by The Rev. Canon Frank Logue
The impact of a person being terminated from a job leaves a crater in the life of that person and of his or her family. But when the involuntary leave-taking is from a church position to which the person felt called by God, the end result is much more damaging to all involved. Metaphorically speaking, there may not be identifiable body parts remaining unless proper support is in place. The Diocese has a vital role to play to move beyond conflict management in order to provide spiritual and vocational support for priests coming out of involuntary leave taking or as other essayists have alluded, forced resignations.
What the Diocese can do to maintain calls for the long term:
Teach Clergy Essential Skills—Seminary is an important formation experience, but it simply cannot provide all the tools a priest needs. Seminaries are very effective at teaching the core essentials of scripture, theology, church history and so on, but effective leadership of a congregation takes very different skills from these core essentials.
Conflict has always existed in the Church and will always be present. Knowing how to manage conflict is an essential skill and one that can lead to longer tenure for clergy. That’s why in the Diocese of Georgia new clergy also take a five-day workshops in Emotional Intelligence (EQHR) in their first year and in Conflict Management in their second year. Along with required coaching and spiritual direction and the leadership training provided by the Church Development Institute, these additional training's help priests learn more about their own personal tendencies and understand better how to use their gifts (use of self) in parish leadership, especially in times of conflict.
We are not alone. Other dioceses are likewise looking at ways to build this awareness in their priests through additional training. These skills are in fact best learned after seminary when the priest is engaged in parish ministry and is more open to what she or he does not know about leading.
Teach Vestries Healthy Practices—Every vestry should understand the unhealthy effects of triangulation and anonymous information. Congregations are well served by the Diocese providing this training to new vestry members. By the Diocese teaching, and the Bishop and staff consistently modeling this behavior, wardens and vestries can join their clergy in healthy communication.
Not permitting triangulation or accepting anonymous information helps everyone talk openly and honestly about the issues they are facing. This should be a part of regularly offered diocesan training for vestry members to teach best practices and proactively address behavior that can be damaging to the congregation’s life.
What the Diocese can do when things head south:
The Bishop’s Office Should Engage the Situation—When the diocesan staff is aware of significant issues in a congregation, the bishop and priest should meet face to face and consider together how best to respond. This is critical. For a variety of reasons, both priests and lay leaders are quite hesitant to involve the Diocese. Could it be, that such hesitancy manifests because Diocesan staffs in general do not have a clear way of dealing with conflict? Could it also be that such hesitancy is born from the perception that the Diocese is not seen standing by clergy in times of conflict and that such a perception leads to priests and lay leaders alike keeping them out the loop until it is too late to intervene? These are questions that bear further consideration as we look at all parts of the system in such conflicts. Such questions, however, does not absolve me and other diocesan staff, as there are steps we can take before, during, and after such incidents.
However, once the conflict level rises beyond a disagreement to a contest where people are taking sides, merely praying about it or looking the other way assures that the conflict will escalate.
This is where the Bishop’s office must be proactive involving its direct work or work with a consultant. In some cases, it may mean supporting the priest through a process of taking leave from the congregation. In every case, priests should know how their bishop stands with them. In such intractable conflict, it is overly facile simply to blame the priest. Yes, she or he must be accountable for his or her share of the conflict, but congregational leaders also need to be held to equal account for their share.
If the conflict points to a clear violation of canons including illegal use of funds, inappropriate sexual relationships, and similar matters, the canons on church discipline (Title IV) give direction to what happens next. Title IV, when applied, assumes an offense has been committed. What if no offense has been committed? What if there is no "conduct unbecoming as a member of the clergy?" In Title IV cases, the diocesan staff makes provision that the priest and his or her family has pastoral support and then follows the process.
This essay though, is instead focused on situations of conflict outside of such discipline. The Church, in such cases, has no formal provision for handling such situations.
Separation Agreement and After—In cases where the pastoral relationship cannot be maintained, the diocesan staff should work on a settlement that takes into account the length of service of the priest. With the priest’s severance arranged, the role shifts to making sure the priest has a spiritual director as well as a therapist who can help sort through the many issues that arise when a call ends involuntarily. As I shared earlier, such leave taking leaves a crater not only in the priest's life but in the life of the family also affected by such outcomes. The Bishop or staff should not do this work, but they can make sure the priest does have this needed support.
Likewise, it is time to begin working with the parish on what comes next. Often, this is to secure an interim rector or vicar who is fully appraised of what has occurred and who is given the time to do the hard work of creating a safe environment for the next call, which can take two years or more. The key task for the interim is to make sure that healthy practices are taught and modeled and unhealthy behaviors are not abided.
The Next Call—What happens next is not so easily solved. A priest, injured emotionally and spiritually by a bad experience with a congregation, may not be in a place to move immediately to a new call and yet, the priest still needs to earn a living. Reticence to work with a priest coming off a difficult call can add unnecessary insult to injury. There are a lot of reasons why a call does not work out, including issues in the congregation being avoided or hidden in the call process or even the call being a bad fit from the beginning.
A priest who has been called by God and had that call affirmed by the Church and been formed for ministry should not be branded as ineffective and eliminated from calling processes.
Instead, this is where careful attention should be paid to the gifts of the priest and finding the right fit. At the same time proper support needs to be in place as the next call will certainly set off triggers from the previous conflict. The priest needs someone to process this with on an ongoing basis so that the new parish is not held accountable for issues from the previous congregation, even as the priest seeks to learn from the past.
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This brief article can only sketch out some ideas that bear further reflection. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers and know my colleagues in other dioceses also struggle to get it right when working with churches and clergy in conflict. I trust that you can see my bias toward further formation for vestries and priests as well as support in conflicted situations and, when need be, following the dissolution of a pastoral relationship.
In practice, the training and support is for lay leaders and clergy alike as we seek to support healthy interactions in our churches. There is no question that conflict will arise, but if all know that priests and lay leaders will find support from their diocese, then we can lessen the harmful impact of a difficult call.
The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia
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 Network of Episcopal Clergy Associations New website.
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