Thorny Pastor

June 29 2019 | by

DEAR DR POPCAK: My name is Henry and I am 34 years old, and three years ago I started working at my local parish as an assistant administrator. I have to say that I love working with my fellow parishioners; they are all lovely people. The only person I am having problems with is… our parish priest. This man took over just six months ago, and already he has managed to alienate others who also have to work closely with him. He has always told us to voice our opinions, which I have, but my impression is that this does not in any way help to smooth my relationship with him. For this reason I’ve been thinking of giving up my job at the parish. I’ve also been thinking of writing a letter to our diocese concerning the pastor, but I fear that he would be able to discover that I was the source of it. What should I do?


There is an old, rather sad, joke that says that if you want to lose your faith, the best way to do so is to work for the Church. As Pope Francis observed, the Church is not a museum for saints, but rather a hospital for sinners. That can be comforting when you are the patient receiving the care, but it’s a little less enjoyable when you have to put up with other people (metaphorically) sneezing all over you – or worse. The fact is, all Christians, even pastors and people in ministry, have blind spots. Presumably, we all have good intentions. But sometimes we don’t know how we are coming across despite those intentions. In those times, it can be helpful for someone to charitably sit us down and say, “I have something I need to talk about with you.”

The first step in addressing any breakdown in rapport is to do exactly what Jesus says in Matthew 18 and go directly to the person you are having difficulties with. When you approach your pastor, don’t lead with your feelings or a list of all the ways he’s offended you and everyone you know. Instead, start by saying something like, “Father, I’ve really appreciated how encouraging you’ve been about giving your honest feedback. I’ve tried my best to take your advice, but I feel like I must be doing something wrong because when I share my thoughts with you, they don’t get the reaction I’m hoping for. In fact, instead of feeling like I’ve been helpful, I get the impression that I’ve somehow offended you or complicated things for you. That’s not what I’m trying to do, obviously, but I need some help figuring out how to say the things I need to say to you without frustrating you. Can you help me figure out how to give you feedback in a way that you would actually find helpful?”

There are several reasons this approach has the best chance to work. First, you aren’t accusing the pastor of anything. You are assuming a good intention on his part, and attributing the problem to a breakdown in communication instead of some perceived flaw in his character.   Second, you are clarifying your own intentions just in case you have (unintentionally) come off poorly to him in the past. Third, instead of treating him as the enemy, you are actually asking him to be a partner with you in solving the problem.

At the same time, you aren’t pretending there isn’t a problem, and you aren’t acting as if it’s all your fault. You are simply saying, “I’m not sure how to give you what you asked me for in a way that will be received well.”

If this doesn’t work, you might try to gather the other people in the office and suggest sitting down together to talk to the pastor in a similar way to that which I described above. Sometimes, if you can be charitable about it, the voices of many are harder to ignore than the voice of one. 

Finally, I would discourage you from writing to the bishop. There is really very little he can do in a situation like this except forward your letter to the pastor or have the Vicar for Clergy call the pastor and say, “Work it out.” Neither action is going to strengthen your case with Father and may just make it worse. If you can’t effectively deal with this between you and your colleagues, that’s probably the sign it’s time for a job-change.

Updated on June 29 2019