I'm talking about "When Sheep Attack" by the Rev'd Dr. Dennis Maynard.
I didn't want to read it. I tried to dismiss its slim size and large print format with occasional bold sentences as an indication that this was probably not a serious book for clergy to read.
Dr. Maynard has been an Episcopal priest for over 35 years. I had read only one of his previous books "Those Episkopols" - a resource for clergy to use during their new member ministry - but rarely found an audience for it. Not that there isn't an audience for it. I just never encountered a new member who was concerned about questions like, "Can you get saved in The Episcopal Church?" and "Why do Episcopalians reject biblical fundamentalism?".
Besides, in this book and several others of his, the author is clearly addressing the laity of the church. The back jacket of the paperback book begins:
Do you love your parish? Are you fond of your pastor? Would you believe that in just a mater of a few weeks your pastor and his family could be abused, humiliated, and unemployed? In just a matter of days your parish could be split down the middle. A couple of months from now close to forty percent of the people you currently see at worship could no longer be there. Close to half of those will never attend worship or participate in any church. Friends that you see talking and laughing this Sunday may never speak again.I picked up a copy - at the urging of a friend - and read it any way. I discovered that this book is a wise old owl dressed up in sheep's clothing.
If you want to do whatever you can to keep that scenario from happening to your pastor and your parish, then this book is for you."
Now, I want to say, straight up, that you and I both know that the ecclesiological landscape is littered with "toxic" clergy. There are men and women in collars who are fine, intelligent, well educated, deeply spiritual people who are, nevertheless, embarrassingly incompetent in a parochial setting.
Some of the sisters and brothers in black or purple shirts are simply not equipped to lead a community of faith, much less a diocese, in the rigorous demands of parochial and diocesan ministry.
In many ways, it is, as my former seminary professor and John H. Snow aptly described it, an "impossible vocation" to balance the various pastoral, spiritual, educational, financial and administrative facets of leadership in the church.
Then there are those who have - flat-out - broken relational or sexual or financial boundaries. There are, sadly, "black sheep" in white collars. There are numerous media accounts of "clergy misconduct" and "conduct unbecoming".
In the Episcopal Church, we have Title IV Canons to deal with that when they are discovered and brought into account for their behavior. It is a sad reality which has, in some ways, always been with us.
Clearly, some "wounded healers" are more wounded than they are healers.
This book is not about that.
Neither is this book about the sad reality of 'conservative' or 'orthodox' verses 'liberal' or 'progressive' theological arguments which are tearing at the very fabric of community life in churches across denominational lines.
Rather, the author of "When Sheep Attack" addresses those situations in churches where there are what he calls "antagonists" - a person or a small group of people whose need to be in control begins to control them and the community, leading them to attack the leader.
It happens more often than you might think. It's a somewhat silent epidemic which is not often addressed because, well, quite frankly, most Christians are more invested in being nice than telling the truth.
Church secrets are the worst secrets to expose.
And, the most dangerous and damaging.
Clergy, I think, are some of the worst offenders at keeping secrets. See also: "abused, humiliated and unemployed" - and, led to believe that they are completely at fault for what has happened to them, often if not explicitly than by the inference of the behaviors of their own "chief pastors" (aka "The Bishop").
This is compounded, in my experience, by "the silence of the lambs" - those folk who see and know what is going on, but remain silent or stay away - primarily because they don't know what to believe - much less what to do - about the vicious rumors that are being spread by the "antagonist" sheep concerning their pastor.
They also don't want to "hurt the church". Clergy come and clergy go, but the church lives on, even if the lifeblood of the community has become poisoned, or the baptismal waters polluted with toxic elements, and their behaviors have become dysfunctional and dangerous to the spirit and the soul.
It's the kind of attitude about the church one sometimes hears in defense of toxic family members: "He may be an abusive old codger, but he's our abusive old codger." Some people believe that about the institutional church.
Besides, this is the church where marriages, baptisms and funerals have been held of relatives and loved ones. When weighed against the life or career of one clergy person - even if s/he has become 'a lamb to the slaughter' - the choice seems obvious.
Besides, people really do believe themselves when they say, "We're a warm, welcoming church". The problem is that they really believe that this is the mission of the church - not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Woe be it unto the clergy person who tries to get a church which is highly invested in "nice" to do the mission of the church!
I know one clergy person who is being treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and is presently on disability after the experience. Whenever s/he is called by someone from the Church Pension Group, someone will always say, "I'm so sorry this has happened to you."
