Fr. Bulldozer

When New Pastors Change Too Much Too Soon

Every parish priest I know keeps a junk drawer in the sacristy. It’s usually long and narrow and built into the vesting counter, a great place to keep cough drops, an extra handkerchief, or the notes for your homily, a place to stash a spare battery for the cordless microphone. These drawers never have locks because nothing really valuable is ever in them. Yet there is an unwritten code among clergy that you never open or rifle through someone else’s junk drawer.

I recently heard about a new pastor who violated that code. Within two weeks of being assigned to the parish, he reinstituted the ringing of bells during the consecration, recarpeted the entire rectory, and painted a wooden statue of Mary bright blue. Most shocking, he cleaned out his fellow priest’s junk drawer without warning or permission, while the priest was still living in and working at the parish. It was bad form and went a long way toward promoting staff anarchy.

I wish he were an exception to the rule, but more and more I get an earful about how Fr. Bulldozer walked in on day one and began making sweeping changes. What has happened to patience and gentleness? What happened to showing sensitivity to a community in transition? This sort of wisdom used to be passed down around rectory dining tables from older, respected, experienced clerics. Perhaps first-time pastors are now so young that there just isn’t time to “season” them properly. Or is this yet another example of the know-it-all clericalism of some coming fresh out of seminary?

I suspect it’s a little of all these things, and there is no easy antidote. I can, however, offer a bit of wisdom gleaned from the field, wisdom that I would confidently (and using my very best Barry Fitzgerald impression!) pass on to a tableful of young priests.

First, you may well be the new pastor, but it’s not really your parish yet. There are many families who have celebrated or grieved through major life events in that church. Parishioners have emotional attachments that reach back generations. You’re the new kid on the block. Respect that there was a living tradition going on long before you started parking there.

Second, ask to hear parishioners’ stories. That will go a long way in gaining trust from a community that is trying to appraise its new leader. More important, listening will deepen your knowledge of the ties that knit together any parish. You will learn, for example, that the hideous, gore-nographic statue of St. Sebastian in the vestibule was a gift from the Brown family when they lost a child, which is why no one ever suggests moving it. Encourage the People of God to speak, because their stories are the spiritual brick and mortar of the place.

Next, make no changes at all for at least a year. This is the best advice I was ever given and the hardest advice I’ve ever tried to follow. At one parish, I stared at a plastic rose lying on the altar for a year! It was placed there in memory of all the unborn lost to abortion. It was large and pink and utterly distracting, but I made friends with it because it meant something to many in the parish. Any change made too soon by the new guy—no matter how minor or liturgically correct—will be perceived as a criticism either of the previous pastor (who could walk on water, never spent a dime, and changed his own oil) or of the entire community (who, during this transition period, are grieving). It’s much easier to go slowly at first than to repair a reputation of disregard.

Finally, educate, educate, educate! This means a lot more than books and classes on Christology. Share a good article you’ve read by making it available at the entrance to the church. Use the bulletin to reveal some details of your own life and your view on things. The congregation wants to know a bit more about you beyond how you preside at Mass or preach. Conversations on the sidewalk after Mass, the way new families are welcomed, the music selections at liturgies, even the manner in which the parish phone is answered are all part of that educational process. Being consistent in these small matters promotes a parish identity that will eventually replace the “This is how we’ve always done things” attitude that confronts every new pastor.

A new pastor walks a fine line between learning about a parish community and making necessary administrative decisions. It takes time and balance and a lot of prayer. Have patience and trust. With a little luck, you’ll soon be filling up your own junk drawer. And after that, people might start asking why that distracting rose is on the altar. Even better, they might suggest removing it—while proposing five new parish ministries that, for whatever reason, were previously neglected.

Published in the May 16, 2014 issue: 
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Fr. Nonomen (a pseudonym) is the pastor of a suburban parish. He has been a priest for more than twenty years.

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