What to do with the priest associates?
Tuesday, February 12, 2019 at 9:41PM
Robert Gallagher

This is offered to rectors and other clergy-in-charge trying to figure out how best to make use of the odd collection of priests who have attached themselves to the parish. They might earn a living as teachers, doctors, or cabbies. They may be employed by the church on a bishop’s staff or chaplaincy with no Sunday duties. Some may want to participate in parish life in the same manner as any baptized person; others might seek a priestly volunteer role. The last are called priest associates in many parishes. There are unban parishes with numerous priest associates.

What is a priest associate?

They are often retired priests or clergy who earn their living in an institution other than the church. A priest associate serves the parish in a volunteer capacity. Often they will move between the priest associate role and simply being another person in the congregation.

Our experience

Robert’s been a priest associate in four parishes in the years since his primary work became church consulting and training. For the most part it’s been a good experience. That usually involved a mid-week Eucharist, preaching occasionally on Sunday, some adult formation work, and being an informal advisor to the rectors. 

He’s also had priest associates when he was a vicar in three inner city parishes.  As a consultant and a diocesan staff person he’s observed how other clergy-in-charge have approached there being other non-staff priests in the parish.

Michelle has been an adult parishioner in three congregations, with five different rectors, observing the work of twelve priest associates. In her consulting and training work, and as the Presiding Sister of the Order of the Ascension, she's also observed the dynamics and seen how different clergy respond to often-similar situations.  


So, a few reflections

How is this related to parish development?

The most obvious connection is that priest associates expand the parish’s capacity. You can increase the number of mid-week celebrations by assigning a day and time to the priest (say every Thursday at noon) or if you have several priest in that role you might create a rota. Some of them might be willing to help as part of Daily Office teams. They could be asked to take on specific, though limited, roles such as managing the mid-week schedule or offering an adult formation program or serving at the Sunday Eucharist from time-to-time.

The most essential thing isn’t about providing a retired priest with an altar out of some benevolence of the rector. Often, these priests come with skills and knowledge you may lack. How might you make use of them?

As rector, or vicar, you need all the wisdom you can get. If you have other priests in the parish with more, or different, experience than your own – make use of that. They may have ways of deepening parish spirituality (including simply by being available for more Masses, participating in the Office, and hearing confessions), know something about processes for increasing trust and internal commitment, and otherwise offer perspective you may not have.

In any case, it will be good for your soul to listen to them. Listening to priests with different experience –including those who actually know more than you do – is good practice for learning about your own blindside, and for remembering that you are not responsible for being all things to all people.  You do not need to know everything. We all, though, need to develop a better sense of what we're good at and what we're not, what's essential, and what's not.  If you are lucky enough to have skilled, experienced priests in your parish who will tell you the truth, take that as the gift it is.  

One form of listening would be to gather the other priests two or three times a year for dinner. There certainly needs to be a social element to the time together. You will also benefit from a somewhat formal time of “taking counsel.” It’s up to the rector to focus that discussion. We’d suggest that at least once per year it be a broad open-ended conversation – “Let’s go around the table. I’d like to hear what you see of the Holy Spirit’s work in the parish. Then let’s just talk with one another.”  On another occasion the rector might ask for the group’s thinking about something specific going on in the parish’s life – “I’m being pressured by a few people to stop doing ____ or to start doing ____.” Or “We’ve had a security issue during the week with non-parishioners showing up at the office demanding money or other forms of assistance that we’re not able to respond to.”

Avoid making the time together administrative, e.g., working out the rota, discussing the customary. If there’s a need to involve others in thinking about those matters make it a business type meeting. Maybe Saturday for an hour.

Willing & Able

But what if the priest is just not up to it?

Then talk with the priest. Have an honest conversation. Raise that possibility. She probably already is aware of her limitations. Robert knows that he can’t navigate the steps around the altar in the primary liturgical space. He could manage preaching. He could celebrate in the chapel. But …

Ask the priest what she’s willing to do

For example, Robert doesn’t want to be on a preaching rota, or to do anything on Sunday except be at the Eucharist. He doesn’t want to be on a mid-week rota either, though he’s glad to fill in at the last minute. For the last few years he’s been focused on writing, tending the formation program of the Order of the Ascension, and just a bit of consulting. Occasionally, he’s been surprised at how some younger clergy think they know what he wants without asking, and stunned by how persistent they can be in their certainty.  Not every priest sees themselves as being called to function in the same manner they may have at other times.

