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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nothing Left - The Reality of Employment in Ministry

My friend Dominisumus over at "We Belong to the Lord" recently wrote:

We each have our own difficulties and struggles in our faith lives that we are usually loathe to share with others. This is doubly hard for people who work in parishes because we cannot burden those who come to us for help with our own struggles, but there are times when it is appropriate and helpful to share at least some of our own journey. Too often people look at us and think that we have it “all sewn up” and we have the ideal relationship with God. Well, let me tell you - Yeah right. I wish I had the perfect relationship with God, but I don’t.

Read the rest of  Lord, Teach Me to Pray.

There was a long off-blog discussion that both gave rise to her post and continued after among we lay people who work in ministry in some form. We may appear to have deep prayer lives, and we may talk a good game because we know how it's SUPPOSED to be due to our theological education, but the reality is that we are just as human as everyone else and we struggle, too.

The problem is, as Dominisumus points out, when people come to us with their needs, we are there to be with them professionally and therefore can't pour out our own hearts to them in return. That would NEVER be proper. Sure, we can share SOME of what we experience in our lives, especially with those parishioners with whom we become real friends, but even then there is a boundary.

Truly, that boundary must exist and that lesson was brought home to me very clearly on Monday when a parishioner I *thought* was my "friend" put my job in danger in the name of her own rebellion against a policy that definitely did NOT provide a hill I was willing to die on for her issue. She invited me to "get fired", in fact, and then when her end of things was resolved to a particular satisfaction, she pretended all was well.

The fact is that after she reamed me out in public (a fact for which I am thankful because a witness told me in private she would go to bat for my job if it came to that), I went to the office, certain I would be fired for this other person's disobedience, and then had to maintain composure while a literal line of people in need of my assistance came forward, one after another.

Much to my embarrassment, after the confrontation, which was my breaking point after several stressful days at work with quite literally no actual "off" day (for even at home I was dealing with work issues on the phone), I went to my office to help someone and couldn't stop the tears of anger and frustration, fear, and betrayal from flowing.

While I wasn't sobbing by any means, and I took a deep breath (several, in fact), while retreating to the back of the office to get what someone needed, the kind parishioner who saw what happened and how upset I was actually was the indirect catalyst for the tears I could no longer hold. It's weird, but when I'm upset I HATE it when people are nice to me because that's when I get truly emotional! And I even acknowledged that I was being ridiculous in my response to a problem that was not my fault or doing.

I know that the witness in question thought nothing of it, but I am conditioned to behave professionally at work, which means...not crying. It is not the job of parishioners to comfort me in my affliction. But sometimes, the stress is too great, the timing is too horrible, the demands far beyond human strength.... we get to the real problem

We who work in ministry [Definition: we are not "ministers" but we as lay employees participate in a ministry that flows from Holy Orders, by commission and permission by virtue of being hired for the role] by nature have to handle some very heavy issues. We are held to a high moral standard as appropriate to the Church, for we must be moral examples of holiness, even though we fail.

We preach about Holiness, about the Sacraments, about Mass and Confession and the need to put God first at all times. I know that we often come across as "holier-than-thou" not because we are, but because so many people do NOT put God first and assume we are living lives akin to saintliness. I actually had one parishioner tell me she can't imagine why I would ever need to go to Confession; after all, what sin would I have to confess?

She was sincere in her statement, but completely ignorant about my very real sins.

My answer to her, acutely aware of all of my sinful failings:  I can confess a LOT. I could spend all day in the Confessional and not get it all out. In fact, even if I never left the Confessional, I'd never be at a loss for something to confess for we sin not just in action, but in thought and in omission.

You may think, reading this, that  such positive perceptions by other people about you are good, but the reality is this: they create a dangerous pedestal. Everyone wants others to think well of them, and of course, everyone IS entitled to a good reputation (within reason!), but the reality of parish workers, along with Priests, is that people assume that because we work in ministry, we do not sin.

