In a previous article, “Phone Calls That Never Lead to Visits,” I addressed the phenomenon of people contacting a priest to discuss visiting the parish, and then never showing up, and how this can be draining on priests. In that article, I discussed how I had taken an approach to limit the length of the initial conversation, until the inquirer paid a visit to the parish in person. The present article is a follow-up of sorts, and will focus on those who have gone beyond simply making a promise to visit, but have actually established a relationship with the priest, and then disappear.
We often think of our priests as the go-to guys when life gets tough, and in fact, that is certainly a function that we priests fill. Priests seem to have an unlimited supply of energy to deal with multiple problems simultaneously, and speaking to a priest about our struggles often alleviates them. Priests then tend to become involved with people when they reach a critical phase in their life. I might mention parenthetically that if we are actively engaging our faith and interacting with our priest when life is good, that we will have less chance of things developing into crisis mode in the first place, but human nature is what it is.
Another type of interaction that a priest has involves those looking into the Orthodox Christian faith. Contacting a priest is often a watershed moment, the moment when what we’ve been reading becomes suddenly tangible. Here is a person who embodies the faith we are feeling called to, and it is no longer an idea, but a reality. Such persons are quite naturally excited, and priests are often encouraged by their enthusiasm. It can be a blessing for both parties.
When people who are at a critical point in their life make contact with a priest and begin to open up to him about their situation, this creates a relationship. With a relationship in turn comes responsibility; the priest has agreed to take on the case of someone who needs his help, and through prayer, study, discussion, and possibly action, will attempt to take a person from point A to point B. The pastoral relationship involves trust, patience, and the building of rapport.
Sometimes, those of us who are dealing with a crisis find resolution to our problems, and no longer need the priest’s help. Sometimes, those of us looking into the Orthodox faith have second thoughts, or become overwhelmed, or find ourselves suddenly moving away from the area. This will perhaps end the interaction with the priest. Priests know this, and can adjust to the change, if they are prepared. The problem comes when they are left in the dark.
More often than some would imagine, people simply stop communicating with their priest when they no longer need him. The inquirer may be embarrassed that he has taken the priest’s time, and now no longer wishes to pursue Orthodoxy. The person with a problem may have taken a course of action that the priest recommended against, and feels the priest will be upset. It seems easier to simply let the contact lapse, as a confrontation would be unpleasant for both parties.
This attitude is simply wrong. Just as a priest takes on certain responsibilities in a pastoral relationship, so too does the one seeking the priest’s assistance. Keeping proper communication is a key responsibility of a lay person. A priest will try to follow up if he has not heard from someone, but in some cases, the follow-up emails or calls are not answered. Priests are not trained to “take the hint” and stop contacting others when contact ceases, but instead are prone to become more concerned.
Abruptly terminating contact with a priest after engaging him for help is inconsiderate, to say the least. Like it or not, priests have feelings, too, and they should not be forced into a situation of worry or even of wondering, “what happened?” Priests are adults, and can deal with changing circumstances. The best thing to do if we no longer need a priest’s help is to let him know honestly what has happened or changed. It may be an uncomfortable conversation, but it is the proper thing to do. It provides resolution for both parties, and in fact, it is helpful in the event that later on, we change our minds.
By this article, I do not seek to make anyone feel guilty, or to suggest that I am more concerned with the feelings of priests than the feelings of laypeople. Instead, I seek to exhort the readers to always act charitably and responsibility in their dealings with priests, and not to neglect courtesy in dealing with them. If a phone call is too emotionally difficult to make, an email or letter would be equally appreciated. In a culture that has so often forgotten common courtesy, it is necessary to point this out simply to educate and inform. May we ever strive to treat one another with courtesy and show concern for others.