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Forced clergy terminations

Forced clergy terminations

The Rev. William Doubleday, priest and professor of Pastoral Theology at GTS for many years, posted this on Facebook March 7 and it has gathered quite a bit of reposting and discussion. Continuing the discussion here, at the Café: What is your experience? As a clergy person? As a church leader?

As a seminary professor for twenty-five years, I have come to know nearly a thousand Episcopal clergy reasonably well. I taught most of them in Pastoral Theology, Congregational Leadership, Church and Society, or Episcopal Church History classes. I also oversaw many in Field Education and Clinical Pastoral Education. Quite a lot of them visit, write, call, e-mail, or stay in touch on Facebook – often when they have a weird question or a difficult situation in their ministries.

I have also come to know – in varying degrees – hundreds of other Episcopal clergy through conference work, clergy days, service as a deputy to five General Conventions, and visits to many dioceses and parishes for all sorts of reasons. Periodically I interact with this larger body of Episcopal clergy personally or electronically, or I learn about them through the media.

Though I have not engaged in a scientific sampling process, I can report that FORCED CLERGY TERMINATIONS are growing more common week by week across our church. There is now a growing body of recent and very disturbing literature about church conflicts, toxic congregations, poorly managed after care situations, repeat lay antagonists of clergy, episcopal mishandling of divided parishes, and related topics.

I want to make clear, I am not talking about clergy sexual misconduct or financial malfeasance cases – though I have come to suspect that long-term systemic dysfunctions and congregational histories and patterns may in some instances actually encourage such serious problems. Rather, I am addressing those congregations where, often relatively early in a pastorate, or at a point of some crucial decision making, a group of antagonists emerge in the parish who rapidly rise to what Speed Leas would characterize as Level 4 and/or Level 5 conflict with their priest. Usually, at least some of these antagonists are on the parish vestry, or even among the officers of the vestry. Very often these conflicts escalate so rapidly that it seems almost impossible to mediate or deescalate the conflict with either skilled consultants or mediators or through skilled intervention by bishops of their staff. There is growing evidence that in many instances, diocesan bishops or staff often begin to collude with the antagonists when it appears they are going to win.

In a growing number of instances, clergy are terminated, either canonically or administratively, with at best modest severance packages, collateral damage to their families, serious situational depression, endangered financial circumstance, personally owned rectories they cannot easily unload, and greatly reduced prospects of finding future work in the church.

While it is clear to me that some clergy may play a large part in bringing on their own terminations, I am persuaded by the published data and personal information that has crossed my desk, that most of these terminations are very much undeserved, and often are the undeserved outcome for actually providing the leadership that a particular parish needs, but which some key antagonistic lay leaders choose to reject or subvert.

I am especially concerned about the sense of failure, shame, embarrassment, and despair that many terminated clergy feel. Not only have their personhood, priesthood, integrity, and self-esteem been assaulted, but they also feel incredibly isolated, alone, and without hope for the future or for the future of their ministries, or even their lives. Diocesan bishops and their staffs tend to be expeditious about making terminations happen, and almost constitutionally disinclined to do anything to help after such a termination. The spouses, partners, and children of these terminated clergy, and not infrequently the lay leaders who respected and supported them, are also left with no where to turn. Many of these clergy suffer in silence. Many families are in jeopardy. Many laity lose their parish or even their faith.

I do not have any easy answers to this complex and troubling pattern of events. But I do have a few observations:

1) Neither priests, nor bishops, nor diocesan staffs know enough about conflict assessment and conflict management. Many bishops are profoundly conflict averse, when in fact courage should be the order of the day. Almost inevitably clergy wait too long to ask for help with conflict as it escalates rapidly, and when they do ask for help the diocese has nothing much to offer and consultants from places like the Alban Institute are too expensive to be realistic.

2) I am struck by how frequently the leader of the antagonists – or even the lynch mob – is either the Chair of the Search Committee or the Senior Warden of the Vestry which called the priest in the first place. The great psychoanalyst, Heinz Kohut, might suggest we need to study much more closely the pendulum swing between the idealization and the demonization of clergy leaders in our church.

3) We need diocesan, denominational, and independent resources to assist the clergy who experience forced terminations. The Church Pension Fund and Credo should be encouraged to begin a serious intitiative to assist the growing number of clergy in this category, recognizing that clergy, priestly vocations, expensive theological educations, the integrity and well-being of clergy families, and much else is being cast out on the ecclesiastical scrap heap, with barely a prayer or a goodbye in many instances.

4) I note, with some irritation, that when Bishops make a mess of a diocese or are forced out by diocesan level antagonists, they are almost always given generous golden parachutes and/or landing pads in comfortable assistant bishop positions with friendly bishops. Terminated priests often have no where to turn, or at the very least feel that way. It is time to say what is good for the goose is good for the gander!

5) I would also note, that well-endowed and very prosperous parishes often pay off or buy off clergy at times of conflict in ways that are not available or possible for most clergy. In some instances, clergy who have messed up very badly are the ones most rewarded and provided for by the present systemic reality.

6) It is time for every level of the Episcopal Church to own this serious problem, study it, discuss it, and work for both more effective handling of parish conflict and better treatment of clergy faced with highly antagonistic parishioners and situations.

7) If you have thoughts or data about this issue which you wish to share more privately, feel free to message me.


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Jan, thank you for sharing your experience. My parish is also struggling with questions and concerns about our clergy leadership. Fortunately we’re in a priest-in-charge situation but facing the problem and getting through whatever comes next is daunting.

(Ed: thanks for the comment, but please share your full name in the future.)

