It’s been said that a pastor is the only person in the parish who can make everyone happy — some are happy when he comes and the majority come to know and trust him over time as he ministers to them during his tenure, and he makes the rest happy when he leaves. In truth, though, we all know that the only one who can make everyone happy is Jesus and, even then, in order to know this happiness we have to cooperate with his will.
Transitions can be difficult, and many of our parishes are experiencing big transitions this summer as they say good-bye to a pastor who may have served them for many years, and then welcome a new one. Change is always hard. It is hard to let go of the familiar, to mourn the loss of talents and strengths of our former pastor, and to face the unknown of how things will work with the new one.
Being re-assigned is difficult for the pastor as well. It is hard to die to the dreams and hopes he has for the parish he is serving, to leave the people about whom he has deeply cared. And it is difficult to walk into a new place, where he knows no one and has yet to build trust and friendships in his new parish.
But transitions also offer us an opportunity to experience God’s abundant mercy. When Msgr. Thomas Richter was here in March for Pastoral Ministry Days, he reminded us, “God comes close to us where we experience misery; where we experience need, where we are lonely and not enough, where we are poor … he comes to us in the very place that if we had a magic wand we would get rid of … he extends his mercy precisely in the circumstances we don’t like but cannot change.”
So in these times of transition, we have opportunities to extend and to receive God’s mercy. We also have the opportunity to practice good stewardship, to welcome the stranger in our midst and to extend hospitality. We have the opportunity to look out for the good of all and put aside any selfish inclinations we have.
Here are some ideas for welcoming your new pastor:
Prepare a place for him. Take a look at the rectory with the eye of a realtor. Perhaps there is a realtor in your parish who can walk through it and assess it. Is it move-in ready? Does it need a thorough cleaning? Fresh paint? Is it in good repair? Would the bed your pastor will sleep on be inviting and comfortable in your guest bedroom? When he walks in, does he know how grateful you are that he has come to serve our community?
Organize a welcome for him after all of the Sunday Masses. Introduce him to the people of the parish.
Perhaps parishioners from both his old and new parish(es) will be helping him move. When I (Fr. Mark) moved from Piedmont to Ft. Pierre, all those who helped me move — some from Piedmont and some from Ft. Pierre — gathered around the altar after we were done and prayed together. It was a beautiful experience. Later that night, a couple showed up at my door and offered to take me to dinner, knowing I wouldn’t have had time to do any shopping yet. It meant a lot.
Organize a tour of the area served by the parish. Take him for a drive and point out ranches of the parishioners. Take him around town and point out the post office, the grocery store, perhaps local businesses that are owned by parishioners.
It means so much to the members of our communities when our pastors come to community events. At the beginning, though, this can be very difficult. Your new pastor doesn’t know anyone. He doesn’t yet know who his parishioners are. Invite him to community events. Don’t just tell him about the annual town celebration and rodeo; offer to pick him up and take him with you.
A new pastor is anxious to get to know the families of his parish(es).
Invite him over for dinner, or lunch, or breakfast, or coffee or whatever. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Remember, they all grew up in families just like we did. Welcome them into your home and make them feel special. Don’t be discouraged if at first they say no; keep trying. Invite them over more than once. Don’t think to yourself, “Oh, they are so busy.” Of course, they’re busy. We’re all busy, but we make time for the people who are important to us.
It is not helpful for anyone in this time of transition to say something like, “Our old pastor never did that” or “Our old pastor always did it this way.” Each priest is a unique person, with unique talents and strengths and ways of doing things. Focus on this new pastor’s strengths and affirm them. Welcome the fact he might minister best to a different group of parishioners than the previous pastor. Encourage him to tap into the expertise from within the parish for those areas in which he is not strong.
It’s never too late to welcome someone new, and welcoming doesn’t stop after the initial welcome party. Next month we will continue to explore ways we can grow in discipleship in this time of transition.
(Fr. Tim Hoag co-wrote this month’s column)