There are many reasons for you not to like your priest. It may be because his homilies are too dry, lack patristic moorings, or stray too far from the Biblical text. His answers to your deepest theological, spiritual, and personal challenges may leave you cold and unsatisfied. He may be a poor confessor, offering only absolution and standard responses about “prayer rules”, “forgiveness” and “humility”. He may not offer the kind of charismatic and visionary leadership that would inspire your parish to grow. He may chant out of tune, his accent may be too strong, or he might try to sing all his liturgical parts fortissimo – espansimo. He may be too ignorant, over-educated, emotional, impersonal, shy, gregarious, fundamentalist, liberal, political, or dull. Whatever his human failings, there is sure to be plenty about him you do not like. And that’s okay: you don’t have to like your priest.
Orthodox Christians often feel guilty or dissatisfied if they are unable to feel good about their their priest. They have memories of priests who were great liturgists, pastors, leaders, confessors, teachers, and managers. The Orthodox are reared on stories of startsi (great elders) and sainted priests that, along with the hagiographic memories of former priests, set the bar of competency impossibly high. And yet, there is something within the heart of the Orthodox Christian that still wants to be close to his parish priest – despite all his very real shortcomings. This desire for a meaningful connection shows that there is more to the relationship between priest and parishioner than meets the eye.
This relationship is different from all the other ones we know. The priest 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 their 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 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.
So how should the Orthodox Christian relate to his priest?
The priest is a shepherd. 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” or “sheeople”, 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 (St. John 10:15). Being a priest rarely involves actual crucifixion, but the priesthood does bring the 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 egalitarianism and democracy, but it really is part of our relationship with Christ and His Church. This is a dangerous world; everyone needs to be under the protection of a good shepherd.
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. This world is full of disease, everyone needs to be under the care of a good physician.
Finally, priests are fathers. This one used to be obvious and easy for people to accept. That is no longer true. Most people have been affected, either directly or indirectly, by divorce, dead-beat dads, and abusive and unreliable male “role-models”. 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, 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. 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 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. Our Lord loves us too much to leave us as orphans; everyone needs a father.
In the end, we don’t have to like our priest much at all; our relationship with him is not about our emotions or satisfying our preferences. Our connection with him is different from the one you share with anyone else. Even if you find your priest a bore or a jerk, 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 unaffability, it may help to remember the difficulty of his calling and that he is as human as anyone else.
As Brother Patrick Mary Briscoe put it;
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.