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Taking Care of Clergy in the Storm

Taking Care of Clergy in the Storm

by The Rev. Scott Petersen

The Episcopal Church, along with all denominations are experiencing a multifaceted storm. There are two swirling cells of energy that have been butting up against each other. The first cell is God’s call to be faithful. The church is faced with a profound call to share the Gospel in new ways that will reach a people unaware of the beauty and power of Christ. The second cell is a decline in our institutional capacity. The church is a body of people formed into faith through structures and expectations that may no longer be sustainable.

Into those colliding cells enter the clergy. In many places the call of the church of the future is slamming into the church of the past. A systemic conflict is hiding amongst what looks to be situational difficulties. Some churches will ignore the call of the future. Some churches will navigate the vortex created by the two successfully. Some will not. As one would imagine, some clergy have been and will continue to be chewed up in these forces.

As the Episcopal Church enters further into a time when what clergy need to do to help develop thriving parishes, runs up against what has always been done in parishes resistant to change, it can be the clergy who are pushed out into the storm. While we may not be able to predict where individual clergy will get caught in this systemic difficulty, we can take steps to care for clergy who experience it. The call of this article is for the church to begin to recognize this systemic difficulty and to prepare for it by finding ways to support clergy caught in this crossfire.

There is evidence for this ongoing storm. The March (2012) issue of The Review of Religious Research shared some disturbing statistics. In an ecumenical study of clergy it was found that 28% of all clergy will experience a “forced resignation” some time in their career. In the Huffington Post David Briggs article, Silent Clergy Killers, Briggs writes about that 28%. He writes of those clergy,

“(as having) been forced to leave their jobs due to personal attacks and criticism from a small faction of their congregations. The researchers from Texas Tech University and Virginia Tech University also found that the clergy who had been forced out were more likely to report lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of depression, stress and physical health problems.”

Anecdotally most clergy can tell a story of a colleague who has faced such a hardship. Briggs article goes on to reveal an equally difficult statistic. Of that 28% who experience a forced resignation, 4 out of 10 of that group will leave the ministry outright. “Want to know what that means in real numbers? Dr. Charles Chandler, head of Ministering to Ministers (http://www.mtmfoundation.org/) in Richmond, Va., asked Briggs. “It means across denominations 19,000 clergy a year will experience a ‘forced resignation.’” If four out of 10 are leaving active ministry as a result of such an experience that means approximately 7,600 clergy a year will abandon what was a living, beating call to serve the church. That is a huge number. In the most recent Ministering to Minister’s retreat, Dr. Chandler reported 5 of the 12 clergy in attendance were Episcopal clergy. Our denomination is not the only one being affected by this but, we are being affected. When difficulty cannot be resolved in the parish, the easiest solution is that the clergy person goes. In speaking with a bishop about this issue he said regretfully, “Clergy in this situation are expendable.”

It may be the parish is to blame, the clergy is to blame, the diocese to blame or most likely, some combination that involve all of the above. Blame, while convenient, does not heal. Whatever the reason for the separation, the separation causes pain across the board. As both bishop and parish are rooted in geography, the current structures of systemic support tend to favor recovery for the parish. While this author advocates support for parishes so they too might grow and heal out of these murky and difficult situations, the focus of this article is on getting clergy the help they need.

Episcopalians already invest an incredible amount of time, money, and discernment in the formation of our clergy. It seems a huge waste of time, talent, and treasure to see clergy, following their investment in formation, so beat up coming out of a “bad fit” that they leave the ministry convinced they have failed. Instead of blaming and potentially stigmatizing clergy for these systemic issues, we need to recognize we are in a storm and begin to offer resources to those affected clergy and their families. Instead of losing these priests we should be thinking how these men and women may be gaining an incredible formation experience. Help them recover and you gain a seasoned resource.

Recognizing that the systemic problem exists is a start, but only a start. Priests coming out of such situations want to do ministry yet often have to recover before anyone will be interested in them for future ministry. They want to know they are not pariahs. They need help in finding a way forward. CREDO, which provides a holistic approach to the health and wellness of Episcopal clergy in an eight-day retreat-based program, may have already laid the foundation on how we might go forward to address this need. For some time now CREDO has been involved in situational issues and tasked with helping priests recover from traumatic situations.

In 2005, Katrina hit the gulf coast. In response to the devastation and the long-term difficulty that clergy and lay leaders were faced with trying to help their communities recover, CREDO responded by offering “Weathering the Storm.” In 2010 after the earthquake crippled Haiti, CREDO shared “Strength for the Journey” to the leadership seeking to recover and live out of the national disaster there. Each program was designed to gather individuals together to remind them of their call, help them recover and find light in the midst of a difficult and challenging time. Hoping to bring the same type of recovery to the Dioceses living out of schism, The Presiding Bishop charged CREDO to prepare and then offer “Strength for the Journey” to the leadership in the re-organized Diocese’s of Pittsburg, San Joaquin, Fort Worth, and Quincy. CREDO in this capacity is not a fix. It is a resource that lifts, supports, and re-orients.

If we are called to lift, support, re-orient individuals who come to our churches, should we not do the same for our clergy? In each of the preceding situations CREDO was able to address a situation not experienced by the entire church, but offer resources and aid to clergy coming through such challenges. Could not this same CREDO model be provided for clergy coming out of difficult calls?

We do have a biblical model for leadership emerging out of failure. Some would argue that Peter’s ministry did not begin when Christ called him on the shores of Galilee, but that Peter’s ministry really began following the resurrection. They argue that Peter’s ministry began when Christ came to Peter after his three-fold denial. Peter in turn was tried through challenge, failure, and then, in response to acceptance rather than condemnation, found his true call as a result of it. Failure, when viewed in this way, is not an end, but an essential piece of formation.

In a time where the winds of change might result in an increase of “forced resignations” before we see a decrease, wouldn’t it be wise leadership to care for our wounded along the way? We may not know where or when the storm will touch down again but we do know it will. It seems prudent to be prepared for it when it does.

By de-stigmatizing failure and recognizing that systematic challenges lie ahead, CREDO may, if charged to the task, be poised to offer the following to clergy caught up in this crossfire: a respite period with others in order for the individual or family to discover that he or she is not alone; trained facilitators who have grown out of such circumstances; tools in order to recover; a safe environment to learn from challenging circumstances; the opportunity to begin building support networks; and guidance and mentoring toward how he or she might re-integrate back into ministry. This ministry does not yet exist formally, yet. The needed groundwork, however, is there.

If clergy are supposed to be wounded healers, as popularized by Henri Nowen, then shouldn’t we strive to help our clergy walk through it when they are? We should not shoot our wounded by leaving clergy adrift following what can be very complex circumstances. As Jesus lovingly looked at Peter following Peter’s failure on Good Friday, and encouraged Peter to feed His sheep, I urge that we, as Christ’s body in the world take some concrete systemic steps to do the same.

This article is the outcome of numerous conversations with leaders around the church in the last five months As I grow in ministry to hurting clergy I would welcome conversation from any priest who has experienced or is currently experiencing some of the situations described in the article.

The Rev. Scott Petersen graduated VTS in ’07 and served in the Diocese of SE Florida. He currently serves in the Diocese of Western North Carolina. To contact him about this article email at revpetersn@gmail.com

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