A “Time of Testing” for Pastoral Ministers

Various crises in the church are a time of testing for the church’s pastoral ministers, according to Catholic pastoral psychologist Wunibald Müller. He is leader of theHouse of Recollection” at the Benedictine abbey of Münsterschwarzach in Germany. He spoke last week at the third annual “Theology Day” of the theology department of the University of Graz, Austria.

Müller spoke of a growing chasm between personal convictions and what is expected by church employers, between personal dialogue and a “clericalist manner,” between personal lifestyles and the church’s moral teachings. Many pastoral works suffer from being overburdened, oftentimes along with health problems such as burn-out.

Increasingly Müller encounters church ministers who lament that they “went into ministry under completely different conditions, with completely different expectations.” Church workers report with ever greater frequency that they strive to be loyal to the church, but this makes them feel “disloyal to their own soul.” They “think and feel differently,” no longer standing “within the fundamental identity of the church.” Personal crisis is the consequence.

Experiences in the work place are marked by growing “clericalism,” which leads to less dialogue and a less personal manner of relating. Ordination brings people into a particular situation and position which frequently goes along with problematic attitudes about dialogue. Church workers expend much of their energy “maintaining the external facade and hiding what they really think and live.” This is true, e.g. of priests who have difficulties with celibacy.

For remaining healthy “in soul and spirit,” Müller recommends a two-fold strategy. First, one should attend to a healthy self-concept and find space free of work, obligation, and objectives in daily life. Second, the psychologist recommends discovery of one’s “crisis energy.” This is the “prophetic side” from which – similar to the Old Testament prophets – opposition to grievances can be generated.

Church ministers today need these qualities in particular: ability to cope with conflict, and resilience. “If we as church coworkers do not wish to become resigned, we must be ready to take up the balancing act of dealing with the concrete situation in the church on the one hand, without selling our heart and soul on the other hand.”

Source: Katholische Presseagentur Österreich


  1. Wow. Food for thought, as our pastor has been on a leave of absence since just before Christmas. That alone has left many in the parish feeling lost again with everything seeming to be temporary and subject to change–basically insecure, I guess. This includes myself, a music minister.

  2. Tricky to be prophetic when the hierarchy has silenced the voices who offer varying perspectives. I’ve been working for the church for over twenty years and have watched the environment become more fear-filled and less prophetic with each passing year. If there were some protections for lay ecclesial ministers it might help.The romance of ‘crisis energy’ is very attractive but the reality of losing our jobs keeps many of us silent in these troubling times.

      1. But isn’t that the point–most of the genuine prophets came to a sticky end, lost their jobs and often their heads… Not that there’s much comfort in it, but that’s the price for “being prophetic.”

  3. I concur with John’s assessment of the amazing accuracy of Herr Doktor Mueller’s scenario presents. It seems as if it’s all “peaks or valleys” over my four decades plus.
    One thing I avoid, though, is self-referring my “job” as a music “minister.” I know the concept is defendable, but when push comes to shove and times are tough, such as us, John, are ultimately music providers; salaried or not, degreed or not, pious or not, parishioners or not, etc. What we provide with our skills as well as our heartfelt faith I’m sure is received and appreciated by most laity and clergy as having a ministerial objective and outcome. But witnessing hundreds of friends getting the boot by fickle caprice of “attack sheep” and cowed clerics, or constantly making lateral moves to hopefully greener pastures where they’ll be “appreciated” certainly(!) by TPTB, or just burn out because as “THE music minister” they also were “the candle person, the sacristan, the janitor and trash collector, the answer person for all questions on call 24/7, mostly target numero uno when “things go wrong” at Mass, or embarrassingly adulated when you’ve just done your job in a manner that also enable you to personally pray and participate….etc. And then, eventually Fr. Damoclese replaces the pastor who finally “got you and with whom you synch’d.” I’m not saying we should simply call ourselves “the help,” but I just stick with Music Director. There’s some psychological refuge available in that when the daily doings in the parish office, rectory or the rumor mill are in full dive throttle. Just sayin’.

