The graces of assignment changes

The View from the Rectory Window
By Fr. Ken Van Haverbeke
Might it be a papal encyclical? Perhaps a letter from the bishop? Or possibly an article explaining the mysteries of God’s Kingdom? Or do I dare say a “View from the Rectory Window” column? Would any of these articles or columns be the number one reason parishioners would go to the diocesan web page to read, making it go viral?
The answer, as you have guessed, is no! The number one “hit” on the diocesan website is when the announcement is made for new priest assignments! Assignment changes are both exciting and upsetting; a cause of both joy and sorrow. They are a living embodiment of the Pascal Mystery, both for the parish and for the priest.
As a participant of assignment changes, and as a priest who has experienced the change of three bishops, I have found times of assignment change of a shepherd to be a time of both grace and temptation. Saint Paul said it well in the Acts of the Apostles, “Now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem.” (Acts 20:22) Well, I guess I really could say, “Now compelled by the appointment of the bishop, I go…” And I believe it be the same Spirit compelling both. I believe it is grace at work.
Assignment change as a time of grace. I was struggling. I did not want to go. My assignment was clear, I understood the why’s and how’s, but I was not ready to leave. Nor was I ready to start all over again. I had just felt like I was becoming a shepherd to the parishioners, a father to my flock, when I was reassigned.
Leaving is difficult enough, but having to walk into a new rectory, a new parish, even a new town, or part of town, but I had to do so with a confident and joy filled face. It is difficult to act as if you are not grieving. To act as if ‘you consider life to be of no importance, if only you can finish the course and the ministry received and bear witness to the gospel of God’s grace.’ (Saint Paul, paraphrased from Acts 20:24) I am not unfortunately, Saint Paul.
But there is a grace in leaving and accepting a new assignment. For one, it gives you a chance to re-boot, to make changes that otherwise would either raise eyebrows or even shock the parishioners of the parish you are leaving.
I remember wanting to stop going to the nursing home on Thursdays, and start going on Fridays. To make such a change, it would be easier to make water into wine, then to disrupt the schedule I had created. I also wanted to make changes in the way I ministered to the youth because I had become older, and the youthfulness in my bones had become arthritic. No longer could I sit with a bus load of teens; no longer could I, nor would I, stay up all night at a “lock in.” And then I also wanted to change my day off! Talk about a change! “What do you mean Father is taking Tuesday’s off now? How many days off does he get now?”
Little things, but sometimes making little changes when people get used to you, is like changing the direction of a large ship. It takes time and lots of tug boats! But a move, allows for one to make changes or to try new schedules. That is a grace.
Another grace in an assignment change is the chance of renewal. As a diocesan priest, I’ve committed myself to the bishop in a particular diocese. While I may feel at home in a particular town or parish, I am a priest for the diocese, not a priest for a parish or town.
Leaving allows me to embrace loss, a kind of dying, and the opportunity to renew my commitment to the entire diocese, not just one parish. No different than the changes parishioners experience in moving, change of job, or life’s transitions within a marriage.
After many years at a particular parish, the send off was filled with gratitude and even tears. I had baptized many of their children, lovingly cared for the spiritual welfare of their students in the school and PSR, and sat by many of their loved one’s death bed. I was loved and appreciated, and most of them did not want me to leave. Most of them….remember the percentages: 10 percent of a parish appreciates the pastor; 10 percent can’t stand the pastor; and 80 percent really have no opinion.
No sooner than six months later did a former parishioner state, “We really hated to see you go, but Father B., has really brought in a fresh way of looking at things!” I wasn’t deflated; in fact, it was a reason I knew a change was necessary. I needed a change even though I did not know it at the time, and the parish did too! A grace of a change in assignment.
In my next article, I will write about another grace, that of mission. I changed the parish, but the parish changed me too.