Oops….forgot one big reason why Catholics either leave all together or stop participating – Part 1.5 of yesterday’s blog on why there are 42.7 million non-practicing Catholics in the US and why they left and where they went (Watch Monday’s blog for where they went!) Today’s blog is about Catholics who leave because someone changed priests (or parish directors) on them.
Changing of the Guard
Not sure how I missed this one, especially since I have been witness to the devastating effects a change in priest can have on a Catholic community – not once, but thrice. Unlike many of our Protestant brothers and sisters who have a say in their community leadership, in the Catholic Church, the community has no say. Instead, the Bishop appoints a pastor, based on the Bishop’s opinion of what pastor would be best for that community or on what the Bishop wants to see happen in that community. To my knowledge and it has been my experience, that the needs of the community, the community’s unique character and what the community is familiar with is NOT taken into consideration. In fact, it often seems as if the Bishop chooses a pastor that is completely opposite of what the community is familiar with, comfortable with or would fit with the parish’s unique character, especially if the community leans toward a more liberal or progressive expression of Catholicism. This is a strange phenomenon that has devastating effects on a worship community and a reason that I have seen many Catholics leave.
When Priests Leave
Let me give you an example. I have been a part of three worship communities where the change in leadership had devastating and lasting effects on the community. In all three situations, the parish had been led by a priest or parish director who were firmly rooted in Vatican II and working toward implementing these reforms. As such, the communities had vibrant liturgies, good music, excellent preaching, sound religious AND spiritual formation. In addition, these leaders were enormously gifted with compassion, understanding, acceptance and tolerance. They understood that every person was on their own journey and that a hard-line approach to doctrine fits with only a small percentage of Catholics. As a result of this, the parish communities became enthusiastic participants not only in worship but in other ministries of the church, and often took their service work out into the community and out in the world. Additionally, each of these parish leaders were gifted with empowerment and therefore empowered the fullest expression of involvement from their parishioners. People were happy and excited to serve an active role in the leadership and ministries of the parish. Then something changed. For various reasons, these leaders stepped down or were asked to step down and were replaced with priests that were TOTALLY OPPOSITE in their temperment, their gifts and their philosophy of parish leadership. ( I often wonder if the bishops do this on purpose. Empowered Catholics can be dangerous, you know!) For each of these communities, it was like getting hit with an atomic bomb! Not only were they grieving the loss of their beloved leaders, now they were expected to CHANGE everything they had come to know about being a part of this parish. Angry, hurt, feeling betrayed and not allowed to grieve, what recourse did they have? Some slinked back into mute participation. Others tried to fight….but mostly in vain. And the rest simply quit coming.
Compassion for the Priests
I cannot address this issue without offering a profound prayer of compassion to the priests to unwittingly find themselves in this role. These priests are as much of a casualty of the “you have no say in this” approach to job placement. If the priest is placed in a community that doesn’t fit his temperment, theology or philosophy of leadership, then he ends up becoming the enemy and the scapegoat for the parishioners’ anger, powerlessness and grief. These poor guys are being fed to the wolves and that is no more fair to them as it is to the communities where they are forced to minister. I have watched several priests struggle just to stay sane in the face of these dynamics – all really good men in their own right, with their own unique set of gifts, forced to minister to a community that doesn’t fit their gift or skill set. That would be like hiring me to fix the motherboard on your computer and expecting me to do a good job – and I promise you, that WOULD NOT be pretty!
What have been your experiences of good parish leadership?
What are the negative effects you have experienced when parish leadership changes?
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