This is the fourth essay in the Care for Clergy in Difficult Calls writing project
Over the years I have known quite a number of clergy who have experienced challenges in ministry that came in a wide range of seriousness, from relatively mild to traumatic. Sometimes the difficulties were caused by the clergy themselves, and sometimes by members of the congregation, and sometimes by a combination of clergy and congregation. In most cases I came to learn that the clergy involved in these conflicted situations found themselves increasingly isolated from their judicatories, and from their clergy peers within their denomination. The sense of isolation and rejection grew over time and increased the pain and stress of the experience, often described by those going through it, as making things almost worse than the original conflict itself.
As a priest of some forty-three years experience I have observed, and been a part of this process far too many times. As a result of getting to know a priest who had been in the midst of a very painful and difficult dissolution of the pastoral relationship with his congregation, I heard again about the feelings of isolation and abandonment that so often accompany these experiences. This priest experienced feelings of failure, worries about future employment prospects, and anxiety about his ability to support his family in the future. All these only add to the pressure and can easily push, even the strongest individuals, towards depression and despair.
As I thought about writing this piece, I did some further research, talking with some other clergy in the area to find out if what I have been describing was a widely experienced reality. I was not surprised to find that it was far too widely experienced, and that the experience was shared across denominational lines.
The way many clergy are treated during conflicts seems to bear poor witness to the mercy and compassion of Christ that is at the heart of our faith. The care of clergy who are in the midst of conflict in their congregation or who have recently undergone such conflict should be as good as we would expect to provide members of our congregations who are going through painful personal or family crises.
It seems to me that this should be the case no matter what has been done, even if the clergy person is guilty of a gross violation of their vows and responsibilities. Again, I believe clergy persons who have committed serious breaches of their pastoral responsibility should be treated as well as we would expect to treat members of our congregations who have seriously violated moral and/or civil laws.
In cases that are not violations of civil or moral laws, but the breakdown of trust brought about by inexperience such as heavy-handedness, or other poor judgment, is the Church not better served by assisting such clergy with support, counseling, and training so that they can process the experience, learn from their mistakes, and become better and more effective leaders in the future?
People who respond to a sense of “call” spend years in the formation process working with Commissions on Ministry, Standing Committees, undergoing psychiatric evaluations, and spending up to three years in seminary. I believe we should work with clergy who find themselves in conflicted situations as well as with the congregations that have been involved in the conflict or crisis so that all parties involved and hurt by the conflict can find resolution, and discover insights that can lead to growth and healing.
More often than not it seems, when things start to go sour, judicatories, pressed by unhappy congregational leadership, invoke disciplinary canons and the clergy involved become increasingly isolated as friends and colleagues tend to distance themselves, for whatever reason, including fear for one’s own vulnerability, or satisfaction it was them instead of me, to not knowing quite what to say if I contacted them. The longer the silence by colleagues the more difficult it becomes for them to initiate contact. So, the clergy person who is “in trouble” feels more and more isolated and abandoned. In far too many cases these clergy end up leaving parish ministry, and in many cases leave their denomination, and/or the Church as a whole. I believe that support and care can help many clergy in distress work through these challenges and grow in ways that can be of great benefit to themselves, their families, and their future congregations.
But instead of seeing distressed clergy grow from their experience we far too often see them suffer from decreasing self-esteem and depression, and all too frequently become stigmatized so that they find it hard or impossible to find subsequent employment in a church or church related ministry. Some find it difficult to find any kind of job after being through a devastating departure from parish ministry. Lowered self esteem and depression do not help in a job search in either the Church or the secular world.
In some cases it has been hostile and destructive behavior by lay persons that has precipitated the conflict and crisis. Peter Steinke and other systems theory proponents have much to say about the destructive potential of lay persons with personal agendas which may not even be understood by the perpetrator of the conflict.
