Clergy find themselves in absolutely wacky conversations. Forget about the verbatims analyzed as part of hospital ministry training and the books on pastoral counseling that occupy an entire shelf of the pastor's library. Nothing at seminary could ever prepare a young man for the awkward and often absurd exchanges that pass for priest-parishioner communication.
Here are five of my favorites:
Liturgy is over. The priest thinks his sermon hit the mark. Attendance was strong and the choir wasn't half-bad. Feeling pretty good about life, he walks unsuspectingly into coffee hour only to be greeted by the parish gossip:
"Mrs. So-and-So is very upset that you didn't thank her for preparing last week's fellowship luncheon."
"But I did thank her, at the luncheon and in the bulletin."
"The whole parish wasn't at the luncheon and nobody reads the bulletin. You should have said something after Liturgy."
The poor pastor has been so soundly knocked off center that he doesn't know whether to commit a violent act or finally sign up for stockbroker training. More likely than not, he'll say something he'll come to regret. This priest has been the victim of the prime example of a pathological parish encounter.
The Ambush takes other forms. Walking down the hall, the parish "Godfather" grabs the priest by the elbow and pulls him into an empty Sunday School room. "Step into my office, Father, I want to tell you what they said about you last night at the Slobovian Men's Club."
The Ambush can happen in public. At the Parish Assembly, a "well-intentioned" member stands up. "I'd like to ask Father a question: What do you intend to do about the fact that our children don't speak Slobovian?"
How should the priest respond to an ambusher? Say something like: "It sounds like this subject is very important to you, and I cannot give it proper treatment in this setting. Please make an appointment to come by my office so that we can discuss it adequately."
If the person comes by the priest's office, then they were probably sincere in their concern. If they never mention the subject again, chances are their only motive in speaking to their pastor was to put him on the spot.
If the priest's wife (presbytera) is sick, out of town visiting her parents, chaperoning a school trip, or at the law library cramming for finals -- anywhere except at a parish event, there is always one "concerned" member of the flock who will come up to the pastor and ask "Where's Presbytera?"
This question is really a statement: "I'm here. Why isn't your wife? Isn't that why we pay you?!"
Rookie priests only step further into the quagmire when they try to answer this question.
"She's visiting her parents."
"Well, it's Sunday. I certainly hope that she's going to church wherever she is."
Like the antidote to the Ambush, there is a simple way of handling the "innocent' question: "Why do you ask?" (By the way, this is the perfect response to most inappropriate questions.)
A person's response to that question reveals immediately if he is compassionate or just plain nosey.
It might take 50 times, but a steady diet of "Why do you ask?" will sink into the skulls of even the most obstinate attendance monitors.
Can We Talk in Confidence?
Canon law demands that priests take the confidentiality of Confession very seriously. But the naive clergyman needs to perk up his ears every time someone comes into his office and asks "Can we talk in confidence?"
This can be the most sincere of questions leading to true repentance. It is also the classic query of the manipulative and passive-aggressive personality who wants to place the priest in a no-win situation.
"Father, can we talk in confidence?"
"I heard that the girls' volleyball coach is living with her boyfriend."
What does the priest do with this? Confront the coach? If he does, he'll look like an idiot, especially if the accusation is wrong. Ignore the situation? He'll look like a hypocrite, especially if it's true. This is why Can We Talk in Confidence is such an effective weapon of those who like to watch clergy squirm.
An honest, pastoral, and necessary question trumps the technique: "Is this Confession?"
If the answer is "no," then the priest says, "Then I can't promise confidence."
If the answer is "yes," then he says, "Let's go into the sanctuary."
Let Me Tell You a Few Things About Yourself
This is the probably the most ungracious and mean-spirited tactic employed by contentious persons who want to "help" their priest. It has several variants:
"Father, I'd like to tell you why I don't like you."
"Father, here's what people are saying about you."
"Father, let me tell you a few things about yourself."
These questions and their cousins all demand the same answer: "Why?"
Very often the priest's "Why" elicits a follow-up question: "What do you mean, 'Why'?"
"What I mean is: Why do you feel compelled to tell me about myself? I didn't ask for your opinion of my performance or behavior."
One of two things will happen. The person who is looking for a confrontation will back off and move on to the next subject. The faithful Christian who truly has the priest's back will say, "Because I love you and respect you and want to see you succeed in your work to spread the Gospel and help people."
If a person gives that answer, humble yourself and listen carefully.
I Guess We'll Just Have to Agree to Disagree
This pithy proclamation can be an honest conciliation of one friend with another, or a gambit used to shut down dialogue when someone finds himself on the losing end of a discussion.
If I hand you a cup of coffee and say "Take a sip, this is really a good cup of coffee," you might disagree with me.
"Too much hazelnut -- flavored coffees don't do too much for me."
"I'll guess we'll just have to agree to disagree," is an appropriate response.
If I hand you a cup of coffee and you tell me that it's a giraffe, I'm not going to nod in concord. Instead, I will say, "No, this is cup of coffee, not a giraffe."
If you respond, "I'll guess we'll just have to agree to disagree," I won't agree with you.
Let's look at an example. The choir and the priest are discussing Church music. Some in the choir prefer traditional Slobovian chant; others want to sing music from Slobovia's neighbor, Cracovia; and then there are fans of the experimental non-traditional liturgies that have sprouted up like mushrooms in America over the past 50 years. All are passionate about their favorite musical style. A musical direction is established, knowing that everyone won't be happy. "I'll guess we'll just have to agree to disagree," is a fitting way to move to the next topic.
Take another example. The priest tells the choir that it will only improve if its members rehearse regularly. One person blurts out, "I've been singing in the choir all my life and we've never made a big deal about practicing."
"I know," says the priest, "but I've been a musician my whole life and ensembles only get better when the members practice together." Offering instead, "I'll guess we'll just have to agree to disagree" is juvenile, antagonistic, and disingenuous.
The antidote is found when the priest seizes this teachable moment: He must take the time to help those present differentiate between subjective opinions based on feelings, and objective opinions that square with real life.
Parish priests preach or teach at least 20 times per month. They participate in at least that many conversations every two days. All persons who are in the public eye are going to say things that wish they could take back. But a clergyman can minimize the number of times that he puts his foot in his mouth if he recognizes that not all conversations are predicated on noble intentions.
The next time you walk into an Ambush, are asked Where's Presbytera? or Can We Talk in Confidence?, hear the words Let Me Tell You a Few Things About Yourself or I Guess We'll Just Have to Agree to Disagree, be ready with a constructive response. You might just find yourself making a pastoral breakthrough.
Otherwise, just go to Starbucks and look at the giraffes.
Rev. Aris P. Metrakos is the pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He is frequent speaker and retreat leader and speaker for both teens and adults. Prior to attending seminary, Fr. Aris was an aviator for the US Navy. He travels annually to Romania to help the Romanian Orthodox Church establish ministries for Romanian youth. You can contact Fr. Aris at FrMetrakos@orthodoxytoday.org.