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Grace Under Pressure: What Gives Life to American Priests: A Study of Effective Priests Ordained Ten to Thirty Years

Authors: Blanchette, Melvin, Castelli, James, Hemrick, Eugene, Theroux, Paul, Walsh, James.
National Catholic Educational Association, Washington, D.C. 1996.

Risk Taking and Change

Living on the razor's edge. Pushing back the horizon. Jumping off of cliffs. Being on the cutting edge. Getting the juices going. Finding more hills to climb. Being a change agent. Being like a fireman who gets an adrenaline or endorphin rush when the fire bell rings.

That's the way priests describe their lives in the priesthood. In earlier research, Dr. John Mayer found that the personalities of successful priests have much in common with the personalities of fighter pilots, i.e., they're all risk takers. That was certainly the case with the priests in our study. They are active, enthusiastic, and energetic. They have a willingness to look life straight in the eye. Most know how to accommodate change, but, more than that, many positively thrive on change. "Without change," said Art, a 47-year-old Southern priest, "I think we are dead, basically." Harry , a 44-year-old Southern pastor who has had a number of different ministries in his priesthood, said "I'm tired of packing. I want to settle down for a little bit. But because I'm tired of packing doesn't mean I'm tired of changing."

Priests talk about change and excitement interchangeably. Dick, 62, a Southern pastor who was the oldest priest in the four focus groups, reflects on his life as a "change agent. " He said, "I am never satisfied that I have conquered all the hills that God has put in front of me. I am always looking for a new one to climb. And that has been tremendously life-giving throughout my life I think the bottom line of it all, though, is being the change agent. That to me is what has given me the biggest challenge and made the juices flow. When I look at something, I see it like Robert Kennedy --- I look at things and most people say, Why? And I say, Why not, why not? And that just invigorates me to be able to say let's push that horizon a little bit further and look beyond the wall."

The image that Dick used was that of the Israelites taking the risk to leave Egypt. And when change isn't working out so well he said that we have to resist "the temptation to go back to Egypt, or back to where we were."

Another pastor from the South put it this way: "Too many people don't want to enter the process of change because they don't want the pain. To get somewhere, to make some progress you are going to have to die a little bit."

A third pastor from the South talked about the power of perseverance to effect change. "If I really believe in something, I just keep doing it. There is some credibility that is built up in me, if nowhere else, that I am being faithful to what I am trying to live out. I find that effects change."

Peter, 53, another Southern pastor and former director of continuing formation of clergy, sees the status quo as a wake-up call. In 27 years of priesthood "I have enjoyed being on the razor's edge, always pushing it back just a little bit further ," he said. "I think that produces life. I think one of the most debilitating things for me would be to sit in a rut not change.

Pete, even finds change life-giving when it brings suffering; he described the lessons he learned from deteriorating vision.

Over the last two or three years I've had trouble with my eyesight and am very much visually impaired at this point so that I no longer drive at all. Most of what I have to read I have to read by magnifying glass or by enlarged print. What I do takes me twice as long as it used to. And it is forcing on me a dependency upon God and upon other people that is very difficult because I've been a very independent person.

It is not welcome and I would be lying if I sat here and said, 'Yes, it's welcome and I celebrate it, enjoy it.' It's not true. But I do in my saner and more faithful moments recognize the value of that change and recognize that even though I don't know where it's going, it will lead to something that, yes, I can manage and, yes, I can deal with. Perhaps it will even make me a better person than I am because I have lots of things about me that I don't like and that other people don't like either. And, specifically, I think it has brought me closer to some people because they see in the suffering something that they can also recognize in their own suffering.

Joe; 51, a diocesan official from the West, said it's exciting to help people in times of crisis. "I have in my parish a couple of people who are fire fighters and they love it because of the excitement," he said. "When that phone rings and they have to respond, they are pumped up and they love it. I would say in some ways there is an adrenaline rush with us, too, and I think that pumps us up. It's called an addiction. It's an endorphin rush that we are addicted to."

Rick, 43, a Western chancery official, said: For me, the greatest satisfaction about being a priest and being in the Church is when we are doing things. When you say, 'This is what Jesus calls us to do, it's what the Gospel is all about,' we are doing it. We are in the forefront. We are on the cutting edge and, you know, we don't have to explain what we are doing because you can just look at it and see what we are doing. That I find life-giving. But if we are always in a reactive mode, that could just wear you down.

Jeff, 41, a chancery official from the East, notes that while he presently lacks the day-to-day parish experience, he also has a feeling of excitement about the Church and his work: I think what's been life-giving to me and a blessing, has been to really get a vision of what the Church is called to be and to challenge other people to a deeper sense of that vision I don't share in parish ministry now. But I do share in the excitement of getting a glimpse of the vision of something exciting that's happening in a parish or in another diocese or another part of our country. To be able to somehow challenge the local diocese, the local parish, the local people to do better --- that to me is extremely exciting.

Some priests talked about the difficulty of changing assignments and leaving people Roy from the South struggles with goodbyes, mourning and grieving, but sees "that death- resurrection thing is part of what it means to be alive and to be human. Change will take place and it's not so frightening. He sees the wisdom in a pastor having a certain tenure in a particular parish: "I like that sense of moving on, picking up the tent, living nomadically, finding the presence somewhere else in new people.

Within the space of a year, Peter's mother and sister died They had been very close; they would often spend his day off together. "That was a devastating change for me at the time because it meant a whole pattern of life had changed, he said. "But in going back and looking at it, the change in family life opened me up to more people and to other possibilities:

Education is also an important part of change. Peter, who has five college degrees, said, "I've always been curious. I want to know what is on the other side of the fence. I'm not satisfied with what I know, I want to expand. I want to be more. I want to do more. I want to know more. And that has been life-giving." Jim from the Midwest said, "Continuing education is important. I continue to take advantage of all the opportunities I can."

As life becomes increasingly more fast-paced, change becomes a constant. These priests don't just cope with change, they thrive on it. The image that seems to be operative here is the biblical image of "setting out." We don't always know the destination or whether it will work out, but we are a people on the move, on pilgrimage. "Set out! I will be with you!" This is God's exhortation to Abraham and Moses; it is an exhortation that continues to be heeded today.