    1. Charles, thanks, and this stimulates me to note (or is it confess?) that I had to take some translation liberties because the terminology is so different in the two languages. “Kirchliche Mitarbeiter/in” sounds normal in German (I’ll leave aside for now the “-in” alternate feminine ending), but “ecclesial collaborator” or “ecclesiastical coworker” somehow doesn’t cut it. I decided to use a word not really found in the original – “minister” – because it is more or less what we might say.

      Is it a good translation? Probably not. Is there one clearly superior way to translate this accurately and idiomatically? No. Are there other better solutions? Probably.

      But in fact every translation… oh, never mind, don’t get me started.


      1. re: Anthony Ruff, OSB on April 28, 2012 – 2:52 pm

        For some inexplicable reason, I’ve been thinking about the semantics of “Kirchliche Mitarbeiter/in” for a few days.

        I suggest that “Kirchliche Mitarbeiter/in” refers to any person who is employed by the Catholic Church in Austria, clerical or lay. The following examples from Germany and Austria might shed some light on the meaning of this title.

        It appears that northern German Christians prefer the abstract noun “Kirchenmitarbiter/in”, which is semantically no different than the Austrian and Bavarian adjective plus noun separable construction. Both German Catholics and Protestants use Kirchenmitarbiter/in. For a Catholic example, consider this dom.de article on the attitudes of older American Catholics about religious practices and Church scandals. The phrase “[z]um Thema Missbrauch […] geben 83 Prozent an,” (my brackets, ellipsis) suggests that that Kirchenmitarbiter (feminine form not present) applies to any person who works for the Catholic church, clerical and lay. This possibility is confirmed contextually by the use of “Kirchenführer” (church leader) and “Bischöf” (bishop) in the same paragraph (ascending specificity).

        For an example of the way in which Mitarbeiter is used separately from Kirche in Austrian German, consider this German Wikipedia soporific example of church employee labor union law in the Linz diocese (c.f. 2.2 “Tarifvertragsrecht”). Interestingly, both the male and female forms of the noun are spelled out in full.

        These German-language terms fill a need which English cannot now fulfill — an all encompassing term for clerical and lay employees of the Church. Given that Catholicism is thankfully moving away from the notion of clerical caste, English might require a neologism.

  4. Father Anthony,

    I’m not sure I’d characterize them as ‘liberties’ so much as decisions, or choices. If you can defend them as adequate to the purpose at hand, good enough. Life’s too short, etc.

  5. You’re so kind, Fr. My objective was meant to potentially save John and other noble souls from the pitfalls that come with the “ministerial” asssignation territory.
    This is just 8 Jahren Deutschen in Gymnasium und Hochschule, but what’s left of residual memory asks if “Kirchliche Mitarbeiter(in)” simply translates as basically “Churchly work (with) associate”?
    I think that sums me up quite accurately, on all fronts.
    I dunna wanna be a “minister,” lessens my odds on making purgatory! 😉

  6. I resonated highly with Muller’s point about the “growing clericalism” that has clouded the spirit in the Church. Sadly, this has been my experience within the last decade. I thank Dr. Muller for clearly articulating what I’ve been thinking about over these years.

  7. Feel real compassion for those of you who are caught daily in these types of struggles.

    Thought you might enjoy this article about Austria (it says much about an earlier post and an example shared by one of our commenters in terminating a school teacher. Can only imagine what some of you must feel if you are caught in like situations between a pastor who only applies diocesan policies and a colleague/friend/minister being terminated)


    Money quotes from Schonborn/Schuller:

    ““Disobeying certain valid and strict church rulings and laws has for years been part of our life and work as priests,” Schüller said. The priests were fully aware that the word “disobedience” was inflammatory but “we do not mean general disobedience for contradiction’s sake, but graduated obedience, which we first owe to God, then to our consciences and, in the final instance, to church law,” he explained. “We priests at the grass roots in the church have to lead double lives as we have to cope with the problems the official church line forbids and in the long run that is wearing us out.” The word “disobedience” was not a “battle cry” but an expression of “impatience and clear grievances”.

    – “In all moral questions we must always first consider the individual human being. Jesus always considered the individual human person first and not the law,” Schonborn said, adding that he had been impressed by Stangl’s “deep Christianity” and active commitment to the church. The problem of allowing remarried divorced Catholics to receive the Eucharist is much the same, Schönborn said, and appealed to priests always to consider each individual case.”

