When people heard I was taking a new assignment, they told me they were sad but, “We understand that you need to keep advancing.” They seem to think priesthood works something like the military, where you become eligible for regular promotions. Missing a promotion is taken as a sign of inability or laziness. Do people really think that every parish priest is trying to one day make Pope? Or that we have all set our sights on being a Monsignor, Bishop, or Cardinal? The truth is far different. I achieved my biggest priesthood career goal on September 1, 2010. That’s when I got my own parish. Well, three parishes, actually. Overachiever.
Ever since I first started thinking of priesthood, the goal was always to be a pastor of a parish. The Catholic Church wasn’t exactly thriving when I joined seminary. There had been a huge boom in vocations in the 1950s and 1960s, so much so that many Dioceses didn’t know what to do with all the priests. Many subsequently left the priesthood and the numbers of seminarians declined every year. Most of us seminarians were convinced that that “beige Catholicism” was to blame for this decline. The Vatican II reforms had led to white-washed churches, casual Masses, and careless teachings. The Catholic church in Western countries converted itself into basically a mainstream Protestant church at exactly the time that mainstream Protestant churches were beginning a steep decline.
We thought that we would be the beginning of a new springtime. Clear teachings, beautiful liturgies, and high expectations would lead to full seminaries, convents, and churches. As an associate pastor, I made notes about what my pastors were doing wrong and eagerly awaited the day that I could finally be in charge. Year after year I preached good sermons and gave good teachings. And the numbers continued their steady decline. During my 10 years you could watch a noticeable decline in attendance from one Christmas to the next. More and more Catholics got married outdoors and decided not to bother having their babies Baptized. And since I was the pastor, I had no one to blame but myself.
And that’s when I began to realize that *myself* really was to blame. Because it turns out that the Church already has a Savior, and it isn’t me. I wasn’t called to fill my church with people, fix broken Western culture, keep all the marriages together, or make faith look ‘cool’ to young people. But Jesus could, and he would. All I had to do was introduce them to the Savior. Ministry became more about helping people ‘plug in’ to Jesus himself. And I’ve had the privilege of watching Jesus do some pretty amazing things in peoples’ lives. As I start my second pastorate, my new strategic goals are much simpler.
- Invest in people. For most of my time as pastor, I worked hard to, ‘make all the trains run on time.’ And the result was that there were always more trains to manage. I wish I had spent my time investing in a few key people. Then they could have accomplished far more than I ever would have done on my own. My plan is to prayerfully discern and invest a lot in a few key people.
- Bring them to Jesus. People can be doing all the “Catholic things” they’re supposed to do, but if they aren’t plugged in to Jesus, it’s like living in a loveless marriage. Helping people get plugged in to Jesus is more than just giving them Communion or the sacraments. It’s like introducing a friend to their future spouse. We need to pray for people to meet Jesus and fall in love. And maybe we will be privileged to make the introduction.
- Community is key. When Christians are spread thin, they start to burn out. When Christians are gathered together, they start to burn brightly. There are many good Christians but they tend to feel isolated in a church full of individuals. We need to help people form small, intentional communities that will support, encourage, and challenge them to stay plugged in to Jesus.
- Be not afraid. Mother Theresa said, “God didn’t call us to be successful, he called us to be faithful.” It's too easy to judge success by the number of people who are showing up in church or how vibrant my parish is singing. We need to be judging success by the hearts that are set on fire. And that means really that we just do our best and let God take care of the rest.
Being a pastor has turned out a lot like having kids. It’s much more challenging than I ever imagined. But it’s way more rewarding than I ever dreamed. And it’s nice to look back and realize I already achieved my biggest career goal. And now, having found out a bunch of stuff that doesn't work, I get to try it all over again. So what should my new career goals be?
(add a comment below or click Sign Up to be notified when I post new thoughts)