I worked for a parish many, many years ago. It had a solid, well-deserved, and virtuous reputation as a progressive faith community. But my predecessor had a problem. She was a very attractive and persuasive person, and drew a good following in the ministries of RCIA and liturgy. Maybe too good.
It might shock some of my conservative readers, but I also have some appeal with parishioners. People are drawn to me and things I do. But I also give them the freedom to say “no” to me. Early in my second year in this parish, the pastor challenged me on why so many long-time volunteers were shifting involvements or dropping from ministry. Name names, I suggested. When he did I suggested he speak to them.
One couple had been doing three retreat days a year for RCIA people since the 70’s. They approached me early on and said they would continue leading retreats my first year, but that it was time for them to move on to something a little more creative. The chairperson of the liturgy committee was also head of the RCIA team. In her spare time she was a physician at a local hospital. She told me her life needed to be drained of some crazy, and that she would discern dropping one of her positions at the end of my first year. I assumed her job was a keeper.
I later asked Fr Tom if he talked to my friends. And he had. And they told him what they told me. And they also mentioned I gave them the freedom to say no.
If people are unfree to decline involvement, I simply don’t see where discernment has any place in their lives. I was in a good parish in those days. My predecessor drew in a lot of lay involvement. But they also were formed and free to say no. My colleagues there, alas, were less understanding of that principle.
In a way, it’s a bit like the culture of celebrity. One person draws in the doers. Not because of God maybe, but maybe more because of personality. I don’t like it. It’s okay for an initial motivation–maybe. But eventually, a person should be in service because of her or his God-given gifts and because of a need in the community. Not ’cause the boss is charming, cute, or won’t hear the word “no.”
After Mass this morning, I chatted with a parishioner who is a working artist. She asked how I was, and I shared with her my musical has a producer, and performance dates this November. Interested in doing set design, I asked her. Seeing her hesitation, I reinforced: “You are free to say no.” Another friend was in the conversation circle, and she affirmed it: “Oh yes, Todd is very good about giving you the freedom to say no.”
It was easily the nicest thing anyone has said about me in a good week.
As a parish minister, I need to live and show the trust that is so much a part of the Christian faith. By giving the people freedom, I treat them like adults and show respect for their other commitments. In turn, when they do say yes, I have a higher trust they’re doing so from a spiritual or personal motivation. And not just because I asked.