The Priestly Puzzle

March 8, 2021
Father Michael Kerrigan was struggling with burnout. Caring for his congregation, while his mother slowly slid towards death, was taking its toll. In his regular visits with his mentor, he was encouraged to take time off and tend to himself. 

Later that night, when Father Michael returned home, the phone rang.

Instead of answering, he listened to the message as it was being recorded. A parishioner was asking him to come as soon as possible. The parishioner’s son had been unexpectedly discharged from an overcrowded psychiatric hospital, and the request was for the priest to come and calm him down. “You’re the only one who knows how to do it.” 

Father Michael, reflecting on his mentor’s counsel and the fact that this son’s issues were never-ending, chose to delay his response and go on to sleep.  He could address this in the morning.  

The next day, Father Kerrigan discovered that the psychotic episode eventually led his parishioner to call social services for help with her son. Social services, threatened by the son with a knife, called the police. The police ended up shooting the son to death. Father Michael would take personal ownership for being the cause of this tragedy.

This real-life scenario can be seen in the 2017 BBC short series, Broken, starring Sean Bean (Boromir, in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy) as Father Michael. But it’s not just fiction.  Similar situations also play out on a regular basis in daily ministry. 

I, too, have been counseled that I needed to learn to say “no.”  I’ve, in turn, counseled others, that they needed to say “no.” Pastors need to practice self-care! Pastors need to attend to their families as a top priority! I accept the fact pastors can’t do everything, can’t be available 24-7, and aren’t indispensable. However, I also never want to be in Father Michael’s shoes!  

Is there an alternative?

While most of my home state, Texas, was frozen during the Great Winter Storm of 2021, something more immediate was pressing on my heart. My neighbor of over 20 years was dying.  Liver disease had led to two years of a slow decline. At 72 years of age, the descent increased rapidly. He was in and out of emergency rooms, and overnight hospital stays, for two weeks.  Then, my neighbor was sent home, where his wife could be with him; he started hospice care … the day before the storm hit.  

A nurse made it during the first day of the storm. Helpful drugs were procured and orders were written for additional caregivers. Unfortunately, due to the road conditions, NONE of the caregivers made it until one week later. No family made it, either. The soon-to-be widow did not have to deal with the loss of power or water, thank God, but she was alone.

Except she wasn’t alone.

Yes, God was there, and she and her husband knew that, believed it, and expressed it.  Nevertheless, when I say she wasn’t alone, I’m talking about people!

Their church has two parish nurses, uncommon in my faith tradition, but those nurses came and called frequently. They provided care and advice and comfort. They couldn’t stay indefinitely, but the church had other members who provided that presence. 

There was no pastor—except a never-met-before interim pastor who offered a telephone prayer and his availability to officiate at the funeral (and I’m not faulting him at all for this).  Nevertheless, there was excellent pastoral care. Several church members rotated to provide prayer, conversation, a silent presence, dog-sitting, grocery runs, medicine runs—you get the picture. I was proud to be the third wheel! And was proud of that church.  

I thought, “What if Father Kerrigan had equipped his church members to do the work of ministry?” The poor priest could have taken care of himself, while the care of his parishioners was also still being provided.  

Deacons, Stevens Ministries, Sunday School teams … every member a minister. Every member a “priest.” If pastors could train their church to help with ministry, walk the congregation through a cultural shift which would accept lay ministry, and then resist the inner compulsion to a) micromanage and b) refuse to delegate–that church would be practicing Ephesians 4: 11-12:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up . . . . 

Pastor, think about it. Shared ministry means your members will have more care available to them. Shared ministry means your members will grow in spiritual maturity. Shared ministry will be following biblical instructions. You may save a life! And one life you may save could be your own.

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