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.