Forced clergy terminations

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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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John B. Chilton
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John B. Chilton

There are toxic congregations, and bishops who don't deal with them. Often they are the way they are because of just a few congregants who have nothing better to do than play a game of attrition to get their way.

I agree with Tom that more of these surface in hard times, with shrinking congregations.

That said, it's not confined to TEC. You read about congregation created clergy stress and depression in every denomination -- Catholic to Baptist.

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

Seems like this is something CREDO could investigate - they are supposed to be working on clergy wellness - here is a big clergy sickness. Let's find out the real scope of this issue.

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Tom Sramek Jr
Guest

I think that this also has to do with the priest being the natural receptacle for congregational stress--the identified patient, if you will. More and more congregations are slowly losing members and money, and full-time clergy with full benefits are expensive. So, it is natural to say "since the church isn't growing, why are we paying this person all of this money?" I suspect it rarely has to do with the priest involved.

The difficulty, as I've noted before, is that the ordination and training process for clergy often assume full-time employment and leave clergy with few options outside the church for gainful employment. Add to that a de facto blacklist for involuntarily terminated clergy, and there are few alternatives. Sadly, the very support systems clergy rely on (bishop, wardens, congregation, etc...) are often the instigators of the termination.

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Toepferblue
Guest

This is really thought-provoking, but it primarily raises many more questions for me.

First of all, most of the forced terminations I know of were not brought about by antagonistic laypeople, but by senior clergy upon junior clergy (See the book Where God Hides Holiness for two examples of this). How does this fit into what Rev. Doubleday is hearing?

Secondly, is this a problem that is increasing, or are we hearing more about it now? What are the actual numbers? Are there any patterns that can be seen? What are some hard numbers and statistics?

Third, what is the other side of the story? When there is a forced termination, what do those forcing the termination say?

I think this is a really important issue that does need to be addressed. I hope Rev. Doubleday gets a lot more data and information upon which to draw some illustrative conclusions.

Laura Toepfer

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Jim Hammond
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Jim Hammond

CIO, an industry magazine for Information Management, has published several articles over the years highlighting the importance of what I call the generational disconnect. I suspect that at least some of what we are experiencing with regard to terminations is related to the dynamics which are being referenced in the CIO articles. I am attaching the URLs for two such articles which may shed some light especially on the apparent clash of expectations between clergy and congregations.

http://www.cio.com/article/178050/Gen_Y_Gen_X_and_the_Baby_Boomers_Workplace_Generation_Wars

http://www.cio.com/article/149053/Management_Techniques_for_Bringing_Out_the_Best_in_Generation_Y

Jim Hammond

retired cleric

Warrenton, Virginia

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