Friday, May 18, 2007
Anxiety at the Boundary
The clergy of the Diocese of Newark recently met with our Bishop and Chancellor to discuss clergy ecclesiastical discipline as defined in Title IV of the Canons.
The anxiety in the room was as thick as a cloud of incense at Grace Church, Newark.
That anxiety, I think, was two-fold: the first is that the current canons are based on civil law – that would be, in fact, criminal law. It assumes that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.
That’s the good part.
The not so good part is that an accusation brings about a veritable sea change in terms of the “natural” pastoral relationship between a bishop and clergy person – priest or deacon - and laity. Effectively, it ends it until there is a resolution of the case - and even then, it may never be the same.
Pastoral care “ex officio” is made available to clergy via another clergy assigned by the bishop. A “Response Team” of pastoral care is also available to the victim/congregation.
Let me be very, very clear at the outset: Clergy - deacons, priests and bishops - as well as the laity who serve in roles of professional pastoral leadership ought to be held accountable for misconduct and boundary violations.
For too long, excuses were made and silences kept that were injurious to the victims - sometimes individuals and sometimes entire communities of faith - as well as to the Body of Christ.
We have long needed a system of accountability which provides for justice, mercy and a humble walk with God.
That being said, the action of any complaint - justified or not, even if never brought to ecclesiastical court trial - is destructive to all pastoral relationship: bishop and clergy, clergy and community, clergy and colleagues. It is a serious matter, not to be taken "lightly or inadvisedly."
I should note that, with the exception of obvious situations of sexual or financial misconduct (which, our Chancellor reported, constitutes most of the complaints), Title IV allegations of say, "conduct unbecoming" can be used against clergy without a whole lot of accountability by the plaintiff.
Indeed, I was recently involved in a situation of counter-presentment against a bishop as a means to level the playing field in unfounded Title IV charges made by that bishop against a clergy woman whose more progressive conduct in support of a city ordinance for domestic partner benefits for its employees was what was REALLY considered "unbecoming" to her more conservative bishop (of course, that was not the stated complaint against her).
After thousands of dollars in legal fees, she finally resigned her position in absolute disgust - which was, no doubt, what her bishop wanted in the first place. Oh, a good financial settlement was negotiated, but her pastoral relationship with her congregation was no longer effective, and that community's relationship with their bishop is permanently strained.
Oh, and did I mention that she has not worked as a priest since the end of that ordeal? Last I heard, she had no intention of returning to work in a parochial setting - and she is one of the finest priests I know.
It should also be noted that information revealed in an ecclesiastical investigation and/or trial could be used if there is a subsequent civil trial – irregardless of the positive or negative resolution or outcome of the church proceedings.
That’s hardly an incentive for the priest or deacon to trust the ecclesiastical process with their status of “innocence until proven guilty.”
I think there was another reason for the anxiety in the room. The unspoken truth is that, for every single one of us, the old saying “there but for the grace of God” found an unsettling truth in our experience of our lives as pastoral leaders.
Like any of the helping professions, there will be those clergy who are aberrations to the norm – who are dishonest, or corrupt, or predators – and are ordained despite the rigors of the canonical process.
The chancellor reported that, in the past 10 years, there have only been approximately six clergy who have had charges brought against them, and only one ecclesiastical court trial which led to the ultimate deposition of that priest.
Of course, there are many ways to interpret that fact and, as far as I’m concerned, one clergy boundary violation is one too many.
That being said, I think that statistic speaks to the fact that the majority of clergy who engage in misconduct and violate boundaries are not, inherently, bad people. They are people like me and you – or your priest or deacon. They are good people who made bad judgments in bad times.
They are, and rightly so, held to a higher standard than people in other positions of leadership.
It can happen so easily it’s frightening. You find yourself working especially hard – managing several difficult pastoral situations all at the same time. Your spouse or partner is also having a difficult time at work and is either preoccupied or working long hours on a project. Either way, s/he’s emotionally unavailable and, truth be told, so are you.
Because of the nature of the work of parish ministry, most of what you do and what people say to you, is strictly confidential. There are precious few people with whom you can discuss your ministry. You fear making a slip, so you being an unconscious process of isolation.
You may find yourself working longer hours – in part because your spouse isn’t home anyway but also because you figure it’s better to keep busy than to dwell on the ache of loneliness that now gathers around your heart.
When one of the members of your congregation makes a snarky remark about having stopped by the office to see you and you weren’t there, or your office door was closed – again! – you find it more abrasive that normal.
Indeed, it begins to have a corrosive effect on your soul. The isolation and work hours increase proportionately. You may find increasing comfort in a glass of wine or a shot of good scotch at the end of the day. Hey, didn't St. Paul advise Timothy of the goodness of "a little wine for the stomach"?
How much is "a little" can become important to define.
One day, as if out of nowhere, you find yourself in a conversation with a parishioner or a clergy colleague and you think to yourself, “My gosh, s/he really understands!”
The next thing you know, you lift your head from the plow you’ve been pushing toward the mountain top and instead, you find yourself on a slippery slope toward a Title IV complaint.
I’m not offering the above scenario as an excuse. I’m just saying that the old, old aphorism is especially operative in this situation: “Desperate people in desperate times do desperate things.”
I guess I’m still operating on my old public health nurse training which is less interested in pathology (as important as it is) than in prevention.
I’m wondering if there might be a self-assessment tool which might be developed – or one that is already in existence that might be adapted – for use by the person in lay or ordained pastoral leadership.
I’m thinking that the office of the “chief pastor” might be particularly interested in the model of prevention vs. pathology and that the members of the House of Bishops might, in fact, authorize the development and use of such a tool of self-assessment for those members of the laity and ordained who are entrusted with the pastoral leadership of the flock of Christ Jesus.
You know. Sort of a semi-annual “check in.”
Perhaps the task is best left to Clergy Associations or various diocesan "Clericus" or Clergy Deaneries or Districts. Who best to develop a "self-assessment" tool than clergy - especially those of us who have been to the border and have made it back again without a violation because we engage in regular self-assessement with our Spiritual Directors, Therapists, Supervisors, Coaches, and/or clergy colleague groups (not to mention regular chiropractic adjustments and periodic full body massages when we can afford them)?
I speak of this as a graduate of a four year Clergy Leadership Project and a grateful attendee of the CREDO Project. Both of these projects are wonderful tools of self-assessment and increased awareness for clergy leadership. But, they are pretty much experiences which, without any leadership or follow up from the office of the “chief pastor,” will remain one which is “once in a lifetime.”
I say this, fully cognizant that Title IV does not include consequences for the boundary violations involving the laity.
This, in my estimation, is a serious oversight.
As the church awakens to the fullness of our baptismal ministry, and more and more positions of leadership are being filled by members of the laity, the church would be wise to extend its efforts of accountability and prevention to laity and clergy alike.
As we consider the consequences for broken boundaries, let us also seriously consider preventative measures.
It seems to me a way to allow grace to triumph over the law.