This being professional development day, I did want to discuss a working issue that greatly impacts the quality of your ministry—how much time in your work day should you allot to the folks you encounter in your parish? A quick case in point: on my second or third day on the job as a new pastor, I received a phone call at precisely 3 PM. And when I say precise, as I came to learn, we’re talking atomic quartz/Greenwich accuracy. It seemed that my predecessor received a call from this gentleman daily at 3 PM; the caller would apparently pour himself a tall glass of undiluted whisky (I could hear the ice) and talk the ear off the pastor until his 22 oz. of Jack Daniels had been consumed or the ice finally melted. After about three days of this I told my staff that henceforth at 3 PM the caller should be told that the pastor would be tied up in the counseling parlor. My new staff, still sizing me up, was quick to tell me that the gentleman “meant no harm” and that a priest, of all people, should have patience with God’s children.
I replied that there might be different standards here for God’s children blowing an .18 BAC, and the loving approach here might be less indulgence and more 12-step. My point in the matter was multilayered: talking to an impaired person is an exercise in futility; if the caller genuinely wanted to listen for advice, he might have taken me seriously about AA. But the third point is today’s advice: the more time I take in humoring an indulgent individual, the more I am denying to my parish mission.
Even the most cursory reading of the New Testament illustrates that the Kingdom of God is a purpose-driven mission. Everyone-from Jesus himself to the widow with her mite-has work to do, tasks with urgency and focus. It is a little disconcerting to read Mark 7:24-30, where Jesus declines to work a saving miracle for a Gentile supplicant (for her child, no less) because he has been sent to save the lost sheep of Israel. Or, for that matter, the Twelve’s classic “we don’t do windows” (Acts 6:2ff) assertion in the face of their call to preach the Good News.
Parishes and their ministers—cleric and lay—are, by nature of their Gospel call, focused. In the exercise of our responsibilities as catechists, for example, we strive to be the soul of patience and friendliness to those who have legitimate pastoral need: integrating new families into your programs, assisting parents in home catechesis, home visits when pastorally advisable, counseling families through sacraments of initiation, etc. However, in every place I have ever worked, the ministry has had its share of hangers-on, for want of a better word. What they seek is attention, and they cleverly use some of our own propaganda against us. We boast that our parishes are “communities” where everyone is welcomed all the time, that church personnel and volunteers are “always present,” that we can always use more “help and expertise.” Many times such individuals focus their needs on a particular minister, projecting a intimacy of persons where none exists.
Please note: you need never feel guilty or hesitant about giving yourself to your ministerial responsibilities, be they personal meetings, planning, or study and reading, at church or at home. It is not a sin against charity to disengage or discourage serial idle chat from those with nothing better to do. It may happen that a staff colleague at church is draining your time and energy with a constant stream of woes about personal problems. Discuss this with your pastor or supervisor. I have a three strike rule which served me well as pastor and therapist: if after three conversations it is clear to me that an individual prefers talking for attention over constructive problem solving with concrete advice and homework, I ask them to move on. You may be told you are “unchristian.” Don’t believe it.