The tentacles of disappointment
I thought about how those thirteen priests and parishes were entering into the honeymoon. The honeymoon is not a time of deep trust. You can destroy the honeymoon within weeks. You can also attempt to manipulate the system to extend the honeymoon beyond its natural life. The phase of inflated hopes is necessary and will in most parishes unfold event by event. We don’t really know one another.
Soon enough we begin to know one another. Some of that will be done by the new vicar having meals and coffee with members. Early sermons may include parts of the priest’s story. There will be passing conversations at coffee hour and after weekday Offices and Masses. That’s all necessary. But it’s 10% of what will matter.
The other 90% comes in two ways.
First, how we manage the initial difficulties that arise in the relationship? And secondly, how we share ourselves, our stories, our feelings and thoughts?
The early encounters we have with one another in which there is an element of disagreement--possibly the initial feelings of confusion about intentions, or some discomfort in actions taken--is the place where real life begins. It is in these situations that we have the opportunity to show courage, perseverance, kindness. Our authenticity is tested. Our character shows in a mix of emotional intelligence, virtue and spiritual practice.
It is a common mistake of new clergy to want people to trust them beyond what they have earned. In that early phase of the relationship trust is offered by giving one another space, by offering the benefit of the doubt, and by assuming one another's good intentions. Long term trust develops based on the reliability, responsiveness, reciprocity and congruence of the priest and parish leaders (formal and informal). This isn’t just an interpersonal issue. The priest and parish leaders can increase trust in one another and with the larger parish by creating structures, processes and behavioral norms of reliability, responsiveness, reciprocity and congruence - that increases inclusion and acceptance, the open flow of information, a shared direction established from options, internal commitment, self management and collaborative relationships.
The initial bonding of priest and parish community will be shaped by how often there are significant disappointments in the relationship and how we respond to those disappointments. Too many early disappointments can leave people discouraged and anxious. The cumulative effect can establish a parish climate that we never move beyond. It sets the stage for the next few years.
Some disappointments are inevitable, even useful. If they are dealt with graciously and effectively that experience will tell us that we have the ability to work through difficulties sand disagreements. A foundation of trust may be built that will serve us all in the coming years.
For example, when as a “kid priest” in charge of a very small congregation I decided to institute the Easter Vigil and drop having an Easter morning Mass, I generated a bit of disappointment (you think!!). It made perfect sense – the Vigil is beautiful and ancient, people would love it, and we didn’t have enough people to make both liturgies “work.”
Sadly, my feelings were not their feelings and my thoughts were not their thoughts. So, Ed our parish musician approached me at coffee hour, “Father, people are very upset about the Easter decision (my Easter decision not God’s).” Fortunately, I had enough training and common sense to know that I didn’t want Ed in between me and the congregation. I said, “Ed, tell people to come to me and we can talk.” They came to talk at coffee hour the following Sunday. We cut a deal. I’d have both liturgies and they (this faithful core) would come to both. So, we would do the Vigil at 10:30 pm and have a 10:00 am Mass on Easter Sunday. As the after Vigil party was winding down most of the “faithful core” came up to me to say good night. They also wanted to say something and ask something, “This was so wonderful. Really beautiful. We don’t know why another priest didn’t introduce it years ago. And, would you mind if we don’t come tomorrow morning?”
Please note, the story isn’t just about the new vicar and how well he responded to what might have become a very bad beginning. It is also about the openness of a congregation to the new vicar, the offering of space to make mistakes, and a willingness to try something new. Trust is a two-way enterprise. The bonding of priest and people develops in the circumstances and events of those first months.
The tentacles of disappointment will be present in that first year. The early disappointments might be sorted in two ways. There are big things and small things. There are issues we thought had been resolved before the new priest arrived and are now being re-raised and there are new or unanticipated rubs that appear. We do need to strive to keep the disappointments few in both number and size. Even at that, there will be disappointments. How we respond to those disappointments and to one another will shape our future together. Personal and group competence will matter – seeing the choices before you, communication skills, the ability and willingness to listen to one another and shape collaborative solutions. Maybe more important will be our sense of perspective, our good humor, and our humility.