“I don’t understand why we can’t have a Sunday evening Mass. I guess you priests only work in the morning.”
“My daughter and her fiancé want their special song at the wedding. If they can’t have it, we’re changing parishes.”
“I give money to the parish but when I ask for a sponsor certificate so my son can be a godfather, you refuse just because he moved out of state four years ago. No wonder young people are leaving the Church!”
Every pastor has heard comments like those — comments that usually are delivered with an angry confrontational attitude. Often it seems that when people bring a concern or request to their pastor, they do so with an attitude that says, “I’m right. You’re wrong. And I’m entitled to what I want.”
Dealing with angry, confrontational parishioners is a challenge, especially for priests who are expected to always be kind, understanding, patient and compassionate. Priests are not supposed to get angry or upset.
No More ‘Father Knows Best’
It was not long ago that parish members had a different attitude, one that could be summed up by the title of a famous television series broadcast from 1954 to 1963: “Father Knows Best.”
In those days, parishioners believed that their pastor knew best when it came to matters of faith and religion and to issues of parish administration. The pastor was well educated; he had spent years in the seminary studying theology. He had practical experience from previous assignments. He had been chosen and appointed by the bishop. He was the pastor — the one in charge.
Since that was the belief of the day, when parishioners approached their pastor, they did so with deference and respect. If they did not like the answer they received, they usually were not hostile or confrontational. Such feelings may have been expressed at home, but not in the rectory.
Just as “Father Knows Best” has receded into the annals of television history, so has the notion that the pastor knows best. That idea is now part of Church history.
In this article, I will consider some possible reasons that may explain, at least in part, why pastors seem to be dealing with a larger number of confrontational, angry parishioners.
It would be worthwhile to begin by recognizing that we are living at a time when leaders in every field of endeavor, including religion, seem to be under attack by the public and by the media.
We see that most clearly in the field of politics. A man or woman steps forward to seek public office and immediately that person becomes a target. The person’s entire life and that of his or her family members are scrutinized for the slightest flaw. Even after being elected, public officials remain under a journalistic microscope that searches for the negative and overlooks the positive.
The tendency to attack the leader is also evident in the field of education. If pupils do poorly, parents of those failing children often direct their anger at the teachers rather than at the children who may not have applied themselves. The teachers, the educational leaders, must be the reason for their children’s poor performance.
If leaders in other professions are maligned and no longer treated with respect, it is not surprising that the same fate awaits pastors. Perhaps our culture has entered a period of prolonged adolescent rebellion where anger at authority figures is the order of the day. Just consider how that “adolescent rebellion” shows itself in the media. The young are depicted as the wise ones while adults are seen as foolish and bumbling. The political commentators on television are the ones who know what is best in any situation while government and business leaders are portrayed as incompetent.
The recent clergy sexual abuse scandal has certainly added to the anger directed at clerical leaders and has lessened respect for the Church. Catholics are justifiably angry with the way that some bishops mishandled cases of abuse. That anger often gets transferred to the pastor of the parish since he represents the institutional Church. People do not often come in contact with their diocesan bishop or with “Rome,” but they do interact with their pastor.
The transference of anger to the pastor may also be the result of other issues, especially those that give rise to differences of opinion among those in the pews.
The official position of the Church on same-sex marriage has dissenters who see the issue in terms of civil rights rather than in terms of theology or traditional values. The exclusion of women from ordained ministry and the investigation of religious sisters by the Vatican angers those who feel the baptismal dignity of women is not being fully respected. The Church’s teaching on contraception, divorce, remarriage and homosexuality upsets Catholics who believe those teachings need to be revisited.
Anger at the Church’s position on controversial issues not only affects more liberal Catholics but conservative ones as well. There are parishioners upset with the Church’s thinking on immigration, ecology, labor unions, the distribution of wealth, defense spending and other issues of social justice. Such Catholics see their Church and its leaders as just another lobbying group pushing a progressive agenda rather than working to enhance the spiritual dimension of life. For them, Church is about what happens on Sunday, not about what happens during the week in business, politics and the public square.
Pastors who publically embrace positions about which Catholics disagree and preach about such issues in their homilies can become targets. Anger at the pastor can come from both sides of the theological and political spectrum.
People can also become angry with the pastor when they have a mistaken notion of parish. Rather than seeing their parish as a community of Christians who share a common faith, who gather to be nourished by Word and Sacrament, who encourage one another in their relationship with God, who strive to love their neighbor, who invite others to meet the Lord, and who make God’s kingdom more present in the world, they think of their parish as just another business that provides a service.
