Bishop Tobin, You Can’t Lead People by Bashing and Shaming Them.

Bishop Tobin, You Can’t Lead People by Bashing and Shaming Them. June 17, 2015

Bishops are teachers, leaders and administrators.

They are also priests.

When a bishop becomes so exasperated with his flock that he no longer likes them or feels love for them, it’s time for that bishop to go back to God in prayer.

Bishop Tobin of Rhode Island has published a letter to is flock that is a case in point.

I can’t say what Bishop Tobin feels in his heart, but various comments he’s made and things he’s done lead me to believe that he’s more than a little disappointed in the people in the pews in his diocese. He runs a diocese that is more densely Catholic than most, but also less publicly committed to following the Church.

Bishop Tobin has experienced the personal and pastoral debacle of seeing members of his flock defy him and vote to pass laws legalizing gay marriage. He preached and taught the right things, but they didn’t listen, or rather, not enough of them listened.

Poor man, he took their sins on his own back and blamed himself for the failure of those who should have followed hm to do what was right. It must have been a bitter black moment for him as a leader of souls.

This exasperation, this disenchantment, with the people he is tasked to lead comes blasting out in a recent article he posted concerning the way that Catholics dress when they go to mass. He wants his flock to show their respect for the Lord by dressing up a bit when they come to Church.

Fair enough.

Catholics are notoriously casual in the way we dress at mass. I wear a lot of jeans and t-shirts to mass myself. Maybe we should be a bit more polished in our appearance. Many of my fellow Catholic Patheosi think they should. Me, I’m not so sure that I agree. I think that casual is the new normal of our culture and there are much bigger fish for a bishop to fry than taking on the role of fashion cop.

But I’m not a bishop and I don’t set bishops’ agendas. If Bishop Tobin looks out over his flock and sees attire that is unseemly and disrespectful of the Lord, it is will within his job description for him to admonish the faithful to spiff up a bit. It is the job of Catholics in the pews to listen to him and try to follow his teaching. He is, after all, their spiritual leader.

What is unfortunate is that, when he attempted to do this, he let loose with his anger at the people he leads. Here’s a bit of what he said:

You know what I’m talking about; you’ve seen it too. Hirsute flabmeisters spreading out in the pew, wearing wrinkled, very-short shorts and garish, unbuttoned shirts; mature women with skimpy clothes that reveal way too much, slogging up the aisle accompanied by the flap-flap-flap of their flip-flops; hyperactive gum-chewing kids with messy hair and dirty hands, checking their iPhones and annoying everyone within earshot or eyesight.

These displays reveal a gross misunderstanding of the sacred space we’ve entered in the church and the truly sacred drama taking place in our midst. C’mon – even in the summer, a church is a church, not a beach or a pool deck.

Every member of the worshipping community should dress appropriately for Mass, but the obligation is even greater for those who fulfill public ministries during the liturgy – ushers, lectors, servers, and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. Because they’ve assumed a public role in the sacred liturgy and are in the public eye, it’s important that they give good example to others in the way they dress, speak and present themselves during Mass.

Certainly the people of God should dress with appropriate modesty when they go to mass. I agree that those who participate in the mass should make an effort to be visually presentable when they do so.

But I can tell the good bishop that long-term leadership of a group of people depends on trust and inspiration, not verbal flogging and public shaming.

Every person who comes to mass is a volunteer. Every single one of them has something else they could be doing. Every person who is sitting in a pew is there because, at least at some level, they are seeking Christ the Lord. That deserves respect, which is exactly what I think Bishop Tobin is trying to ask for himself and the mass in his misbegotten post.

I think that the bishop wants people to respect the mass, and I am guessing that he would also like for them to respect him. However, I do not think that talking to the people in the pews in the manner I quoted above will garner the respect he is seeking.

The reason why is simple: To get respect, you have to give respect, and Bishop Tobin disrespects his flock in this letter.

People will follow a leader through all kinds of hell and high water if they trust that leader. They will respect and support a leader who respects and supports them. That respect and support is the basis of trust and inspiration, and trust and inspiration is the basis of leadership.

When a leader — it does not matter if it is a priest or a president — disrespects the people he or she is trying to lead, they damage that essential element of trust and inspiration. When they do it repeatedly, they can destroy the trust, quench the inspiration, that is necessary for them to lead.

Bishops have a tough job. I’m pretty sure that it’s going to get tougher as time goes forward. Their authority is battered and tarnished by their own failings in the priest sex abuse scandal.  The Church itself has become the sign of contradiction against the satanic influences that are ripping at our whole society.

Those satanic forces are gathering and will attack the Church without ceasing so long as it stays true to its mission of preaching the whole Gospel of Christ. Bishops, as the generals in the Lord’s army, are the top targets in these attacks.