Some of them are "interim clergy" - or, in the current new title - operating under the "Office of Transitional Ministry". In my experience, many of these clergy are working out what they consider their "sins" - or, their unaddressed anger - on unsuspecting congregations. Which only compounds the problem.
Ever wonder why so many congregations have unsuccessful "transitional periods" that "lasted almost longer than we could bear"? I'm convinced this is one of the reason.
Others are working as "non-parochial" clergy, many of whom are in social service or other not-for-profit organizations. Many I know are healing and basking in the affirmation of working in settings and with people and agencies who deeply appreciate their skills and talents. I hear them say, over and over, that they would "never go back" to parish ministry. Ever.
Still others are working on their doctorates and seeking employment in the ever-shrinking market of faculty positions at seminaries or universities with religion or psychology departments. If you listen carefully under the intelligent, articulate and erudite rhetoric of The Academy, you'll hear lots of rationalization and, every so often, just a bit of projection which, to the trained ear, barely masks the pain.
I shutter to think what they are passing on by osmosis to their seminarians. What's that old saying, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." I'm convinced that some "can't" because they simply couldn't return to what they experienced as a dysfunctional, painful, dangerous setting.
Still other clergy have taken an "early retirement" option, collecting their pension while seeking other part-time or full-time work - including as staff of churches - some large and successful, others small and struggling who welcome the additional help and status of clergy on their roles. If there has not been any healing, many, as Maynard points out, either become strong allies to the antagonists in the church or become, themselves, the antagonists.
Insecurity and jealousy are terrible things. They are a hideous sight to behold when manifested among the ordained. I can't tell you how many seminarians I have known who have gone on to become associate pastors in places where the senior pastor was so insecure that s/he verbally abused the newly ordained and/or actively sabotaged and undermined their ministry.
I know their situation only too well. That was, in fact, my experience in the very first priest associate position I held. I'll never forget the day the rector returned from a five week vacation. I walked into the office and he was standing there with a handful of pink telephone messages and was screaming at me, "These are all for you. I don't know half the people who left these messages! What the hell are you trying to do?"
He also pulled me out of the procession line as we were singing the first hymn and walking into church on a Very Hot summer Sunday because I was wearing sandals and no stockings. "You will dress like a proper lady in this church," he hissed loudly as he grabbed the arm of my alb.
That was my first Sunday at that church. I left 18 months later.
Dr. Maynard reports that he has been called in to consult with thousands of troubled congregations over the years across all denominational lines - Protestant and Catholic. In this book, he has taken twenty-five of those congregations and studied them intensely, looking for patterns and similarities.
One of the shocking things he found is that, in every case, antagonists attack not when things are going bad. Rather, they attack successful, competent pastors - after the ASAs (Average Sunday Attendance) have increased and the Stewardship Programs have been more successful than anyone could remember.
Maynard draws on the work of Kenneth C. Haugk, author of Antagonists in the Church. While he stops short of describing them as suffering from a psychological disorder (but I wouldn't), the behavior pattern of antagonists is easily discernible. These are people who thrive on creating trouble. They appear to have an insatiable need for power and control.
Some of them love "drama" whose reward is in tearing things down. In my experience, there are others who are highly invested in being the "hero". Their reward is in creating a "villain" from whom they can "rescue" the congregation.
Here's one of the most jarring paragraphs in Dr. Maynard's book:
"The data in our twenty-five case studies could easily allow us to conclude that the more successful and popular the pastor, the more likely they are to be attacked by the antagonists. But make no mistake about it. Their intent is to tear down both pastor and congregation. We could easily further conclude that their desire is to return the parish to its dying, less dynamic state."Dr. Maynard is very clear that the antagonist is not to be confused with those who offer positive critiques on the ways that parish ministry can be improved. Most competent clergy welcome positive feedback, and are unafraid to implement changes based on this feedback, often on an 'experimental' basis, seeking more feedback from the congregation as the experiment progresses.
This is how a healthy congregation moves through the discernment of change and transition that are part of a life in Christ. However, Dr. Maynard says that
"Antagonists go for the jugular. They have a singular goal. They want to hurt, humiliate and destroy the senior pastor. In the course of their attacks, they intentionally want to divide the congregation between those that agree with them and the supporters of the rector."Those who have either been the targets of antagonists or experienced their destructive patterns in communities will immediately recognize the patterns as Dr. Maynard articulates them in this book.
