Herding cats

Friday 13 November 2015 — Port-O- Call: Tahiti (in my mind) — Friday the 13th! 

The Thermostat Wars have heated up. Skirmishes have been going on throughout the diocese for several weeks now. The point of contention is this: “The church is too cold/too hot.” A wise pastor will schedule a vacation in Tahiti at this time of year. Just as the weather begins to go south, so should he. Then he won’t have to engage in high-level (or low-level) thermostat diplomacy. Any way you look at it, you’ll lose.

I remember being assigned to a big old inner-city church. Every year, the fiscally-responsible pastor would strive to save a bit on heating costs by delaying turning on the furnace as long as possible. Most parishioners were very understanding, but the priest would be assailed annually by one or two complaining parishioners. One passive-aggressive parishioner would deposit in the collection basket a burned-out wooden match as his weekly offering. This was not helpful. The match always clogged the coin-counting machine. 

Comments on the temperature in the church usually begin in early September. “Everybody’s saying it’s too cold in here. Somebody should shut off the air-conditioning.” The word “everybody,” in this case, means only the complainer. The word “somebody” means you. Modern heating/cooling systems utilize complicated technologies. You have to call a technician to shut down the air-conditioning. So you do.

Then comes a period when half of the congregation at Mass will be fanning themselves with the Sunday bulletin but the other half will be wrapping themselves in sweaters. You need to call another technician to start the furnace.

The fan-people will then proceed to open all the windows and doors. The sweater-people will glare at them coldly. By Thanksgiving Day the issue solves itself. 

Here are some other complaints often heard by priests everywhere.

“I can’t hear a thing from the back of the church.” I can address this one from personal experience. I noticed I didn’t hear as well as I did when I was younger. I went to an audiologist. He said, “You have good hearing for a man of your age.” 

Who attends church most often? It’s baby-boomers like me and the elderly. Who has the most hearing problems? The answer is the same. If you can’t hear in the back of the church, sit in the front. I always do. 

Another solution is to check the public address system or maybe get some of those in-ear radio transmitters. It’s probably not the PA system at all. People today tend to speak too quickly, slur their words, and mumble. Sanctuary ministers (lay and ordained) who use the microphone in church should know how to use it properly and to speak clearly.

“The music is too loud/too soft or too fast/too slow.” The solution is music rehearsal.

“The homilies are too long.” See Acts 20:7-12. St. Paul was so long-winded that a man dozed-off and fell out the window to the pavement below. Long sermons may be hazardous to your health, but I’ve never heard a single complaint about a sermon being too short.

‘’There are fussy babies and crying children in church.” Children sometimes act up. Such is life. Praise God young families are at Mass. The solution is to leave seats available in the back so that, if necessary, a parent can temporarily take the child someplace else to calm down. By the way, does your church have a place to change a diaper?

“The priest is always asking for money.” This is the most common complaint. True, some pastors may seem obsessed with collecting money but Christian stewardship is, after all, a responsibility of all the baptized. Pastors, on the other hand, should forego launching a capital fund-raising campaign on Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday.

Complaints are always part of public service of any sort. I would imagine the worse job in the world is staffing the complaint desk at a shopping mall. Church leaders are not immune. I’ve heard one of the former bishops of Fall River remark that, every Monday, the chancery office transforms into a complaint department. I wonder how many incoming calls over the years concerned the thermostat setting in some parish church or other. Murmuring comes with ministry and has since the days of Moses. Jesus Himself experienced it. So did St. Paul. A pastor cannot take it personally. That would drive him to distraction.

On the other hand, there are always parishioners who are willing and able to offer helpful observations with charity and understanding. These are a great gift to any pastor. We priests need to listen attentively to what people of goodwill are saying.

The problem is, it seems to me, that what most complainers call “constructive criticism” is, in fact, the opposite. Ours is a hypercritical society. This is not the Age of Enlightenment but the Age of Entitlement. Many have come to the conclusion that the world (and the Church) revolves around them and them alone.

One young priest observed, “Pastoring can sometimes seem like herding cats.” Yes. Yes it can. 

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

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