Monday, August 11, 2014

Let's Be Adults and Partners

 (This is the second essay in a series from The Care for Clergy in Difficult Calls writing project, written by The Rev. Ton Ehrich)

On returning from a brief sabbatical, a priest heard the other shoe fall.

"A small group of 'advisers' told me tonight that some people are not finding joy in church," she said. "The advisers say it is irreparable and that I should consider not returning. I'm shocked, hurt."

It was like a scene from ancient Israel, when a husband could dismiss a wife with merely a certificate of divorce. No need to explain why or to negotiate. In that patriarchal culture, the husband had all the power.

In the modern Episcopal Church setting (echoed in other denominations, as well), the "husband" is usually the vestry, and the "wife" is usually the priest (male or female). The husband has more power. Never mind what best practices of normal employment of a professional might suggest. The vestry feels free to push their priest around or out the door. 

The dynamic is set up in the typical search process, when pastor and search committee start out like online daters -- reading forms, comparing profiles, looking for flaws -- and then proceed to "fall in love." 

Many use the language of "marriage." Lay leaders ask, in effect, Will you love us? Will you be faithful to us? Will you stay home, cook our meals and make our beds? The pastor asks, Can I trust you? Can we grow old together? Will you hit me, the way my last husband did?

The dynamics aren't as overtly patriarchal as ancient Hebrew practice. They are more like a 1950s marriage. Still, they are a long way from a 21st Century partnership of equals marked by mutuality, transparent expectations, shared responsibilities, mature accountability.

Moreover, these husband-wife dynamics are nothing like the typical hiring of, say, a new CEO by a corporation or a new president of a college, where expectations and duties are clearly defined, power balances clearly stated, and tenure and termination agreements clearly written into a contract and made legally binding.

In transactional analysis terms, vestries and clergy often collude in establishing a parent-child relationship.

The vestry gets to treat the pastor as a child, not fully capable, not to be trusted with important matters. As happens in other settings, the "parent" vestry also wants to swap roles and play the "child," whom the parent-pastor cares for, indulges, excuses, and drops everything to please. (Watch an episode of "Father Knows Best" to see this convoluted dynamic at work.) 

For their part, clergy tend to buy into this dysfunctional relationship because they, too, want to be loved and taken care of, and they, too, want to be in the caregiving role of "parent." 

To an extent, this dysfunctional psychodrama is structural, written into the rules that define church governance, rules that still reflect loathing of overbearing Roman clergy in the early Reformation. 

Vestries have hiring power and firing power. The priest gets keys to the church and can chair vestry meetings, but the vestry controls the money, level of staffing, and job security. 

Family dynamics come into play. Vestries and clergy don't truly form a new marriage (except in a startup church). It's more like a blended family, in which the vestry represents continuity and protects the existing "family." I believe vestries want the new pastor to succeed, but when push comes to shove, which usually happens within the first 18 months of a pastorate, the vestry feels more loyalty to the original family than to the still-new pastor. They feel compelled to protect the ongoing institution, its facilities and traditions, against this outsider who wants a place at the table. 

Small wonder that the new pastor seeks out his or her own people, often newcomers themselves, often younger than established leaders. Now the "marriage" is riven with warring siblings and generational conflict. Small wonder, also, that clergy tend to fixate on liturgy, where their authority is largely unquestioned, rather than do the more critical work of organization development, change management, leadership training, and volunteer recruitment. 

Another factor is scope of activity. In exercising their power and historic distrust of clergy, vestries try to do too much. In corporate terms, they try to function both as board of directors and as operating managers. Vestry committees try to run the various operations, such as education, worship and membership development. 

Problem is, a vestry committee isn't accountable to the pastor in the way an operations manager is accountable to the chief executive officer. Committee members do what they feel like doing, and if they perform poorly, they can't be reassigned or fired. The pastor has insufficient leverage to achieve positive outcomes.

Meanwhile, the board business that a church needs done doesn't get done. Human resources protocols, for example, are weak or non-existent. Legal matters, financial management, insurance and fiduciary standards fall into untrained hands. It's much more fun to choose an education curriculum than to prepare an employee handbook. It is more fun to dream up a mission project than to consider protocols for handling sexual misconduct, property insurance, and preparing for an orderly transition in top leadership. 

A better system would be this:

1. Have the vestry serve as a board of directors, doing the work that directors typically do, elected by the stakeholders on a three-year rotation and accountable to them. The pastor serves as chair of the board or as a member of the board under a lay chairperson. Directors are selected for their wisdom, maturity, relevant skills and ability to work with a strong pastor. 

Because of decades of dysfunctional psychodrama, I suggest the board employ a process observer, whose duty is to call out board members (lay and clergy) when they behave in a parent-child manner or act out marriage rituals. 

2. Create a second leadership group, focused on operations (mission and ministry), recruited by the pastor and accountable to him or her. These people are responsible for the "product," if you will, such as education, worship, mission, pastoral care. Some will be paid staff, some will be volunteers. They are chosen for their expertise and for their willingness to devote the time needed. If they perform poorly or their life-situations change, the pastor can replace them. 

This operations group is an effective way to engage new constituents and identify emerging leaders. Attitudes will improve. Atmospherics will improve. Job satisfaction will improve. Performance will improve. 

Even the smallest church needs both functions, and they need to be separate. 

This structure can happen within existing Episcopal Church rules. It would require a new self-definition by both vestry and clergy, some foundational work in defining the new operations group and setting boundaries, and a willingness to respect those boundaries. 

Both vestry and clergy will need to abandon the parent-child dynamic. This system only works adult-adult. I can tell you from personal experience that everyone is happier and more effective when they are functioning as adults, not being maneuvered into parent or child roles. 

We will need to lose the marriage paradigm. It's artificial, and it leads to conflict. Better to have top leaders working with mutual respect, defined accountability and a clearly stated balance of power.

Tom Ehrich is president of Morning Walk Media ( and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine (, based in New York City. After six years as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Tom served Episcopal parishes for 20 years, then went into technology and, in 2004, launched Morning Walk Media to do faith-related publishing and church consulting. His daily meditations are read around the world, and his weekly newspaper column is syndicated by Religion News Service to over 100 papers.

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

Ehrich Essay link on Neca blog
Let's be adults and partners –By The Rev. Tom Ehrich-

The six hyperlinks in close that will go out with all essays

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