Saturday, May 19, 2012

Let's Get Rid of the Rector: A Priest's Nightmare

Two different Bishops believed that I had the skills to follow long tenured Rectors.  As you might imagine, it didn't take long for a small group in each parish to radically oppose me and try to force my resignation.  How well I managed these situations is debatable, but here are some strategies I learned along the way.  If you are or ever have been in this awful nightmare, I hope they help.

1. Forget all you know about consensus management and group process.  These methods are effective when leading any group where the goal is to resolve differences in an open and creative way.  All get a say and in the end there is usually a consensus or unanimous vote.  When the goal of some is to  "kill the Priest," no amount of discussion is possible.

2. Bishops may not be much help.  In my ministry, one Bishop supported me and the other didn't.  As pastoral as we expect Bishops to be, many don't have the intervention skills to provide the appropriate leadership.  Some are likely to take a "wait and see attitude."  Others may abandon you entirely.

3. Cultivate support.  Engage parishioners in conversation.  Visit every member of your vestry and as calmly as possible let them know what is going on.  Listen and then ask them for their support.  You will survive if 80% of the vestry supports you.  I managed it with 60%.  Visit every stake holder, those who have existential power in the parish, and follow the same strategy.  If the hate group is small enough, you may take it to the congregation, perhaps even in a sermon or special parish meeting.

4. Call in a consultant.  This is a popular way of making everybody temporarily feel good.  The Bishop and Vestry think they are doing their jobs and the Priest appreciates the reflective pause.  But in level six conflict situations, consultants are not likely to work.  The Priest's enemies have already made up their minds.  They want to Priest out.  But a consultant does give folks the time to sort things out and chart a course.  If the Priest comes out ahead, the offending parties will leave the church.  This is what happened in both of my situations.

5. Resignation.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this.  You may be fed up or you may be very sensitive, discouraged, depressed and feeling rage.  There may not be enough people on your side so you may be forced out.  Sometimes it's best to "let go and let God."  Holding on is not for everybody and your spiritual and mental health are the most important things, let alone the sickness that invades the marriage and the family.  Besides, you have probably lanced a boil that has been festering in the parish for many years and needs to be healed.  When we are scapegoated without cause, it is usually indicative of a long term systemic issue in the congregation's life.

While none of us ever wants to be in this situation, sometimes it just happens.  The Kingdom of God has not yet been consummated and the Father of Lies is still meandering through the universe and the church.  C. S. Lewis had something to say about this.


  1. Good points. It's still an awful and painful situation for everyone. I hated being in it and hope to avoid ever being there again.

  2. Bob, excellent and right on. What I learned at St. James,besides what you have aptly summarized, is that if survival in place is possible, something begins to develop in the corporate mind of the congregation. Namely, I began to see self regulation and discipline of behavior. People began to isolate the bad behaving people and challenge them. They did actually learn from my example and trusted that there are real rewards for the folks in the congregation to stop tolerating inappropriate behavior. After five years of trouble, that was exciting!

  3. rector@garygilbertson.orgMay 19, 2012 at 12:13 PM


    Excellent summary. I would add that it is a must to have a firm "Letter of Agreement" before accepting the Call.

  4. Gary, there is a good article in your suggestion!

  5. Not just a firm Letter of Agreement, but a clause in there stipulating a healthy severance package for the rector as involuntary dissolution often leaves a priest without a cure for a protracted amount of time.

  6. Given your own self admited addiction to pastoral power it is interesting that you would coin those who have opposed you in terms of being evil, "and the Father of Lies is still meandering through the universe and the church."

    If, as in your previous post, you needed to "kill" your opposition then you maybe you yourself contributed to all the challenges that came your way as a pastoral leader. Maybe you aided the "father of lies" in his work.

    It also sounds like you were good at using the preistly role to triangulate your congregations leadershop against those who opposed you. Because, if you could get to 80% then no one had a chance against your power base.

    Maybe confession and penitence is called forth for the abuses of power that you committed.

  7. Anonymous, your comment is crossed the line.

  8. Anonymous,
    Bob is a well respected priest whom I served with for a number of years. This is over the line.

  9. Good blog. I was once a member of Bob's parish, and loved and respected him. Still do...

  10. Anonymous , by trolling this post and refusing to show your face, you have merely and profoundly proven the author's point.

  11. J. Stephen TaylorJune 18, 2012 at 8:33 PM

    If the interim period really is a time of parochial introspection and
    discernment on the part of the congregation, and not just a search to clone the old, beloved rector, then things might work out OK of better. We still have some in our parish disgruntled over the 10-year
    tenure of the last full time rector despite an interval of over 10 years.
    If we continue to face backwards to the god old days we are risking failure. I believe we need to live on the edge and look into the future as hard as that is.