There are many traps that new priests fall into (nor are the more experienced immune). Today I want to warn them away from three that occur all too frequently; choosing sides necessarily, blaming the former pastor for current problems, and making friends with parishioners.
The Temptation of Choosing Sides Unnecessarily
Parish life is messy and the priest can easily become a pawn in political games. This is especially true for priests new to a parish; not only doesn’t he understand the personalities and histories involved, but choosing sides is an easy way to gain allies. The problem is that he loses credibility with the other side and his legitimacy as a mediator and unifier. This puts the priest in the uncomfortable position of standing in the way of establishing God’s will that we be one as He is One.
Even when the priest agrees with one side and could use some help, he should stay above the fray and work hard to find a way to resolve (or defer!) the issue in a way that avoids conflict. Choosing sides works great in the short term, but creates a dynamic that undermines the priest’s effectiveness in the medium and long term. Sometimes it may be necessary (as when he is intentionally shaping the culture of the parish or the issue involves behavior that cannot be tolerated); but not to score points, and its necessity should only be accepted after the hard work of discernment has been done.
The Temptation of Throwing the Former Priest Under the Bus
Another trap that gains points in the short term but undermine’s the priest’s credibility is to throw the former pastor of the parish under the bus. This is a big temptation when the priest could really use a scapegoat and when the former did things differently than the new priest does. This temptation is often related to the one above as there is usually a faction that does not like some of things that the previous pastor did; thus providing the ability to kill two birds with one stone. Alas, I suspect that God loves parish unity and the dignity of the priesthood even more than birds.
I wonder if the priests that fall into this trap:
- Realize that participating in gripe sessions about the previous pastor supports a culture of “priest-eating” that will not long be sated with the cold flesh of former priests and will eventually require fresh meat.
- Know that this behavior alienates people who respect the former priest (even if they didn’t agree with everything he did).
- Understand that priests that engage in this kind of behavior become pariahs, excluded from the fellowship of their more trustworthy and virtuous brothers.
The advice our grandparents gave us; “if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all” is completely applicable for us as priests.
The Temptation of Being Too Friendly With Parishioners
This one is more controversial; I have met several priests who think (or at least act as if) they can manage this. For all I know, they may be right. Others are aware of the problems, but feel the need for companionship and to live as a normal human being trumps them.
Here are some of the myriad problems that come about when priests get too close to parishioners:
- It will appear to others that the priest is playing favorites (and they may be right). This is especially true if the parishioner-friends are active in parish life.
- Like the no-no of dating at work, what happens if the friendship goes south?
- Not everyone is mature enough to respect the fact that “what happens in the rectory stays in the rectory” or that what happens or is said among friends should be kept in confidence. There will be huge temptations for parishioners with privileged information about the priest and his family to use that information. Doubly so if the friendship grows cold.
Priests need friends, but I honestly believe they should keep parishioners at arm’s length. The best friends for priests are 1) other pastors and 2) people who are completely unrelated to religious work altogether.
There is a lot of gray area here, especially for priests with children (FWIW, I think that priest-wives should follow the same advice as priests); other children from the parish are great choices for playmates and that draws parents closer together. I’m not saying the “no making friends with parishioners” thing is some kind of hard and fast rule; but it is an action that almost always has negative consequences.
Yours in Christ,