Forced clergy terminations

The Rev. William Doubleday, priest and professor of Pastoral Theology at GTS for many years, posted this on Facebook March 7 and it has gathered quite a bit of reposting and discussion. Continuing the discussion here, at the Café: What is your experience? As a clergy person? As a church leader?

As a seminary professor for twenty-five years, I have come to know nearly a thousand Episcopal clergy reasonably well. I taught most of them in Pastoral Theology, Congregational Leadership, Church and Society, or Episcopal Church History classes. I also oversaw many in Field Education and Clinical Pastoral Education. Quite a lot of them visit, write, call, e-mail, or stay in touch on Facebook – often when they have a weird question or a difficult situation in their ministries.

I have also come to know – in varying degrees – hundreds of other Episcopal clergy through conference work, clergy days, service as a deputy to five General Conventions, and visits to many dioceses and parishes for all sorts of reasons. Periodically I interact with this larger body of Episcopal clergy personally or electronically, or I learn about them through the media.

Though I have not engaged in a scientific sampling process, I can report that FORCED CLERGY TERMINATIONS are growing more common week by week across our church. There is now a growing body of recent and very disturbing literature about church conflicts, toxic congregations, poorly managed after care situations, repeat lay antagonists of clergy, episcopal mishandling of divided parishes, and related topics.

I want to make clear, I am not talking about clergy sexual misconduct or financial malfeasance cases – though I have come to suspect that long-term systemic dysfunctions and congregational histories and patterns may in some instances actually encourage such serious problems. Rather, I am addressing those congregations where, often relatively early in a pastorate, or at a point of some crucial decision making, a group of antagonists emerge in the parish who rapidly rise to what Speed Leas would characterize as Level 4 and/or Level 5 conflict with their priest. Usually, at least some of these antagonists are on the parish vestry, or even among the officers of the vestry. Very often these conflicts escalate so rapidly that it seems almost impossible to mediate or deescalate the conflict with either skilled consultants or mediators or through skilled intervention by bishops of their staff. There is growing evidence that in many instances, diocesan bishops or staff often begin to collude with the antagonists when it appears they are going to win.

In a growing number of instances, clergy are terminated, either canonically or administratively, with at best modest severance packages, collateral damage to their families, serious situational depression, endangered financial circumstance, personally owned rectories they cannot easily unload, and greatly reduced prospects of finding future work in the church.

While it is clear to me that some clergy may play a large part in bringing on their own terminations, I am persuaded by the published data and personal information that has crossed my desk, that most of these terminations are very much undeserved, and often are the undeserved outcome for actually providing the leadership that a particular parish needs, but which some key antagonistic lay leaders choose to reject or subvert.

I am especially concerned about the sense of failure, shame, embarrassment, and despair that many terminated clergy feel. Not only have their personhood, priesthood, integrity, and self-esteem been assaulted, but they also feel incredibly isolated, alone, and without hope for the future or for the future of their ministries, or even their lives. Diocesan bishops and their staffs tend to be expeditious about making terminations happen, and almost constitutionally disinclined to do anything to help after such a termination. The spouses, partners, and children of these terminated clergy, and not infrequently the lay leaders who respected and supported them, are also left with no where to turn. Many of these clergy suffer in silence. Many families are in jeopardy. Many laity lose their parish or even their faith.

I do not have any easy answers to this complex and troubling pattern of events. But I do have a few observations:

1) Neither priests, nor bishops, nor diocesan staffs know enough about conflict assessment and conflict management. Many bishops are profoundly conflict averse, when in fact courage should be the order of the day. Almost inevitably clergy wait too long to ask for help with conflict as it escalates rapidly, and when they do ask for help the diocese has nothing much to offer and consultants from places like the Alban Institute are too expensive to be realistic.

2) I am struck by how frequently the leader of the antagonists – or even the lynch mob – is either the Chair of the Search Committee or the Senior Warden of the Vestry which called the priest in the first place. The great psychoanalyst, Heinz Kohut, might suggest we need to study much more closely the pendulum swing between the idealization and the demonization of clergy leaders in our church.

3) We need diocesan, denominational, and independent resources to assist the clergy who experience forced terminations. The Church Pension Fund and Credo should be encouraged to begin a serious intitiative to assist the growing number of clergy in this category, recognizing that clergy, priestly vocations, expensive theological educations, the integrity and well-being of clergy families, and much else is being cast out on the ecclesiastical scrap heap, with barely a prayer or a goodbye in many instances.

4) I note, with some irritation, that when Bishops make a mess of a diocese or are forced out by diocesan level antagonists, they are almost always given generous golden parachutes and/or landing pads in comfortable assistant bishop positions with friendly bishops. Terminated priests often have no where to turn, or at the very least feel that way. It is time to say what is good for the goose is good for the gander!

5) I would also note, that well-endowed and very prosperous parishes often pay off or buy off clergy at times of conflict in ways that are not available or possible for most clergy. In some instances, clergy who have messed up very badly are the ones most rewarded and provided for by the present systemic reality.

6) It is time for every level of the Episcopal Church to own this serious problem, study it, discuss it, and work for both more effective handling of parish conflict and better treatment of clergy faced with highly antagonistic parishioners and situations.

7) If you have thoughts or data about this issue which you wish to share more privately, feel free to message me.

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