Summer is a time of transition for priests, too
A view from the rectory window
By Fr. Kenneth VanHaverbeke
Editor’s note: This is second of a two part article.
He was waiting for me. I was sure of it. People waiting for the new pastor have a certain look. Often times it’s a look of: “Who are you replacing our beloved pastor?” Or it can be a look of: “Finally, now maybe this new priest will ….”
Amid the chaos of people moving boxes, introducing themselves, and cleaning out space for more boxes, a little man sat in the corner of the rectory office watching it all. But most of all, he was eyeing me.
I was new to the parish. That morning I woke up in the bedroom that I had woke up in for many years; celebrated Mass with a community that I had served for many years; and handed over a familiar set of keys to the secretary knowing I would never use them again. It all seemed like a blur.
Arriving at the new parish, I was welcomed by a group of parishioners waiting for me. What a pleasant surprise! My former parishioners (“former” by about one hour) who were helping me move, introduced themselves and then they all got to work.
It took all of five minutes. Without furniture, household goods, or bulky possessions and with many hands, moving a priest is fairly easy. Books and clothes make up most of our possessions. After the initial rush of boxes, the stacking in the corner of the bedroom, my former and new parishioners (“new” by about ten minutes) take their leave for me to unpack in privacy. I am alone…except for the little man in the corner of the office still watching me.
I know I need to see what I can do for him, but I am hesitant to begin. The first surge of parishioners in a new parish can often be challenging because often they have “beaten a path” to my door either wanting something the former pastor would not give them, or with a suggestion.The stability of the Church is a gift from God. When one parish priest leaves, another comes. (Please pray for vocations, encourage your young men to become priests so this gift continues! What a wonderful life it is!) Coming to a new parish for a priest is barraged with newness: new parish, new family community, new surroundings, new church building, new faces, new names, and in many ways, a new job. No wonder one of my seminary professors said with all that newness get your priorities straight: know where all the bathrooms are! Even those are new to you!
Taking the place of a brother priest is daunting. You want to be yourself, but you can’t help but compare yourself to what you perceive the other pastor to be. Sometimes you replace a brother priest who seemed to walk on water in your eyes, only not to give you a map detailing where the rocks are beneath the surface.
Or you replace a brother priest who had to make some difficult and unpopular decisions. Then you can catch yourself trying to be everyone’s friend, not wanting to offend anyone and wanting to be known as “the nice guy.”
Compare, competition, and complaining are the three cancers for a priest. We sometimes find ourselves comparing our ministry or parish with that of another priest, competing for popularity, and complaining about our assignment, authority, or brother priest. A deadly disease these three “C’s.” A disease that deadens a priestly heart. I decide to get my priorities straight. I first go to the church for a prayer (subsequent to finding the restroom!). After a short prayer of thanksgiving before the Eucharist, “wondering thoughts” begin to distract me. Thoughts such as: “I wonder why it is so cold in this church. I wonder who is responsible for setting the temperature. I wonder who trains the altar servers. I wonder what the story is behind that beautiful statue. How in the world do you get a casket down this aisle?
Giving up on any real deep prayer experience, I wander back to the rectory.“What’s this?” I think. On the kitchen table is a candy bouquet (much more practical than flowers!) and a basket of food.
The candy bouquet was sent by some former parishioners wishing me well in my new assignment. I’ll put it with a ‘care package’ of comfort food munchies my former staff gave me when I was leaving.
The basket was from the new parish’s Altar Society and was filled with some easy to prepare food items and homemade chicken and noodles. Perfect for dinner tonight! Now I won’t have to go the grocery story immediately and replace all the rice cakes and low salt (read no-taste) soups in the pantry left by the former heart healthy conscious pastor. Returning back to the rectory office I suddenly remember the little man in the corner. He was busily talking to my new secretary, whose name I keep getting confused with the school secretary. Not a good start!
When he sees me, he gets up and walks across the room.
“I didn’t want to disturb you before Father, knowing this was your first day here, and I know you are busy getting settled. I was here getting a Mass said for my wife who passed away this time last year.”
Then he went on to say, “ Father ‘Former Pastor’ was such a gift to me during that time….”
Oh, here it comes, I thought…. ‘You got pretty big shoes to fill” or “I think you should consider…” I’ve heard them both on my first day at a new parish.
But how little faith I have…for he went on to say,… “and I look forward to the gifts you bring to our parish too. Welcome! We are glad you are here!”
Suddenly, I was glad that I was there too!
Ten practical hints in welcoming your new pastor or priest
1. Be patient with him. The stress of moving, the grief of leaving a familiar parish and the newness of it all might be a bit much for him. Be patient.
2. Don’t beat a path to his door. Give him some time to unpack, get settled, finding all the bathrooms and getting the secretary’s names straight. This might take a month or two, or longer…see #1.3. Tell him your name and what you are involved with. Don’t do this once or twice, but a number of times. Don’t be offended if in six months or a year later he doesn’t remember your name. He wants to. Really! So don’t embarrass him, tell him again!
4. Make sure he has help moving in if he wants it. The parish secretary can help knowing if he needs help. Some priests would welcome help, others desire privacy. We are all different. A nice welcome basket from the Altar Society or Knights of Columbus is always thoughtful.
5. Let him change his mind! Sometimes a decision made early is rushed or made without fully understanding the situation. It might be necessary for him to change his mind. Give him some wiggle room.
6. Try not to compare him to your former pastor. This will not be fully possible of course, and he will struggle in comparing his previous parish to the present. Comparisons will only impede a relationship.
7. Tell him your story, the story of the parish, the traditions, and the important values of the parish. Every parish and tradition in a parish has a story behind it. These stories are important for him to know.
8. When he asks how something is done in the past or what the protocol is, refrain from telling him “Whatever you would like Father!” We generally want to keep things the way they are and not fix something that is not broken, so don’t be afraid to tell him how things operate in the parish. Sometimes a new pastor makes changes without even knowing they have changed anything because no one told him.
9. Let him get to know you and the parish. Be sure to invite him to different parish events. Yes, he sees the bulletin and should know when something is happening but he might not know if he is really wanted.
10. Pray for him and let him know you are praying for him!