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“Ask a Priest: How Should We Handle a Difficult Couple in the Parish?”
Q: There is a couple (let’s call them James and Mary) who are involved in our parish with various activities. When it comes to getting a program or event going, they like to do things their way. There have been many times when they would say something like, “No, we shouldn’t do it like that, here’s what we should do.” I get the feeling they know better how things should be done even when others suggest something. Yes, they have shared some good points as to why it should be done their way; however, their “method” of sharing that point sometimes makes it difficult for others. Also, Mary has the tendency to go on for a long time, especially when speaking on the phone. If she calls my wife, we both are hesitant to pick it up, because we know it could go on for an hour. Additionally, Mary and James can be very critical of others, especially going behind others’ backs. Our daughters are friends with their only daughter, but at times their daughter can be like her mother, very critical of others. I know I should be patient and forgiving of them, just like Jesus. But I know myself — I can become aggravated or upset if I converse with them for too long, and that could lead to bad things. My wife says I need to change and understand they are no better than us. I’m sure they have criticized us to others behind our backs. So, what is the best approach here? I want to do what is right, but at the same time being with them is very difficult to keep myself at peace. – J.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: I’m sorry to hear about the situation. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for friction and disunity to plague even the most active parishes.
We could approach this question from two angles.
The first is how to deal with a couple who seem strong-willed and opinionated. Such people, if pointed in the right direction, can do a lot of good.
An initial step is to face into the situation with charity, thinking the best of everyone, and wanting the good of everyone in the parish.
Whether the couple have official duties in the parish or just get volunteer a lot, it might be better for the pastor to help guide them.
You might think about approaching him discreetly. This wouldn’t be gossip but rather a legitimate way to share concerns with someone in authority who could help fix the situation.
Or, if you think it more appropriate, you and your wife might consider approaching the spouses separately (you with the husband, your spouse with the other wife), mentioning that you admire their interest and work for the parish, but that you are concerned their constant criticism undercuts efforts to build up the community.
You would be taking a chance, of course. The couple might turn on you.
On the other hand, a bit of fraternal correction done in a spirit of charity might help to turn the corner.
Before approaching them, you might want to intensify your prayers for the couple. Helpful, too, might be a look at Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.
If all this fails, and if you and your wife to decide to keep your distance from the couple, you should still be charitable and try to collaborate with them, when possible, for the benefit of the parish. And keep the prayers coming.
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