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The Magazine: More than a paper tiger: A reflection on the good work of Newark’s Dignity of Work Task Force

The Magazine: More than a paper tiger: A reflection on the good work of Newark’s Dignity of Work Task Force

by Scott Petersen

What follows is an initial reflection on the report Fostering Respect in Church Settings released this January by Newark’s Dignity of Work Task Force. As someone who has watched this development from the outside of the Diocese, I was glad to see the report presented on the Diocese of Newark website.  The good news is such a document exists. It comes as good news to help address the need to build greater protections… greater trust… for clergy living out their call in the midst of changing cultural tides. Their report sets out guidance for how to address workplace bullying in the church. Workplace bullying in the church is, admittedly,  a murky area in our common life of faith that many would prefer not to tread through.  As Dignity of Work did before it, Fostering Respect in Church Settings begins to legitimize the need to better articulate the workplace boundaries of clergy as they seek to further live into their vocations. While admittedly, the Task Force’s effort has been done solely for the Diocese of Newark, the proposed policy, like the resolution which preceded it, points beyond itself.


So what is the report and why was it written?


The Dignity of Work Task Force, Chaired by Dr. Edwin Acevedo, ED.D and The Rev’d Deacon Christine McCloud, formed in 2014 following the adoption of Resolution 2014 AC 140-03. Resolution AC 140-03 called upon the Bishop of Newark to appoint such a task force in order to develop a policy to address bullying, harassment and abuse of clergy by lay persons. Just as significant, the task force was asked, in light of bullying, to develop healthy norms of clergy/lay behavior within our congregations. The task force,  has done its work and will present their report to the Diocese of Newark at their annual convention this upcoming weekend.


In a nutshell, the Task Force via Fostering Respect in Church Settings:

  • presents their findings from the past year.
  • gives suggestions for how congregations can help prevent bullying.
  • addresses key legal and ecclesiastical concerns.
  • seeks to provide practical advice to prevent bullying and deal with bullying when it occurs.
  • presents a model Diocesan policy which individual churches (read parishes) may choose to either use and or adapt for use.
  • recommends that the Bishop of Newark reconstitute the Task Force to “implement the model policy and develop (a) training model.”


Does the report do what it set out to do?


That is the million dollar question. It will be interesting to learn how the Diocese receives the report this weekend. As I read it, in light of a limited understanding of canons, I began to wonder if it even could do in practice what the task force had been charged to do in theory.


In at least in three places the report highlights the fact that in terms of the laity bullying clergy, there is no mechanism (in the canons) to call laity to account.” This is striking. In conjunction, they also let the reader know that in terms of bullying,  there are canons which outline the discipline of clergy (Title IV). Please don’t get me wrong. I have no qualms with the canonical vehicle which gives laity recourse in Title IV. I support it. What I found strange though was this repetitive acknowledgement highlighted in  a report which had been birthed out of the desire to “address bullying, harassment and abuse of clergy by lay persons. My hope ahead of reading it was that the report might have found a way to either recommend or even extend such recourse back to clergy in the Diocese of Newark as a means to even out the playing field. What I discovered is that the report and model policy that it proposes really is unable to do that. Reach for it? Yes. Get there? Not really. I can’t really fault the Task Force for that. They do not write or approve canon law and I’m no canon lawyer so I’ll be the first to admit that I might be reading their report incorrectly. In my eyes though, this lack of “canonical mechanism” that they highlight is significant. As a result of that canonical gap, the ground of the report begins to give way.


This crucial repeated revelation in the report about having no mechanism in the canons to call laity to account seems to tie the Task Force’s own hand. With one hand they set out to address situations where Clergy are being bullied and then, with the other, reveal there is no real teeth to address such situations. As a result, without solid recourse for clergy to address bullying in the workplace, the report drifts from the original resolutions intent.


The model policy they propose does the best with what they have. Here though may be the rub. Outside of clergy and Diocesan staff, no remedial measures for the aggressors in bullying situations are enforceable. In their proposed Model Policy (appendix B on page 5) it states that in terms of having a warden or vestry person as the bullying aggressor, the Diocese may recommend a plan but, “the Diocese cannot implement such a plan at the congregational level as it lacks canonical and legal authority to enforce consequences against elected lay leadership.” So while their model policy puts a plan in place to address bullying, it can only make recommendations for remedial measures if the person or persons bullying is a warden or vestry person. There is absolutely no guidance about members of a congregation who are neither warden nor vestry person. Here is where the paper part of the tiger became clear.  Having no leverage to enforce is like giving parking tickets to foreign officials with diplomatic immunity. You can give the ticket…(sigh.)**


Even noting the difficulty, I encourage any and all to read the report and spend some time reflecting on what it must of took to get this far. As whole, our church (any church for that matter) prefers to look at where we are casting light. Shadow is tough. Bullying in the church is definitely a tough topic.  The report wisely utilizes scripture to point to the challenges the early church faced in loving your neighbor as yourself. Today’s church is no different. This report, and the history that precedes it reveals that Christian community is not always easy to build or maintain.


