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 firstname.lastname@example.org .