Jay Barber

My parish experienced a major upheaval under the severely dysfunctional “leadership” of a priest who is mentally ill–narcissistic personality disorder and bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, personality disorders are not often recognized or understood by those who are not mental health professionals. The lack of understanding of the duality in personalities that can be both likable and abusive tends to cause division, taking sides, finger-pointing and blame. The reality that a person can be both charming and monstrous is lost on the majority of us, and often we deny what we don’t want to believe or what we don’t see personally.

The situation in my parish was that of a deeply disturbed priest who had been passed from one parish to another. Our search committee called a man with a troubled history, who had been asked to leave his two previous parishes–information that was withheld or misrepresented by other clergy, including bishops and select references.

Our search process failed in many ways and for various reasons in what was truly a “perfect storm.” However, that does not change the fact that the man called to serve is mentally ill. He is no longer in our parish or diocese, and currently serves in another diocese as an interim rector. After a bitter and prolonged fight, which tore the congregation apart, he left after he and his attorney (the Senior Warden) successfully master-minded a staggering financial settlement in the separation agreement. It is an example, as noted by Rev. Doubleday,, of “…clergy who have messed up very badly are the ones most rewarded and provided for by the present systemic reality.”

This particular priest is intelligent, well-educated, and has many impressive talents. He is also emotionally unstable and deeply troubled. If you were to hear only his version of the situation in our parish, it would be something like this: He was the victim of a small group of antagonists who didn’t want change and managed to turn the majority of the parish against him.

It is true that many parishioners behaved badly. Although interacting with mental illness and severely dysfunctional behavior rarely brings out the best in us, that is no excuse for not behaving as Christians should. We all made mistakes in this tragedy. I was an ardent supporter of the new rector when he first arrived. Although I became quite alarmed and fearful when I first detected signs of erratic behavior, I never took an adversarial position. Instead, I prayed for help and guidance from Above and from the diocese. Unfortunately, diocesan leadership did not know how to address the situation, and caved in to the strong arm of an aggressive attorney. Many in the congregation left–some left the parish; some left TEC.

While happy with a new rector, there are permanent scars, due largely to not understanding what happened, not understanding emotional disorders, not having competent leadership to help us work through the problem, and not having a reconciliation/healing process to help us come to terms with a devastating experience.

Jay Barber

Agnes Leyburn

Years ago, I was the new senior warden with an entirely new vestry after our rector was sustained and the bishop dismissed the previous leadership of the parish barring them from leadership for a period of years. It was hard. It was very very hard to put things back together. Almost no one on the new vestry — including the two wardens — had any experience on a vestry. That would have been a situation that the priest could have exploited had he not been so exhausted and depressed following the canonical process.

All of the bishops, diocesan consultants, and clergy involved in our situation have moved on to retirement or other ministries. The parish eventually passed to a new rector and is healthy. I no longer attend church, not at that parish or any other. It is often expressed here and just about everywhere else that it is not possible to be a Christian outside a Church Community. Accordingly, I am no longer a Christian.

Nathaniel Pierce

This article is helpful and the issue is complex. Forced terminations are increasing (three in our Diocese in the last two years) and sometimes that is the best course of action for all concerned. I have been through this process twice — and on both occasions I took a stand on principle: financial transparency and a personnel decision. Here are some comments from one who has been there, done that.

Title III, Canon Canon 9, Section 13 is an improvement over the previous Canon 21. I especially applaud the requirement that a Vestry which initiates this process is now required to put its reasons for doing so in writing and give a copy to the Bishop and the Rector.

I have come to believe that the seeds of forced termination were planted decades in the past (a la Generation to Generation by Edwin Friedman}. Any effort to address the problem must include both immediate steps and systemic change.

I believe the most effective short term change has to do with severance pay. In these situations the only thing a Vestry understands is money. You want to fire your Rector who has been here for five years (or less), sign here agreeing to a full year of salary and benefits.

Other consequences which might be helpful:

— a relationship has failed. The Rector will leave and the entire Vestry and all officers will resign. A new Vestry will be elected and those who resigned may not stand for election for two years.

— the now former Rector and the now new Vestry will get counseling paid for by the Parish.

Some long term suggestions:

— the interim ministry needs to be improved, especially in parishes with a history of forced terminations. Four of my seven predecessors had been forced out. I was not surprised to become the fifth of eight, but my departure did not go down quietly. I believe that in the long run this will be helpful to the congregation.

— Mentoring new Rectors, even those with some experience, is important.

— Annual meetings of all Wardens and Diocesan staff can be beneficial. One topic on the agenda should always be “how to address problems with your clergy.”

— Every Rector and parish should be required to have an annual mutual ministry review for a Rector and Vestry facilitated by a third party who has some training.

The deeper disconnect is perhaps best summarized in the climatic moment in the 1963 film “Heavens Above” with Peter Sellers as the Anglican Vicar who is being run out of town by an angry (Good Friday) mob. He says to them: “What you want, I can’t give, and what you need, you don’t want.” Which is to say the Gospel story is reenacted again and again in our own day — not that Episcopal clergy come anywhere near to being Jesus, but we are often the most available and vulnerable target.

Jonathan Hagger

In England it is very difficult for a minister to be forced out without the active participation of the diocesan bishop and his “senior” staff. Any bishop worth his or her salt can either stop a disagreement getting out of hand or can provide real help (not just words of comfort) for injured parties if the disagreement does get to the point of the minister losing his or her job. That so many bishops choose to face the other way when the proverbial is hitting the fan or, worse still, actively use the problem at congregation level to get rid of a minister they don’t like, is a sign of just how much the Church bosses have bought into secular, capitalistic human resources models and how much they have turned their backs on the early Church models that originally gave them their episcopal authority.

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