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Not listening: I have the power; get reconciled to it

Rectors make decisions all the time that don’t satisfy everyone.  And healthy priests and healthy parishes don’t spend excessive energy re-visiting those decisions or trying to get consensus. This is one more area where there’s not a simple answer.

One of the most critical insights for people first learning about the Shape of the Parish model is that they need to stop fussing around the outer edges and nurture the inner rings—the Sacramental and especially the Apostolic.  The idea is to ground parish strategy in the center, where those of mature and progressing faith can be fed.  Part of that involves not permitting the immature and the tentative to set the climate. 

This doesn’t mean that it’s OK to demean or systematically disenfranchise the tentative or immature.  Methods of listening must be employed regularly and effectively.  We need parish-wide meetings where members are able to reflect on their common lives using theologically-appropriate models, such as the Benedictine Promise, or the In Your Holy Spirit Model.  If the starting place is how we’re doing with our prayer life, the conversation is quite different than if we start anywhere else. 

We need to gather concerns from the community—what they like, what concerns them, what they hope for (Likes – Concerns - Wishes). And we need to take the critical step of prioritizing those concerns so we learn where the real weight is in the congregation. 

Ineffective (and sometimes intentionally manipulative) listening processes use brainstorming without prioritizing.  That allows any random comment to be used by leaders as indicative of “what we’re hearing.” 

At parish retreats where we use these methods, there are often a number of tense moments as issues of disagreement arise.  The overwhelming response, though, is almost always that it’s a relief to talk about these things together and to understand what matters to people. 

Often we learn that the issues identified through parking lot conversations or other one-on-one communications are not as serious as those hearing about them assumed.  Where there are persistent concerns that affect a few people—particularly related to the rector’s perceived lack of caring, or related to the rector’s lack of skill with change—it’s really important to follow up with those who are hurt or angry and see if the relationship can be healed. 

Note that if a conflict is coming from those at the center (especially the Apostolic core, but also the institutional center – attention is necessary both for those that ground the parish in faithfulness and those who exercise institutional power), the priest needs to pay particular attention to that because the issue is likely to be a serious one. 

To focus for a moment on the Apostolic --  they are more likely to respect the rector’s authority and to avoid behavior that smacks of “troublemaking,” so, if the rector is not herself engaging the norms of the Church, the very maturity displayed by the Apostolic will be targeted for suppression and abuse. 

These conflicts may involve very few people in numbers, but they may also have deep impact on the community.  


1. What are the issues and do they involve matters that affect parish health and practice?  If you’re not listening to matters that are fundamental to parish life, spiritual practice, or Christian community, that’s a problem.

2. Is there a misunderstanding about role?

A common problem is that vestries will come from a false mental model, assuming that they are a board and the rector works for them.  Conflicts can become contentious quickly when there are poorly-defined expectations or unworkable models for role and responsibility. 

Another false mental model is that the vestry and wardens exist to back up the rector, regardless of what the rector is doing. Instead of understanding that they are to bring their own best judgment and Christian conscience to the role, it can be easy to see the job as rubber-stamping.  Wardens will often find themselves saying, “I’m sure he’s well-intentioned. He wouldn’t do anything to harm you.”  Or, “I really can’t talk about confidential matters,” even though the matter is only confidential because the rector doesn’t want it discussed. 

Of course, failure to address roles and expectations early through education, both in an ongoing way and ideally before people get on the vestry, exacerbates the problem.  Parties become more entrenched.  But even if the mental model is wrong, priests need to listen for the underlying concerns. Too often, the priest will correct the misconception, often in a heavy-handed or legalistic way, but not seek more information about what is beneath that.  Is the rector seeking counsel inadequately?  Does the priest not know how to implement change well?  Is the priest over-controlling?  Does he tend to hurt people unnecessarily due to unmanaged personality traits such as introversion leading to a failure to share feelings and thoughts or inquire into those of others?  Or a tendency to focus on impersonal cost-benefit analysis to the exclusion of consideration for how people are affected? Conflict always involve at least two people.  And when the priest is consistently cutting off exploration or ignoring her own contribution, that’s an indication that the priest’s approach may lead to abuse. 

3. If the issues are mostly about the inter-personal relationship, the priest needs to hear those concerns respectfully, directly from those with the concerns.  It can be useful to ask what behavioral change might be helpful from the other person’s perspective. It can also be useful to be curious and humble about what the person experiences in the priest’s behavior that is troubling. Instead of assuming that the person is simply mis-guided, assume you have something to learn.

4. What are you being asked to do?  If the request is about listening to the person’s concerns, if it’s about engaging practices of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, that’s very different than being told you must make a liturgical change or the parishioner will reduce their pledge. Note that the latter requires saying something like, “I’m very sorry you feel that way and I hope that we can talk at some point about why this is so upsetting to you. This must be very serious to you if you feel you need to reduce your pledge, and I understand you need to follow your conscience. If you’d like to get together and talk with me and (some trustworthy person known to both of us), I really want to make that happen.”        

 Michelle Heyne, OA