Beating Up Parishioners

Recently a young priest was accused of pushing a parishioner in a tony Episcopal Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  After service, he had been confronted by several members; the exchange grew heated; and he pushed an elderly lady out of the way.  She stumbled back, astonished by his physicality.  She was unhurt.

I’ve seen heated exchanges in churches between priests and parishioners.  Usually  there’s a back story about family dynamics and church history.  Priests and parishioners exasperate each other due to the conflicting demands and the unintended slights.  I understand the motives of some good priests who are frustrated by churches that cannot change.  It’s also clear that priests can get the blame for work that isn’t done by parishioners.    And, of course, plenty of priests are lazy, narcissistic and entitled.

One of the complaints about this particular priest stood out to me: a lack of pastoral care.  It’s a common one, and perhaps more so as the priest’s job description has changed to include fundraiser and building manager.

I’m often ambivalent about this criticism of clergy for a few reasons.  Although pastoral care has traditionally been the central part of a priest’s responsibilities,  pastoral clergy have been unable to build sustainable, mission oriented parishes.  When communities seek pastoral clergy, they can implicitly prevent clergy from doing the work of encouraging communities to look outward, of being responsive to their immediate, unchurched, surroundings.  Clericizing (kind of like exercising) pastoral care also excuses congregants by abdicating their responsibilities to care for one another.  My intuition is that the law of community organizing holds:  “never do for someone else what they can do for themselves.”  Needy congregations often find themselves served by needy priests who end up becoming resentful and angry at their congregations in the long term.

Part of the problem is that a coherent understanding of  “pastoral care” is elusive.  Is it sacramental? a ministry of “showing up?” Cheap psychotherapy?  Or a formalized friendship?   Is it merely being a “non-anxious presence?”   If so, how is this different than a community’s expectations of their priest?

But there is one crucial aspect of pastoral care that clergy dismiss at their peril.  Pastoral care is one way of defining staying connected to the parish.  I admit the strong, willful, visionary priest.  But the only way such a priest can get the work done is to know the people in the parish and stay connected with them.

Some people in a parish have clearly identified roles; they are large donors; they are the social hubs and opinion-makers.  As early as a priest can, it is crucial in their ministry they identify who they are and consistently maintain open communication with them.  They need not, and should not, be obsequious in what they do or say, but be the present, non-anxious, responsive sorts of persons who their communities can trust to offer honest feedback, maintain focus, and encourage thoughtful participation.   We do not need priests who are brilliant at pastoral care while their communities flail about while they try to rediscover their purpose.  We need priests who can stay connected in the midst of chaos and disorder.

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2 comments on “Beating Up Parishioners

  1. janinsanfran says:

    I followed the links here, read up on the Michigan mess, and found myself wondering why you refer to the priest in the hot seat of this blow up as “young”? In many occupations, forty-one is not young. Now perhaps this comes from the average age of Episcopalians being somewhere in the mid-60s, but it seemed odd …

    I am pondering your discussion of pastoral care. We had a priest whose tenure blew up who insisted it wasn’t his job to visit a dying man — this couldn’t have been about making sure we were doing what we should do for ourselves. Parishioners had moved this AIDS sufferer into their house. But any time you wanted to explicate more on “pastoral clergy have been unable to build sustainable, mission oriented parishes” I would read with great interest.

    In an impoverished urban setting where pain is all around, might not much of mission consist of simply being with people in their pain? Not that such activity pays the bills …

    • padremambo says:

      Well, part of it is simply that: 41 is often when people are just beginning to enter the ministry, and I’m still younger than most of my parishioners.

      A priest who doesn’t visit a dying man is clearly fulfilling his responsibility: the canons, I think, have a voice in this. I would also say that given the priest’s sacramental role, dying is one occasion where his witness is obligatory.

      More accurately, a priest should still be connected to all the members of the parish. “Visiting” is a way of connecting. In this way I’m reframing how the priest understands the work. It’s not to save; it’s not to abdicate responsibility for other members to also visit; its to be (using Malcom Gladwell here) the central connector of the church. The priest can then more easily know what kinds of care other people can offer and should be trained in such a fashion that they can ensure that there is satisfactory presence in a variety of ways.

      You describe something called “a ministry of presence,” and it is spiritual/psychological state that is crucial for clergy, but not simply during pastoral care. It is crucial in meetings; in planning; in understanding church emotional dynamics. But this has often been substituted by a cheap psychotherapy which provides a disservice to churches that need to get to work – if they want to build a church. That said, there is another role: priest as chaplain. But hospice priests in pain filled communities are rare, especially because such communities find it hard to compensate priests in a fashion that allows them to live without such worry that diminishes their inner drive to serve.

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