“I don’t like my priest”

aPrivate Conversation

You just know they’re talking about their priest.

“I don’t like my priest.” Someone — not one of my own parishioners — said this to me recently. It had nothing to do with what the clergyman in question was doing or failing to do in ministry. By all accounts this person’s priest is quite an effective pastor and leader. The parish is growing and he has a lot of support from various segments of the congregation. The issue, from this person’s perspective, was the priest’s personality. She just didn’t like him.

What happens when you don’t really like your parish priest? Does it matter? We certainly don’t “like” everyone we encounter in this life. Some people just rub us the wrong way. It may be something trivial like their voice or their wardrobe — superficial reasons to be sure but even such small things may mask deeper reasons. We throw labels around all the time when trying to explain what we don’t like about a person: arrogant, glad-hander, bully, suck-up. Often these accusations reveal our own biases or previous life experiences. Granted, sometimes the other person is actually just a jerk.

What a lot of people do when they don’t like their priest, of course, is simply leave the congregation in search of another one. In a culture where “church shopping” is an accepted practice, why not just shop around until you find a priest you like? A place where the priest’s personality better suits your own; a church where you could see yourself going out for a beer with your pastor.

like-FacebookBut is “liking” the clergy really the point? For some, being friends with their clergy is the single most important thing in their spiritual life. People don’t like to admit this since it really should be all about God but the lines can become easily blurred. Whether we admit it or not, “liking” the clergy is a major part of why people attend particular congregations. We want them to know our names and our stories — something increasingly difficult in growing congregations.

In some ways this issue reminds me of the Donatist controversy of the early 4th century. In North Africa the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered a wave of intense persecution against Christians blaming them for a series of plagues that led to economic instability. During this time any Christian who renounced the faith was spared. Christians who were caught with copies of Scripture (usually clergy) were especially susceptible to punishment — usually death. Many priests allowed their texts to be burned, thereby sparing their lives.

After Constantine succeeded Diocletian, the persecution eventually abated and disappeared entirely in 313 when the emperor declared tolerance for Christianity. A significant number of North Africans who remained faithful objected when the lapsed clergy again took up their positions. A group of purists led by Donatus, condemned these priests as Roman collaborators who defamed the memory of the martyrs. They declared the orders of the lapsed priests invalid and refused to accept the sacraments from them while the opposing party championed the concept of forgiveness for all.

Into this controversy stepped St. Augustine of Hippo, whose view was that it was the office of priest, not his personal character, that gave validity to the 703sacraments. This position won out and Donatism would go down in history as a classic heresy.

The point here is that an individual’s personal feelings about a priest are ultimately irrelevant. It’s the sacramental ministry that matters, not whether or not we “like” our clergy. Faith transcends personality. And while we all seek connection and relationship, it’s important to keep it in its proper perspective. Connection and relationship with Jesus Christ always comes first, the realization of which, I think, takes some pressure off both clergy and parishioners.

I hope the woman I spoke with doesn’t leave her community just because she doesn’t want to hang out with her priest. While a priest’s personality can set a tone for a congregation, a community of faith is more than just one person. It’s a rich tapestry of personalities and experiences — some that resonate with us, others that don’t — all working together to seek and serve Christ in all persons.

20 Comments on ““I don’t like my priest””

  1. CS says:

    Honestly, it wouldn’t occur to me to change parishes because the I don’t care for the clergy; I love my church, and that is unaffected by the personalities of the clergy on staff at any given time. Far more problematic, in my opinion, is when the rector is not just someone who rubs you the wrong way, but rather someone with poor interpersonal skills. When the leadership neither values, nor creates, nor expects am atmosphere of communication, but rather fosters dysfunction, people stay *despite* the clergy.

  2. Father Tim says:

    Well, there’s certainly a big difference between not liking your pastor and a pastor who is destructive or abusive. One you can get over, the other needs an intervention.

  3. Verdery says:

    There’s “rubbing the wrong way” and then there’s getting in the way of any relationship with God. Long ago, when we moved to another state, we went to a service in a church not far from our house. Unfortunately, the rector’s sermon really antagonized me. Realizing that even priests have the occasional bad day, we tried again a few weeks later. Once again, the narrow-mindedness of the priest was more than I could stomach. We ended up at a very small mission several miles away, with a friendly congregation and a reasonable series of priests.

    The rector in the first church may well have had perfectly sound theological and ecclesiastical principles, but his sermons really got in the way of my ability to focus on God.

  4. relling says:

    I think it is important to trust your priest and believe her or him to be a competent professional. I have stayed in my current church for almost eight years, despite the fact that I personally did not like the rector. However, in many ways she was very good at being a rector. The church grew and even became more diverse. And much of the enthusiasm that powered that growth and increasing diversity was the result of decisions and actions that she made and took. I was happy when she retired, because no sane person likes to be marginalized. But the most important thing for me was that I trusted her to be a good priest, and she was.

