‘Servants’ in Ministry

Every year on the Tuesday of the 32nd week of Ordinary time we proclaim Luke 17:7-10 as the Gospel. 

Jesus said to the Apostles:

Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’ 

(other translations have the last verse as “we are useless servants, only doing our duty.” 

I received an email from the groom’s parents after the wedding stating how I ruined the most special day in their family. The Crosiers photo

These verses especially the last verse hits me in a special way. About every five years I am reading this Gospel on the anniversary of my ordination — it was even the Gospel of the day on my 25th and most recent 30th anniversary. When one thinks of it, it seems rather fitting for the day. On my 25th anniversary, when I gathered many friends and family members for Mass and dinner, I thought it best to go to the readings of the day instead of choosing something from the lectionary for ordination readings. Sometimes the providence of the readings of the day, is what we need to hear. 

The Gospel does remind all Christians and most especially us, who are ordained, to put our lives into proper perspective. It is one of those lines that is heard better when one says it to oneself. It is heard a little different and maybe a little harsher, when someone says it to you. When it said to us, it is disconcerting, is a reminder to keep seeing ourselves as servants doing what God expects us to do. There is no resting on our laurels, there is always more to do. 

Just as I was hearing it proclaimed on the Tuesday of the 32nd week this past year I was also hearing it from parishioners. We have all been there when a parishioner (or two) sends you one of the ripping emails that are not fun to read as you begin your day. It certainly stops you in your tracks as you ponder all the layers of their message. I begin to rethink what I said and/or did to warrant the email. It is a reality check. It is one thing to be humble; it is totally another thing to be humbled. The former, is self-imposed and something for which we all strive – the spirit of humility. The latter is something we all try to avoid. Nobody likes being humbled by someone’s challenging words, whether we deserve them or not. 

All of us are probably self-aware enough to realize that we have fans and foes. We have people who swear by us and people who swear about us. The Crosiers photo

One of these humbling experiences, I continue to ponder. It was from one of those weddings where the extended family was calling and emailing me, each person assuming their control over the wedding, often not including the bride and groom in the discussion. I received an email from the groom’s parents after the wedding stating how I ruined the most special day in their family by the way I handled myself at the rehearsal and wedding and then they begin to list all the ways I did so. It was such a surprise to read it as all the things listed were items the family spent much time discussing with staff. When we got to the weekend of the wedding, they had forgotten many of the items they had discussed. It was only discovered when I asked where the things were so I could place them in their proper place for the wedding. Since the items were forgotten by the families, the parish provided them immediately for the bride and groom. My attention to the details (and there were more than normal for this wedding) was perceived as controlling and demeaning. It all becomes so perplexing. 

Another episode was just after the November elections. There were many highly charged referendums on the local ballots. The Catholic Church weighed in on many of them. Probably for a month before the elections, there was something in the bulletin or some announcement made about one or all those of interest to the Church. After the election when one of the referendums did not go the way the church had hoped, a parishioner contacts me that I did not do enough. She had heard another parish promoted the referendum in a way that we did not. Though the caller stated, “I am quite sure the election results were not your doing or not doing” there is almost an inkling that she thinks had I put that one thing in the bulletin versus what our parish did, the election results would be different. 

We all know, no matter how much time is poured into some moments of ministry, it is never enough for some people. I do find it all so exhausting somehow. The time and energy spent responding to those who remind us we are “useless servants” is all negative energy. Though there is part of me that wishes to respond to people’s letters or emails with a simple two sentences: “I have received your memo. I will take it under advisement. Sincerely yours in Christ.” However, I know that would just flame their anger. I discovered years ago, it is not the worth the fight. I now write back expressing my apology for whatever I did or did not do that caused their wedding to be ruined or for their disappointment on what the parish did or did not do. I typically try in my response to accept some responsibility for what I did or not do as none of us are sure how much our bias might influence our mannerisms, etc. I have found if I defend my actions, it almost gives credence to the very thing of which they are accusing me. If I protest their reasoning, they may be thinking “he protests too much.” Unfortunately, if and when they do comment on my response, I seldom ever see any ownership on their part for what ruined the wedding or their inappropriate anger toward me or the parish. 

Luke’s Gospel (Lk 17:7-10) is a great Gospel to help put all this in perspective. When read as “useless servants” it does remind me that at the end of the day (or our years of ministry) there will be things we should have done, but did not. There were things I should have said and I choose to be silent. When I read it as “unprofitable” I am reminded that there will be times that no matter how much is poured into an event or a ministerial moment, for some families it will never be enough — that all the Church’s or the parish’s ministry to them, did not seem to reach or to speak to them. 

All of us are probably self-aware enough to realize that we have fans and foes. We have people who swear by us and people who swear about us. We all have heard the horror stories from parishioners on how the former pastor in his moment of ministry offended the family and now they do not attend the church. When I hear those statements, I wonder how many families have left the church because of me. Will my successor be told stories of how I cast people away? I, along with the rest of us, have a history of ministerial highs and lows. Some of those who left may have a legitimate complaint and rightful claim to blame their leaving on us. Others may have been looking for a long time for a concrete excuse to leave and we provided it for them. Others who have left need to take responsibility for their decision to do so. 

It is all very exhausting and despairing. But fortunately, there are parishioners and ministerial moments that are just the opposite. The moments when you do something routine or simple for a family, and they write unexpectedly telling you that what you did meant the world to them (and you’re still trying to remember what you did or even who these people are). These moments help to balance out the missteps in ministry. You need to take the compliment when they come and accept it graciously. God seems to provide them too to be a reminder of the other Gospel verse. (Good and faithful servant, welcome home). TP 

FATHER CARRION is pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese. pcarrion@archbalt.org