While part of life, transitions not easy for priests

Some priests who have moved from one parish assignment to another have a joking rule of thumb for new pastors: Change nothing the first year but your socks.

“It can be stressful because you don’t know what you’re getting into,” said Father Jose Felix Ortega, a Legionaires of Christ priest who became pastor in 2014 of St. Peter and St. Denis Church in Yonkers, New York.

Incoming pastors such as Father Ortega have to navigate a new parish community where some of the faithful are happy that the old pastor is gone, while others in the pews are angry or worried about what the new pastor is going to do and what changes he might bring.

A pastor may be surprised and saddened to learn that what endeared him to one parish may alienate him in another. Some parishioners will inevitably be displeased and even move to a new parish. The new pastor cannot please everyone.

“The most important thing is to listen,” Father Ortega said. “You need to listen to the people. That’s really what we’re supposed to do as pastors.”

‘Team players’

While new pastors have to reassure worried parishioners that they have good intentions, they also are going through a difficult time themselves.

“For me, in my 27 years of being a priest, I’d say the hardest thing that a priest has to do is transfer, to go from one parish to the next. It’s like losing your wife and your kids all on the same day, because your parish is your family,” said Father Dan Swift, who in July 2015 became pastor of St. Mary of the Lakes Church in Medford, New Jersey.

Father Swift, who is pastoring his third parish, told OSV that after one parish transfer, he was with his family and felt a little envy of his married siblings for the stability they had in their family lives. His bishop told him about the move a year and a half ahead of time to prepare, but change is still hard.

“It can be exciting, but for people who are tried and true in their ways, it might be a little more difficult,” said Father Swift, who credits patience “on both sides,” preparation and honest communication with helping him settle into his current parish. The change can be difficult, but he accepts it as part of his priestly vocation.

“We need to be team players,” Father Swift said. “The bishop is going to move you only because he needs to move you, and this is where he needs you to be for the greater good, for the People of God.”

‘Learning curve’

Sometimes, an incoming pastor cannot afford to keep a low profile for too long. Father John O’Brien became pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Ferguson, Missouri, in June 2015, when the community was still roiling from the August 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

Father O’Brien told OSV that one of the first things he did after arriving at the parish was to invite religious leaders from Ferguson and the St. Louis area for an ecumenical gathering on the one-year anniversary of Brown’s death to focus on forgiveness and reconciliation.

“It was a sharp learning curve,” said Father O’Brien, who is in his first assignment as a pastor. He said the one-year acclimation period is good advice for any new pastor.

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“I think it takes a full year to understand the rhythm of the parish, to get to know the structures, the different ministries of the parish, what the people are used to in terms of the liturgy, what kind of events they have throughout the year, what they get excited about, what they’re passionate about, where their interests lie, what the mission of the parish is. These kind of questions you can’t really know unless you experience a full year in the parish,” Father O’Brien said.

‘The middle road’

Father Michael Hennelly became pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Oxford, Pennsylvania, this past March. He has been through parish transitions before, but they can still be challenging.

“You’re caught between the hellos and the painful goodbyes. That’s the middle road that the priest lives in,” Father Hennelly said. “You’re ordained to serve and to be sent.”

Having strong friendships and relationships with his family and a rooted prayer life help him weather the adversity of a transition.

Father James Ebert became pastor in July 2016 of Mater Christi Church in Albany, New York. He succeeded a popular pastor who had been at the parish for 24 years until retiring.

“I think when you have someone who is beloved for so many years, you get used to them, and they really become like part of your family,” Father Ebert said. “Then they retire, and there are those natural worries about who’s coming next, what his personality is going to be, and are we going to get someone good.”

Father Ebert said the parish has taken to him well and was open early on to his ideas. He suggested some minor alterations but did not want to make major changes as he learned about the parish in his first year.

“People appreciate that because the parish is their spiritual home,” Father Ebert said.

‘Flipped upside down’

Father David Frederici, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River in Massachusetts, recently learned that he will be moving from his current pastorate on Cape Cod to a new parish in the rural community of Westport. Father Frederici will begin his new assignment July 5.

“I’m very sad about leaving. I love St. John’s. It’s a great community,” Father Frederici said of St. John the Evangelist Church in Pocasset, Massachusetts.

He told OSV that he did not anticipate the level of stress that goes into such a transition, adding that as a first-time pastor on Cape Cod he became invested in people’s lives, in their joys and struggles.

“Life for me has totally been flipped upside down,” he said.

His parishioners are sad that he will be leaving, but they also are happy for him and giving him their well-wishes. Father Frederici also had a recent meeting with the staff at his next parish.

He has been reading its bulletin, reading the results of a recent parish survey there and even has read books on the parish’s 75th and 100th anniversaries to get a sense of its history and character.

“Parishes grow and pastors can get too comfortable, and that’s not good either,” Father Frederici said.

“I would have loved to have been at St. John’s for 30 years, but then again, the bishop is responsible for the needs of the parishioners, and he’s got the big picture in front of him, not me.”

Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.