Other priests long for the altar. It’s hard-wired in them. They experience something missing if they don’t preside from time to time. It would certainly be a kindness for you as rector to invite that priest to function on occasion. In fact, you could ask them if they’d like to have a regular practice. Fr. Harris, a long-retired rector, took the Wednesday 9:30 Mass at St. Elisabeth’s for many years and Jack Hardwick presided at the 7:30 mass at St. Mark’s every Tuesday before walking over to diocesan house where he was part of the bishop’s staff. 

If you are a retired or non-stipendiary priest in a parish

Notice where you think your gifts could best be put to use. Then tell the rector how you'd be willing to help. It's 101 that you want to avoid being a source of dissension.  Try to limit your feedback to the rector to information he or she has asked for. If you see something you're really concerned about, and the rector hasn't asked for your opinion, reflect on how important it is. If you decide to proceed, ask the rector if you can share some thoughts.  If the rector agrees, consider whether it would be best communicated face-to-face. If the rector doesn't want to hear it, you need to work at accepting that gracefully.  You may want to gently bring the issue up again later if you see an opportunity, but mainly focus on your own spiritual life and pray for the parish and for the rector.   

Beware of attempts to triangulate you, as well as your own tendency to want to be triangulated because it feels like you're part of the action. On the other hand, you can help collapse destructive triangles and facilitate healthy communication by offering to help a distressed parishioner talk to the rector instead of carrying the message yourself. And you can sometimes help the rector reflect more carefully on his own reactivity and assumptions.

But what if the former rector wants to stay in the parish and celebrate on occasion?

These things do test our maturity and humility, don’t they? 

There are certainly cases where the former rector is interfering in parish issues, fomenting dissent, and otherwise sabotaging the rector's authority.  When this happens, it should not be tolerated (though sometimes we jump to inaccurate conclusions - have an actual face-to-face conversation with the former rector about your concerns BEFORE you restrict his functioning. Try to work it out before acting in ways likely to be seen as hurtful and even abusive.) But we also shouldn't assume that former rectors will do this - usually, they love the parish, they want to be retired, and they still have gifts they can offer. All our rules about restricting the former priest are mostly about our fears and need for control, not about grace or wholeness. 

Sometimes the rector may feel uncomfortable because the former priest was particularly beloved, or had left such a significant mark on the parish. Perhaps there had been tremendous growth during that rector's tenure, or special development of a new parish-based ministry. It can feel hard to know how to make changes without causing offense. It can be hard to feel like you're making your own mark. 

A first step may be to ask yourself what's going on with you if this is about "making your mark."

We would suggest a more fruitful approach based in appreciating what already is. Are there elements of the former priest's belovedness that could continue to enrich parish life?  If he's a great preacher, let him continue to preach on some basis (assuming he wants to). The congregation needs to hear great preaching and you could see if he would help you improve your own.  Of course, if you're both great preachers, more the better.

As for changes, are you looking to make them because you think you have to?  Is it change for the sake of change? Is it about your restless soul?  Are you trying to prove your value to the parish and other clergy? Let that go!

A better course is to steadily improve and harmonize what's already working. If the former priest is like most of the priests we know, she doesn't think she achieved perfection. She might even offer good insight about things to focus on.  If you do need to change things that were important to the former rector, talk about it with her, listen to her, talk with others, reflect on whether you're doing the right thing, and then proceed based on your best judgment.  For major changes, you always need to move cautiously and competently. Doing so involves a lot more than the former priest. 

Our maturity and humility

For Robert, the best experiences as a priest associate have been with rectors who know themselves; are comfortable in their own skin. For Michelle, priest associates have often been able to provide a focus on spiritual depth that works well with the rector's general oversight. They also just add some diversity of style and approach that makes the parish a more interesting place and helps alleviate some of the rector's sense of isolation.

A secondary element is a stance the rector takes.  A stance that is not about controlling the vocation and gifts of others, lay or clergy, but to appreciate, nurture, and make use of those gifts. If the person is in your parish begin with the assumption that God has made that so. Of course, you may discover otherwise. 

Start from a place of generosity and collaboration, grounded in the existing strengths of the parish, and how other priests in the parish can help you develop and deepen them.

Michelle Heyne, OA  Presiding Sister & Robert Gallagher, OA

Article originally appeared on Congregational Development (http://www.congregationaldevelopment.com/).
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