If you want to learn how to play the piano, you hire a music teacher. You pay the teacher, and the teacher gives you lessons. If you want your property to look nice, you hire a landscaping service. You pay the firm, and its employees do whatever you desire. With that service model in mind, when people contact the pastor concerning a baptism or wedding, they expect him to accommodate their needs on their schedule, with little hassle. When the pastor explains Church teaching and parish policy and the importance of an ongoing faith commitment, certain people get angry — especially those with little connection to the Church. If they are “paying for a service,” they expect the pastor to do what they want.
Anger at the pastor can also come from parish members who believe the pastor should listen to them and follow their advice and counsel. Those who are highly successful in their profession often think their success means they would be equally successful in any field. If they can run a law practice, investment firm, or retail business, they obviously have the wisdom and skill to run a parish. As the Catholic population has scaled the economic ladder and become more successful and influential, the number of Catholics who believe they could administer a parish as well as or even better than their pastor has increased.
Yet running a parish is not like running any other type of enterprise. Laws of supply and demand, profit and loss, do not apply. Pastors deal with the laws of God, the demands of the Gospel, Church directives, and with spiritual forces that can motivate people to do things that no amount of money ever could. A good pastor obviously listens, but listening does not mean doing whatever someone successful advises. A pastor has to listen to many voices, but above all he has to strive to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd who truly knows the best direction for the flock.
These and other reasons may explain why parishioners are often angry and confrontational in dealing with their pastor. But perhaps the reason that some people are angry has nothing at all to do with the pastor who is standing before them. He may just be the one to whom their pent-up anger is directed.
Married people may be angry because their marriage is not working out. Parents may be angry because their children are moving in the wrong direction and rejecting their values. Grown children may be angry and aggravated because their elderly parents require more and more time and attention.
Working people may be angry and frustrated with their jobs, but afraid to make a change for fear they will end up unemployed. Young people may be angry because the downturn in the economy has led them to return home to live with their parents. Middle-aged people may be angry with themselves as they realize they will never achieve the goals they set for themselves years ago. Senior adults may be angry because their later years are filled with financial challenges, doctor appointments and a lack of visits from their children.
People may feel angry and helpless as they witness what they believe is the decline of their nation and its traditional values. People may be angry because they feel God is ignoring their prayers and sending them far more challenges than blessings. People may be angry because they are lonely, hurting, depressed, misunderstood and simply unhappy with their lives.
All that anger has to go somewhere, and sometimes the pastor is the person who gets more than his share. That may be the case because on some level parishioners know the pastor is a safe target. He will not strike back. He will not return anger with anger. He will try his best to show the compassion and understanding of the Lord who said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father” (Mt 5:44-45).
A pastor today deals with many angry parishioners. Recognizing the possible causes of their anger and realizing that in many cases their anger has nothing to do with him, may make that negative feeling a little easier to bear.
Jesus and Angry People
A pastor also needs to remember that Jesus himself dealt with many angry and confrontational people during his ministry. Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Temple Priests and Roman officials were hardly friends of Jesus. Yet despite the anger and hostility He faced, Jesus remained a person of compassion and peace. He did not return anger with anger. He always took the high road.
Jesus was able to do that because He was a person of prayer. He himself practiced what He preached; He prayed for his enemies. Such prayer may have helped Jesus to better understand the angry, hurting person before him. Prayer can do the same for today’s pastor. Prayer can help a pastor to see beyond the anger being expressed and to recognize the hurting, disappointed, frustrated child of God standing before him.
A pastor also needs to recall that, when the Risen Lord appeared to His Apostles that first Easter Sunday evening, He wished peace to those future leaders of His Church. He said, “Peace be with you.” In fact He said it twice. “And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (Jn 20:19-23). The Risen Lord blessed those first pastors with inner peace and serenity, and He sent them out to share those gifts with others as they forgave sin and preached the Gospel.
In our increasingly angry world, the words of Jesus are equally meant for the pastors of today. “Peace be with you.” Do not let the anger of others make you angry. Do not return confrontation with confrontation. Instead, be patient. Be forgiving. Be a person of peace. The last thing a parish with some angry people needs is an angry pastor! “Peace with you.”
FATHER IWANOWSKI is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark. He was ordained in 1975. He has been a parochial vicar and a pastor.