Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Emotional Transitions - I

For a church which has as one of its core doctrines the transition from death to life of our savior, we don’t do transitions very well.  Oh, everyone “knows” that special sacramental moments such as baptisms, weddings and funerals are moments of transition.  Birth, marriage, and death.  What could be more basic that these three?  But what do they mean? 

For a priest, the bishop calls you into his office, he hands you a new appointment, you leave (happy or sad or whatever) and you have your marching orders, you announce your departure, you arrive at your new assignment.  Life goes on.  What is so hard about that?

My recollection, for example, is that I floated in the seminary system from high school to college to major seminary without much anxiety.  It was movement toward a goal, priesthood ordination.   My first appointment as a priest was a wonderful assignment, my second much less so with some significant problems, my third exhilarating, challenging and affirming.   

I was not yet a pastor when Msgr. Jack McCarren introduced me to a tremendous resource, Edwin H. Friedman’s Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue.  Rabbi Friedman used Murray Bowen’s family systems theory to shed light on the effect of a leader on a congregation.  In particular, Rabbi Friedman focused on the transitions of a pastor, bishop or rabbi, and the emotional waves sent throughout the systems.

I say “systems” because any person (religious or not) who becomes a new leader in an organization has to pay attention to the emotions of three distinct groups:  1) the personal multi-generational family system of the leader; 2) the organization itself as a system; and 3) the family system of those persons within the organization.

This idea of monitoring my emotional well-being, as well as that of those around me, was completely new.  Brought up in a “left-brain” thinking system, I had little or no skill in understanding the “right brain” emotional aspect of persons, much less systems.  But in my first pastorate I had lots of opportunities to test out Rabbi Friedman’s insights. 

I followed a pastor who was not well regarded by the parishioners, but revered by the staff, almost all of whom he hired.  I quickly found myself ying-yanged emotionally between the relief and acceptance of the people and the mistrust of the staff.  Fortunately by using Bowen family system theory, I focused on my self-differentiation.  That is, I didn’t take it personally when the staff stayed distant.  They were still grieving the loss of a beloved leader.  It didn’t matter whether it was I or Father Joe Blow who followed.  I disarmed the professional staff when, after only two months, I announced that I understood that they had signed on to work with the former pastor, not me.  If anyone wanted to leave the parish and seek a new place of ministry, I completely understood.  I would give them a positive letter of recommendation, and hold no recrimination against them.  They were flabbergasted.  Yet it helped them to emotionally readjust and focus on me as their new boss.  Within weeks all professional staff told me they would stay.  (All were excellent ministers, and I was secretly glad they stayed and wanted to work with me.)  Because I acted in an emotionally healthy manner, they too could come to their own decision and move forward.

In that same pastorate I merged two parishes and followed a charismatic pastor.  Not being charistmatic myself, I allowed my anxiety to get the best of me when a small cadre of parishioners rejected me, attacked me for changes I made, and my staid conservative ways in general.  How did I respond?  With screaming angry sermons, rude and unChristian verbal rebuttals, a generally lousy disposition to all.  Only when friends pointed out these unhealthy behaviors was I able to get a handle on the situation.  I focused on getting control on my behavior, and allowed anyone to voice criticism of me or praise of the out-going priest.  I listened a lot more, talked less.  In time, as I calmed down, they did too.  Some parishioners left the new parish, but some stayed.  We weathered the storm and moved to calmer waters, so that we, parishioners and me as leader, could focus on the more important work of doing ministry together.

Warp Speed Appointment

Bishop Zubik announced on Friday, July 22, that Father Michael Decewicz, pastor of SS. Peter & Paul Parish, Beaver, will become the second pastor of Saint Juan Diego Parish, Sharpsburg, effective August 15.  The bishop will ceremonially install Father Decewicz at Mass on Monday, August 29, at 7:00 p.m.

Father Decewicz and I are classmates.  We entered St. Paul Seminary together, and were ordained deacons (1977) and priests (1978) together.   I am very happy to welcome him to Sharpsburg.  I told the Mass-goers on Sunday, “Don’t hold it against Father Mike that he and I are friends.”  And I got laughter! 

