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Bonding: Priest & People

When I was on the Bishop’s staff in Connecticut, many years ago, I had oversight of the 21 or so parishes receiving financial aid from the diocese. I also was responsible for offering consulting services and training resources to all the parishes in the diocese. I traveled a lot

After a few years I began to notice a pattern. About 3 years into being a rector or vicar, for the first time, many of these priests would begin to talk about leaving. Some said, “I’ve run out of tricks” – as in programs to offer and interesting sermons to preach. Others would talk about being tired, worn out. Occasionally the word “burnout” would be used. There were a few cases in which the priest had left another parish after 4 years or so.

There was a pattern. In fact, there was also a theory about the pattern I was seeing. I first ran into the theory as a group process lab trainer with MATC (Mid Atlantic Training Committee). It was a way of understanding group development; phases groups moved through or got stuck in because they couldn’t move through. One aspect of the theory was about the phases of the relationship between the participants and trainer. The central issues and dynamics were the same between members and a leader, employees and a manger, a Marine squad and its NCO, and parishioners and their priest.

Then I came across an article by Warner White in an Alban Institute publication, “Should I Leave?”  Fr. White looked at the phases of the priest - parish community relationship from the beginning to maturity. The mix of all these resources helped me develop my own framework.

The phases

I think there are three broad phases in the initial relationship between priest and parish community.

Inflated hopes (years 1 – 2)– Also called “the honeymoon.” The priest tells us how glad he is to be at Saint Mary’s and what a special place it is. We tell the priest we are delighted with his arrival and certain he will provide what we need for this next step on our journey. The focus is on the positive. We give one another the benefit of the doubt. We allow for mistakes. We excuse errors. We don't really accept each other. Not yet. We don't know each other well enough to do that. Not yet.

Disappointment (years 3 – 4)– The priest discovers what wasn’t acknowledged in the parish profile or maybe the profile said the parish wanted something but that wasn't really true for most people in the parish. The congregation learns what the priest meant when she spoke of an occasional bump in the road in her previous positions.   Both realize what questions they failed to ask in the interviews. Rubs develop in the relationship. The tentacles of those rubs were usually visible in the previous phase.  In some cases the word “disappointment” is too strong for what we experience. Maybe it’s a series of small let downs. But it becomes clear that the honeymoon is over and a state of contentment and fulfillment hasn’t yet arrived.

Realistic Expectations and Relationship (years 4 – 6 and after) – A time of mutual respect and mature stability. We know much more of one another now. We have come to a point of realism about what we expect and acceptance of each other’s human limitations. This phase is the result of hard work around the spiritual and emotional dynamics experienced in the earlier phase. The earlier disappointments were adequately worked through.


The dynamics

The dynamics seemed to be these - There is no avoiding the phases. The priest and the parish community may move through the phases more or less quickly. A phase may take a year or two more in some cases. Some parishes get stuck in a phase, e.g. disappointment that never gets worked through, or maybe staying on a pretend honeymoon. Parishes that are conflict prone or conflict averse may have a more difficult time moving toward a realistic and mature relationship. 

Parishes may cycle back to earlier stages -- there may be times of regression when the parish community and/or key lay leaders and/or the priest are experiencing a period of high anxiety, threat or helplessness. This recycling back might  bring deeper insight, increased emotional maturity, and closer bonds or a deeper form of being stuck. 


In time I pulled some of those pieces together into my own version of the phases. Here’s a PDF of that Bonding: Priest and Community   


New life

The Bishop looked at what we were experiencing and decided on a policy. A priest was expected to stay in place five years, and preferably seven years. If they were having a difficult time, we would help them explore what was going on and how they might come at things differently. And if they insisted on leaving they needed to know that they wouldn’t get another placement in that diocese and might also not receive a recommendation if they went to another diocese.

We wanted them to see that when the question, “Should I leave?” came to them, it was really an invitation to grow. It was time to "go" Benedictine--be stable, listen and obey, then see what new life began to emerge. Of course, for that to work, a critical mass of the parish community, including those most at odds with the priest, would have to engage the same process - stability, obedience, them conversion of life. But for the most part, the priest was the one who would have to take the most initiative.

What we discovered was that most priests were able to do that. They developed new ways to engage the parish community. They prayed. They found humility and courage and persistence that they didn’t know was available. God is merciful.

Give thanks to the God of heaven, *
    for his mercy endures for ever.