The opposite assumption is that we're all demons from Hell out to destroy souls.

The answer is much more human. 

Those polar opposite assumptions are the same weird things people say about other professionals:  doctors are all healthy and live totally healthy lives, lawyers and cops know the law so never commit crime, real estate agents never get caught up in scams, psychologists/psychiatrists are immune to mental illness or illogical thought, firefighters never lose their homes or families to fire...the list goes on. Create your own. You professionals who read this know what I'm talking about. You fight these myths every day and you cringe when you see your fellow professionals in the news for falling against the myth and proving it wrong. That's what makes the news, and it does so because people so strongly believe in the impeccability of...well...everyone. Until they fall.

For some reason, in parish work, more than any other profession in my experience thus far, the mythology and pedestal-elevation in parish work is the worst. In fact, it's like every parish has a Borderline Personality; you are a Saint until you disagree with someone and have to enforce policy. Then you're Satan Incarnate, but damn you if you dare to leave the parish because the parish needs you and the slightest "no" is a form of abandonment.

This condition is not limited to Catholics, but transcends religious boundaries; I know this from conversations with Lutherans Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists.....and bet even the organized pagan religions report the same things.

The Facts

Let me tell you about the reality of my spiritual life: it's a big FAIL.

For the last several months, I've barely been able to pray. While it is my habit to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, it is a miracle these days if I even manage to unzip the cover. While I pray the rosary every day en route to work, on my days off work, I don't pray it at all, and even on those work days, I'm usually praying while stressing out over this or that thing completely unrelated to the Gospel I am supposed to be meditating upon.  So much for the Rosary.

Fr. Corapi used to say, "THERE'S SO SUCH THING AS A BAD ROSARY!" but, well, these days, he's not exactly an authority to most people, is he? [do NOT go off in the combox on the Fr. Corapi issue. Thanks]

He was right, of course, but one must recognize that if one is praying while off in la-la-land having nothing to do with the intended task, it's not exactly a fruitful prayer, is it?

Life Before Ministry

Before I worked in a parish, I attended Daily Mass, during Lent I made to to Stations of the Cross nearly every Friday, and I engaged in all sorts of spiritual activities necessary to the spiritual life.

The reality now, in working for the Church, is that the demands of my job often prevent my attending Daily Mass (I try to go when I can but it's a slippery slope and I've fallen away even when I CAN go..), this last Lent I NEVER ONCE made it to Stations of the Cross at either parish because of work I pray spiritually benefited people to and for whom I'd been preaching on those days. Even though I preach to others the necessity and benefit of going on retreat,  I can't AFFORD on my salary to go, either. Overall, I'm a much MUCH worse Catholic now, a few years later, than I was when this all began.

I'm so burned out that going to Mass on Sunday feels like work to me...probably because, at work, I often have to be at a particular Mass because it's part of my paid JOB to be there. This is a far different thing than mere volunteer roles in the liturgy, which anyone can quit at any time if they find it impacts their spiritual lives.

Maybe some of you are sitting out there wondering why I don't just quit.

That's a valid question but the reality is this: what Dominisumus described and what I am describing afflicts every parish worker. (And whatever you do, don't get any of us started on the "Justice in Employment" BS document we have to sign every year as part of our contract!)

My blog has been erratic as of late, and this is why. I have nothing left. I'm tired, I have no consistent prayer life, I haven't been able to make it to Daily Mass, and even Confession has fallen away for me  as I struggle to get there at least every month. And even then, I have doubts.

The fact is that I don't even have the DESIRE to pray most days, and force myself to do so, what little I do accomplish.

As Domini describes, prayer is a gift from God, and as I've written before, dryness is a purification. We try short prayers, we do what we can, and we MUST press on, no matter how hard it is.

But know this: just because someone works in ministry does not mean their prayer life is perfect. They (We!) struggle just like all of you. We go through the same purifications, the same dryness, the same unwillingness to pray, and it impacts us and YOU even more.