By Catholic Church standards, this appointment was made in warp speed.  It usually takes about a month or more for names to surface, either through the clergy personnel board or by a man "bidding" on a parish.  At that point the clergy personnel board will review suggested names for a pastorate at its monthly meeting.   Sometimes for pastoral reasons the bishop will make an appointment on his own.  

Our church (at least in choosing pastors – not so for bishops) is faster than most Protestant churches, which may take 12-18 months to find a replacement pastor.  Laity conduct a search, sometimes locally, sometimes nationally, with subsequent interviews and guest preaching appearances.  Of course, Protestants just can’t understand how a priest can be in the bishop’s office one day, and moved and settled and working in a new parish within a month.  Being celibate helps.

Anyway, I welcome Father Mike to a wonderful parish and community.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Goodbye Letter

Each week I write a column for our parish bulletin, entitled “Faithful Chronicles.”  This is what I wrote for next Sunday, July 24.

Faithful Chronicles
By Father Frank D. Almade

It is with great regret and sadness that I say goodbye today to my dear friends and parishioners of Saint Juan Diego Parish.  Next week would mark my fourth anniversary as your priest in Sharpsburg.  As you know, Bishop Zubik has asked me to leave Saint Juan Diego Parish and to become the administrator of St. Vincent de Paul Parish, New Castle, and St. Vitus Parish, New Castle.  Sunday, July 31, 2011, is my last official day as your pastor.

As I write this my mind is a spinning Merry-go-round of vivid images and special memories.  Walking into the John Paul I Pastoral Center on my first day, Monday, July 30, 2007, in the midst of a sweltering 95+ degree heat wave.  The very special Mass with Bishop Zubik and 1,067 parishioners and friends in St. Mary Church, as our shepherd ceremonially installed me as the first pastor of Saint Juan Diego Parish, on Sunday, March 15, 2009.  Closing Madonna of Jerusalem Church for repairs, and reopening it in all its restored splendor.  The support of the Moving Forward Task Force, the Pastoral Council, Finance Council, Cemetery Committee, prayer group, bible study, and co-workers in the parish office and cemetery office who became dear friends.  The lively children who attended CCD every Monday evening during the school year, and their dedicated catechists.  Our Epiphany Open House in Madonna of Jerusalem Rectory, with over 100 parish volunteers spilling out into the night enjoying each others’s company.

I treasure celebrating my 30th anniversary of priesthood with Eucharist and a fancy-cupcakes-and-wine reception.  It was only a year ago that Bishop Zubik allowed me to step aside from parish duties to do the 30-day retreat, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius at Eastern Point Retreat Center in Gloucester, Massachusetts.  I returned to hear glowing reports of the care Father Joe Keenan had for parishioners, and returned refreshed with renewed awareness of God’s love for me and all.

I think of beaming brides walking down the main aisle of St. Mary Church, praying the Stations of the Cross on Main Street in the rain on Good Friday afternoons, the tears at funeral Masses, the young people confidently lectoring at CCD Masses, the crying babies I’ve baptized and handsome young people I’ve confirmed at the Easter Vigil and the young people Bishops Bradley and Winter have confirmed.  I fondly remember meetings and Masses with our lively brothers and sisters, the Korean Catholic Community, at St. John Cantius Church.   I also remember cursing under my breath when a microphone screeched, raindrops came through the roof, air conditioning units failed, parking lots with 36” of snow had to be plowed, or a pew broke.  But things can be fixed.  And your generous support of the Capital Campaign made so many building repairs possible.

Most of all I see in all of you faith and love.  It took great faith in God who is always with us to agree to merge three historic parishes and become one new parish.  Yet you all did it, not grudgingly but willingly, in a spirit of hope.   You embraced the name of a new but faraway saint, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, and his Madonna, the Virgin of Guadalupe, as our parish’s patrons and heavenly benefactors.  It took love to welcome me, a stranger in your midst, and to consider some of my wild ideas and plans.  I am a better Christian and a better priest because of the love you have poured out on me with incredible measure. 

If along the way I have hurt any of you, or any who are no longer with us, I am sorry.  I apologize from the bottom of my heart.   I tried to say at our Prayer Service of Repentance two years ago that I know the Church, which is supposed to be an instrument of peace and healing, sometimes hurts our faithful.  I too have been hurt by the Church.  We must all be more humble, and forgiving, servants of Christ, the healing Divine Physician.

