Ministry can be messy

Friday 1 May 2015 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — May Day 

We have finally arrived, dear readers, at glorious May Day. This day has been celebrated since ancient times as marking the first day of summer, although not anymore. Here on Cape Cod, however, we constantly strive to push back the official opening of the summer season from June 21 to May Day. The restoration of this old calendar custom is spearheaded by the Chamber of Commerce. 

Have you ever wondered how May Day became the international radio signal for a ship in distress? Well, simply put, it didn’t. The equivalent of SOS, that’s …—-… in Morse Code, is not “May Day.” It’s “mayday” repeated three times. “Mayday” is an Englishman’s truncated mispronunciation of the correct — but unlikely — French phrase (venez) m’aider. It means, “Help me!” The use of this term in a non-emergency situation risks liability to civil and/or criminal charges. That being said, mayday-mayday-mayday! (Or, if you prefer, SOS!).

The captain of this ship could be jailed if three times he shouted “mayday” falsely. I think it’s warranted, though, when the time comes to remove a Church volunteer. How? 

Once you observed that other volunteers, and even the parish as a whole, are being negatively affected by one individual in some particular ministry, the time has come. 

First, pray. Try to discern God’s will. Put your own thoughts and emotions in neutral. Let go and let God.

You’ll want to mention your concern informally to the volunteer on more than one occasion. Listen to the response. There are always at least two sides to every story. Each person sees reality through their own eyes. We have varying life experiences. We are at different places in our journey of faith. State what you understand to be the facts. If you have a question, ask it. 

Reassignment or extra training can solve most performance issues. Perhaps these hints made in passing will resolve the problem with no further action required on your part (the best case scenario). If it proves to be ineffective, you will need to gather some kind of documentation to make a difficult decision. Documentation might be as simple as keeping a log of where, when, and how you have pointed out the issue to the volunteer but with no apparent results. 

Before you act on your decision, you may also wish to take counsel with some trusted individual: another member of the staff, perhaps, or a member of an appropriate parish committee, commission, or council. Perhaps your counselors will have some ideas on the best way to deliver your decision. Be very prudent. This matter is sensitive. 

Like it or not, the time has come to remove the Church volunteer. Do it quickly and, above all else, as lovingly as possible. As my old professor, Father James Brennan, S.S., used to say, “All Church process can be summed up in just two words — be kind.” 

The process for removing a Church volunteer is similar to the process for removing salaried personnel. Communicate with the individual in person, never over the phone or by text message or email. Under no circumstances leave a sticky-note on the person’s windshield after Mass.

Meet with the volunteer in a formal setting. You may wish to have a neutral person present to observe (but not to speak). Be hospitable. Be positive. If you can do so honestly, compliment the volunteer on some other good thing he or she is able to accomplish in the parish. A proven strategy is to compliment at the beginning and at the end of the meeting. It’s like making a sandwich. In-between, put the meat of your concern.

Be clear and specific in the facts, whether they be based on unacceptable behavior, an attitude problem, or incompetence for the particular ministry. Mind your tongue. Say nothing more than what needs to be said. If necessary, refer to documentation, but in a non-threatening way. 

Stay as calm as possible. Be aware of how you are presenting. The volunteer is your sister or your brother in the Lord.

Stick with your decision. The volunteer is probably going to be unhappy with anything you say. 

You are acting, not reacting. Do not allow yourself to be derailed by such “drama” as weeping, rage, or ad hominem attack. This is often an Achilles heel for clergy. By our temperament and training, we tend to avoid conflict, to overlook, to forgive and forget. When confronted with drama, we give up and throw in the towel. Our passive behavior accomplishes nothing. The problem remains. Speaking the truth in love and freeing the volunteer to serve in another area is far more Christian than allowing the volunteer to continue twisting in the wind. 

When all is said and done, it would be ideal if you and the volunteer could pray together. It’s also beneficial to later sit down by yourself and prayerfully ponder what happened and why. Continue to be charitable to the individual. 

These situations are very rare, but they do occur. Ministry can be messy.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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