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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.


Lauren Gough said...

You bring to light a serious problem in the Church especially now when many of the checks and balances of the Church have been eroded in the changes in Title IV. The vulnerablility of priests and deacons has never been so high while accountablity is so low for bishops.

I have been in 2 dioceses where bishops have brought charges that would never have stood up in either a civil or a criminal court simply because they could. They ruined priests' lives without ever bringing them to trial. And there was never a conviction of misconduct. The priests just gave up their positions out of anger and betrayal.

The bishops in these situations were sheilded from being called to account for their action because there is no way to demand that in our present set of canons which are admittedly incomplete.

Yes, there should be a way to evaluate ourselves. Yes, there should be some kind of way that we find outlets for the pressure cooker of ministerial life for both lay and clerical folks.

But the present place where the legal system has put our bishops means that we do not have pastoral care. We cannot look to our bishops as spiritual leaders any longer. We elect those who we want to be pastoral leaders and then they are not allowed to be that. The kind of pastoral care, and the kind of relationship that we need to have with spiritual leaders is now precluded on the advice of lawyers and insurance companies.

We may not even call our spiritual leaders to the same accountabilty that we are called. It heightens the feelings of isolation that those of us in the clerical ministry have to endure.

You are so right. Most of the people in this work are good, holy people: bishops, clergy and laity. And the ones that tarnish it are often those who have found themselves isolated or spiritually bereft. The personality types that are attracted to being rectors are often not the ones that form close collegial relationships or ones that can ease the stress of our profession.

The Church has become a place where we are in competition with one another rather working together to bring God's love to a broken world.

Presently, imo, we have as much a broken Church because we have a broken system that is not based on healthy relationships but on legal boundaries.

The coming generation is going to have reorganize our Constitution and Canons so that we can reestablish the checks and balances between bishops and clergy and between bishops and parishes that have served the Church so well for over 200 years.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Clergy seem to be quite vulnerable today. The call to ordained ministry must be powerful, or no one would answer.

At times, I can sense the anxiety among the clergy. Once you are accused, your life as a minister is very likely ruined, whether you are proved innocent or not.

Paul (A.) said...

"unfounded Title IV charges made by that bishop against a clergy woman whose more progressive conduct in support of a city ordinance for domestic partnership for its employees was what was really considered 'unbecoming' to her more conservative bishop":

Current Title IV.3.3 allows a bishop to bring charges only in the case of disregard of a Pastoral Direction (d), or if the bishop him- or herself is the Victim or relative of a Victim of Crime, Immorality, or Conduct Unbecoming a Member of the Clergy (e), or if the clergyperson involved is canonically resident in a different diocese from where the alleged Offense took place (h). Otherwise the bishop has no business under the canons in initiating charges (but this is not to say that the bishop couldn't get others to make the charges).

The individual clergyperson, if uncanonically charged with a Title IV offense by the bishop, can as a Vitim bring Conduct Unbecoming against the bishop under IV.3.23(a)(3), which may have happened here. But the counterpresentment is proceeded with on an entirely different level than the diocesan one.

All of us who are active in the church should be able to be held accountable for our bad behavior that impacts the church or others in the church. This should apply to bishops no less than lay leaders.

The proposed Title IV revisions that didn't make it to the floor of the 2006 General Convention would have included such lay leaders, but some proposed amendments also tended to insulate bishops. The proposals were sent back to a revised committee for presentation at the 2009 Convention. Those of us with interests in these matters should try to follow the committee's progress and offer comments and suggestions as needed.

Carol Cole Flanagan said...

Elizabeth, I have been a member of an Ecclesiastical Court, a Victim Advocate, chair of a Title IV policy development committee, and last but not least the subject of a Title IV complaint. The complaint concerned the political divisions in the church and not sexual or financial misconduct, and I was exonerated by the Review Committee which found no grounds for the complaint.

Having said that, I agree that the more work we do on prevention the better.

