"My own ouster began with the return of a lapsed member who was placed in a position of power. After a year, he told a fellow member of the parish that he was "going to get him”, and thus began the premeditated character assignation (against me). The lies alone would have destroyed any person in any position, and the gossip mill churned out the most absurd stories that painted me as an evil villain, and had any been true, I would have been defrocked and arrested for the acts described. The issue was the use of Discretionary funds to people of color, the poorest of the poor, and the working poor. My vision for ministry was put on trial - I was found blameless as to any misuse of funds, I broke no laws: church or public. Spiritually, I suffered from such mean spirited, contemptuous, and hateful speech that I wept that so called Christian people could say such, much less to someone they claimed to have loved at one time. My therapist said I do suffer from PTSD, which I thought was absurd, until I shared with him some of what transpired in public forums and in private conversations. Why be silent? This happens to people, and there is no reason to hide the facts."
A male Episcopal Priest
It is encouraging to know that the conversations surrounding the painful departures of clergy are being brought out of the Church kitchen and into the living room. I would like to suggest that there are actually three distinct conversations, and that the three should not be commingled.
The first conversation surrounds clergy engaged in challenging calls. There are many congregational calls that could be considered challenging. For those of us that lived through the various phases of prayer book revision and broadening the ministry of the Church to be more inclusive, most every congregation proved to be challenging. Currently, the challenge every clergy person faces is, what appears to be, a trend downward in church attendance, membership, and stewardship.
The second conversation revolves around variant visions for the congregation; friction caused by differing leadership styles, job expectations, financial priorities, and personality differences. Such disagreements, to some degree or another, are almost inevitable. Lay members often seek election to the vestry precisely because they have a divergent view from their rector. Emotions can run high in such situations, but seldom become bitter. Conflict management consultants are often quite successful in bringing a peaceful resolution to clearly defined situations. They can often have a peaceful, if not happy, resolution. Such disputations are seldom personal or vicious.
There is a third conversation that I believe should be kept distinct from the previous two. These altercations are premeditated and intentionally executed. Those engaged in the assault have one clear and irreversible goal from the day they initiate them. They often want to remove and destroy the ministry and reputation of their pastor. The three books I've written on this nonpareil experience are the result of focused research. The cynosure of that work has been the attacks leveled against clergy by a handful of dysfunctional personalities in their congregations. These pastors were often subjected to verbal abuse, threats (often physical), slander, lies, blackmail, and on occasion, death threats. These attacks were being led by highly controlling personalities intent not only on removing the rector, but ultimately destroying any future ministry they might desire. This character assassination often continues years, even decades, after the pastor has vacated the particular parish. Their attacks were seldom related to the ministry program of the parish, or even the work performance of the rector. The unrelenting vilification of the pastor was being led by less than one to two percent of the congregation.
There are seven specific issues that must be included in the conversation.
1. Finding a descriptive word or phrase for the abusive behavior is the first challenge. It is the abusive, slanderous, and threatening behavior of a handful of antagonists that needs to be our focus. The following words and phrases actually detract from the issues surrounding that behavior.
Parish Conflict - Describing the personal attacks on the pastor as a parish conflict is misleading. Evidence reveals that the parish is not in conflict in these situations. The rector and the majority of the vestry are not even in conflict.
Bullying - This term suggests that the clergy need only "buck up" and confront their bullies, much as you would any school yard or workplace bully. Failure to do so paints pastors as weaklings, unable to defend themselves. The abuse inflicted on the clergy and their families in these situations goes far beyond bullying.
Forced Resignation - This term suggests that through the review process, the vestry and bishop, found the rector's ministry unacceptable. As a courtesy, they allowed the rector to resign, much as you would a disgraced politician, "needing to spend more time with their family". This is a misleading term, clouded in suspicion. This term fails to keep the focus on the behavior of the antagonists and casts a shadow over the rector's ministry.
Fired - This is an explosive word and is most often associated with clergy misconduct. The bishop and vestry, on finding evidence of this misconduct, or the rector failing to perform their ministerial duties, summarily dismissed them. Again, none of the clergy in my studies were guilty of any canonical or legal violation. The evidence as to job performance is quite to the contrary. The clergy subjected to sheep attacks as I have come to name them were often leading growing and dynamic congregations. It needs to be noted that fired is the preferred word utilized by the antagonists to boast of their success.
