I just wrapped up several days at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress spent talking to parish leaders from across the country. On the final day, at the final session, I offered a presentation gleaned from our recent book Seriously, God? Making Sense of Life Not Making Sense. Specifically, my presentation focused on how to make sense of when the wrong people are in charge, in other words: bad leadership. An interesting topic, sure, but not one that I thought would draw a crowd on a Sunday afternoon. I was surprised to learn that the session was completely sold out and that we had been given one of the larger presentation spaces.
As I began my presentation I could sense an eager, even intense interest in the topic on the part of the audience; it was palpable. What was going on, I wondered. Of course, I imagined that the divisive politics of recent years, together with calamitous world events, ongoing culture wars, increasing public sparring amongst our own bishops, and the divide and divisions over the whole COVID experience might be behind the charged interest.
When we got to the Q&A it became evident what was fueling the interest among the audience. In one form or another, parishioners and parish leaders alike asked the same question: “What if my pastor is the problem?”
This is not a new question for us and I should have seen it coming. Wherever we speak about parish renewal, about growing healthy parishes, we get this same pushback. Maybe the parish staff is fired up to undertake renewal, parish leaders and donors can be brought on board, but the pastor is standing in the way.
With all due respect to the vast majority of dedicated and hard-working, and often amazingly effective parish priests, this is a problem across the country because we’ve heard it again and again everywhere.
What’s going on? All the data unmistakably point to dramatic and historic decline in church attendance and participation, accelerated by COVID. More and more people identifying as “nones” in every new survey. But the problem is more than unmistakable in the lifeless and lackluster experience of declining parishes. So why aren’t the pastors motivated to face the challenge and change?
There are lots of reasons, most of which I know from my own experience as a pastor. Good old fashion denial is most certainly at play. A fear of change, an inability to adapt, a suspicion of new approaches, and an unwillingness to grow are all part of the mix, too. But, at the heart of this resistance (and at the risk of coming across as judgmental) is perhaps a lack of humility and a wounded pride: if I have to start doing things differently, that means I haven’t been doing things correctly up until now, and that’s insulting. The insult leading them to double down on the very efforts reaping such dismal results.
What, if anything, are parish leaders and staff to do in such situations? Tough question, and one that I struggled to answer at the conference. Hearing “What if my pastor is the problem?” my knee-jerk reaction is “Lots of luck with that.” But that is cynical and heartbreaking for people who have perhaps a long association with a parish, have made a deep investment in a place over time, and consider it their spiritual home. You don’t just walk away from home. So? Three things come to mind.
This definitely sounds like the churchy-church answer: “pray for him.” But prayer is fundamental to any parish renewal, and if it is your pastor’s heart that first must be renewed, start there. Pray specifically for the ways in which he needs a new heart when it comes to renewal and, by all means, persist in prayer.
In ways big and small build trust with your pastor. This comes most reliably when you lend yourself to service and support of what he is interested in: get involved in his special projects, support his favorite programs, show up for his events. This all builds trust and trust paves the way to influence.
Serve in your parish, not just in ways that are of interest to you, but in ways that really are needed and of special help to the pastor. Be consistent, reliable, positive, and unerringly cheerful and optimistic. This kind of servant leadership might, just might, win you a hearing when…and this is key…the right opportunity, at the right time, arises.