Without God, we have nothing to give, because in and of ourselves, our strength doesn't go far. We flail every day, and we can't reveal our own struggles because to do so is totally inappropriate.

Sometimes, all we can do is offer short aspirations such as "Jesus, I love you!" and "Sacred Heart of Jesus I put all my trust in Thee!" and "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!" and hope that eventually we'll be able to do more.

As far as my own particular spiritual life goes, it is failing and every day is a struggle. When I worked in Insurance, it was a struggle to go to work, but I was able to find strength in God. Now, in parish work, not only do I struggle to get up to go, but my source of strength absent for even when I do pray, He does not seem to be there.

All the theology in the world doesn't change the experience of this. You can preach at me, you can offer this or that advice, but the reality is this: until God again grants the ability to pray, I have to rely upon all I have left, that being the desire to pray, and even that is a pure gift, and one I lost months ago.

Don't ever put your parish workers on a pedestal; pray for them, because through their work in ministry, they may be so deprived that they may have nothing left; strength comes from YOUR intercession before God.

The greatest holiness is usually found in the simplest of souls..not we with graduate degrees and professional parish employment.

Please pray for us with all your heart; we depend on you.

Thank you.


Mark S. Abeln said...

I read somewhere that entering a monastery is for the purpose of holiness of life - the monk enters to become holier. On the contrary, the life of parish clergy (and I suppose also for yourself) is NOT for personal holiness, but for service. It is kin to the life of a parent who hardly has time even to sleep. But someone told me today that there is great merit in service. It is hard, worthy.

Adoro said...

Mark ~ You write as though holiness and service are diametrically opposed.

They are not; they cannot exist one without the other. You cite, therefore, an old myth by pitting one thing against the other.

The Married life is about holiness just as the Priesthood is about holiness; both are designed to get the participants to Heaven, and for ALL...there is service.

My post is not about opposing holiness and service. It is about the trials of work in ministry and the fact that parish workers are not Saints just by their position, and in fact, we struggle like everyone else and need prayers because our work brings us into purifications through deprivation of devotions and prayers to which we were previously accustomed...and because of our work find it a challenge to continue, even the most necessary.

maureen said...

Being in a similar spiritual place
for a long time, I have started to notice little "gifts"
that come in the midst of the endless frustration and boredom - sometimes they are pretty subtle and sometimes pretty obvious - like this quote I finally noticed in a book I had read before.

"Like fruit on a tree, our soul is left to scorch in the sun, to endure the cold wind, to die of thirst or be drowned in the rain. But if we do not let go of the hem of His garment, all will end well"

I cannot tell you how much peace that last sentence brings or why _ (I mean rationally- I know this)

I can only say "Thank You"

My prayers for you. Pray for me also.


Rouxfus said...

Thank you for this candid assessment of your relationship with God, and the challenges of working to support parish ministry. May God continue to bless your journey.

This may help, or not, but Book Four of The Imitation of Christ has a chapter, fifteen, which may speak to your situation:

The entire book four is excellent, but this particular chapter seems to resonate with what I have read here.

DominiSumus said...

We can so easily fall into the trap of confusing work with prayer and when prayer is your work it gets even more confused. I used to wonder why priests were not supposed to celebrate more than two Masses a day, but I realize the wisdom in that more and more each day.

I felt like a hypocrite for many years because I always had good advice for others, but that advice never seemed to work for me. It took me a long time, and a very holy priest, for me to learn that that my weaknesses could actually be assets if I learned to use them properly. I haven't perfected it yet, but I do see the wisdom in that way of thinking.

For now, I will embrace my humanity, weaknesses and all, and offer it all to the Glory of God and pray that He builds me up where I am lacking.

3puddytats said...

I went thrugh a terrible grieving spell when my old kitty died last fall. I couldn't pray, couldnt' do my Hours, couldn't say my Rosary. But I kept my Rosary always in my pocket, andit was a small holy pictures around were a small comfort, and I knew my Dear Lord knew my suffering.

