I recently spent most of a day driving one of our family vehicles that I don’t use very often. Since I didn’t have a way of using my phone for entertainment or access to Sirius XM, I engaged in one of my favorite pastimes: channel surfing through the FM radio stations. At some point, I came across the station that broadcasts Roman Catholic programming. A few words grabbed my attention and I paused. The program involved an interview with a parish priest (I don’t know if this was Maine priest or a program from another state). The priest was in the midst of an airing of grievances. As part of his list of complaints, the priest talked about those people who come up to him, especially before worship, to report building issues, like a loose board or pew. “What am I supposed to do about that?” the priest asked and then continued with something like, “Do I look like the sexton?” He also complained about people who tell him about the lack of supplies in the restrooms. He questioned yet again, “Why are they coming to me? Do I look like I handle such things?” He wondered why so many people turn to him to report these various sorts of issues instead of calling the church office, like any person with good sense would supposedly know to do. To be fair, he didn’t use those words exactly, but that was his tone. After a long stretch of complaining, he offered this strange bit of reflection: “I know I’m complaining a lot . . But, it’s fun, isn’t it?”
Then he went on to talk about how irritating it is when people enter the sacristy before worship, when the priest is not only robing and putting on his various vestments, but saying the proper prayers, preparing himself for leading worship. This preparation includes a significant opportunity for the priest to attune himself to observing the mystery of God‘s presence, and to lead the congregation in that holy observance. Why do people pop into the sacristy just to say hello, when he’s in the midst of his preparations? How can they not understand how inappropriate that is?
As I was listening to this radio broadcast, my first reaction was to be annoyed. He sounded like a whiny jerk. I moved on to more channel surfing. Somehow, though, the words of that priest burrowed into my brain and I have been thinking about them. I’ve been reflecting on my own experience as a clergyperson, particularly on my own preparation time immediately before the start of worship. I don’t have a regular ritual and there’s no sacristy at the Protestant church where I serve, but I must admit that I share at least a somewhat similar list of grievances when it comes to preparing to lead worship.
I, too, am irritated when people bring a problem to me before worship that I can’t do anything about at that moment. I, too, am annoyed when people search me out, when I’m in the church office, or in the back of the sanctuary building, putting on my robe and trying to find a private moment to settle into my role as the worship leader.
In what seems like an increasingly casual culture, I suspect many people have no real idea that they are crossing boundaries or acting inappropriately. There’s a problem or something to report or just the desire to be friendly, so why not search out the priest or minister just before worship, when it seems so convenient?
What is the clergyperson to do? Is it possible to set boundaries without sounding whiny or like a spoiled child? Is is possible to re-establish a sense of formality around worship and its rituals, once a whole lot of casualness has taken hold?
While I think it’s important that clergy use a great deal of care in airing their grievances (I don’t think the radio broadcast and the tone of the interview, for instance, were appropriate), the complaining priest raised issues that are worth broader consideration. For those who are part of a worshipping community, how does that community as a whole define and practice good boundaries in the relationship between clergy and worship, as well as clergy and congregation?
It’s worth considering the relationship between clergy and worship and clergy and congregation. These relationships ought to be defined and tended, nurtured and sustained, in caring and compassionate ways. I know that those who search me out before worship, to pass along a piece of information or request that has nothing to do with worship, probably get the message that they have annoyed me, since I don’t have much of a poker face. But, I suspect that they have no idea why. While I may wish that there were clearly understood rules of engagement, it seems plain enough that, for the most part anyway, there is not. It’s part of my job to help my congregation, the flock that I tend, appreciate my various roles, and among the most significant is worship leadership. If I’m just hanging onto my list of complaints as a talisman of days gone by, when people knew not to bother the minister/priest before worship (although I question that assumption), then I’m doing a poor job not simply as clergy, but as pastor, as a small “s” shepherd following the big “S” Shepherd. Essentially, if my flock has lost its way in how it relates to me, that’s my problem, not theirs.