Avoiding the Scandal

by gary-foote on April 12, 2011

Today I heard something from a Catholic Church employee that made me very sad. I have heard this a few times before and each time it hits me at my very core. She said, “The reason my kids aren’t practicing Catholics anymore is because they have seen all the ugliness from me working in the Church.” That comment affects me in so many different ways. As a husband and father, I think about how I have communicated my struggles with my wife and children as I work within the Catholic Church in youth ministry, speaking, mentoring, retreat ministry, pilgrimage planning, and consulting. Each of the “hats” I wear comes with its unique struggles, but they all share one common thread, the Church. So when I express a struggle that I face to my family, I’m often times making a correlation with a difficulty within the Catholic Church. As a son and brother, I know that there have been many occasions where I haven’t had to say anything to my parents or brothers about trials I have faced because they have seen the effects first hand and have asked the question, “Why do you still do this?” One of my brothers no longer practices his Catholic faith by participating in weekly Mass. He says grace before meals, talks to my children about Jesus, and will go to Mass with other members of the family when he’s invited. When I talked to him about why he doesn’t practice his Catholic faith more frequently he said, “Because I’ve seen all of the hypocrites working with you.” My brother had been very active in working in ministry and has supported me in my work as a minister for many years, and unfortunately, he has a valid point. He told me that he believed everything that the Catholic Church taught but didn’t want to be somewhere with so many hypocrites. As a minister, anytime someone leaves the Catholic Church I am saddened. Very seldom have I known someone to leave because of a doctrine or practice of the Catholic Church. In my experience, most people leave because somewhere along the way of their faith they either ran into people who did not “practice what they preached” or they felt isolated and alone.

So how do we confront this issue? I think the first step has to be prayer. We need to pray for our priests, for all those who minster in the Catholic Church, and for ourselves. We cannot tackle this problem without the intervention of our God.

Secondly, we need to not contribute to the problem. I know that this is much easier said than done. Do people really encounter Jesus Christ when they encounter you and I? In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul writes “…it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me” (Gal 2:20). Can we say these same words about the way we live our day-to-day life? It’s easy for any of us (including myself) to represent Christ at any given moment, but do we truly portray our Lord at EVERY moment? The people in ministry I admire most are those who have truly been transformed by Christ and give witness to that transformation at every moment. Whether these people are giving a talk to 5000 people at a conference or taking the time to sit down and eat lunch with a homeless person on the street, they are genuinely who they say they are and are acting as Jesus Christ in every situation. Unfortunately, I also know people in ministry who have a “public ministry persona” and then live a very different life when they are not in the spotlight. Although more people may see you when you are in the spotlight, there are still some people who will see you when you are not in the forefront of everyone’s attention. How you really live your life in those moments is what truly gives witness to whether or not what you are saying is true.

Third, consider whom you are talking to when venting about work. If you are working in ministry often times God gives a special grace of “thick skin.” Not everyone has this. You and I might be able to dismiss all of the garbage that can accompany working for the Catholic Church and still see through the messiness to the glory that is present with the Bride of Christ. Seek out others in ministry who can understand the struggles that you are facing but won’t be scandalized by what you are sharing because they too have experienced the hardships and the glory of working within the Catholic Church. A good place to start would be with a spiritual director. Maybe even a spiritual director who is a priest or religious and understands the rollercoaster of working in ministry. Many dioceses also have some type of ministry days throughout the year that most of us dread going to. Take advantage of them though as opportunities to meet with other people and setup your own time to meet with them and pray. Remember that Jesus sent his disciples off in groups of two. What do you think that those nightly conversations sounded like after the ministry was done for the day?

My last piece of advice is for those in ministry with families. Make sure that you draw a distinct line between your work and your faith. Remember that your primary vocation is to help your spouse and children get to Heaven! I worked at a parish years ago where it was assumed that anytime I was on campus I was working. I tried to participate in the parish picnic, ice cream social, and other events with my family, but as soon as I stepped on campus, I was told that I was needed because someone who volunteered didn’t show up or wasn’t doing something the right way. Eventually, it got to the point where these impromptu requirements were completely separating me from my family at parish events, including Mass! I ended up registering with another parish and speaking to my pastor to let him know that no matter what I tried, I was always taken away from my family whenever I stepped on campus and that I didn’t want my kids to grow up thinking that the Catholic Church was the place that took their daddy away. I told him that if I was required to come to parish events as an employee that I would, but that it needed to be counted as part of my weekly work duties and I would either need to be compensated with additional time off or overtime pay. I had talked with him in the past about the need I had for him to intervene and let my supervisor know that I could not be treated as an employee every time I was on campus, but he never did anything about it. My pastor wasn’t very happy about me “drawing the line” but my family had to come first. Eventually, my family’s parish was not where I worked.  We were united together as a family as we went to Mass and participated in parish events as family at our parish and then I worked at the other parish. I’m not recommending this for everyone because I have worked in parishes where my family and I have been parishioners and it was wonderful! But at those parishes, the pastor and his staff understood the difference between me as an employee and me as a parishioner/family man.

In the end, the Mother Church, the Bride of Christ, is beautiful! The question is are you going to live out your life as a minister in the Church like a gem to make her sparkle or will you cause her to have another blemish? Each of us can be a gem and truly let the light of the Catholic Church be seen throughout the world. When we do this, we can let the healing begin for those who have left because of seeing a blemish earlier. No one wants to see their Mom tired and sick but wants to see her very vibrant and energetic. Let’s make it happen!!!

In Christ,

Gary Foote

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Fuerte April 12, 2011 at 4:15 am

I agree with all of your points. I know I’ve often heard the the arguments about people being turned off by the bad examples, but what they fail to see is the enormous power to be the good example. And I think it can be extended beyond people working for the Church. For example, if you take the case of people not blessed to have loving parents in their upbringing or perhaps even had abusive relationships, one reaction is to say, “I will never be a parent. I don’t want to be a hypocrite.” You can rationalize that it is being responsible, but in the end it is much more selfish because you had another choice than being a bad parent. The loving reaction is “how can I be the love that was missing for me and needed and that ought to be shared.” It’s so easy to blame others for why we limit ourselves. There are definitely hypocrites among us, but that has nothing to do with our choice to follow and do what is right versus deflecting our personal accountability to God, Church, neighbor, and ourselves.

CA April 12, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Fantastic article. My husband is currently interviewing for a parish ministry position, so that last bit was especially good advice to know ahead of time if he gets the position.
Thanks for your wisdom!

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