“I don’t like my priest.” Someone — not one of my own parishioners — said this to me recently. It had nothing to do with what the clergyman in question was doing or failing to do in ministry. By all accounts this person’s priest is quite an effective pastor and leader. The parish is growing and he has a lot of support from various segments of the congregation. The issue, from this person’s perspective, was the priest’s personality. She just didn’t like him.
What happens when you don’t really like your parish priest? Does it matter? We certainly don’t “like” everyone we encounter in this life. Some people just rub us the wrong way. It may be something trivial like their voice or their wardrobe — superficial reasons to be sure but even such small things may mask deeper reasons. We throw labels around all the time when trying to explain what we don’t like about a person: arrogant, glad-hander, bully, suck-up. Often these accusations reveal our own biases or previous life experiences. Granted, sometimes the other person is actually just a jerk.
What a lot of people do when they don’t like their priest, of course, is simply leave the congregation in search of another one. In a culture where “church shopping” is an accepted practice, why not just shop around until you find a priest you like? A place where the priest’s personality better suits your own; a church where you could see yourself going out for a beer with your pastor.
But is “liking” the clergy really the point? For some, being friends with their clergy is the single most important thing in their spiritual life. People don’t like to admit this since it really should be all about God but the lines can become easily blurred. Whether we admit it or not, “liking” the clergy is a major part of why people attend particular congregations. We want them to know our names and our stories — something increasingly difficult in growing congregations.
In some ways this issue reminds me of the Donatist controversy of the early 4th century. In North Africa the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered a wave of intense persecution against Christians blaming them for a series of plagues that led to economic instability. During this time any Christian who renounced the faith was spared. Christians who were caught with copies of Scripture (usually clergy) were especially susceptible to punishment — usually death. Many priests allowed their texts to be burned, thereby sparing their lives.
After Constantine succeeded Diocletian, the persecution eventually abated and disappeared entirely in 313 when the emperor declared tolerance for Christianity. A significant number of North Africans who remained faithful objected when the lapsed clergy again took up their positions. A group of purists led by Donatus, condemned these priests as Roman collaborators who defamed the memory of the martyrs. They declared the orders of the lapsed priests invalid and refused to accept the sacraments from them while the opposing party championed the concept of forgiveness for all.
Into this controversy stepped St. Augustine of Hippo, whose view was that it was the office of priest, not his personal character, that gave validity to the sacraments. This position won out and Donatism would go down in history as a classic heresy.
The point here is that an individual’s personal feelings about a priest are ultimately irrelevant. It’s the sacramental ministry that matters, not whether or not we “like” our clergy. Faith transcends personality. And while we all seek connection and relationship, it’s important to keep it in its proper perspective. Connection and relationship with Jesus Christ always comes first, the realization of which, I think, takes some pressure off both clergy and parishioners.
I hope the woman I spoke with doesn’t leave her community just because she doesn’t want to hang out with her priest. While a priest’s personality can set a tone for a congregation, a community of faith is more than just one person. It’s a rich tapestry of personalities and experiences — some that resonate with us, others that don’t — all working together to seek and serve Christ in all persons.