Leaders, whether in the Church or in any human sphere, are a misunderstood lot. Speaking as a parish priest I can say that our people frequently often have no real idea of the kinds of struggles in which we are constantly engaged, whether internally, as part of our struggles to be faithful disciples of Christ, or externally, as we strive to guide and direct others along the same path of discipleship. Many lay people seem to be under the impression that we work only one day a week, and spend the rest of the time playing on the Internet…
This particular door swings both ways, however. Many leaders are equally disconnected from the lives of those we serve. Too easily we miss out on their ongoing struggles and triumphs, joys and sorrows. Our encounters with them can too quickly be reduced to conversations that are merely ‘professional.’ As one of my parishioners said when I called to see how he was doing, “Oh no, what have I done now?” Just as our people can fall prey to reducing our lives to one day a week, we their leaders can fall prey to the temptation of seeing those under our authority as the sum total of their spiritual needs, rather than as whole human beings.
The disconnection between leaders and followers, in the Church at least, has and continues to produce every kind of evil fruit. On the one hand, the failure of the priests and Bishop to understand those in their care has lead clergy to distance themselves from laity. We serve services with little consideration of what our people are actually able to participate in. We hand down edicts with no sense of how they are understood or whether they can really be followed. We become frustrated at our people’s apparent indifference to the faith, and our frustration can lead us into bitterness and resentment, and even to burn-out and mental breakdown.
On the other hand, the failure of the people to understand their clergy and hierarchs leads them to demonize and condemn without a complete understanding of the realities they are judging. This in turn leads to scapegoating, to hostility and passive aggressive behaviour, often couched in terms of pious servility…
In short, mutual alienation between clergy and laity has resulted in a culture of suspicion, blame, and the life of the Church has become a diabolical battlefield with lay persons ranged on one side, and Bishops and priests on the other.
The solutions to this problem are far more complex than this little reflection by a junior priest can provide. I believe, however, that the way forward must be built on a foundation of open and honest communication. This sentiment may be commonplace, and even cliched, but it is commonplace and cliched for a reason. We need to continually remind ourselves that ‘bad blood’ in the Church is the result of poor circulation in the Body of Christ. We can only fulfill our calling to live in communion if all our members are communicating their lives, one to another. In this sense, communication is the living testimony of a health communion.
In this spirit, I would like to offer a few thoughts for both clergy (priests and Bishops) and laity towards the building of healthier communication (and communion) in the life of the Church. None of this is new or revolutionary. I am merely restating, for the purposes of encouragement, habits that others have articulated many times before.
For Those Who Follow Share your personal schedule. Don’t assume that your leaders automatically know every detail of your life. Even the most well-informed priest can miss important details because they have so many families to care for. And if this is true of your local priest, how much more so is it true of your Bishop, who administers several parishes! Be assertive and let your leader know about upcoming events that are important to you: anniversaries, birthdays, vacation times, social commitments. Besides that, don’t forget to tell your leaders about events that may be stressful, such as visits to the hospital, upcoming job interviews and so on. Don’t omit things because you think they are not ‘Church-related’; rather, provide your priest and even your Bishop with as complete a portrait of your life as you can, so that you are not just a name on some list.
Consider the lives of those who lead. Believe it or not, your leaders are just as human as you are. They have birthdays, anniversaries, vacation times, just as you do. What is the personal situation of your leader? Do you know his birthday, the date of his ordination or consecration? Are you aware of his important life events, such as his health issues or ongoing difficulties in his immediate and extended family? If not, it’s time to find out. Take an interest in your leaders’ lives and take the time to call them, for no other reason than to find how they are doing.
For Those Who Lead Share your personal schedule. Just as we cannot be aware of every important detail in the lives of our people, nor can we assume that they know or will make the effort to find out about ours. As leaders, it is essential to give our people a sense of who we are as human beings, with full human lives beyond Sunday. Aside from personal, one-on-one conversations—which are part of our fundamental vocation as pastors—we must make efforts to open our lives in public ways. For most ordinary people today, those ways must include social networking and the Internet. As problematic as these electronic media may be, with all sorts of potential for abuse, when used properly they are also excellent tools for communicating our lives to the Church in appropriate and edifying ways. One Orthodox hierarch of my acquaintance, for instance, regularly posts on Facebook, communicating aspects of his schedule, personal reflections on faith and culture, not to mention the scriptural readings for each day. I for one would be greatly edified to see more of our hierarchs starting to use such tools—whether Facebook, Twitter, or even a personal web site—to dispel the fog of ignorance that can obscure and poison their relationships with their people.
Consider the lives of those who follow. Our relationships with those who follow us rests largely on knowing who they are in the widest possible sense. This means calling or meeting with them, not merely for professional reasons—matters to do with Church membership or administration—but simply to stay familiar with the ongoing story of their lives. As tempting as it might be to speak to our parishioners (if we are priests) or diocesan clergy (if we are bishops) only when necessity demands it, our challenge as leaders is to broaden our communications to include regular “check-ins” whose sole purpose to show that we are interested in those for whom we have been given responsibility before God. As a pastor, I have been surprised at how many spiritual poisons—frustration, bitternness, resentment, or conflict—have found an effective antidote in a short monthly phone call, just to see how a person is doing. If all of us who lead strove to develop this habit—priests for their parishioners and bishops for their clergy—we would go a long way to avoiding the spirit of fear and resentment that can take hold of us when we do not know one another.
None of these reflections are intended to show any disrespect, either for our laity or for our priests or hierarchs, all of whom are struggling under very difficult circumstances to proclaim our faith in Christ to North America and the world. My hope in this short article was simply to challenge all of us, both laity and clergy, to improve the circulation in the Body of Christ through better, more consistent communication, so that the bad blood that has paralyzed our lives in recent times may once again flow freely and allow to accomplish the task for which we have been baptized, ordained and consecrated, to the glory of Christ and His Church.