One model for ministering to clergy in distress that I find worthy of emulation is one I came to know about while serving in the Diocese of Texas. The ELCA Synod that was reasonably contiguous with the Episcopal Diocese of Texas had a policy which I felt is worthy of consideration by the Episcopal Church. It may be that the Lutheran Synod’s policy is simply the national policy for the ELCA. This policy has to do with clergy who are in distress or conflict and whose situation comes to the attention of the judicatory leadership. In those cases, the judicatory, (Lutheran bishop) assigns the pastor who is in a conflicted or crisis situation a chaplain who does not report to the bishop, and who is charged to maintain total confidentiality in relationship to their “charge”. This chaplain provides spiritual guidance and support throughout whatever subsequent process may ensue. This ministry is provided to all clergy in conflict or crisis no matter how heinous the actions/behavior of the clergy involved. I am aware of a much beloved senior Lutheran pastor who was charged and convicted of numerous counts of pedophilia and who has been sentenced to life in prison. From the time the allegations first emerged a chaplain was assigned who has walked with him throughout this journey through the courts and appeals, and final verdict, and sentencing, and who continues to minister to him in jail. Another chaplain was assigned to the pastor’s wife to provide her and their adult children with support and ministry. The family has also received psychological counseling to help them process this painful experience.
Most of us (clergy) would do this for our parishioners. It seems to me that we would/should do at least this much for our clergy colleagues who are experiencing a crisis…whether of their own doing or the result of other complex factors that are part of parish life.
In another situation, a Lutheran pastor was being attacked by some members of the congregation who were seeking to get rid of the pastor. Again, the Bishop assigned a chaplain to the pastor, and offered to assist with expenses related to professional training in addition to counseling for the pastor. In this case, the pastor availed themselves of the support, counseling, and training, and was able to engage support from lay members who were not aligned with those creating the conflict, and the pastor and parish worked through the conflict. Several of those who led the attack on the pastor ended up leaving the congregation, but, according to a consultant I know, the parish is much healthier as a result. In this case both the clergy and the congregation learned incredibly valuable lessons through the experience and came out much stronger and more effective in their ministries.
I believe we can and must do a better job of supporting clergy in and through conflict, and helping them after the experience to process what they have been through so that they can learn, grow, and find healing. I believe this should be the case whether or not the clergy involved feel called to remain in parish ministry or feel called to leave parish ministry. This kind of care and support will help us build stronger and healthier Christian communities and more effective leaders and will bear more faithful witness to the life and teaching of Jesus by which we profess to seek to live. This can also provide a compelling example of what Christian community life can be in contrast to so many other aspects of community that people experience in their lives. I pray that we will have the grace and courage to work for change in the way we treat clergy and clergy families in distress.
The Rev. Dennis G. Fotinos Dennis graduated from the General Theological Seminary and was ordained a deacon in May of 1971. He was ordained a priest in May of 1972. Dennis has served parishes in SE Florida, Western North Carolina, Western Louisiana, Pittsburgh, and the Diocese of Texas. He retired in 2008 after 38 years in active parish ministry. Currently, he lives in the Asheville, NC area in retirement where he continues to do supply work, consult with parishes in transition and assist parishes doing parish life assessment in the hopes of discerning and implementing their mission.
The above essay was written out of a partnership between The Episcopal Women’s Caucus (EWC) and The Network of Episcopal Clergy (NECA.) This project developed following a watershed moment when in January 2014 the Diocese of Newark passed a resolution seeking that their Bishop appoint a task force to explore Dignity of Work issues related to clergy and workplace bullying. This essay was written as part of a collection of essays written to begin to address the challenge of challenging calls and the issue of workplace bullying. While the views in this essays are the authors own and we acknowledge that no one essay will be able to identify all the issues involved, our hope is that in and through the collection of pieces we might support what has begun locally in the Diocese of Newark and more importantly, further the conversation in the wider Episcopal church. As these essays are both sponsored and being released jointly by both NECA and The EWC please read all the essays at The Episcopal Women’s Caucus blog and The Care for Clergy in Difficult Calls Writing Project.
If you are a clergy person in the midst of a challenging call or you have gone through it and would like to see the beginnings of a set of resources that might support you, please see the NECA Resource Page
If you would like to write about your own experience of a challenging call or forced resignation for posting on the Episcopal Women’s Caucus blog please send your essay to email@example.com