Overcoming the Superiority Complex

Ministry cannot be hoarded for our gain or satisfaction

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AckermanIf we are honest, sometimes in ministry we have a superiority complex, thinking as though nothing can function in our absence.

One January, I took a weeklong silent retreat and worried incessantly about what would happen. What if someone calls and it’s an emergency, and I’m not there? What if someone calls the vocations office and, since I’m not there, they talk to someone else, change their mind and no longer want to be a priest? Who in the world could ever update the pictures on the website as well as me?

I did enjoy the retreat, but as soon as the retreat ended, I called my secretary to check on things. “Oh, all is going really great!” she said. “Feel free to stay longer. Everything is better than usual.”

Although she probably did not intend it the way she meant it, a dose of crushing the ego is often a very good thing for our humility and spiritual growth. When I was a parochial vicar, I remember once entering the main office to find the secretaries feasting on doughnuts and pastries.

I asked, “What’s the special occasion?”

“Oh, the pastor’s away,” they replied. “Things are so much more peaceful when he is not here!”

I did laugh at their reply but then reflected on that statement for weeks to come. There is something to be said for stepping away and allowing others to shine while we recollect. It presents us in ministry a chance to rest and recharge and offers a fresh perspective that often is life-giving.

I often think about the story of Moses and Joshua, when the Spirit of the Lord came down upon the 70 elders, including two who were not in the camp (cf. Nm 11:25-29). Joshua tried to prevent those two from prophesying and appealed to Moses to stop them, thinking that no one could be as good as Moses, but Moses rebuked him.

Ministry cannot be solely on our terms; it must respect the gifts of others and the plan of God. A neighboring parish had a DRE that had done her job for many years, so much so that she was now teaching a third generation of families. Although she was an incredibly faithful, kind and talented woman, she also had a particular way of doing things. She very much controlled who taught, how they taught and what could be taught.

Sadly, during the winter months, she slipped and broke her leg in the parking lot and was out of work for several months. Her misfortune became a great moment of renewal for the parish. Many teachers began to teach using new innovative methods and dialogue with the students. Families that previously avoided faith formation began to come forward, and there were even new volunteers that stepped up to the plate. Certainly, no one rejoiced at her fracture, but the lesson learned is that it cannot always be what we want and how we want it. Sometimes we must decrease to let God’s plan increase.

I am the first to admit that I am not good with downtime and using vacation time effectively. I do not like being away from the parish. However, there is something both healthy and therapeutic about doing so. It is very necessary that we, at times, step aside, not to eschew responsibility, but to recognize that we cannot make it all about ourselves.

A pastor once told me that it is important to not be involved in everything in the parish. I thought it was because he was lazy. He informed me that it was helpful for the people to realize that they have gifts to use and that he is not the authority on everything.

When she was 5 years old, my youngest cousin once said something sobering and hysterical to my grandmother. “Grandma,” she said, “teach me how to cook so that when you’re gone I can still eat.”

Sometimes children have all the wisdom. Ministry cannot be hoarded for our own personal gain or satisfaction. Instead, we have to be collaborative, instructive and humble. If we begin to make things about how we want them to be, then we risk undermining, sabotaging or even destroying the abilities of others. That superiority complex can be hard to break, but when it does, it allows the Spirit to operate.

FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is the parochial vicar at the parish grouping of Holy Sepulcher in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, and St. Kilian in Butler, Pennsylvania.

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