However, I think a central issue that causes much misunderstanding concerns the role of the bishop. The various formularies of the church consistently identify the bishop as the Chief Pastor of the *church* not the Chief Pastor of the clergy. Over and over again I see profiles of dioceses in search of a bishop who want someone to be the Chief Pastor of the Clergy. Now clergy are members of the church needless to say. However, when the actions of a particular priest have allegedly harmed the Body the bishop's first duty is to the *church* and not the priest. The bishop needs to see that a respondent has pastoral support, but ought not to confuse his or her duty to the church.

This is very hard for clergy because most of us have been steeped in the notion that the bishop is *our* pastor. I encourage clergy to seek out their own pastors and not burden the bishop with what seems to me a distortion of the role.

Sorry to be tedious, but you identify some important issues here.

Share Cropper said...

What a state of church canon! But, the lack of pastoral care is also noted in the discernment process. If you are rejected, you're just out with no one to counsel or console or figure out what went on...especially in small parishes.

Pastoral care is one of the core concerns for the church - pastoral care of all its members - all three ordained orders and the laity and the employees.

And, one of the ways to evaluate ourselves is through confession, regular confession - a full day of looking at the past six months and of writing down the possibilities of having stolen someone's joy or harmed someone. Then a chance to say those things out loud with a pastor who can not only pronounce forgiveness but can also add guidance. Reconciliation is a powerful tool.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Paul, for this fuller treatement of the canons.

I was trying to "protect the innocent" from any further exploitation, so I was not clear.

Of course, the complaint against this priest was NOT about her stance on domestic partnership.

The sad truth is that any one of us in parish ministry have our nay-sayers and critics. Mostly, they keep us humble, but if exploited - especially by "powers that be" - the information can be substantive enough to bring a Title IV charge -which is enough to get a priest to resign rather than fight - which is enough to get her to resign and move out of your diocese - which is what you wanted in the first place, if you get my drift.

It's unbelievable, I know, but the weakness of these canons can be exploited for ill as well as used for good.

Caminante said...

I loved the fact that my previous bishop, Mary Adelia McLeod, always invited us to come chat with her around our birthday. She figured we wouldn't forget the date. I always took her up on it and greatly appreciated the time she gave listening.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


I'm delighted to have your expertise and your awful experience replicated here for our learning and edification.

No tedium at all, not from my perspective. It's a complex and complicated issue which needs to be discussed more fully.

For the record, I have a Spiritual Director I see monthly, a therapist I see weekly or bimonthly (depending on what's going on in my life), a supervisor I see weekly, a monthly clergy support group as well as a weekly chiropractic adjustment and full body massage as often as I can work it in.

As you can see, I gave up on "bishop as chief pastor" a long time ago.

I think your definition of the bishop's role needs far more clarification than it presently has in the church - among clergy and laity alike.

Again, thanks for your post.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


Hmm . . .Seeing your bishop once a year around your birthday for a little chat! Leave it to Mary Adelia to come up with such a perfectly lovely idea!

RFSJ said...


A clergy health self-assessment tool is a wonderful and needed idea. I wouldn't even know how to begin, but I'd help with it if I can.


Ann said...

The revision of Title IV that was soundly defeated was intended to correct some of these issues. I would advise sending your comments to the Task Force on revision for 2009 GC. I understand they are working on them but mainly a tweaking of what was offered last time.

Lauren Gough said...

A bishop shouldn't bring charges and technically this one didn't, he had the Standing Committee bring the charge--and there in lies the problem. If the Standing Committee brings the charge, who is there to determin whether the charge is worthy to be brought forward or not.

Elizabeth, you said that only 1 charge against a priest went to trial and resulted in a guilty verdict. Is that in the whole of the Church? or just your diocese?

Most of the chancellors of dioceses have no trial experience. Even with help from 815 dioceses that bring presentments against clergy often violate the basic rights that all persons are entitled to under the US Constitution. But even when one's career has been ruined, a priest, according to canons, may not bring a civil suit against the diocese or the bishop on pain of being presentment. To bring civil charges against a bishop is a presentable offense these days.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Lauren, that was our diocesan stat.

The Ranter said...

