Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In Defense of Vocare: Advocacy for Those Deepened by the Storm

by The Rev. Scott Petersen

Forced resignations of priests and pastors happen. They do.

We may not know upon whom the storm will come down on, but we know it will. Even as this is being written there is a clergy person embroiled in deep conflict and on their way out. There is grief, pain, and bewilderment about the call to ministry that preceded such a situation. Crude statistics suggest that the one being forced out will be a woman, but that is not to say that it is not now a male clergy who is experiencing it.

Let me just try to share a peek into what the experience was like. My experience is of course subjective, but when shared with others who have experienced the same, they nod. The names and faces are different but the experience of conflict and antagonism is familiar. Fellow priests identify with the challenge they went through and if privileged to have a family who get front row seats to these unfolding dramas, the impact on their spouses and children.

I remember standing in the basement in a little town on the eastern edge of the Diocese of Western North Carolina just days after resigning as Rector.The waters of chaos raged about my head. I was stunned. Drained. I had just walked through an intensity... an emotional barrage that I could not have anticipated. The experience of the those two long years leading up to that day, as I stood numbly, just barely able to collect my breath, was one that I had not signed up for. Certainly, it was not the experience my wife and children signed up for. What I discovered was that I was woefully ill equipped, ill suited to withstand the vitriol, the political brinkmanship and triangulation that I had just lived through as Rector. I had resigned, yes, technically it was my choice, but it had not been a free one. I had been actively working towards reconciliation though such work takes all points on the compass­ Diocesan Staff, Parishioners, Priest­ for it to hold. What I had just experienced was a “forced resignation” though in that moment could not have named it such. I have since discovered, I am not the only one to go through such a thing and that it happens more than anyone would like to publically admit.

In that moment though, as I wandered there in shock in my basement, I had no name for what I had just experienced. I don’t remember such outcomes being discussed in my discernment toward the priesthood. Seminary had been pretty quiet about it. A thorough explanation of the particular church’s past conflict(s) had not been articulated by either Canon or Bishop prior to call as rector. All in that moment was loss. I stood there in front of a bookshelf wondering if the past eight years of preparation and practice of my priestly vocation was now in vain. I wondered, “how do you explain this?” “Was I now out of ministry, forced to sell shoes seething from an experience tinged with betrayal I could not yet explain?” “What about my wife and children?” Not far behind, like the psalmists of the old, came, “Where was God in this?“ There in that moment, I felt utterly alone.

Breadwinner no more...
Christians do not treat each other like this... Failure...

There in front me, there in the basement, surprisingly, was one book jutted out farther from the rest. I don’t remember buying it or why I had it in the first place. It just was... there. It was Eugene Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant. Into that dark, dark moment began, what I now see as a long, at times tortuously slow, road of grace.
... ... ...
Challenging calls that end in forced resignations are muddy, emotionally charged, poorly tracked, politically challenging situations. Some challenging calls never get that far as clergy may opt to jump ship as storm clouds begin to embroil. In other challenging calls, propped up by effective support, the clergy person is able to remain in place and walk through it. Many however, end in forced resignations. And out of those, only some receive severances.

There is always a cost to such conflict. It takes a toll. Having walked such conflict, with all the component grief tinged learning that comes with it, I wonder why as a church we have opted to extend only informal support to clergy who go through it, rather than develop a more formal process of care? Granted, a ministry to clergy who live through this is not the sexy ministry of ordaining clergy, where bright shiney people go forth to minister in pretty sanctuaries. If we are being honest however, this is an area of ministry that people often look away from or assume might happen to someone else. Some evidence suggests that as many as 28% of all clergy will experience a forced resignation at some time in their career. Of that 28%, 4 out of 10 will leave the ministry altogether as a result.*

Look away if you like, but the systemic issue is that “forced resignations” of clergy happen.
At the present time in the Episcopal Church, there is neither canonical provision to support clergy should they feel the sting of workplace violations (bullying) nor, and I believe this is just as significant, no formal ministry of care for clergy coming through such challenging calls.
There is an opportunity cost lurking in this dark corner of the church.

Rather than looking away and potentially casting off those who experience such calls to either sink or swim, there remains an alternative. There is an opportunity, out of the seminary of “hard knocks” so to speak, providing there is both legal and moral ground to do so, for the church to reclaim those who experience such situations. It is the opportunity to reclaim from the ashes a now better resourced clergy better able to lead. As a church committed to the four fold ministry of Laity, Deacon, Priest, and Bishop, we can do better then turn away.

Looking back and taking another look, now years ago from the place I now write, there at the bookshelf, I grabbed Eugene Peterson’s treatise. While I could not see it in that moment, his work was an abundant grace. There in a moment of great loss, came the gift of one man's Ministry. He wrote about the significance of discovering one's vocation out of the wreckage of clergy careerism. Of all the books on my bookcase that I could of grabbed for, it was the book that held, as it’s central metaphor, Jonah’s descent into the belly of the whale God’s means of transformation. Peterson argued that all clergy need to discover their vocation out of clergy careerism. Raging waters and the descent into darkness become, he argues, the very vehicle of Jonah’s transformation. I could identify. This was not only a short comical biblical story. Jonah is the account of being in the crucible... God’s method, at times, of guiding us to true north. If Jesus chose Peter out of failure and we can discover account after biblical account where God uses the meek, the troubled, the bumbling and reclaims them for God’s purpose, then should not we? 