    The thing that worries me most when I look at the Episcopal clergy now is the number of newcomer/wannabes who change denominations but bring their baggage with them. It is fine to be welcoming and responsive, but there needs to be some boundaries.

    Today, our preacher was an ordained Baptist minister who: works in the church office as a paid employee, serves on the vestry, and works as an actress when this person can find jobs. This person was on the vestry when the interim arrived, but the middle two functions are the result of our interim’s choices. Oh, yes, the best part of the sermon from this person who has been at the church for three or four years, “stay the course and have faith,” along with a responsive refrain that the congregation “volunteered” when she raised her magic hand.

    At least the anthem was fabulous. Our choir, the soloists and the music director performed a beautiful anthem that was a mini-opera between the tax collector and the proud man. Truly amazing.

  5. If it were just a matter of receiving a wafer and sip from a chalice from the priest, I’d agree with you. Yes, a sacrament is valid no matter the personality of the priest who performs it, and a parish isn’t just the priest – but sacraments aren’t the only form of encounter between priest and parishioner, and most parishes have only one priest.

    Realistically, how can a parishioner turn to someone they dislike and therefore feel uneasy with for spiritual counseling and pastoral care at the times when they feel most vulnerable and least able to protect themselves? It’s utterly exhausting to have someone who rubs you the wrong way visit even briefly when you’re ill, even if they bring communion. A wedding may be perfectly valid if it’s performed by someone you dislike, but neither your anticipation nor your memories of the event are likely to be pleasant. Working with, or serving on a committee under the direction of someone like that can be an ongoing source of stress. Need I go on?

    If both parties have tried to find a way of being at ease with each other, and failed, can you blame the parishioner who chooses to go to a church where the priest is someone they DO feel they can turn to in life’s most straining circumstances?

  6. Parish Pillar says:

    The article does not take into account problems faced by those who have to work with the priest because of their responsibilities in the parish (such as churchwardens) and cannot avoid conflicts if the pastor is – say – a drug-addict or is narcissistic or has a bad temper. . Obviously, some people stay faithful to their parishes no matter what the priest is like and others will just go elsewhere. But committed parish leaders often need help in order to carry out their duties.

  7. The Donatist controversy was also a racial / ethnic conflict between the Berber church in the mountains and the Romanized church in the coastal towns. The persecution was greater in the towns and less in the mountains where Roman authority was weaker. The Berber church faced less persecution and was able to take a strong stand against yielding and handing over “traditore” precious handwritten copies of the Scriptures. The coastal Latin and Greek peoples considered themselves intellectually superior to the peasant back country people.

    I see a similar controversy between the North Atlantic and Global South Anglican churches.

  8. Patty D says:

    Wow ~ I really liked this article…..we have to remember the main reason why we go to Mass —- people are forgetting the reason we celebrate Mass ~ people are also forgetting that we are suppose to be Christians.

  9. Father Tim says:

    As I said to the commenters on my Facebook stream…

    Thanks for engaging this one, all — clearly touches everyone in very personal ways. Sure, it’s fun to throw a grenade into the mix occasionally just to get people thinking. A lot of the issues here can be resolved with open and honest communication and the admission that we all make mistakes. However there’s a big difference between not liking/being best friends with a priest and abusive/destructive behavior. Neither clergy nor laity have a monopoly on bad behavior. But as much as we talk about the “community of all the baptized” and the “priesthood of all believers” clergy have a unique opportunity to cause emotional/spiritual pain just as they have a unique opportunity to cause emotional/spiritual healing and inspiration.That’s the profound gift and deep responsibility of ordained ministry.

  10. CS says:

    Parish Pillar: I know what you mean! I’m the verger at my parish, and honestly, the clergy do far more to impede me than they ever do to help me. Furthermore, they tend to issue commands from on high, and expect them to be obeyed without question – and heaven help you if you dare to point out a problem. (One example: One year, I was instructed to schedule 6 servers for a Maundy Thursday evening service; unfortunately, Holy Week that year happened to coincide with spring break for most of the kids in our parish, and only 3 servers were going to be in town on Maundy Thursday. The clergy also gave me specific instructions on what each of the 6 servers were supposed to do during the service, so I tried to explain that I’d only be able to schedule 3; I was rudely interrupted and told, “I don’t want to hear it. Just do it!” Another example: They’ve complained about my inability to have servers at certain funerals – funerals which were held during the day, during the week, during the school year – but don’t seem to grasp that I don’t have the authority to remove other people’s children from school.) I’m not the only person who has had these kinds of experiences; several people have approached me to complain about the way the clergy treat them. I treat my secretary better than the clergy treat me and the other volunteers, and my secretary relies upon me for her income and health insurance; by contrast, we’re all volunteers, so none of us have to do the things we do. Those of us who haven’t been chased away continue to serve despite our clergy – but they make it so much harder than it has any need to be.

