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For New Priests: The Gritty Side of Leadership

Axios! Axios! Axios!

You’ve just been given your first parish assignment. Whatever life experience you have been blessed to receive is about to be thoroughly tested and reconstituted.

Those undergraduate years, whatever jobs you may have held, even seminary will likely not have prepared you for what lies ahead.

You feel honored and maybe a bit humbled by the responsibility the bishop has bestowed upon you. Your friends at seminary, your home parish and your family all wish you well. Yet before assuming your new role, consider a few of the challenges you’re likely to face in the early days of navigating these new waters. Here are some lessons learned, drawn from decades of experience in service to the Church.

1. You’re a leader first, then a manager. But most priests must do both.

As the famous father of management consulting, Peter Drucker, one wrote, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” But what is the right thing? Many, many mistakes will be made as you acquire this intuitive wisdom. Be quick to apologize and try to learn from every mistake. Remember: though elements within the parish will often resist your leadership, they still need you to lead and want you to lead. It’s easier to do things right than it is to do the right thing. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or seek counsel from the bishop or senior priests. Did you know that you’re also a visionary? Priests are those who articulate the mission of the parish then educate, enlighten and inspire others to embrace this vision.

2. Making demands for change is costly.

It’s a temptation to try to change things quickly. Some of the misguided policies, activities and behaviors of the community are obvious to you. Perhaps even the parish council is pushing for rapid change. The counsel of St. Paul is very appropriate here: “So, as those who have been chosen … put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12) Insisting on big changes, especially within your first 100 days, can be costly and erode trust you need to build. There are exceptions to this of course. In my second parish I arrived to learn that coffee hour was held prior to the liturgy and everyone was over in the hall while I and the altar servers were in the Church!

3. Grasp the big picture.

As the priest, you must spend some of your time in ways that enable you to see the big picture, the important issues your parish is facing. Getting bogged down in details that really should be addressed by others wastes precious time, allows the parish to drift and sends a message to the parish council and the general parish what your priorities are – NOT strategic planning.

Do all you can to avoid the tyranny of the urgent task. Avoid micromanaging. Use staff and dependable volunteers to handle those “urgent” tasks that are not sacerdotal or pastoral. Devote your energy to fulfilling the mission of the parish and developing the parish as the eucharistic community placed in your care.

4. You’re being watched — always.

As the man in the black garb, white collar and pectoral cross everything you do and say will be scrutinized, critiqued and discussed. It’s extremely painful in the beginning, especially when spouses and children are thrown into the mix. Yet looking back over 38 years of priestly service with a much deeper awareness of my countless shortcomings I now realize how compassionate, loving and accepting the vast majority of parishioners were.

A strong dose of this over the years will tempt you to believe that what you are is who you are. That would be a grave disservice to the Orthodox theology of personhood and if continued unabated or untreated will be a grave disservice to yourself.

5. You may think you’re in charge, but…

Any priest who believes he is wholly in charge will soon learn that nothing could be further from the truth. Whether facing angry parishioners or disappointed parish council members, every priest has a multitude of forces within the parish over which he may have little influence. This is where “hearing what is not being said” can really make a difference.

6. Pleasing patriarchs, matriarchs, clan leaders and major donors is not your top priority. And neither is contempt or contention for those or with those who assume or hold these roles in the community. Acknowledge them. Honor them. Love them but be faithful to your calling.

You have multiple constituencies within the parish to serve. Yet as Fr. Schmemann once said, “It is not the highest responsibility of the priest to serve the community. Higher than that is the responsibility of the priest to teach the people through modeling and sermons how to serve God.”

7. Stewardship and abundant funding are more important than one assumes.

This aspect of priestly service and leadership can feel exceedingly awkward. We fear it may compromise our relationship with parishioners if we get involved in this aspect of parish life. We fear asking people for their support. Yet abundant funding general means a happy parish council, options for ministry, adequate staffing, good care of the facilities, etc. Good and faithful stewardship by parishioners has a powerful effect upon the deepest levels of their spiritual life and the general well being of the parish. Trust me on this.

8. Say “thank you” often.

Every so often call a parishioner up who is one of the stalwart ones, who is always there and thank them personally. They won’t forget it. Find creative ways to thank people.

9. Your budget is not a blank check.

Parish budgets are tight and all too often in deficit mode. Your ability to spend money, especially on fostering innovation and launching new initiatives, will be limited, if not nonexistent. Get used to it. Pick your budget battles wisely, spend sparingly, and always strive to expand your resource engine, not diminish it.

10. You do not walk on water.

Extend forgiveness to yourself and others around you. You will make mistakes. Those who admit their mistakes and learn from them grow professionally and gain respect.


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