American Catholic parishes will continue to go through a period of change in the years ahead. New priests are coming out of seminaries that have trained him in the extraordinary form and the finer details of liturgy. It is the first generation to have been so trained in many decades. They are entering parishes with new ideas. As they become pastors, they will be hiring new musicians and changing the personnel structure of parish life. There will be new budget allocations and new institutional priorities. Educational curricula will change too.
One hopes that this transition will be smooth, but experience suggests otherwise. Parishes are complex social structures. They invite everyone to join and encourage everyone to contribute time and money. But it is inevitable that pockets of interest group pressure develop within them. There are always factions. These factions can be based in ideology and theological outlook, but they are more commonly based in issues of control and perceived ownership over some sector of parish life.
New personnel, new priests, and new pastors are not nearly as aware of the legacy of factional divisions as existing parishioners tend to be. I recall one occasion where a director of music dismissed the instructions of an idealistic new pastor on grounds that “these guys come and go but the musicians stay.” He figured that he would outlast the pastor, and there was everyone reason to think that he was right. Directors of education, volunteers in various ministerial sectors believe the same thing.
Sometimes this dynamic can be explosive and lead to great tragedies, even to the point where new pastors and music directors are driven out of parishes. The force instigating the upheaval might be a small cadre within the parish. They probably do not represent the views of the majority. Nonetheless, they can be effective because they are well organized know the lay of the land better than their opponents.
I just read a wonderful new book on this entire subject. It is called When Sheep Attack! It is by Episcopal priest Dennis R. Maynard. He is addressing cases where a highly successful pastor or new parish hire, a person responsible for great energy and growth in a parish, suddenly finds himself the subject of a subtle and underground terror campaign. The new hire is driven out, with the person having resigned “voluntarily” to stop divisions within the parish, often with the encouragement of the Bishop.
Maynard documents that this scenario is not at all uncommon. He has performed at detailed examination of 25 such cases, and from extensive interviews and surveys he has found common elements in all of the cases. He suggests remedies for these situations. I can highly recommend this book for any young priest or musician headed into parish life. It explained some many things about parishes that I had not understood. I can see now that many cases that I’ve personally witnessed have common traits.
Let me mention just two cases that I’ve known among many. A new pastor arrived at a small and ailing parish. The parish had been through many rounds of upheaval with various scandals dating back decades. The money had dried up, the building was falling down, the grounds were a complete mess, and the educational programs were empty. The new pastor flew into action, instituting change in the music, raising money, getting volunteers to work on the grounds, and beefing up educational efforts with new books. Everything was going so well. They parish started filling up on Sundays and even daily Masses were well attended. It was a spectacular transformation.
Little did he know that a tiny sector within the parish had targeted him for destruction the moment he walked in the door. The more he did, the more he was successful, the more resentful this small faction became. The rumors started to fly about how he wasn’t making enough hospital visits, how there were questions about where the money was going, how he was living it up on the rectory, how he was giving inappropriate looks to men, women, and young children in the parish, how he was muscling teachers and others. None of this was based in actual facts. It was all unsubstantiated rumor mongering. The ordeal began and ended in about four months. The pastor left with the encouragement of the Bishop. The parish fell apart soon after. The money dried up and attendance fell back to previous levels. The fleeing pastor never knew what hit him.
The same scenario played out with a musician friend of mine, who arrived and made wonderful changes. The choir was suddenly large where it has previously been nonexistent. His program was praised in the national press. Parishioners were thrilled. Every Sunday was glorious and getting better. He put in some 60-plus hours per week in what was the most fulfilling job of his life. Again, he did not know that as tiny faction had similarly targeted him at the outset. The innuendos started and he couldn’t figure out their source. Many sleepless nights were the result. Within a matter of a single month, he was out the door. Again, he was completely blindsided by events and spent the next months puzzling about what happened. The music program fell apart.
Who is doing this to new hires in the parish? Maynard reveals the answer to the mystery. He calls these people the “antagonists.” They represent perhaps 2% of the parish. They give very little money to the parish at all, but volunteer for many projects, always hanging around. They don’t tend to have regular jobs, so they can spend all their time obsessing about parish matters. Maynard emphasis that they are not interested in compromise. They want to remove the person no matter what.
It takes about 6 people total to constitute an effect group of antagonists. There is usually one ring leader. Most often it is someone on the staff of the parish, perhaps even having retired from some ministerial position. It could be a church secretary. It could be a former youth minister. It could be the person who organizes first communions. Regardless, it is the sort of person that the whole parish regards as a fixture, someone who is seemingly indispensible to parish life.
What is the motivation for this behavior? The person and his or her follows have high “control needs.” They must be in charge if not in name then at least in reality. They are accustomed to determining structures and outcomes of parish life. They resent anyone who would interfere with their power. I know that this sounds petty and ridiculous but it is a reality. As they say, the lower the stakes, the more vicious the politics. They more that the new hire succeeds, they more the antagonists get whipped up in a frenzy. They start the rumors. They begin to raise “concerns” – a favorite word of the antagonists. They pass on unattributed complaints. They tell of possible scandals. They try to recruit other people to their cause, using in particular their status as indispensable fixtures of parish life.
They talk to the Bishop, in meetings, letters, and emails. They misrepresent themselves as a major voice in the parish. If the Bishop is weak and unsophisticated in these matters, he can come to believe that the new hire has somehow become a force for division. The Bishop just wants the problem to go away, and he accomplishes this by failing to back the person under attack and finally pulling the trigger.
A further heads up on this subject: the source of trouble is rarely about whether the new priest or musician or educator is a “liberal” or “conservative.” The factions do not usually fall along these lines, mainly because the antagonists are not actually intellectuals or idealists in any sense. These words might be tossed around here and there but they are merely cloaks for a more fundamental malice rooted in the desire to control.
In these days of priest scandals and sexual innuendo everywhere, the problem is probably worse than ever. The antagonists have more ammunition on their side, since even the smallest accusation can lead to disaster. With more changes coming to liturgy and education, there are ever more opportunities for the antagonists to feel motivated to accomplish their demonic works.
What can be done about the problem? Maynard recommends that the anyone who is headed to a new parish do careful investigation about the structure of parish life and its history. If a parish has been through years of upheaval, there is probably good reason to be on the lookout. A faction of antagonists once successful will try again. One might think that good communication would be the best means to placate the opposition, but rarely works in fact, since the antagonists are filled with hate and accept no compromise short of destruction.
Some strategies that do help include total openness on finances, thorough documentation on how time is spent, and absolute scrupulosity in all social relations. New pastors should not fear replacing problem staff, even to the point of cleaning house completely. The seemingly indispensable person who is the source of the problem must be sent packing as soon as possible. In the end, however, the only real solution here is a Bishop who understands the racket and is willing to back the new pastor or musician or whomever is under attack from the antagonists. He should accept no rumor or unattributed accusations. The Bishop should invite the antagonists to move to different town or parish. He must be willing to risk the possibility that they won’t come back to the faith at all.
Maynard’s book goes into much greater detail, even though it is not a long book. It will take about an evening to read. I highly recommend that any new pastor or musician read this in order to discover the true nature of the pathologies that can exist within any parish. His book is written mainly for the context of an Episcopal or Methodist environment but it applies to the Catholic case just as well. Unless we learn the lessons he has learned and passed on in this book, we risk letting the malevolent 2% stop the reform of the reform and driving us back to the past of demoralization and stagnation.