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.