    – Schuller recalled that the Second Vatican Council had begun with an act of disobedience on the part of those bishops who had refused to sign the documents prepared by the Vatican.”

  8. This might also suggest that there is a serious pitfall to be found in pursuing a calling to “ecclesial ministry”, or whatever term is used here, primarily on the basis of your own personal convictions. The only way this doesn’t lead to the kind of crisis described above is if your personal conviction is to avoid conflict, not exactly an enviable moral trait.

    With nearly 30 years of parish ministry and a fair dose of diocesan administration as well, I have observed that those who set about their vocation (ordained or laity) intending to follow one particular path, be it theological, ideological, political or whatever, more often end up feeling betrayed or conflicted than those who understand that change is both natural and desirable…even when it isn’t the change we might like. This is true regardless of what the particular path might be.

  9. It seems that all of you forget that this is NOT our Church. It isn’t your Church. It isn’t my Church. We do not make the “rules” so to speak. It’s God’s Church. It belongs to Him and He makes the rules. I for one believe everything that the Church teaches and have no qualms about adhereing to her teaching. I’m glad we have a Pope – who is ever so much smarter than I am and who possesses great wisdom. Why is everyone always whining about this or that? Just follow God…you know…the One out there…not the one within….because the God “within” is yourself.

    1. Careful, now. “Know you not, that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” ~ 1 Corinthians 3:16 (Douay-Rheims)

    2. Susan, I think you’re avoiding or purposely missing some large issues of ecclesiology.

      In a sense, it is not “our” church… as long as we mean that is it the Lord’s church, and not the possession of any priest or layperson or pope or curia.

      In another sense, it is “our” church because the Lord has called us to it – all of us, priest, layperson, pope, curia.

      How authority is exercised, who speaks for God, what makes for a credible witness in today’s world, how much collegiality and accountability is needed, what structural reforms would make the church more faithful to Christ – all these issues are important and deserve to be discussed. They can’t be dismissed by saying “It’s GOD’S church, ergo everyone must accept without question everything the hierarchy in its current manifestation does.”


  10. The Catholic Church is based entirely on Christ’s proclamation (the Kerygma) and the source of everything that the Church teaches comes directly from Christ. When He left this earth and ascended into heaven He was no longer here, so obviously His revelation stopped.

    That Revelation, interpreted but never added to by the Living Tradition of the Church through the Pope and Magisterium (i.e., those bishops IN UNION WITH THE POPE) authorized by Christ, is the sole Deposit of Faith.

    A so-called vague and amorphous encounter with a living God Whom one meets in the world, other people, and the worship of the Church, whatever feelings and emotions it may inspire, is not Christ’s specific Proclamation and therefore can never have anything remotely to do with the authentic Church of Christ.

    That is, deny papal authority by saying that the church ought to be democratically organized as to its belief is to have it become, ipso facto, a false church. Change morality to the current fashion and it becomes man’s church, not God’s. It is ours at that point and has nothing to do with its original divine origin.

    Therefore, I’m happy to conform myself to the teachings of Christ as set down by the popes throughout the ages and the Magisterium since I know that the Church exists to show us how to live life correctly as good, moral people. The Church is not here to conform to our demands or to change herself to man’s earthly desires, fashion and current morality.

    I believe nothing any member of the hierarchy says unless it’s in conformity with what the Church teaches, unless that particular priest, bishop, cardinal, organization – and that includes the USCCB – is in union with the Holy Father. …for where the Pope is, there is Christ.

    1. Dear Susan,

      I don’t know how to say this any more gently, so I’ll simply be honest. So, with all due respect: your position, as laid out above, is fundamentalism. That is it say, it is ideology held despite the facts of history.

      Even the fathers of the Church knew that there is development in the church’s understanding of revelation. Now it is a commonplace, since Newman’s essay on the development of doctrine, and since the declarations of the Second Vatican Council. It doesn’t work to say that revelation stopped when Christ ascended – even he said he would send his Spirit to lead us into truth. The facts of history make your position untenable. To name just one example: no one knew in the first millennium (or had yet asked) how many sacraments there are. None of the apostles ever would have thought there are 7. (This is a settled consensus among serious bible scholars and church historians.)