  11. Alas, there is a material difference between merely “not liking” someone and apprehending that the individual called to serve the congregation might actually be a bad person. Ministry attracts the broken, even the pathological. They find their way through the process, sometimes more easily than thoughtful, self-reflective individuals. And sometimes being in ministry ignites pathology, be it substance abuse, predatory behavior, bullying, fiscal malfeasance, you name it. In the Episcopal Church it is much more difficult to remove–or even merely challenge–a clergy person. Congregational polity makes it easier for a congregation to rid itself of a bad seed, but even then it is not easy because of the artificial deference with which too many people treat clergy.

  12. Parish Pillar says:

    I can commiserate with you, CS. There are some clergy who confuse leadership with bossiness and although they can be great with administration, hard workers, thorough and methodical in anything they do, they lack talent in pastoral care and just do not know the difference between being kind and being genteel, gestures of encouragement or domination, as well as teasing or sarcastic.

  13. Asa says:

    It wasn’t until I got much older that I even had much contact with our priests. I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life – and, I always thought our priests were silly…then I got to know them…they are silly. I got talked into doing altar guild – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been “talked to” because of the way I vested the altar (different priests – different rules – never consistent). Then – got talked into being a chalice bearer – what a nightmare dealing with the slurpers and gulpers…I got tickled one time while this elderly lady nearly drained the chalice – had to pry the thing from her all the while getting the “evil eye” from the priest. I did everyone a favor and quit that “ministry.” Then – flowers – didn’t think THAT could be controversial – WRONG! Had a priest that got out a ruler to make sure that the flowers didn’t go over a certain height – you know – so you could focus on the altar cross. Oh, and then – a priest talked me into doing the Sunday bulletins – I’m still going thru therapy over that one. I also did time as the treasurer – standing between a priest and money is a dangerous position to be in.
    I just want to go to church and meditate, sing a few hymns, listen to a sermon that doesn’t put me to sleep, not argue with the priest over something stupid – and LEAVE. If anything – what my encounters with priests have taught me is that what I hold dear and sacred does not reside in the church building – it’s all outside. Except when we have potluck dinners….
    Oh – and that thing about apostolic succession – that’s really silly. I bet Jesus would never have picked half the people out there that serve as priests – especially the ones with the rulers.

  14. Stanley Robertson says:

    My priests are ok but for the most part I’m at church for the sacraments. I do however have a buddy who is my confessor who is not at my parish. Also, my priests are pretty liberal and I’m center-right so them being anything other than my gateway to the Eucharist and small-talk over bad coffee would be bad for this layman.

  15. Adelaide Kent says:

    I was a member of a parish where the rector didn’t like me. I toughed it out for eight years but finally had to leave.
    Best move I ever made!

  16. David Beer says:

    If there were no time(s) in the life of a parish priest that he was unliked by any or all of his parishioners, there would more than likely be a problem with the priest himself. I have been close to every priest whom ever served me as minister, pastor, priest, rector, etc…even from the age of 8. A lifetime is a long time to be liked always. I have no relationship that has ever been like this. Love is the aim here not like. If we base our lives on “LIKING” we have a luke warm life at best. The first commandment that Jesus gives is not “Like the Lord thy God…” and “Like our neighbors”…..

  17. Stanley Robertson says:

    Love doesn’t mean having to deal with them on anything other than a sacramental and small-talk level. Everyone isn’t coming over for dinner I’m sorry.

  18. Tony Hawkins says:

    Time does not allow me to read ALL of the responses. However, I did read the arguments. Valid reasons. And as a cradle Anglican, I also ran to the BCP for a review of the Examination p.531 & the Catechism p.855. I am currently attending (note the worship was not used) a parish whose priest I do not like. It is his LACK of shepherding that fuels my fire. As a vestryman, I pray & want to effect change for God’s people. This person retards change, does not proclaim the Gospel, ignores pastoral duties and does not feed the sheep. I pray NOT to poison others with my dislike of the situation. Jesus said-if you’re not against me…I’m not against Jesus, just the dude who’s supposed to be representing Him. For me-I’ve to go…leave that house & find another. As was mentioned earlier, sometimes we leave because of a person, but the Lord’s love for both of us constructs a new design of living somewhere else.

  19. will says:

    I recently experienced a Priest who took the time of his sermons to degrade individuals in the parish who were present . He did this often and sent people into tears .His objective was pure control , to tithe more , attend more services, dress better in church etc etc 100 percent unacceptable to me as it destroyed all sense of spiritual peace and prayer . We have left that church . it builds a cult mentality of fear and blind obedience based on public humility .

  20. will says:

    I meant public humiliation

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