Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Rector (Pastor): You're Fired!!

I get really angry when I hear once again about a priest that has been forced out of his parish involuntarily. I heard recently that 30% of Episcopal congregations have done this.  True, a few clergy are justifiably terminated because of immorality, but the vast majority of them are the result of a small or large group of lay antagonists who strike out at the priest in a very mean and terribly nasty manner.  Conflict Resolution experts call this a level five or six conflict where the only goal is to "kill" the priest.  Often these mean folks are found on the vestry and key leadership positions.  When they go after the priest, they go for the jugular and there is nothing the priest can do about it.

When this kind of conflict is brewing, it is tempting for some clergy to strive for appeasement.  I know one priest who met with his enemies, listened to them and then implemented some of their demands.  Of course this did not work.  When the mean people go for the jugular vein, there is nothing you can do to satisfy them.  This priest resigned into retirement, but he held on to his destructive feelings and they affected his next ministry as a priest-in-charge.  So if you are ever in this position, it is best to deal with your left over emotions either before or during the early months of a new assignment.

Most capable priests carry into their ministry a solid set of leadership skills.  Sometimes a particular set of leadership skills is exactly what a parish needs.  However, some unjustly terminated clergy report that they were fired because they demonstrated exactly the right leadership skills.  It is bitterly ironic when congregations ask for or need a particular set of skills, but when they are used within the context of ordained ministry, the antagonists not only reject them, but wail loudly that Father or Mother so and so was "never a good fit."

The upshot is that the priest and his family are devastated.  They become depressed and angry. They have left over feelings of resentment and they feel like failures.  They may develop serious physical and mental health issues.  Families suffer.  Sometimes serious marital problems surface.  Most suffer severe financial losses and many do not get a decent severance package.  Where do they go?  What do they do?  In my view every priest should identify their transferable skills early on and be ready to bail out into a non-church job if necessary.

You'd think that bishops would help.  But this is usually not the case.  Many will sit on the fence while the priest is under attack.  I've known some that sided with the lay antagonists.  In this case the Bishop thinks that if he or she sides with the nasty folks, he or she is taking the winner's side.  The bishop is thus afraid of conflict and afraid of losing money. Another thing is that bishops cannot be true pastors to their clergy.  They have an administrative and canonical itch to manage the diocese, and that means getting all the money they can through the apportionment.  If this means putting a priest on the chopping block, so be it.

Toxic congregations don't change much over the years.  They have systemic issues that affect generations of clergy and thus rightly deserve the name "priest killers."  If you google "toxic congregations," you will find various denominational and academic studies about them, but not much about how they should be handled.  I believe that most congregational intervention programs, including parish consultants and interim ministries don't often work and thereby fail to dent the inherent toxic systems.  Therefore the best work of the church is to foster an intervention program that assists the clergy person and their families who have been terminated.

In Congregational Seasons, William Doubleday suggests that the Church Pension Fund and CREDO "should be encouraged to begin a serious initiative to assist the growing number of clergy in this category."  I would add to this partnership the Executive Council, The Episcopal Church Foundation and all dioceses.  Together they could produce a ministry to unjustly terminated clergy and their families that will assist them spiritually, mentally, physically and financially.  We need a well planned and executed aftercare program that provides a safety net for our brothers and sisters who are devastated by a forced termination.

Last, please take the poll we set up on clergy firings and let us know what you think.

21 comments:

  1. Although I can certainly understand how it feels to be wrongly accused of something and attacked (at work), sometimes there are justifiable accusations again persons. A thorough investigation needs to be done before anyone is "crucified" (couldn't think of a better word, sorry.

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  2. Sometimes these "firings" actually come too late. I have situations where the clergy person was in considerable mental distress such that they could not continue, in that season perhaps, with their vocation. But it happened so slowly that a dreadful stew of nasty ill mental health got a serious hold on all levels of leadership. It almost killed both priest and parish even after the separation.

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  3. As another useful tool, I recommend a model used in the Diocese of Pennsylvania called the Standing Commission of Salaries and Pensions. The commission monitored about 160 congregations monthly, worked with and warned, when necessary, congregations to be in compliance. If an obvious "mismatch" of priest and congregation was occurring, we helped retrain and outplace clergy into new professions. We financed the work of the commission and outplacement with a small tax levied on all congregations. The system worked well, kept everyone in the information loop, communicated regularly with the Church Pension Fund, gave considerable support to clergy who needed to get on with their lives and helped congregations respectfully handle their termination process. It was all win/win.