I also know that when I cannot pray, I ask the angels and saints andthe Blessed Mother and people I know to pray for me. It is a great comfort to know that I have a hugw football stadium of prayer warriors helping me out, and that I am not alone in this dry desert.. I also know the Holy Spirit adds His groanings to my tiny little snippets of prayer.

Prayers your way dear Adoro...


PS a retreat does not have to cost money...several times I have done wonderful afternoon retreats in a lovely wooded area with a little stream close to my house. I pack a lunch and some spiritual reading, but not real structured, just seeing where the Lord will guide me. I return to my house very refreshed spritually.

Adoro said...

Sara ~ The kinds of retreats I send people on at work DO cost money and quite honestly, just "getting away" for an afternoon ISN'T a retreat by a particular standard. It might be nice and it's great for a person to do, but it doesn't involve Eucharistic Adoration, formal Spiritual formation, actual Theology, etc.

I love to go for long walks and get away into nature, too, but that's not the kind of retreat I'm talking about here. As rejuvenating as it may be in some ways, it does not fulfill the spiritual needs of the soul in sacramental terms. And those are the kinds of retreats that cost money. Yes, there are often scholarships, but then again, around me, it's mostly New Age anyway, unless it's for teens.

*sigh* life is hard. WE live it anyway.

Banshee said...

Maybe you should invent a kind of retreat that doesn't cost money, or a scholarship retreat, and make sure you qualify to attend. :)

Seriously, though... it's very disconcerting even to be in a church choir, because so often graces flow through you to other people, but you don't "feel them" yourself. OTOH, it's a sort of ittybitty bit of God being "dark", even if not anywhere near a full-fledged dark night. Sometimes it helps just to know that.

And I'm sure that God finds little aspirations very pleasing, from stressed-out and tired people. So there's probably a lot of stuff going on with your spiritual life, even though it's behind your back, as it were.

Even if you can't afford to go away on retreat, maybe you can slip over to another parish to get in Confession, extra Masses, adoration, etc. I think a lot of parish workers do that, when they need to concentrate on prayer. Heck, even Jesus went off in private to pray; he didn't hang around the disciples all the time, taking their reports and questions.

Adoro said...

Suburbanbanshee ` LOL at your first line!

As far as going to Confession elsewhere, etc...I don't work in my home parish. They are on opposite sides of this huge sprawling urban conglomeration of concrete in which I am currently forced to reside.

The reference to Mass feeling like "work" comes from certain seasons where for weeks on end, I have to attend Mass at my work parish because, well..I'm working. 1st communions, special Masses involving certain groups, timing, requirements for me to be there to do something specific before or after Mass therefore I just attend there or I'd miss Mass entirely at my home parish..etc.

When I finally get the chance then, to go home, I'm so used to working at Mass that I can't actually just plain ol' worship anymore. Mass at a work parish is not the same, and I'm not free to "relax", and, say, wear my head covering like I do at home. All that stuff.

I do receive the Sacraments at my home parish because going to Confession to one's boss is discouraged.

Anyway, see next post (not written yet)..I have a theory on what happened this last week!

3puddytats said...

Heheh--I get what Suburbanshee is talking about re choir...when I was in our 11:30 choir I was so focused on the music there wasn't much I could get out of the I would often attend a Sat evening vigil Mass the night before.

And I know what Adoro means about so busy during the seasons..when you are so involved on making sure everything is right and everyone is in their places and everyone is in's like you don't have time to THINK about God,....we become the Marthas instead of the Marys....


DominiSumus said...

You are lucky to not be a parishioner at your work parish. I have been a parish employee at every parish I have ever belonged to and my situation will soon be worse in my new job.

I have been lucky to be able to travel to a good parish outside my diocese for confession and have been blessed with a talented spiritual director/confessor.

Adoro said...

I never wanted to work in a parish to begin with, but God had other plans.

but...I absolutely would NOT have applied at my home parish. No WAY would I work there!