Now we move forward.  I leave Sharpsburg as directed by our bishop to pastor two fine communities in Lawrence County.   You remain, to continue to welcome visitors and neighbors, to serve the poor through the St. Vincent de Paul Society, to teach the children, to be life-long learners in our Catholic faith, to share this faith which nourishes us with as many people as possible.  I feel a little bit like Blessed Father Francis Seelos, who served in Pittsburgh for only nine years, and then moved on to other ministries.  Pray for me, and you can be assured of my prayers for you. 

Let me conclude with our parish prayer: 

Saint Juan Diego, you were chosen by Our Lady of Guadalupe as her messenger to the Americas and beyond.  Mary told you and us, “I am your mother.  Are you not under my protection?  Why do you fear, if you are in my mantle, and in my arms?”  Because of your faithfulness, the Gospel of Jesus Christ spread far and wide as people saw the miraculous image the Virgin left on your tilma.  Encourage us to grow in devotion to the Mother of God and in humble trust of God’s love for all peoples.  Help us become convincing evangelists of the Good News of salvation and caring members of our church.  We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.


I’ve mostly thought of using this blog for personal expression, to reflect on the world around me.  But today I use it to get word out regarding changes in my life.

On Thursday I met with Bishop Zubik, who appointed me administrator of St. Vincent de Paul Parish, New Castle, and St. Vitus Parish, New Castle, effective Monday, August 1, 2011.  This means that my assignment as pastor of St. Juan Diego Parish, Sharpsburg, will end in two weeks.  I informed the parish council, finance council and parish staff on Friday, and told all parishioners at Masses this weekend. 

This is not easy.  We have done a lot of hard work in Sharpsburg, to merge three parishes into one new parish, to sell unused buildings and to fix up existing buildings, to build community and to start new efforts at evangelization.  And over my four years here I have come to really love the folks who make up our parish.  Leaving this time is hard.

Look for more posts regarding feelings and facts of this change.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Influences, Influences

You never know where or when you are going to be influenced by another.  Of course as a Catholic Christian I’ve been profoundly influenced by the Sacred Scriptures, and by the writings of many  theologians and saints.  But two other influences on my life I never would have imagined when I was ordained a priest. 

One is learning Bowen family systems theory from the late Msgr. Jack McCarren.  As a parochial vicar at St. Mary of Mercy Parish, Downtown, years ago, I would join the priests from central administration for lunch most days.  Jack served the Diocese of Pittsburgh for more than 30 years as diocesan secretary for social concerns.  A true Irishman, Jack also liked to hold court.  The rest of the priests had already used up their patience with Jack’s harangues.  As the youngest around I found myself strangely attracted to his orations on triangles, self-differentiation, sibling positions, and emotional cut-offs.  Once I looked at my watch to see that a spiel which started during the 12:30 p.m. lunch stretched to 2:30!   Didn’t he have an office to run?  Didn’t I have to get back to work?!!!   (For more information on family systems theory, go to www.thebowencenter.org/pages/theory.html .  Maybe I’ll do a post about Jack at a later time.)

The second is the subject of this post.  Around that same time I stumbled upon the little paperback, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.   It has been a life-changer.  Two fellows of the Harvard Negotiation Project, Roger Fisher and William Ury, use clear prose and enlightening stories to explain their understanding of how to negotiate.  The blurb on the back of the most recent revised edition states by reading this book you learn to:

  • Disentangle the people from the problem
  • Focus on interests, not positions
  • Work together to find creative and fair options
  • Negotiate successfully with anybody at any level.
And you learn to develop your BATNA – the best alternative to a negotiated agreement.  As the first sentences of the book state, “Like it or not, you are a negotiator.  Negotiation is a fact of life.”  Conflict seems to be a growth industry.  How do you deal with it?  This book taught me useful techniques I could, did, and do successfully use. 

These techniques were especially helpful later when I was responsible for merging parishes, or dealing with conflicting issues in parish and diocesan life.  I didn’t win every battle (far from it) but I knew I could be both hard on the principles and soft on the people—and hold my head up no matter how the negotiations went. 

