Baby Step: Phone Calls

Today I continue the series I promised last time: baby steps toward increased trust between bishops and priests. Today’s step is phone calls—both from the bishop to priests and priests’ ability to call the bishop personally. These issues came up sixteen times in the diocesan priest suggestions. It also came up in the religious responses.

Calling Priests

At some point in my early twenties, a priest suggested that I take up an apostolate of phone calls—calling my friends or acquaintances out of the blue and checking in on them; thinking about who might appreciate that and doing it with intentionality. I thought this was a pretty funny suggestion, since it was basically like saying to me, “Why don’t you do something that you enjoy anyway and call it an act of charity?” And so I did. I started calling people. And it was nice. It never really felt like an apostolate, but when I consider how infrequently I call people these days, maybe it was. In a world of texting and other agenda-driven communications, a phone call that has no purpose other than to say hello and hear how the other person is doing is meaningful.

Priests appreciate when their bishop reaches out, especially on a significant day, even if it’s quick and over the phone. One diocesan priest in our survey wrote, “Our new Bishop started calling priests on their birthdays. I know it sounds trivial but it has really impacted the presbyterate in a positive way. They feel care and a connection. It’s little things like that that I think can truly make a difference. Not unlike the way a pastor should interact with his parishioners.” Relationships are built slowly, over time, with “little things like that.” Birthdays are a great place to start: everyone’s got one. It could even be more powerful if a bishop called every priest in the diocese on his baptismal day.

A religious priest wrote in: “My suggestion is that the local bishop have a 10-15-minute private phone conversation with each priest active in his diocese on an annual basis. No agenda. Simply, ‘how’s your health and family? What’s bringing you happiness these days in ministry? Where do you hope to go for your next vacation?’ A short, personal conversation. Better still if the conversation happened close in time to the priest’s birthday or anniversary of ordination.” 

Priests also appreciate a phone call on a “random” day, when the call is simply about checking on how the priest is doing and not about fundraising, complaints, or other problems. “Sincerely, the bishops have a lot to do. However, calling their priest for chit chat over the phone at least once a year will portray them as concerned. Who knows if in such moments the priest’s deepest concern in their ministry may come up. It’s such that only the bishop can help in many of the situations priest find themselves when their ministries are a concern.” This diocesan priest points out that a simple phone call could be the opening that a priest needs to discuss something that he is struggling with. Maybe there is a longtime parishioner who is in the hospital or there is a couple preparing for marriage that he doesn’t know how best to evangelize. This is not only helpful to the priest, but it also could help the bishop not to get disconnected from the everyday realities that priests face. Another diocesan priest wrote, “More personal interaction with Bishop, for example, at least annual 1-on-1 conversation of at least 20 minutes, even if it is over the phone to remind each other that they are both humans.” One priest made the suggestion that bishops call priests to ask for advice. There were a few variations on this simple request: “I WOULD LIKE THE BISHOP TO CALL ME TO CHECK ON ME. I REALIZE HE IS BUSY.”

There is also the phone call that a priest ought to receive from his bishop when tragedy strikes; When a parent or sibling dies, for example, or when a priest is diagnosed with cancer, it is the barest politeness to call with condolences and an offer of support. One diocesan priest shared, “I feel like the bishop could give not one care about me. I had a serious health scare and the bishop never called to see how I was. He could care less except about his favorite priests.”

The pandemic was also a time that called out for pastoral care of priests by the bishop: “2 years into the pandemic and our bishop has yet to reach out to us collectively apart from emails, news releases and videos. We are worn out, beaten up and would love to just have a zoom call.”

Allowing Priests to Call Them

Some of the comments about phone calls were about the accessibility of the bishop. There was one on the positive side: “I have my bishop’s personal phone number and I feel I can call him when needed,” wrote one diocesan priest. His bishop’s accessibility was thus one of the reasons this priest said he trusted his bishop. He was confident that he could reach out if he needed to.

The other side of this is whether the bishop is responsive when a priest reaches out for help. One priest’s suggestion for building trust reads, “That bishops ensure they respond personally to their priests’ phone calls, text, emails. Be available for a cup of coffee once in-a-while in an informal setting.” Our study found that 93% of bishops believe that they could help a priest “very well” if he came to the bishop for help with a personal struggle, but only 36% of priests agreed with that assessment. It is at least possible that part of this doubt is that priests have experienced a lack of response previously, such as in the experience related by this diocesan priest: “Don’t lie to us, when bishop was installed he gave us his number so we could call him if we needed him. And when I called it went straight to voicemail. And I felt sad about that.” I wish that I could follow up with this priest and ask if he left a message (the bishop wouldn’t even know that he called, if his phone was off!) or if there was a follow-up, but we will never know. At least the bishop did give the priest his number?

Sharing the bishop’s cell phone number with his priests is not a universal practice, as noted here: “[Bishops] could speak less about annual appeals and fundraising drives, and spend time getting to know their priests. Invite groups of priests out to dinner; give priests their private cell phone number.” It is a gesture of trust to give someone your cell phone number, and priests told us that they want to be trusted. I have a few bishops’ numbers, and I take that trust seriously. I would never text or call a bishop on a whim, and I think they know that. Priests of a bishop’s diocese, who are meant to be co-workers of the bishop—who share in his priesthood—deserve at least as much trust. Start with trust; draw boundaries if the trust is violated.

Use Technology to Your Advantage

Today’s priests are just as connected to their phones and other tech as your average layman– for better or worse. Bishops can use this fact to support their relationships with priests, whether by direct phone calls on special anniversaries or other ways of being connected. Zoom became ubiquitous during the pandemic and can be a simple way to gather with people who live far apart. Efforts by bishops to make a more personal connection with their priests will be rewarded with trust– eventually, if not immediately.

Photo by Vojtech Bruzek on Unsplash