship with his bishop and with his parish. If it came down to it, I would advise most every priest in most every situation to be willing to take a break from the priesthood (or give it up entirely) to save his marriage (and ditto for laymen to delay or even give up their pursuit of the priesthood to the degree its pursuit would put their marriage at risk). Thank the Good Lord and His bishops that this situation is rare.
More generally, the relationship with the bishop and (even more so) the parish is not as sticky as that between husband and wife. There are certainly times when it is right and meet to petition the bishop for reassignment to a new parish. It should never be done easily nor without having first done the hard work of discernment (and talking to the bishop should be part of the discernment process, not just its result), but it is part of our ecclesial culture. Even so, priests sometimes stay in (or are left in) circumstances long after they have ceased to be effective and after considerable damage has been to him, his, family, and his parish. Orthodoxy does not have the best personnel management system, but part of it really is the necessary bias towards sacramental and ecclesial conservatism.
With changing bishops, the situation is more complicated and difficult (this may well be the most understated thing I have ever written). Not only are the theological and canonical considerations complex, it is incredibly painful and – assuming we are dealing with spiritually mature and non-mercenary priests – often comes after a long period of dysfunction, miscommunication, and profound suffering. In this, the issues – and the pain – are much akin to divorce.
This is not always the case; sometimes its easy and healthy. For example, transfers across dioceses within Churches are fairly routine.
In addition to the pain that often results from leaving a bishop’s omophor, transferring from one bishop to another is fraught with risk, especially when priests are moving from one Church to another. Trust and loyalty are two of the greatest coins in the ecclesial-political realm, and the priest that asks to leave his bishop immediately surrenders his account as soon he does so and, even should the release/transfer handshake be completed, starts with an empty account once he starts with his new bishop.
I can’t possible overstate how risky this process is; we all know priests who have ended up in some kind of limbo (or worse) because things broke down along the way.
Because I am known as a huge and vocal proponent of strong and sticky ecclesial and sacramental bonds, I am asked fairly often whether I think it is ever okay to ask to be released from one’s bishop and transferred to another. This blog post is the short answer to that question (i.e. “yes, although it is rare”).
The medium answer would be to go through the priest’s specific circumstances and to help him in his discernment.
The long answer? The long answer is silence. Silence and tears.