Since then two other books followed the themes of Getting to Yes.  Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations came out five years later.  It addressed much of the emotional fallout of a difficult conflictual situation.  It’s sense of controlling your feelings (“don’t react,” “don’t argue,” “don’t reject,” “don’t push,” “don’t escalate”) and using forms of negotiating jujitsu (“going to the balcony,” “step to their side,” and “reframe”) paralleled much of what Bowen systems theory addresses. 

Recently I came across a third book, The Power of a Positive No: Save the Deal, Save the Relationship—and Still Say No.  Both of these books are by William Ury.  Somehow it’s been around since 2006, but I missed its publication.  I’m very much looking forward to chewing on it.  In the author’s preface, Dr. Ury says,

“This book, The Power of a Positive No, completes what I have come to think of as a trilogy that began with Getting to Yes and continued with Getting Past No.  Where the focus of Getting to Yes is on both sides reaching an agreement, and the focus of Getting Past No is on the other side, overcoming their objections and resistance to cooperation, the focus of The Power of a Positive No is on your side, on learning how to assert and defend your own interests.  Since the logical sequence is to start from your own side, I have come to see The Power of a Positive No not so much as a sequel to the other two books but more like a prequel….Each book stands alone, yet complements and enhances the others.”

Frustrated with failure in an argument?  Angry when the other side seems always to win?  Can’t sort out feelings and thought in a negotiation?  Troubled with the other side’s dirty (and successful) tactics?  Don’t know whether to be a wimp or a bully?  I heartily recommend these three little books, all still in print, filled with wisdom for the one who has ears to hear.    

Monday, July 4, 2011

Informed Information

My friend Father Jim Garvey’s first assignment was with Msgr. Charles Owen Rice, the nationally known “labor priest,” or as he was known in some Pittsburgh rectories, “that damned pinko commie liberal.”  Jim told me when he first got to St. Anne’s that he was amazed at the number of publications Msgr. Rice subscribed to and read, even to getting the Berkeley Barb. 

But I’ll bet Msgr. Rice didn’t read “the other side of the story.”  I once asked him if he got much hate mail from his weekly column in the Pittsburgh Catholic.  Oh, lots, he said—and then smiled, “But I never answer them.  That’s my secret, m’ boy.” 

Among the many things my parents taught me—by example, without every speaking about it—was to read the daily newspaper.  Reading the Post-Gazette every morning is part of my routine, along with a shower, prayers, morning Mass, and Lean Cuisine.  When I go on vacation I love to pick up and peruse all manner of local papers, four or five a day.  Dad got our household a subscription to Sports Illustrated when I was nine or so.  This was catnip for my brothers and me, because sports meant everything to us.  We didn’t know we were reading some fine writers—even Myron Cope!—we just knew this magazine was a vehicle to learn about sports.

Keeping up with the news was something I did because I liked to when I was first ordained.   Somehow awareness of the world outside the parish has always been part of my makeup, along with opinions about politics and culture.   But when then-Bishop Wuerl gave me the job of diocesan secretary for social concerns, it became part of my ministry.  Because of my interest in Catholic social thought, it remains to this day. 

The internet makes this easier and harder.  Easier, because you don’t have to pay expensive subscriptions to receive, say, The New York Times or the Boston Globe, or even L’Osservatore Romano in English or the Japan Times.  A flick of the wrist, a click of the mouse, there you are.  Harder, because there is so much out there.  (And with this blog I’m contributing to it!)  The huge amount of news sources threatens to overwhelm.  It certainly makes discerning the grain from the chaff very difficult.

In my parish ministry I find that few parishioners are up on the national and international news.  But parishioners do gobble up local news.  They latch onto the almost-nightly tragedy on the 11:00 p.m. tv news about a toddler who drowns in a suburban backyard pool or the murder-suicide in a central Pennsylvania county.  (You know the tv news axiom, “If it bleeds, it leads.”)  I gave up watching the 11:00 pm news decades ago, in part because I can’t stand that kind of stuff.  But I have learned to expand my reading to whatever the local paper is, and stay attuned to parishioners’s interests.

German Lutheran theologian Karl Barth was supposed to have said, “Have your bible in one hand, and the daily newspaper in the other.”  The Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary could not find that on the record, but it did find a quote from a 1963 interview with Time magazine, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”   (Thank you, internet.)  I believe the thought and have tried to practice it daily, even as fewer and fewer people do.