      Your statements, taken at face value, would suggest that you’ve divinized the papacy and the church’s magisterium. The facts of what popes have taught make this untenable. Pope Pius IX taught that holding, purchasing, and selling slaves is justified by natural law, to name one example. Popes have taught that religious liberty is wrong, that separation of church and state is wrong, that forced conversion of Jews is justified – the list is long and I won’t attempt to rehearse the whole thing here.

      You can try to claim – to uphold the fiction that church teaching never changes – that all the faulty teachings of the past somehow weren’t really defined teachings. You can try to say they were all lower level, and the real underlying teaching didn’t change. But the facts of history make this impossible to hold.

      I respect your enthusiasm, but I encourage you to be open to truth – especially the stuborn facts of history – as a way of being lead a bit closer to the God of Truth.


    2. Susan, you definitely would have a difficult time during the “Western Schism”, the antipope period, the “Babylonian Captivity” and Avignon of course.

      Interestingly, pope Benedict XIII, XIV and XV were all “antipopes”

  11. It’s not fundalmentalism. It’s called orthodoxy and you don’t need to gently say anything since I am capable of not whining and crying over your liberal and progressive opinion. I fully realize where you stand and you are free to believe what you wish just as I am fully free to believe in the goodness of the Catholic Church.

    I am just as free to believe that you have twisted the meaning of what Pope Pius IX said as you are free to to tweak his writings to your political advantage. Christian slaves in Muslim countries are to be treated fairly, humanely and with justice. Correct? I assume that you believe that they should not be forced to convert to Islam.

    I certainly do not divinize humanity and it’s changing moral opinions aganst what God has taught for thousands of years. Is man more wise than God? Who is man to decide against what God has taught? Is that not the old “I will not serve?”

    I will serve God. You may serve whomever and whatever you wish.

    1. Woa, You will serve God and Fr. Ruff “may serve whomever and whatever” he wishes!
      Pride, one of the cardinal sins…. look it up in your old Baltimore catechism.

    2. The Holy Office at the directive of Pope Pius IX declared in1866: “Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons…. It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given.” Those are the words – not twisted by me. It’s what the Holy Office stated under the pope. What context and what conditions would make this a correct teaching?

      Why are we talking about Christian slaves in Islam? Forced conversion of anyone is wrong. And that some people (some Muslims) did it or still do it doesn’t change my position, nor does it make it right that Catholic popes have
      done it. I’m not sure why you go there.


      1. What context and what conditions would make this a correct teaching?

        The context and conditions of the Old Testament perhaps? Perhaps penal servitude for those convicted of great crimes?

        As Cardinal Dulles pointed out, “If any form of slavery could be justified under any conditions, slavery as such would not be, in the technical sense, intrinsically evil.”

        Not everyone has to think like a philosopher or a moral theologian of the scholasitc type, but if you’re going to condemn the teaching of the men of that age, you need to exert greater effort to understand it in an epistemically charitable way and according to their method of reasoning.

        I had great respect for Sr. Helen Prejean, who, lecturing at my then university and asked about the use of the death penalty in the Bible did not try to wiggle out of the question, by saying that the doctrine had changed, but that as she (and the Pope) saw it, the circumstances were different and called for a different application of the (admittedly developed, but not neccesarily changed) doctrine.

        Noonan is not the last word in the history of theology.

      2. Sam, I do not understand why you say that Sr. Helen Prejean did not try to “wiggle out” by saying teachings had changed, but asserted rather that application of them was different. It seems to me that the criterion of “different application” is a primary “wiggle” instrument, and saying something had changed is the straightforward answer.

        Are you perhaps trying to uphold the belief that Popes can never be wrong, or perhaps better said are perpetually protected from error in everything they say under all circumstances, at every historical epoch? I’m trying to understand what is at stake in saying “different application” is a straightforward response whereas “change” is a wiggly answer. This is a serious question. I really want to understand your position.

        And who is Noonan?

      3. Sam — oh no! 🙁

        I know that horrible feeling. No rush. I will check back tomorrow.

      4. Sam,

        I really don’t think it’s that complicated. Slavery is wrong.

