I need your feedback to confirm or correct an impression that I have had for many years, back to the days when my diocese was signing my paychecks…that many folks in parish ministry, whether paid or volunteer, feel very much alone and isolated their work, personally and professionally.
There are three kinds of isolation that concern me: territorial, professional, and personal. They are not unique to Catholicism or church work by any means. My malpractice carrier (but of course!) is always sending happy little reminders that therapists who get out to professional associations, collaborate and consult other therapists, and read journals have fewer incidents of professional malfeasance. Dutifully I did join a local therapists group that met once a month, primarily to plan its annual Christmas party from what I could see. I was one of the last holdouts among my friends who attended live CEU presentations by national speakers, but at $200/day I find myself succumbing to online learning at home, unlimited state approved CEU courses at $75/year with my present vendor. I miss the live presentations, though; I always ran into classmates, old fellow-employees, swapped email addresses, made lunch dates, swapped website and book recommendations, etc.
Where are church workers going for such refreshment? Territory is a problem. I am fortunate to live less than an hour from my chancery and our one retreat/conference facility, but my diocese extends considerably in all directions. When I was 30 I had no problem hopping into the car for a long drive to any point in my diocese; at 67 I’m not quite the road warrior I used to be.
Of course traveling assumes a destination. I am reminded of Gertrude Stein’s famous remark about the city of Oakland, California: “There’s no ‘there’ there.” Do those in faith formation work have worthwhile destinations for communication of diocesan mission, updates, continuing education, problem resolution, camaraderie, networking, etc.? Inc. Magazine has a short satirical piece on worthless meetings indicating that, among other things, 92% of participants polled confessed to doing on-line work during corporate gatherings. It is one thing to bring people together, another thing entirely to not waste their time. One factor to remember is that most dioceses are cutting costs and consolidating; administrators are wearing more hats and finding it more difficult to get out into the field or to arrange quality gatherings in regional settings.
Parishes can become extremely isolated from the mainstream of the diocese or the universal church. A few years ago a chancery official remarked that one of the pastors in his diocese blocked the chancery’s fax number. A pastor at the table looked up and said, “How do you do that?” There is good research on this kind of estrangement. Last year I reviewed Same Call, Different Men, the most recent of a fifty year series of surveys of the lives of American priests. Among other things the study showed that 68% of priests polled distrusted their bishops. (My experience tells me this distrust actually encompasses the chancery in general.) When I teach from the diocese’s curriculum on sacraments, for example, an uncomfortably large number of people roll their eyes at me as if to say, “not in our domain.” Here is a good barometer of institutional connectedness: were you offered an opportunity to answer the 2014 National Questionnaire in preparation for the Synod on the Family?
Soldiering on in ministry in personal isolation is surviving, not thriving, and it will eventually cost you your effectiveness. A job applicant reported 25 years of experience as a Catholic school teacher on a resume. When the reference was checked, the responding diocese replied: “No, it was one year of experience repeated twenty-five times.” Therapists who practice alone tend to fall back on diagnoses they know and are comfortable treating (thank you again, insurance company!). While Revelation and Tradition never change, the ways of understanding the Faith continue to develop (theology), the secular culture of our people is ever in flux, and the science and technology of education continues to evolve. While I firmly believe that the ultimate responsibility for our health and competence is our own, we cannot sever our supply lines. Take your pulse today…what’s your isolation index?