At the same time, if you want laity to take on a more active role in ministry other than warming a space in a pew on Sundays and putting a check in the plate, you might want to be careful about putting them before a tribunal for slipping up. Exactly what do you plan to do to bad laity? What can the church do to bad laity who are volunteering, other than relieving them of their duties? Excommunication? Revocation of Baptism?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Laity who violate ethical boundaries who are either professional paid staff or volunteers should be held as accountable as clergy.

Period. End of sentence.

Does that mean that they will probably leave the church - and take their pledge with them?

No doubt.

I guess the question to ask is: How important is the presence and pledge of a predator or thief or one who expects the trust of a community of faith and then violates that trust at moral boundaries?

Paul (A.) said...

Lauren, the conflict of interest between a Standing Committee's ability to initiate Charges (under current IV.3.3(g)) and its ability to serve as a Diocesan Review Committee (under current IV.3.1) is one that would have been addressed under the proposed Title IV revisions. Having a body act both as accuser and as grand jury is the epitome of impropriety and needs to be addressed.

I don't understand your reference to chancellors. Chancellors are not supposed to be involved in ecclesiastical discipline either under the current or the proposed Title IV. Church Attorneys, on the other hand, ought to be trial counsel, although the canons do not require this. It's something that can be addressed by diocesan canons.

Paul (A.) said...

On the issue of clergy health, the Diocese of New Jersey passed the following resolution at its convention this year:

"Be it Resolved, That all active clergy in the Diocese of New Jersey be encouraged to participate regularly in an ongoing colleague support group, and to secure a spiritual director for regular meetings."

The Ranter said...

You seem to have missed my point. What do you propose be done to misbehaving lay volunteers? The only thing I can think of is removing them from their duties (which probably takes place informally with or without the canonical provisions you advocate...) and excommunication. Is that what you are advocating? I am trying to figure out what you mean by holding them accountable, as the only ordination laity possess which can be revoked/inhibited is baptism. And I think there is something in the prayer book about baptism being irrevocable.
I will say that I had a priest--one who had been ordained about three months at the time--blab something I told him in the context of pastoral counseling to at least one mutual acquaintance who assumed I knew this personal information was public knowledge. By the time I found out about it, the priest in question had left the diocese, and he has since left TEC for Rome. At the time I found out he had violated the boundary I understood to be present, he was still serving in a TEC congregation. I decided to let it go because the guy was so new, that it was my own stupidity for trusting someone so green. I also figured that if he was reaching people (the man was a powerful preacher) that was more important than me getting the satisfaction of becoming a major headache for him.
So that being said... have you considered how this canon is going to impact getting laypeople to volunteer, if they are going to be held liable for slip ups? And what do you propose be done to them? There is separation of church and state, and the laws are different. Clergy are paid religious professionals, and there is a big difference between being a "professional" and being a "volunteer."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


I got your point. Yes, if a person has violated a boundary - lay or ordained - s/he should be fired.

No, if a person has violated a boundary - lay or ordaine s/he should not be excommunicated.

If a member of the laity wishes to work within the institutional church and does not wish to be held accountable to standards of care, just how valuable IS their "volunteer" work?

That's too costly for "free" work.

The Ranter said...

I think they do get rid of troublesome volunteers who might better put their talents to use elsewhere. That is where pastoral common sense comes in. Does it really require a canonical ammendment? I think there are too many canons as it is.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


You are absolutley correct: we don't need canon law to deal with "troublesome" volunteers.

Common sense is what is required.

But, I'm not talking about "troublesome" volunteers.

I'm talking about people who break serious boundaries - sexually inappropriate behavior, including harassment, extra-marital affairs, pornography, etc., outright theft to misappropriation of funds - like that.

I think it's enormously important for the church to have its own system of justice as well as any civil suits that might be filed.

Paul (A.) said...

But, Elizabeth, isn't excommunication appropriate for "those who have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the other members of the congregation" (BCP 409)? Why then not for those who have "violated boundaries"?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I would hope that excommunication would be an absolutely last resort.

The Ranter said...

OK, I guess I am with you then. I was imaging gossipy altar guild ladies being hauled in before a tribunal for unseemly speculation on just how much sacrament wine Fr. consumes...