success stories

Posted May 26, 2004

Breaking & Running In the First Five Years

Carol Stanton
Vol. II No. 4 August/September 1998
Taken from St. Luke’s Institute web page

Priest personnel directors are watching newly ordained struggling with the pressure of first assignments; some are even leaving in the first six months to a year and others are ending up in treatment programs. The concern is such that the NCCB Priestly Life and Ministry Committee is researching the transition from seminary to first-year priesthood, hoping to design a tool for helping new priests.

Priestly Life and Ministry Director, Fr. Clete Kiley, invited a monograph from Fr. Ed Upton of the Archdiocese of Chicago, who is researching this significant issue. He finds that newly ordained must negotiate three major areas of change:

A system shift--from seminary to parish;

An identity shift--from private to public person;

A skills shift--from the known to the unknown.

At Saint Luke we are hearing from newly ordained that these shifts place strong demand on personal skills -- relational, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and professional. New priests are expected to hit the road running, in a very public way. Few other professions involve the level of access to people's lives and faith. A priest's vocation and job description call for a well-integrated person--one whose level of self-knowledge helps him grow toward emotional and spiritual maturity. Here are some of the issues we think deserve more reflection:

The skills needed to negotiate the structured, academic culture of the seminary do not necessarily translate into those needed to thrive in a parish.

Pastoral years are good, but parishioners and parish staff have different expectations of an ordained person. The new priest has to learn quickly how to manage what can be a daunting schedule, multiple pastoral relationships, staff interactions, liturgical and preaching challenges and his personal physical, emotional and spiritual health.

Priests have to deal with being an idealized and public person, but the shock and discomfort of "living in a fish-bowl" can be especially intense for newly ordained.

In the current church climate, pastoral common sense sometimes collapses into paranoia. Many priests admit to some level of confusion about appropriate professional and personal boundaries. Searching for role models the newly ordained finds priests with their own confusions about professional boundaries. Also, some newly ordained lack the social skills needed to develop healthy personal support systems on their own and cannot count on priestly camaraderie to fill in the gaps. New priests need help in recognizing how healthy relationships actually look and feel.

While seminary offers a structure, community and stability often missing in their family of origin, some candidates do not experience seminary as a safe place for talking about confused feelings, especially sexual ones.

Seminaries experience the tension between good screening practices and the push for numbers in the face of an aging ordained workforce. In order to "make it through seminary" some candidates become adept at "stuffing" their feelings. But the stress, isolation and increased demands of a first assignment can surface unresolved family or unintegrated sexual issues. Some try to anaesthetize their pain with food, spending or addiction to exercise. Others experience depression so paralyzing they are reluctant to leave their rooms. Sheer loneliness, combined with sexual confusion, can send priests to strangers looking for intimacy. The movie, The Priest, chillingly illustrates this torment--late each night the idealistic, theologically articulate, young associate replaces his collar with a leather jacket and cruises for anonymous homosexual encounters. He breaks, finally, under the strain of living a double life. Some who are at that level of crisis find the courage to seek professional help; others are encouraged by their Bishop. But a growing number of newly ordained are living just on the edge of crisis, struggling to remain healthy.


Pay Attention

Someone with the time needs to attend to the person who is making this complex shift. Mentoring structures of the past, e.g., wise pastors with multiple associates, are disappearing. It may be more realistic to seek administrative, pastoral and even social mentoring from successful lay people or qualified pastoral staff on a safe, one-to-one basis. A regularly scheduled pastoral reflection process for the entire parish staff is one way for a newly ordained to monitor his pastoral practice with the help of others who are doing the same.

Encourage On-going Personal Development

There needs to be a safe space for a new priest to say how he is feeling about his life, to reflect on what he learned in seminary and to explore his unresolved issues--sexual or otherwise. The opportunity to seek individual counseling or to participate in a peer-group needs to be seen not as a stigma, undue self-absorption or "one more burden," but as a sign of mature self-care. Self-knowledge is essential for responsible ministry.

Model the Importance of a Spiritual Life

In the busy life of a parish priest one of the first things to go is personal prayer, reflection and spiritual direction. He feels he cannot afford the time: in reality he cannot afford not to. New priests benefit from seeing other busy people manage to keep their spiritual life a priority despite the absence of external structure.

New priests are human beings; some are breaking and running when they face personal crisis. The task is to recognize the warning signs and be with them before they reach a state of crisis.

Carol Stanton, MA, MPhil. is the Director of Education and Prevention at Saint Luke Institute.