What we need to look for in a parish priest
So, the new priest has started and the honeymoon is underway. That means the new vicar has some emotional space - right? The new rector will be given the benefit of the doubt - right? The new priest-in-charge will not be getting assessed by members - right?
Well .... The first two - right! The last one - wrong!
People are noticing and assessing immediately. They can't help it. They are having responses to what the new priest does and doesn't do. They notice that the new priest is warmer and friendlier than the last one. They notice the level of skill the new priest has in conducting meetings. There's a necessary, low level of trust offered in giving the benefit of the doubt. That begins to shift right away into a deeper trust (or mistrust) based on decisions being made and encounters experienced. Is the new vicar reliable, responsive, congruent, mutual and connected? Deeper levels of trust are built on those foundations.
I have a list. It's my sense of what a parish needs to seek in the priest
If the parish is to develop into a healthier and more faithful community, what do we need to look for in the parish priest?
1. Leadership ability. This is the ability to get others to move; to listen and respond to one another, to the needs and opportunities, to God; political common sense; to occupy that role in a parish’s life in such a way that the parish is moved toward greater health and faithfulness.
2. Emotional maturity. Including an awareness of your own emotions; accepting responsibility for how you act on your emotions; an understanding of the impact of your behavior on others; self-confidence; self-control; the ability to stay with something while being flexible; the capacity to negotiate with others; the ability to be part of the group as well as to stand apart from the group.
3. Spiritual maturity. Being a person of Apostolic Faith, including maintaining a spiritual discipline. (Note: needs to be a spiritual discipline that is adequately connected to the spirituality of the parish. It can be richer and deeper than the parish's as long as the priest doesn't attempt to push it upon the parish. Rarely can it be a spirituality that is of a different tradition or shallower than the parish's and not lead to difficulty.)
4. Competence in many of the skills related to effective priestly ministry. Presiding at liturgy, preaching, spiritual and pastoral guidance, Christian formation, etc. In each there are skills related to designing as well as implementing.
5. Priestliness. The person has something of the enchanter about them, can be “with God with the people on your heart,” sees the “inward and spiritual grace” within the life of individuals and the community and accepts being human and being a sacramental person. One of my friends has offered a caution based on her experience with one priest who seems to fit the “enchanter” description. We need to see the difference between the healthy enchanter that Terry Holmes wrote about in The Priest in Community and the narcissistic leader who’s more about looking good and being right.*
The list comes from Fill All Things: The Spiritual Dynamics of the Parish Church, Robert A. Gallagher, Ascension Press, 2008
Here's the other side of things -- the new priest is doing the same thing in regard to the parish. Allowing space. Giving the benefit of the doubt. And assessing. The new priest is noticing the congregation's reliability, responsiveness, reciprocity and congruence.
* There are two books I find useful in seeing the distinction. In The Priest in Community, Seabury Press, 1978, Holmes writes of the priest as “one who raises and expands the consciousness of those he serves” and as being “the ‘hook’ on which we ‘hang’ certain symbols or archetypical images.” In an appendix he offers a chart of character traits that suggest readiness for priesthood and others that suggest the opposite. So, Holmes’ enchanter priest also has humility, humor, earthiness, flexibility, compassion, is nonconformist but interdependent, responsible and forgiving. The opposite is self-righteous, heresy hunting, certain, oriented to activity for its own sake (particularly in the face of death), status oriented, secretive. The other book is Peter Steinke’s Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, Alban, 2006. In a postscript called “People of the Charm” he writes about narcissistic clergy. He notes that it’s a relational activity. Some “congregations attract narcissistic clergy because they need someone outside themselves to motivate them.” He sees a connection between the charmer and the charmed – the functioning is one “of mutual reinforcement and self–deception.” Signs of the dynamic include no checks and balances, groupthink, avoiding outside influences (might be consultants or a lay leader with too many questions) demonizing those who might uncover the truth. Some of the characteristics of the clergy involved include: expert at disguise, appears to be in command of situations, cleaver charming, persuasive, star quality, fun to be with, articulate, unable to use self examination, and exploitatively ambitious. The task is to sort out Holmes' enchanter from Steinke’s charmer.