Sooner or later we all must operate under the leadership of someone with whom we don’t agree or worse, someone whose behavior doesn’t merit the title of “leader” at all. Are we to give respect to people like that?
I sought direction from a little book titled The Management Methods of Jesus. I recommend it highly to those in ministry and management. The opening words of the introduction say it all:
Forget Attila the Hun. Where is his management legacy? You can’t find it. The all-time greatest management entrepreneur is Jesus Christ. Just look at what he accomplished.
Jesus the Son of God, heir to the heavenly throne, submitted to earthly authority during His ministry. The fact that He set aside His deity to operate under an earthly structure of family and government is truly astonishing. It illustrates His profound humility, which is an essential factor in giving respect.
Jesus never worked to overthrow the Roman government regardless of its corruption and, in this sense, was a disappointment to many of His followers. The Jews wanted a radical savior, one who would rescue them from evil Roman overlord leadership. But Jesus didn’t come for that purpose.
Although Jesus didn’t come to overthrow earthly kingdoms – even evil ones – He never ceased from speaking the truth to them and about their actions. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus confronted the Pharisees about their hypocrisy. He stood His ground in the face of Pilate and Herod. But He was never disrespectful to them even when they condemned Him to death. We are called to do the same.
Jesus said to Pilate: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” (John 19:11). If God allowed an earthly man to wield power over Jesus in order to accomplish His divine purpose, we can rest in the knowledge that even the most unrespectable leaders are part of God’s purpose for us. Sometimes difficulty and difficult people can allow us to accomplish more for God than we can ever imagine.
So let’s turn our attention inward. Our Armenian people – like many of the other ethnic Orthodox Church faithful – may think and feel that there are reasons they are allowed not to like or respect their priests or bishops. If you think that way, please read the above paragraphs again.
Comments about the priest or even the bishop can range from; his homilies are boring, he strays too far from the Biblical text, or they don’t contain enough “Armenian stuff.”
Then there is: his answers to my theological, spiritual, and personal challenges left me cold and unsatisfied. He does not offer the kind of charismatic and visionary leadership that would inspire the individual to grow. He chants out of tune, or he chants all his liturgical parts fortissimo, or his accent is too strong.
Then we find the litany of: he is too ignorant, over-educated, emotional, impersonal, shy, gregarious, a fundamentalist, liberal, political, or dull.
Whatever his human failings, there are the critics, or as one writer labeled such people as panchoonies – have-nothing – as to what they do not like. And that’s okay: you don’t have to like your priest or bishop. But you are to respect him for the office he holds. One Catholic brother wrote:
Priests aren’t ordained because they are perfectly qualified or worthy or, in any simply natural way, deserving of the privilege of ministry; they are ordained because God has chosen to care for His people by means of frail human beings. And whether we like them or not, their frailty is a welcome reminder that God’s ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts our thoughts (Isa 55:8). The One who redeemed the world by the foolishness of the cross continues to draw a people to himself through faulty instruments – instruments like you and me.
Br. Patrick Mary Briscoe, O.P.
This relationship is different from all the other ones we know. The priest or bishop is not the commanding officer of a military unit or the manager of a parish franchise or even the professor of a class everyone has to pass in order to receive his or her reward.
He isn’t a lawyer trying to get people in good with the judge so he will excuse them of their crimes. He isn’t an entertainer the parish or diocese has hired to make everyone feel better every Sunday morning or a museum curator responsible for preserving ancestral stories, cultures, and languages. He is not a psychiatrist or family counselor that can solve everyone’s personal problems. Nor has he been assigned to the parish to be anyone’s friend. He may or may not exhibit bits of each of these, but they do not capture who he is or how his parishioners should relate to him.
The priest and bishop are shepherds. Some lead their sheep with gentle and melodious coaxing others drag them through the brambles by the scruff of the neck. Some take on the wolves with the ferocity of a warrior, others focus on keeping the sheep in a guarded pasture and cower at every hint of a howl. No matter how he tends them, one thing is constant: the shepherd loves his sheep. He doesn’t judge them or mistreat them; he cares for them. Some parishioners may be offended at the idea of being “sheep” and admittedly the analogy is not perfect. But it is still powerful; after all, it is the one Christ Himself used (St. John 10). And this analogy says as much if not more about the qualities of the shepherd as it does those of the sheep.
Being a shepherd means putting the well-being of the sheep first, even to the point of laying down his life for them (John 10:15). Being a priest or bishop rarely involves actual crucifixion, but the priesthood does bring the modern spiritual and physical equivalents of the kind of nomadic life that is easy to romanticize but difficult to live. Trusting the priest as the sheep do their shepherd may go against deeply-seated American values like the consensus of opinion and democracy rules, but it really is part of our relationship with Christ and His Church.
The priest is a physician. The Church is a hospital that Christ created for those who are sick, and the priest administers the strongest medicine of healing and salvation. The good doctor does not judge his patients; does not treat them like employees or marks; nor is he inconvenienced by their complaints or offended by their diseases. The good doctor does not care for people to receive a paycheck or good benefits, but because he genuinely desires that they be well. The good doctor treats the whole person, helping them make better life-style choices and prescribing medicines and disciplines that will allow them to live life in abundance.
A good patient takes his health seriously and works openly, honestly, and earnestly with his physician. He takes his prescriptions seriously and communicates his improvements and setbacks so that his treatment will be effective.
Finally, priests are fathers. This one used to be obvious and easy for people to accept. That is no longer true. Divorce, dead-beat dads, and abusive and unreliable male “role-models” including some clergy of all faiths have affected many people, either directly or indirectly. We should not be surprised that many people bring the damage such a history has wrought in their lives with them as they encounter priests, bishops, Christ, and the Church.
It is rare to meet a person who has a completely healthy intuition about what it means to be a father to a child or child to a father. This makes it very difficult for them to have a healthy relationship with their priest or bishop. For some, this is compounded by the modern idea that the male priesthood offends the dignity of women. These two lenses distort the image of the priest as the father of the parish. In order to heal this, the priest must be reliable and loving; and the parishioner must re-learn what a father is. The father helps give life; then he nurtures, guides, and protects it. This is the fundamental role of the priest; not chores or discipline (although these may come into play), but to enliven and strengthen.
In the end, we don’t have to like our priests or bishops much at all; our relationship with them is not about our emotions or satisfying our preferences. Our connection with them is different from the one you share with anyone else.
Even if you find your priest a bore or a nerd, he is your shepherd, your physician, and your father who has, in imitation of Christ, offered His life so that you might be saved. When you are feeling disappointed or unfulfilled because of your priest’s un-affability, it may help to remember the difficulty of his calling and that he is as human as anyone else.
As always, the choice is yours.