When we have no favorite TV shows stored in the cable box, my wife and I will occasionally watch “House Hunters International,” that up-close spectacle of the Ugly American couple badgering a poor local realtor for a seven-bedroom apartment with a balcony, next to the Eiffel Tower, for $400/month. The other evening a couple was looking for a home in Cambodia, somewhere on the outskirts of the urban center. The realtor showed them a modern home, located next to a high grass marsh and a medium sized river. As the wife was swooning over the granite countertops, I was concerned about the location. Knowing that Cambodia is ground zero for the cobra population, I said to Margaret that the terrain had to be crawling with snakes. “This is the problem with this show: they never show you the snakes.”
When I was in the final few years of training for the priesthood, my order’s superiors attempted to introduce us to the realities of life in the ministerial church world. I worked several summers in my order’s missions in the southern states, in small black parishes where segregation was still de facto a reality in the southern Church. I worked for one pastor there who was arrested for driving over a fire hose during an active fire. In another southern assignment one of my local superiors overdosed on medication and disappeared from the scene during my six-week tenure there.
Not that everything in the north was ideal, either. In my deacon year in Washington, D.C., I worked weekends at a parish where a pastor lived alone with his poodle and painted all the rectory rooms with Disney characters. You never knew if you would be dressing in front of Snow White or Captain Hook. As ordination approached I submitted my three choices of first assignment to the New York headquarters. The Provincial scratched the first one off the list. “Too dangerous. Not a healthy environment for a new priest.”
Looking back, at least some effort was made by my superiors to open my eyes to what I might be getting into. The rest I would learn the hard way. In fairness, I think the analogy can be made to most professions, and my own experience bears this out: the most dysfunction boss I ever worked for was in the health field (unless you factor in the years I was self-employed.) The problem, though, is the nature of the institution, i.e., the Catholic Church, which by definition is understood to be Christ’s kingdom till he comes again. The expectations of this institution are, not unreasonably, exceptionally high.
I will admit this about myself, and I certainly saw this quality in my employees over the years: we came to the Church with very high ideals and dreams, with the expectations that we would be entering a workplace of highly energized and exceptionally competent ministers of the Word. Needless to say, the Vatican II description of the Church as a “pilgrim people” heading toward a life of sanctity is a tangible reality, with many members (and ministers) still struggling with the early phases of the journey.
At some point I would have what I called “the talk” with promising applicants or new professionals on the staff. “Working for the Church,” I would say, “is a dirty business.” I would explain that they would see things and hear things that would be very troubling, that parishioners, colleagues, the diocese, even—God forbid—their pastor would say or do things that would disappoint, confuse, or trouble them, or let them down. I had no easy answer, but I did want them to know that this human reality of the Church was on the table and that they could indeed talk about it without fear in the appropriate forums. (Emailing an entire parish—which has happened in recent times in a few parishes—is obviously not one of them.)
I wonder today who prepares the catechists, the directors, the faith formers, the youth ministers, the Catholic school personnel, or even the seminarians and young priests for that matter, about the dirty side of the family business. I spent a good part of Monday discussing the theological orientation necessary for catechists and ministers, but as I write this morning, it occurs to me that personal orientation must play a critical role in ministerial formation. As a therapist I can vouch for the fact that most church employees of many faiths who sought stress counseling were ill-prepared for the actual experience of parochial life—the turf protecting, unreasonable parishioners, passive-aggressive (or just plain aggressive) pastors, apathy, inappropriate task scheduling, the guilt of saying no to added projects thrown on the desk.
Historically this diocese has tried to at least maintain local presence and support for the regional (or deanery) clusters of ministers through periodic gatherings in those regions. But this practice evidently has fallen victim to the financial crunch; there are no available personnel to provide regular field support. And any diocesan official in any city will tell you that no adjustments to work environment s without the pastors’ active involvement—which is dicey when a pastor is the major part of the problem.
Years of EAP (employee assistance counseling) has taught me that the steps to a rewarding ministry involve a strong sense of self (or ego strength.) No parish or ministry defines who you are.( Many parish staffers do not know where they end and their parish begins, ecclesiastical borderline disorder if you will.) Jesus himself said something about shaking off dust and moving to the next town. You need someone, early in your ministry, to tell you it is OK to avoid the snakes, or as Jesus put it, the “brood of vipers.” And he was nowhere near Cambodia.