After reading the report I asked myself,  Is the report and model policy perfect? “No.” Is it a start? “Yes” and I had to admit, “a good one.” Does it bring awareness? Yes. Does it offer a way for both clergy and laity to take bullying seriously? Yes. These are goods. Does it provide any workplace provisions for clergy to address the bullying that can and does happen? Well, maybe… but, not really. I am concerned that what is presented might be perceived as being able to do what it cannot. That being said, the report is an important milestone in a larger effort to name the elephant in the room and engage how we understand the clergy in their workplace. The work of the Task Force, through this report, is very much helping to build the bridge as we go across it. And for that, I am thankful.


** An article from 2011 found at International Business Times revealed that due to Diplomatic Immunity,  NYC is owed $17.2 million in unpaid ticket fines.


The Rev. Scott Petersen is gratefully and gainfully employed as Priest in Charge at All Saints Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Atlanta. He sits on the board of NECA and was part of 11 leaders who wrote this past fall about how we might care of clergy coming out of challenging calls. That essay collection emerged, in part, as a result of the watershed resolution adopted by the Diocese of Newark. Please connect at .


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Eric bonetti

Hi Scott. Thanks so much for your response.

To clarify, my perspective extends to bishops. Specifically, if someone is a bishop and tolerates bullying of any sort–whether of laity, clergy, diocesan staff, whatever–she or he has a serious moral issue. Violence of any sort, whether physical, sexual, spiritual, or emotional, is unequivocably wrong. All Christians are called to oppose injustice and oppression, no exceptions. There is no place for bullying in the church.

Scott Petersen


Great question. My first inclination is to invite you to look a little deeper into this. If you have not already I would encourage you read the report, the resolution itself, the report published in the church of England. You might also explore what is out there under “Difficult Calls” and “Forced Resignations.”

You asked a question though, so I do not want to dodge it. You ask “Why can’t such transgressions be handled extra-canonically?” I believe it comes down to parity. Another question you might have asked, ” if bullying is an issue, why are not all transgressions handled extra-canonically?” There, much like getting to parity via the canons, it would create an even playing field. Both clergy person and lay person would have equal access to an equal standard for complaint, mediation, and if called for, remediation.

As it stands now, we do not have parity. The report certainly acknowledges this. I find that odd. In a resolution that sought to address a tricky issue, isn’t it odd that our current way of mediating conflict is not able to address the very concern it sought to address?

Again, I am pleased the Diocese of Newark has taken it as far as they have. I believe it is also important to show that the effort, while good, should not be perceived as doing something it is not able to do.

I hope this answer is helpful. I don’t have all the answers and hope greater minds than mine might help us to continue to work toward solution.


Thanks for your thoughts. The concerns you raise, while important, are somewhat outside the scope of the essay.

The report and model policy proposed for the Diocese of Newark, if it was received more widely, would seem to be a help in addressing bullying of laity by clergy. What the report shares very clearly is that laity already have a mechanism to address it. That though, as far as I know, was never in question in the Diocese of Newark. What was being asked in the Diocese of Newark was about the creation of fair workplace policies in the church that might give clergy a way to redress perceived bullying directed at them. That led to both the resolution and the work of the Task Force.

As someone who is obviously passionate about this issue, I hope you might see where, regardless of ones role in the church, each and all, be it laity or clergy, has a way to address intimidation should it present itself.

Please give my best to all those at Grace Church!

Eric Bonetti

I’ve written on this topic for the Cafe before, and it remains a serious issue. While I have not observed bullying of clergy, I have seen plenty of bullying, one parishioner to another. Additionally, I have seen bullying of laity by parish employees.

What is frustrating is when clergy recognize and acknowledge that bullying and abusive behavior is going on in their parishes, but then refuse to act against it. Perhaps they are afraid of losing their employment, or of getting drawn into endless internicine warfare. I’ve also heard some clergy say, “Well, they really need to work it out between themselves.” Huh!? If someone were enduring physical violence, would this argument apply? Or sexual abuse?

Clergy who read this, just know this: If you are not acting to protect the oppressed in your parish, you are tacitly condoning bullying. And in so doing, you are stepping into the shoes of the bully. If you know of bullying in your parish and are not taking steps to protect against it, you are morally culpable.

Alberto Melis

Why can’t such transgressions be handled extracanonically?
If something is grievous enough seems to be that the person can be asked to leave the premises and not come back.

Scott Petersen

Thank you Annette for helping note what has to be cleaned up. I hope the content also points to what may need to be addressed beyond the grammar.

Marshall, the task force report does cite the ability of clergy to withhold communion in such situations. They discourage it as a practice to address the bullying of clergy. (See page 9 of the report)

For any persons stung in the church by bullying or other conflict that effects clergy and congregations, there is an upcoming webinar sponsored by NECA and ECF on Feb 12th at 7PM that is seeking to address challenging calls and their effect on clergy and congregations. See

Marshall Scott

Scott, thank you. Yes, I appreciate, as the report does, the issues of power and authority and complicate relationship issues between cleric and parishioner. I had hoped to make that clear – perhaps more clear – in my comment. Again, I would hope this would benefit from more and/or earlier engagement from bishop or ecclesiastical authority; noting that this has its own power dynamics. I have found myself wondering what it would mean if my bishop did not bar me from celebrating, and yet asked me in conscience not to receive myself until reconciliation had been pursued. My mind is not settled about that, but that seems the way one would have to think about ecclesiastical authority exercising the Disciplinary Rubrics when one of the parties is a priest.

Thanks for the notice of the webinar.

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