2. Often, a staff member, professional lay volunteer, music minister, head of school, clergy associate, former rector or associate, retired priest, and yes, retired bishops, served as a co-conspirator with the antagonists. The power the staff member exercised in the process increased dramatically if they had achieved the level of beloved in the congregation. If the leadership in the parish believed the staff member to be indispensable, they, in these scenarios are able to participate with out fear of being reprimanded or removed. Any conversation intended to find a resolution to this must also address collusive behavior of staff members, resident and former clergy.
3. A third aspect to be addressed should include the collateral damage the sheep attack inflicts on the faithful lay people in the congregation. Oftentimes clergy antagonists also slandered and abused the lay leaders that supported the rector. The lay leaders, who stand up to the antagonists, find they are emotionally and spiritually fatigued. They want the misery to end, even if it means they will lose, and their rector chooses to leave. They often follow the rector out of the parish. Most have no inclination to return to any parish. Parish records consistently verify that attendance, membership, and stewardship decline dramatically following an abused rector's resignation. Inside those statistics are yet other faithful laity that choose to leave that particular parish, and often the Church. This conversation will not be complete without considering their wounds and how we can address them.
4. Episcopal clergy, under attack, often turn to their bishop and diocesan staff for assistance. Too often, the evidence suggests, their bishops were ill prepared to deal with the antagonists. The antagonists often represent themselves to the diocesan authorities as representatives of the congregational majority. Likewise, they frequently sweeten their attacks with offers to substantially increase their giving once the rector is gone. There are instances where bishops have confronted the behavior of the antagonists. In those circumstances, the antagonists retreated, left the parish, or on occasion, turned their vengeance on the bishop. A critical component of this conversation must include education and training for the bishops and the diocesan staff on how to respond to this destructive behavior.
5. If it were put to a congregational vote, the vast majority of the congregation would vote to retain their rector. The difficulty is that in situations like this the rector has been so unrelentingly abused that they are suffering from battle fatigue. The pummeling often takes place underneath the congregational radar for weeks, months, or even years before it is made public. The words and terms most often associated with this experience fail to be descriptive of how the rector's ministry actually ended. The rector made the healthy choice to shake the dust off their feet and walk away from their abusers. They did so because they were exhausted. They were burned out and often suffering with post-traumatic stress injury. The priest's spouse and children are often so traumatized by the nightmare that they too want to leave the parish. They want to "get away" from their abusers.
6. Beyond burnout, the emotional memories that never go away, and in some cases, post traumatic stress injury, victim clergy have to live with the most painful insult of all. The Church that they felt called to serve marks them as unacceptable. The oral tradition that follows them often records them as a controversial priest, forced to resign, or in the language of the antagonists, fired. The most searing insult is when their bishop and fellow clergy validate the lies and slander of the antagonists. Accurately describing the reason a rector chooses to leave an abusive parish is critical to removing this stigma.
7. We need to end the Conspiracy of Silence. Toxic parishes do exist. There are congregations with a history of repeatedly abusing and then boasting of firing their rectors. Bishops, clergy, and lay leaders need to stop clothing these congregations in a cover story. Invariably, that story comes at the expense of the departing rector. Addressing that habitual behavior must be a part of the conversation, but it cannot be corrected until it is exposed.
The resolution before the Diocese of Newark is a giant step forward. My prayer is that utilizing a common language, and maintaining our focus on the common elements in this nightmare, will enable us to better prepare every level of Church leadership to respond to this abusive behavior.
The Reverend Doctor Dennis R. Maynard is the best selling author of fifteen books, including the popular Sheep Attack Series, Those Episkopols, Forgive and Get Your Life Back, and The Magnolia Series. He has served as a consultant to bishops, clergy, schools, and congregations in thirty-one dioceses in the United States and Canada. During his thirty-eight years of parish ministry, Doctor Maynard served some of the largest congregations in the American Church. You can contact him through his website www.Episkopols.com
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