How to make the best of tough transitions at your parish

Image: Shutterstock Image: Shutterstock

Many years ago, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King fascinated me with its retelling of the legend of King Arthur. White’s tragic version of the legend explores the romantic ideal of a good king who struggles to bring a reign of justice and prosperity in the form of an idyllic Camelot.

This image of Arthur and Camelot comes to mind as many of our parishes prepare for the challenging task of transitioning from the leadership of one pastor (or pastoral coordinator or priest administrator) to another. Pastor transitions are tough. Parishioners usually do not enjoy the idea of saying goodbye to the person who baptized their children, presided at Mass, provided pastoral care and often represented stability for their parish.

The new pastor represents change. Even if he tries to make as few changes as possible, the new leader will be different in how he relates, preaches and makes decisions. If the old pastor was popular, the new one may feel like the parish compares him unfavorably to his predecessor, a legendary figure like King Arthur. Even without these comparisons, the new pastor may feel pressure that he must be King Arthur and make a Camelot of his new parish.

King Arthur was a legend. Even in the legend, Camelot did not last. Ultimately, we need to remember that the only perfect leader is Jesus. He is the only one who can truly meet our expectations. If our pastors are doing their job well, we should expect they will be like St. Peter: flawed but capable of goodness when they follow Christ.

We should be patient with our new pastors, knowing that God can work through them, even if they are different from what we expect. We also need to let them adjust to us, gracefully. For example, rather than tell our new pastor “We have always done it this way,” we can take time to describe how practices in the parish evolved in an effort to follow the tradition of the church in a particular place and time, while recognizing that Jesus might call us to do something different now.

Focusing on Jesus is particularly helpful if we don’t like the changes a new pastor makes. Jesus is the reason we come to worship and serve at our parish. If the new pastor changes things, we need to remember that, even if things are different, Jesus is still present in the Eucharist and the work of the church. If, after a transition, we find a familiar ministry is not rewarding in the same way it was before, that might mean that God is calling us to a new form of service. Maybe we shift from a liturgical ministry to a teaching ministry or from councils and commissions to serving the poor or bringing Communion to the sick. There are always new ways to serve.

One form of service we should all undertake is a spiritual work of mercy: bearing wrongs patiently. Complaining about a new leader does not help, and it can hurt our family and friends’ relationship with the new pastor.

Our family and friends need to see their pastor as the early church would have looked at St. Peter. Peter had to succeed Jesus though he was infinitely inferior to Jesus. Nevertheless, the early church knew he was a decent man trying his best.

If we encourage our family and friends to take this approach, it will not only help our new pastor, it will help us. Just as we can find faults in our new pastor, our friends and family (especially our children) can find faults in us too. If we give our new pastors the benefit of the doubt, respecting them even when we don’t like everything they do, our friends and family are more likely to do the same for us.

Neither we nor our pastors compare favorably to the legendary King Arthur. That is OK, as long as we faithfully follow the true King.

Northwest Catholic - June 2019

Deacon Eric Paige

Deacon Eric Paige is the Archdiocese of Seattle's executive director for evangelization, formation and discipleship. Contact him at eric.paige@seattlearch.org.