A change in assignment: Welcoming a new priest

The View from the Rectory Window
By Fr. Ken Van Haverbeke
Last is a series of four.
So you have a new pastor? Today with social media, the deep intake of air by the congregation when the pastor announces his move at Mass is less dramatic, but social media doesn’t negate the loss.
Perhaps you liked your pastor. Perhaps you struggled in accepting his style of shepherding. That’s okay. We priests understand that we are going to bond with some, while never find a connection with others.
I remember one priest who had a rather difficult time of it in a parish said, “I announced that I was leaving at the early Sunday morning Mass, and by the time I got to the rectory between the Masses, a U-Haul had already been delivered by parishioners!”
That is a rare case, because whether you fully appreciated the pastor’s humor or personality, you saw him bringing you Jesus Christ. He was there to forgive your sins, baptize your children, offer Mass, and reverently bury your loved ones. So, it can be difficult to let go of one pastor and accept another.
Now that you have a new pastor, what do you do? A number of years ago, I offered 10 practical hints in welcoming your new pastor or priest. Here they are, and I’ve also added some other thoughts.
Ten-plus one practical hints in welcoming your new pastor or priest:
• Be patient with him. The stress of moving, the grief of leaving a familiar parish and the newness of it all is difficult on him. Be patient. Be patient with yourself, too. You, too, have the stress of losing one pastor and now having the challenge of getting to know another one. Ask the Lord, “Okay Lord, what do you want to teach me through this new pastor?”
• Don’t beat a path to his door. Give him some time to unpack, get settled, to find all the bathrooms and to get names straight. This might take a month or two.
Do find his door if you are going out to eat, going to the kid’s ball game, and going to see a sick parishioner you think he might need to meet. Those first nights in a strange rectory, in a strange town, can be quite lonely. Invite, although he might not be quite ready to accept and that’s okay too!
• Tell him your name and what you are involved with. Don’t do this just 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!
Don’t expect him to connect you with all of your relatives, but do tell him who your parents or children are. Sometimes that helps him to remember names.
• Make sure he has help moving in if he wants it. The parish secretary can help to know if he needs assistance. 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. Don’t presume the refrigerator is stocked or the cupboards are full.
• Let him change his mind! Sometimes a decision when he first arrives is rushed or made without fully understanding the situation. It might be necessary for him to change his mind. Give him some wiggle room.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
If Father is coming from a different town or from rural to urban or urban to rural, take him on a car tour of the town or parish boundaries. And don’t make fun of Father if he gets lost trying to find your farm, or cul de sac in the city! GPS has it limits!
• Pray for him and let him know you are praying for him! Have a Mass celebrated for his intentions; have the children give him a spiritual bouquet.
• Don’t believe what others tell you about your new pastor. The “enemy” lies, and many a good and faithful priest has been slandered by rumors and falsehoods before they even arrive at their parish. That and the fact that a priest can change! Some of the dumb things I did in my first years as a pastor, I would never do now in the afternoon of my priesthood. Make your own judgement and opinion of your new pastor, couched in prayer.