But they can no go to ground and take cover. Bishops need to stand and lead. They must lead, and they must do it fearlessly and with the kind of strength and faith that only the Holy Spirit can give.

It is not possible for any man to do the job that confronts our bishops out of his own wisdom or strength. If God does not support these men, they will fail. That means that they have to unlearn the lessons of clericalism that have formed so many of our religious leaders and take on the humility of true followership of Christ. There is no other way for a bishop in today’s world to effectively do the job that is set in front of him.

Leadership requires a lot of those who take it up. Among other things, it requires self-discipline. That self-discipline includes a refusal not to indulge personal pique in public venues.

That’s what I read in Bishop Tobin’s remarks: Personal pique.

He is dangerously close to giving the impression that he flat-out dislikes the people he must lead. He needs to stop this and stop it now.

If he is genuinely concerned that the level of casual dress in his parishes has become so extreme that it endangers the sanctity of the mass, he must, as is his job, teach in that area. But it is imperative that he do so as a bishop, a priest, a father and shepherd of a flock that he loves and longs to lead to heaven.

There aren’t many chances when it comes to publicly dissing the people you lead. Such behavior violates the compact between leader and those who are led. If they trust you deeply, they will give you one or two second chances, but only if they love you deeply and trust you absolutely. No one ever gets more chances than that, and most leaders get no second chance at all.

All bishops, not just Bishop Tobin, need to take this to heart. I know what I’m talking about here.

I want to see our bishops succeed. I pray for their success. When I see a bishop shoot himself in the foot this way, I think it’s important to say something.

Bishops must respect and love the people God has entrusted to them. If they do that, they will find the job of leadership a natural outgrowth of the trust they receive in turn.

For a comprehensive dust-up on this whole question, check out The Anchoress who, as usual, says it best, or, have a look at Jen Fitz who employs old-fashioned story-telling to make her point.

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27 responses to “Bishop Tobin, You Can’t Lead People by Bashing and Shaming Them.”

  1. I don’t agree with you on this one, Rebecca. My father didn’t always like me, but he loved me enough to tell me when I was being a jerk. And when it comes to being a jerk, Catholic dissenters are as nasty as the come. I say that as a hirsute flabmeister who could probably use a reminder about spreading out in the pews and wearing clothes I wouldn’t wear to the symphony.

    Anyway, someone I know of wrote about the dust up at one of their high schools.

    Love isn’t always nice, and frankly, some excommunications might be the most loving thing of all.

  2. I see the open defiance I wrote about at Catholic high schools as something entirely different from people who show up at mass poorly dressed. The second is probably most likely due to ignorance. I don’t quarrel with the bishop’s prerogative to teach on this issue. I just think he’ll get a lot farther if he does it differently than he did. Probably the most effective way to do this is to have the priests set it out at the parish level. That’s assuming, of course, that the bishop can get the priests to do what he asks of them.

  3. The Anchoress
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    There is so much fear of alienating those in the pew that the current
    standard is, “Anything goes in dress and in action.” Some speak of
    lack of catechesis,and in part they are correct. In my parish, people
    who are mostly pre-Vatican II are the ones chatting, rather loudly,
    before Mass, during Mass and after Holy Communion. They receive
    Holy Communion and proceed to leave the church, or they stand in
    the back visiting with others. Girls come to Mass with tops that are
    so low-cut, they leave nothing to the imagination. Men and women,
    girls and boys wear shorts to Mass.

    Last week, I attended a parish meeting and mentioned the need for
    direction and catechesis from the pulpit. During the Mass, for those
    going once a week, the priest has 10 min. to teach. I was promptly
    told that those in the pew already had much knowledge of the
    Catholic faith. I was also told that Our Blessed Mother has
    admonished us not to criticize priests. Mind you I did not mention
    names nor parishes. My comments reflected many priests in our
    churches. When I mentioned that many who attend Mass do not
    believe in the Real Presence, the same individual asked how I came
    to that conclusion. Again, I said, “See how many leave the church
    directly after Holy Communion. Notice how many walk right past the extraordinary ministers without an acknowledgement that they are
    walking past OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST! If they believed, they would
    not walk past Our Lord, and if their were an emergency where they
    had to leave at that moment, they would bow and make the sign of
    the cross in reverence to Our Lord.”
    There is a wonderful mission not far from my town. They are
    respectful men and women who love Our Lord and His Mother dearly.
    They post and remind people of the sacredness of the mission
    grounds. This is their post:


    We ask our friends and visitors at the Mission to please respect our
    Dress Code. This is consecrated ground. Out of respect for Our Lord,
    His Mother, and each other please refrain from wearing shorts (men
    and women), low-cut or sleeveless shirts, and hemlines or slits above
    the knee.