Could God be calling us now to do so?

And from that moment of despair in my basement?

I did not expect it but the continuation of grace would be golf. This is funny because I’m a terrible golfer. Informally, I would be introduced to a collection of clergy golfers and learned I was not the only one who had felt the sting of when a priest/parish relationship turns sour. Informally, I began to have conversation with different leaders around the church for discovery and guidance. Informally, I was introduced and guided by a very competent priest who provided essential pastoral care. Informally, I discovered and was invited to attend a Ministering to Ministers retreat and spent a week with other priests and pastors who had experienced the same thing. Informally, I was introduced and then devoured the works of Peter Steinke. Informally, I was invited to share my story with NECA. Informally I began to see first and then believe again that my vocation in the church was not dead as some projected but very much alive.

That was the most darndest discovery of all.

Out of a brutal experience, some of which I must take responsibility for, I discovered that my vocation remained. Grace upon grace upon grace.

Ultimately, similar to Jonah, I grudgingly gave it over to God and I landed back on shore. Daily I have the opportunity to again lead, learn from, and grow in parish ministry.

All along the way though, I wondered, what about those who don’t play golf? After all, there is nothing particularly meritorious about golf. As I reflected, the graces and kindnesses I received were all informal. Was I just lucky? As I had lots of conversation about these situations, a growing conviction began to emerge. If we are going to care for clergy who come through such experiences, shouldn’t we as a church move from informal to formal so that best practices and lessons learned might be identified and shared?

At every ordination of every priest the Bishop and the people pronounce that it is their will that said priest be presented and they will uphold him or her in their office. I remember that moment at ordination hearing the roar of people and clergy behind me. I remember it just as clearly as I remember the profound silence in my basement shaking in the reality of having been cast off. The two experiences are as profoundly different and as wide as the sea. The irony. Each moment was experienced in the same institutional Church. Each had all the same elements­ Bishop, people, priest.

I believe we can do better. We are an institutional Church committed to the life, witness, teaching, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The very Good News we are both called and strive to share is a message of life being greater than death... Grace over Sin... “The darkness could not overcome it.” It is my great hope that we might find both the courage and the will to develop as an institution a formal ministry of care to reclaim the vocations that we as a church swore to uphold.

One opportunity to develop such a formal ministry could be CREDO. CREDO by commission has in the past been resourced to assist Clergy in Haiti following their devastating earthquake and resourced for clergy coming out of conflicted dioceses. CREDO could be called, charged and commissioned to develop such a ministry. While both those at CREDO and the Church Pension Fund could willingly move on such ministry, a resolution at General Convention for the church to develop a formal ministry of care to for clergy would also launch such a ministry. We can do better. This is one way we might do better.
... ... ...
To be honest, I would not willingly go through such a crucible experience that I woefully try to share here. I would have prefered God teach me with pillows and feathers. Why share about it? Why write about it now? Why expose oneself remembering one professor in seminary who quipped, “Confession is good for the soul but terrible for the reputation?” Why acknowledge it publicly when it would be less risky simply to live more fully into my present call?

I share it in the hope that some other priest, man or woman, will in time, have better articulated canons related to the dignity of work. In the Episcopal Church where we invest incredible sums in time, talent, and treasure in the front end towards the formation of new clergy, it seems short­sighted to not to try and reclaim clergy who may have gained insight into ministry through such challenging situations. Where there may have been both a place and time for old boy
networks and informal measures to address such challenges (even recognizing that I benefited from the same), I believe such informal measures and networks, in and of themselves, may not be available or found. I share it now so that we might develop a ministry of care for those who do experience this that is guided by safety, identification, witness, retreat, education, and advocacy. I share it in the hope that by working towards de­stigmatizing the way these forced resignations are experienced, we might do the important ministry of providing a formal ministry of care for those who need now building up rather than more tearing down. In de­stigmatizing such failure, we might help even out the playing field in how these systemic challenges are handled. By taking a lead in the development of such a future ministry, The Episcopal Church, might demonstrate to the wider Church more fully the value it places in the power of relationship and the strength of dignity both given and received.

I share it because there is an opportunity lurking in such challenging calls.
It is vocare.

The call of the One who may be deepening such calls through trying circumstances. It is the call to discover Easter lurking in, about, and through such Good Friday’s.

* See David Briggs, Silent Clergy Killers: ‘Toxic’ Congregations Lead to Widespread Job Loss http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david­briggs/silent­clergy­killers­tox_b_1437857.html
The Rev. Scott Petersen is Priest in Charge at All Saints Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Atlanta. He is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and Engle Fellow at Princeton Seminary. He currently sits as Vice President on the board of the Network for Episcopal Clergy Associations (NECA) He has more deeply discovered his vocation working both to lessen the sting of and advocating for the unanticipated gains developed through challenging calls. To contact him about ideas shared here or toward the development of a formal ministry of care please email at revpetersen@gmail.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.
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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 motherkaeton@gmail.com 

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