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  4. This is basically what happened to me. I offended my Sr warden, a long standing member and much respected man though one of truly shallow and fear based faith. He went ballistic and attacked me, quitely and subtly. He stopped coming to church and went to another parish for 5 weeks in a row. I called him on it and told the vestry we had to decide if he was still eligible to be Sr. warden... He packed the meeting with tons of people and I was crucified for every mistake I'd ever made by all his best friends. The bishop was no help at all, ignored me, and the archdeacon accused me of being 'confrontational' over the issue and ignored my requests for help. Sr Warden convinced the vestry I was too expensive and they came to me to suggest half time status. This is a parish with $2.5 million in liquid investments! The sad thing is I suspect if a vote had been held, I would have received 97 % approval, but nobody wants to get involved in a fight. I had no one, no one, to turn to for help. So I resigned into retirement. Fr. Bob Layne used to warn me about the ugly underside of the church and he was right. I am glad to be out of it. What a shame.... And this parish has a pathology that has killed 3 priests in a row, and the bishop ignores it.

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  5. oh, I'm Craig Sweney...

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  6. I had just such a painful separation from my parish in the diocese of Kansas. I must say that Bishop Smalley was a great support. When I was "bushwacked" at the annual Meeting with the announcement that the congregation had just voted to request my resignation I immediately remembered Bishop Smalley's advice to his clergy "Never just up and resign because then my hands are bound and I cannot really help you." So I refused to resign and directed the vestry to the
    official process of dissolution of a pastoral relationship. The Bishop helped negotiate an adequate separation packet, and, although it was hard to go through the process, meeting with a commission of clergy and layity to determine if reconciliation could take place, I still felt real support from my bishop and fellow clergy. The scary part was the 11 months of looking for a new cure, - but, once again, with help from bishop Smalley the right job came along and I served there till I retired. In fact, I am still there, filling in in varying capacities, since retirement. Perhaps the saddest part of the whole thing was seeing a parish I loved become divided, over me. I tried hard to minimize that, but I must admit to having a few smiles when 2 women who had resisted my call there, - because I was a woman, - both threatened to leave the parish because they were "firing" me. I was able to prevail upon them to stay and help put the parish together again.

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  7. My opinion is that the Church is very sick and in need of a antibiotic and perhaps even major surgery. The model we hold up is one of a covenant relationship, not a hire-fire corporate identity. Clergy are not protected in the disposable hire-fire model and "severence packages" are unfairly provided if received by the clergy at all. The bottom line is always in the bishop's hands. Yes, incredible damage is done and some of it is irreparable.

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  8. I like what the person said above, "The bottom line is always in the bishop's hands" and the connection with what Fr. Terrill said in his article, "You'd think that bishops would help. But this is usually not the case. Many will sit on the fence while the priest is under attack. I've known some that sided with the lay antagonists. In this case the Bishop thinks that if he or she sides with the nasty folks, he or she is taking the winner's side. The bishop is thus afraid of conflict and afraid of losing money. Another thing is that bishops cannot be true pastors to their clergy. They have an administrative and canonical itch to manage the diocese, and that means getting all the money they can through the apportionment. If this means putting a priest on the chopping block, so be it."

    I sent this article to several people who are PUSHing for me and my family. PUSH means "Pray Until Something Happens". Any clergy with a dissolution on their name needs a minimum of one year severence because they will most likely never resume their ministry at their previous capacity with that black mark. Every Canon sees it and rest assured it travels to every Search Committee. Our Canons are a joke. They speak of reconciliation but I know of one Bishop who shunned the canons and sent the clergy with his wife and children packing without even letting them say goodbye in Church. It was one of the worst, most un-Christ-like occurrences for the Church community and the town as well. When the three-fold office no longer behaves as one, then the Church will suffer. It's like the Father excommunicating the Son or the Holy Ghost!
    ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes! (Matt. 18)

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  9. Note of clarification from what I wrote above..."Our Canons are a joke", I was referring to our Canons and Constitutions, Title IV.10 found at this link: http://www.episcopalarchives.org/pdf/CnC/CandC_2012pp127-171.pdf

    If a Bishop has to choose between the Rector or those bringing forth charges, the Rector is typically held guilty until proven innocent. Even if innocence can be proven, it cannot reverse the course of public perception caused by those who wish them to be gone.

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  10. Your poll is fatally flawed because it doesn't permit one to choose the obvious: clergy incompetence. Is it not possible that at least some clergy are being handed their hats because they aren't good at it?

    This reminds me of the "mutual ministry" evaluation promulgated at my former parish sometime ago, regarding the new and inexperienced and unable-to-accept-help priest: parishioners were asked for positive feedback ONLY. "Negative" feedback, however constructive or gentle, was specifically not permitted among respondents.

    Thank God she moved on not long after anyway!