    If you are bringing friends to the Mission, it is a kindness to them, and
    to us,to acquaint them with the Dress Code, or as we refer to it,
    “Mission Chic.”Thank you for your cooperation!

  4. Have you (or either of the other bloggers you link to) written to Bishop Tobin about this? You’ve all made some good points, but perhaps not to the individual to whom they are best addressed.

  5. *Deep sigh*. You should have sent him a private letter instead of posting this type of article. If you ask me, by writing this type of article and publishing it for all the world to see you just kind of shot yourself in the foot as well. In cases like Tobin’s remarks, isn’t it better to confront a bishop privately – perhaps after much prayer and with a handwritten letter – instead of making an example out of his short-shortsightedness for all the digital world to see? This article really doesn’t accomplish much besides making more digital-gonging-like noises in our world.
    (cf Mt 7:3f)

  6. And that’s a legitimate question. I tend to agree that the slovenly attitude to the Mass may just be a cultural thing, but it’s possibly connected to the overall defiance.

    And the bottom line is that he hadn’t been getting anywhere with that crowd. You can’t keep doing what your doing and expect a different result.

  7. There are more effective ways to get the asses in the pews to dress appropriately. Many parishes are filled with very well dressed parishioners, and its not because their bishop scolded them..

  8. It’s his call where he wants to take his stand. But I think there are more important places than this one to do it. Not my call. Just my opinion.

  9. He published the letter in a public venue, so a discussion about it in a public venue is entirely appropriate.

    If it had been a private conversation, I would never consider discussing it in a public venue. But it wasn’t.

  10. I honestly think that this discussion should be conducted publicly for the simple reason that Bishop Tobin chose to insult the people of his diocese publicly.

    He did not write a personal letter. He did not work through his priests to transmit his teaching. He did not issue a thoughtful, pastoral teaching. He wrote an insulting letter and published it on the internet. That makes public replies entirely appropriate.

    If he can call the people in his diocese … what was it? … hirsute flabmeisters, how delicate is he?

    People who throw spitballs, even when they’re bishops, put themselves outside the too precious to touch category.

  11. Except for “hirsute flabmeisters” which I understand is an insult (hopefully he didn’t identify anyone by name, and he should have nixed the phrase “slogging up the aisle”), I otherwise found nothing else amiss with how the bishop handled this. The second and third paragraphs are fine. People have to hear the truth, and if it stings, then there is a reason it does, and not because parishioners are being disrespected by the truth just because they may not like being told what to do. I don’t think that ‘every person who comes to Mass is a volunteer’ is relevant. For whom are they volunteering their time if not for themselves? And does this mean they should not be told, even sharply, about their mode of physical presentation when it keeps happening? They are not doing the bishop or the priest any favors by attending Mass. Catholics are there for themselves, for their souls. I agree that people are seeking Christ the Lord which deserves respect, but what respect do they afford Christ when they will not present themselves at His house in modest attire which shows they care enough to clean up?

    This strikes a chord with me. When I was 16 years old, in the days of really dressing up to go to Mass, I wore an outfit my mother had made for me. I loved it, and one Sunday I wore it to Mass. The outfit was a flowered, shirtsleeved mini-skirted dress (what was considered ‘mini’ in the 1970s) with matching shorts underneath. I don’t recall whether it was before the homily or was the crux of the homily, but the pastor called me out in front of the congregation and told me my dress was far too short for church, and what was I thinking to wear shorts?, and he expounded further on modest and appropriate attire at Mass. I was thoroughly embarrassed and it wised me right up. I didn’t stop going to Mass and took that lesson to heart. Years later, I passed it on to my two children. Today, when I look at a picture of my teenaged self in that outfit, my clothing is nothing close whatsoever to what people (and not just kids) are wearing at Mass now. That is not justification, but a commentary on higher standards over 40 years ago and the church’s authority being more respected. I wish our priest now would address the issue of attire, among a few other things, but I have to wonder if he perceives a threat that people won’t return if he does.

  12. Personally, as a non- Catholic who lived and taught in a Catholic elementary school, in Providence, RI, for 10 years, with Bishop Tobin in charge of things, I think he should be glad that, no matter the clothing choices, folks are still attending Mass. His rant isn’t going to encourage anyone to do so. In fact, IMO, he may just push some of those currently attending in those unacceptable clothes, out with his attitude. The Church has had to close many of the Catholic schools and churches in that area, because financially they couldn’t sustain themselves. Being so critical doesn’t encourage continued attendance.

  13. When I was teaching in Providence, in the RCC school, I never heard the folks I taught with describe Tobin as the “fatherly” type Bishop. This letter tends to prove that point. He published the letter—for all to see—so why would a private letter to him, by anyone, be better?