        That Cardinal Dulles had to get wound up in such complicated philosophical distinctions tells me something is up – namely, he doesn’t want to admit fault on the part of the Church. Occam’s Razor – sometimes the simpler solution really is the best one: the church was wrong on this one.

        Sure, we can and should show ‘epistemological charity’ to people of another age, and we should try to understand them in context, which will help us to understand why they got it wrong. This can lessen our judgment of them, but doesn’t change the judgment that they were wrong.

        And of course, for consistency, the generosity and charity should apply to everyone. Which is to say, if we strive so hard to be charitable to past eras, to appeal to cultural context and cultural limitation to understand charitably why they got it wrong – then we should show the same ‘charity’ to church leaders of all eras including our own, which would mean admitting that they (we) could be wrong about things because of cultural limitations.

        What doesn’t fly is this dishonest bending over backward to excuse or minimize or explain away or deny what are clearly past mistakes, then to appeal to cultural context to give them a pass, then to divinize current magisterial positions as if they ride above cultural context and are thus beyond question.

        Some people I know do this, alas.


  12. Ooooo…now the anger surfaces. The old hatred of truth. Pilate asks Christ, “What is truth?” and Pilate, after asking, turns his back on Truth and walks away.

    1. Two things.

      I don’t think I have the complete truth. Do you think you do?

      Who are you responding to? You’re comment isn’t threaded.


    2. “The old hatred of truth” —

      This is a problematic comment. Very dramatic and high-flown, but unhelpful, and really, in the end, not in service to the truth. The old maxim comes to mind: “Even the devil can quote scripture.” (I say nothing about awr’s reasoned comment, to which this appears to be the response. That his comment deserves none of the reproach heaped upon it goes without saying. Dale’s comment above is also well within the bounds.)

      Allow me to raise a general commenting issue. One of the (many) adverse effects of anyone telling other people that “I” am following God and “you” are not, in a blog discussion, is that the “I” has put itself in center stage. That’s a drama the ego may enjoy (theatrical humility is the other pole of such self-centered responses) but it’s unhelpful for discussion. Better to stick to arguing one’s point. And if you don’t have an argument, that’s not a crime, just remain quiet.

      The Pray Tell Blog is a forum for discussion, not a place to consign others to perdition or to make personal declarations of religious rectitude. We try to keep the standards of conversation high, so it’s sad to see comments like this, which are actually a substitute for thought and discussion. It’s not about “you” or “me” in the end, it’s about the issues.

      1. We try to keep the standards of conversation high, so it’s sad to see comments like this, which are actually a substitute for thought and discussion. It’s not about “you” or “me” in the end, it’s about the issues.

        Hear, hear!

  13. AWR – I was responding to Dale Rodriguea…4 posts above in reference to his comment on the old Baltimore Catechism which he supposes I use. Actually I use the CCC but do like to look at the pictures in the old Baltimore Catechism. A picture is worth a thousand words.

  14. Oh, this is too funny.

    Susan blogs ” I was responding to Dale Rodriguea” which she posts about me “Ooooo…now the anger surfaces. The old hatred of truth.”
    Let the record show what Susan blogged:

    “I (susan) am capable of not whining and crying over your (AWR) liberal and progressive opinion”


    “you have twisted the meaning of what Pope Pius IX said as you are free to to tweak his writings to your political advantage”


    “You (Fr Ruff) may serve whomever and whatever you wish (ouch)


    “A so-called vague and amorphous encounter with a living God Whom one meets in the world, other people, and the worship of the Church, whatever feelings and emotions it may inspire, is not Christ’s specific Proclamation and therefore can never have anything remotely to do with the authentic Church of Christ. ”
    (I guess she is unaware of 1 Corinthians 3:16)


    “It seems that “all of you” forget that this is NOT our Church. It isn’t your Church”

    and my favorite:

    “Why is everyone always whining about this or that? Just follow God…you know…the One out there…not the one within….because the God “within” is yourself.”

    Of course this is heretical thinking on her part.
    St Athanasius, “Doctor of Catholic Orthodoxy” wrote on this extensively. Saint Athanasius summed it up thus: “The Son of God became man so that man might become God” (CCC # 460) Yes, it’s in the catechism.

    So Susan is calling me angry?
    Sounds like the pot calling the kettle black.

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