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  11. Such an experience never leaves. Even after a year and a half in a good parish, hardly a week goes by that I don't think, "how long until it happens again; who will attack this time; what wrong step will I take that I'm not even aware of?" All the counseling and spiritual direction in the world, all the "giving it to God" will not erase the visceral memories of being told my services would no longer be needed.
    On the other hand, thanks be to God for Julian whose words sustained me that 'all will be well."

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  12. I experienced a rich influential vigilantly group try to lynch my Retor. Thank God for a Bishop wholly bound in the love of Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit.. Bishop Frey listened, prayed with us and made it clear to all concerned that he had been given responsibility and authority in these matters and that there will be no lynching in his dio. The real problem in these parishes, in my opinion, is true and simple faith in Christ Jesus. When the church is just another status social club, the the world's savage rules apply and are applied. Rector lynching is but a horrific symptom of the real fundamental faith crisis of the congration. 60 active years, 6 vestry's struggles in 9 different Dio .have shown me that only through God's grace will a serious, daily committed life with Christ as center and leader keep me from being used and used up by the dark side. Teach and preach and live by example the Gosple life, calling the whole congregation to follow. And of course have what is seriously lacking today in PECUSA, a good,faithful, strong Bishop.

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  13. Is it possible that the reason that these kinds of events are so prolific is because neither our congregations nor our relationships with our congregations are grounded in an outflow from the Gospel. Many people in the pews have no practical experience in their daily lives of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, the grounds of their justification rests not in Christ, but in their money, their control, their pedigree, their victimhood, whatever. Whenever the clergy person (or the church) inadvertently challenges one of these, they lash out because the very grounds of their existence is being challenged. Perhaps as clergy, we would not be so deeply wounded by the hateful acts of our parishioners if our own identity were grounded not in our own popularity and receiving respect and admiration from our parishioners. If we knew how deeply loved we were by the God who endured the cross for us, we would fear our people less, need their approval less, and love them more. If our identity were grounded in Christ, and not what others think of us (no matter how hurtful and publicly expressed those thoughts are), we would focus more on being faithful to Jesus and less on proving ourselves competent to our churches. I'm just beginning to understand this in my own ministry context, but it is deadly to ground your justification on your ministry and not on Christ.

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  14. Seems to me the four choices leave a lot out. Sometimes there's a bad fit, bad placement process, or a priest who just doesn't do the job. "Nasty parishioners" is unfair to parishioners who sometimes work hard to deal with a mis-placement. I wonder whether there's a correlation with the generally older age of new ordinands - people who had experience in the "real world" and don't adjust well to the realities of parish life? What about the increasing number of ordinands trained in non-Episcopal seminaries who also may not have adequate preparation for Episcopal ministry?

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  15. Chris, you cite factors that, I believe, are relevant as far as I have observed.

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  16. Regarding the "incompetence" of clergy; perhaps it would be well to consider that a very thorough process of education, examinations, interviews,CPE, mentoring,interships,parish,diocesan Commissions on Ministry and finally the bishop's own dicernment and consent are required before ordination whereas the average parishioner and vestry persons have not been so well trained and examined.

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  17. Having been on both sides of the situation, discernment process for the Bishop of PA and brutally attacked by vestry members, Senior Warden and others at St. James-Wichita, the entire macro system of authority around ordination, placement and proper goverance has many pathological elements. Then there is the secular cultures' many destructive anti authority issues with which to account. The dissolution of the pastoral relationship is in general complex.

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  18. Missing from all these interesting and mostly one-sided comments is the concept of shared ministry, where both priest and laity are pledged to support each other and "walk in love." Things have gotten way too far out of hand when the "d" word is employed. Full, transparent and frank discussion about roles and responsibilities, expectations and misconceptions could head off such a disaster. I am sorry to hear about the bishops' failures and I am confident the good people of the Diocese of Southwest Florida would never let those things happen.

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  19. Thomas, you are correct when you talk about shared ministry, discussions about roles and responsibilities heading off a disaster in priesr-people relationships. Sure my remarks are one-sided; I'm a retired priest who has witnessed many unfortunate terminations where the priest has been the victim. And never say never...it is utterly naive to assume that the people of Southwest Florida would never let those things happen.

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  20. We have a very flawed priest and her husband who claims to be a retired priest but hands out communion wafers. They are mean people who are power hungry and not competent. They congregation grows smaller and smaller. The individual ministries are doing well because the people function individually. Our priest does not have an ounce of common sense and barely anything to contribute spiritually. She constantly quotes other people, gets her ideas from other people, and tries to have real human contact less and less. She is totally wrapped up in administering our website and facebook page. She has no office hours but requires all others to give extra time at the church.

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  21. Should an Episopal minister think of his position as just a job?
    Ours is most theatrical and complains of being over worked.
    Actually was on the stage, so one wonders at sincerity.

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