  14. Hmmm . . . . . Sort of reminds me of the episode of Jesus and the money changers in the Temple. Sometimes a little righteous anger can be appropriate. Suspect many of us would be uncomfortable if we were suddenly whisked from Mass to the throne room of God, dressed as we are. Oops . . . forgot for a moment . . . that is precisely where we are during Mass – the Throne Room of God. Maybe our clothing should reflect where we really are. My sons wear jeans to church ( sometimes rumpled and torn), and I am happy to see them there in jeans and T-shirts. However, 2 Sundays ago, one son showed up in pressed khakis and a dress shirt. I was ecstatic. It seems that a stern reprimand from a priest, little less colorful than Bishop Tobin’s comments had hit it’s mark. I, for one, am just glad to see bishops who know an appropriate dress code for Mass and are willing to enforce it. Very few of those who show up dressed inappropriately are likely to even hear a soft, kind announcement from the pulpit about “proper clothing for Mass.” I’m with Bishop Tobin on this one. We need more bishops who are clear about the many problems of today, and courageous enough to state an unpopular fact. Unfortunately, inappropriate attire very often reflects an equally unfortunate moral condition of the heart and soul.

  15. Sometimes it isn’t necessary to use words. At the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, they keep the air conditioning down to what feels like 55 degrees or so. The temperature makes most immodest clothing extremely uncomfortable without having to say a word. Bring your sweater to church because you are going to need it.

  16. Sorry.

    Further to my point, though, I’m truly FASCINATED when the folks on that side of the altar take action like this. Tobin is a college graduate, a priest since 1992, a bishop since 2005, and he’s not exactly in some remote corner of the globe. Shouldn’t he know that scolding adult Roman Catholics doesn’t work? It just doesn’t. Not in 2015 USA. For me, its the same dynamic when they publicly threaten to withhold communion from certain sinners. It doesn’t work. For the most part, the media picks it up and makes the bishop look as bad as they can. That’s happening for Tobin today, if you google this topic.

    The relationship that parishioners have with their local parish and its priests has dramatically changed in the last 10, 20, 40 years. Whether its the fault of a defiant generation or poorly catechized parishioners or inattentive priests or a combination thereof is secondary at this point.

    If the people on THAT side of the alter want the people on THIS side of the alter to do something, they should put some thought into who they are talking to and what they say and how they say it and what the likely result will be.

    I mean, if they really want change.

  17. Not all conversation in Church is a bad thing, to my mind, especially if you are quiet about it. Before Mass I like to find out if those around me have anything special they want prayers for. I don’t think that’s disrespectful or a sign that I have don’t know my faith. I’ve read the Catechism through as well as the Bible, and I think I have a reasonable grasp of the faith even if I haven’t read the Code of Canon Law all the way through. And I see nothing wrong with loving my neighbor in sacred space as well as outside sacred space.

  18. Ever since I bought a Knights of Columbus Polo Shirt, I’ve been dressing up for Mass.

    After reading this, I need to buy a Knights dress shirt. I need more dress shirts anyway, and this gives me an excuse.

  19. I too likely resemble the remark somewhat. I would like to add that I’m far less likely to “spread out in the pew” when there is not room to spread out; that is, when the church is crowded.

    Far too often these days at St. Clare’s, we could have one person get a pew to themselves during Mass and still have empty pews.

  20. I’m not saying that these discussions should be restricted to private fora, only that the bishop should actually be a recipient of replies. The three blog posts I referred to have, so far as I can tell, been delivered to third parties as commentaries on what Bishop Tobin wrote, but not (also) to Bishop Tobin as replies to his letter.

  21. I do too. For some reason my comment praising the bishop was removed though. How did yours stay?!?!

  22. I deleted your comment because it said some very unkind and unmerited things about the people of the diocese in question.

  23. For someone who maligns people (glbt) on here regularly, you have a strange barometer for “unkind and unmerited” things.

  24. I’ve always understood (somewhere in my Catholic life) that priests are required to follow their bishops’ instructions.

  25. “Catholics are notoriously casual in the way we dress at mass. I wear a lot of jeans and t-shirts to mass myself. MAYBE WE SHOULD BE A BIT MORE POLISHED IN OUR APPEARANCE.”

    Ya think? When you were serving Man as an Oklahoma state Rep., would I have
    found you in jeans and a t-shirt at your office in the Statehouse? You know the answer to that question. So if you really believe that our Savior is truly present though the miracle that occurs at every Mass, why would you wear anything other than your “Sunday Best” for God?

    As a non-Catholic was reported to have said, “If you Catholics truly believed Jesus was present in the Eucharist, you would crawl to Communion on your knees.” Truer words have not been spoken.