However, those who have not are probably shaking their heads right about now, incredulous that this could ever happen in THEIR congregation, much less ANY congregation.
Denial is very strong in "nice Church people". Indeed, one of the former parishioners of the clergy person I spoke about earlier who is on full disability for PSDT after a horrible, intense, destructive experience in a very affluent suburban congregation in a nearby diocese is a case in point.
She is a beloved member of her church and her diocese, seen as a leader for justice - especially for women in the church. However, she seems completely oblivious to the fact that the last three leaders of her congregation have either been removed or left after conflict. Indeed, the last rector struggled with addiction problems, violated serious sexual boundaries as well as his marriage vows. He is now divorced and deposed and still living in the diocese in a community not far away - a situation which leaves his memory a bitter and very much alive reality in that community.
I met up with this wonderful woman a few months ago at a gathering of church activists. I found myself cringing when I heard her talking about their new "Priest in Charge" - a "nice young gay man" who has, she says, "started to turn the community around."
"He's starting to bring people back to church," she cheerily reported. "It's so good to see everyone happy again. It's such a nice church - a great place. Now, it's a happy place."
A few weeks ago, I met said "nice young gay man"in that nearby diocese at another church gathering. As Priest in Charge, he has a three year contract - sort of "rent with option" for both parties to buy into a long-term rector relationship. I don't know that congregation well, but I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the antagonists in that community will lay low for three years beneath the veneer of niceness - I mean, they even hired someone who was gay! See how 'open' and 'inclusive' and 'warm and welcoming' they are! - before they begin to reemerge and the pattern will repeat itself.
Dr. Maynard points to this dynamic as part of the fuel that fires the antagonists - and, I would add, silences the lambs - in communities of faith that have undergone this kind of turmoil. He says it becomes "part of the DNA" of congregational life.
Dr. Maynard was able to identify the character of "arrogance" in the antagonists in each of the twenty-five congregations he studied. Affluent suburban churches are filled with affluent people - many of whom enjoy financial success in the corporate world which has made them arrogant. They are very much used to being in power and control. Others are "company people" who understand only too well their place on the "food chain" of the corporate structure. Both groups apply corporate techniques and strategies to the church which don't always fit neatly.
There is no doubt in my mind that many congregations can be helped by a good business plan. The problem is that most of those business plans are not built on a "gospel plan" - which is not as simple as just "doing good." When the church is at its best, it moves beyond mere "charity" into an understanding and emulation of the sacrificial love of Jesus.
One man in one of the congregations I served took me to task for preaching that "the church is at its best when it understands itself as filled with beggars who teach other beggars where to find bread."
"That's not my image of the church," he said, trying to sound kindly and helpful but he barely concealed his distress and disgust. "The church to me is like an ice cream truck," he said, as I listened, slack-jawed. "It delivers good things to people."
I could just see that developing as a corporate logo for the church. Worse, I could see a majority of the congregation happily buying into it as the sole purpose of what is at the soul of the church.
I went home and wept.
Dr. Maynard's research also led him to understand that not only are some bishops unhelpful in these situations, they can also be part of the problem. In every single one of the twenty-five cases he studied, the priest/pastor did not get any help from their bishop or judicatory leader. Indeed, some of the clergy were encouraged to resign or retire by their chief pastor. And, in every single case, that's exactly what happened "for the health and well being of the church."
However, for some clergy, it did not end there. Some of the antagonists followed the clergy around wherever they went, repeating the rumor and innuendo to the congregation which was either calling him or her or had called the clergy person to be their rector.
Dr. Maynard writes:
"Absolutely every clergy person in our study was in agreement that the one thing that could have changed everything was a strong intervention by his or her bishop. This did not happen in any of the case studies. Half of the priests surveyed reported that they believed their bishops had almost immediately sided with the antagonists. They reported that their bishops actively worked with the antagonists for their removal. Some of the bishops turned on the priests completely, attacking them verbally, sending them for psychological evaluation, investigating the priest's past ministries or threatening to "defrock" them as being unfit for ministry."Mind you, Dr. Maynard reports that:
"All twenty-five participants were serving congregations that were alive and growing at the time the antagonists accelerated their attacks on them. The clergy reported they had just completed the most successful stewardship campaign in the history of the congregation. Others had just conducted successful capital campaigns. Still others had just finished a successful building project or were about to embark on one. Record attendance at worship was being recorded and the rector, the parish or both had received national attention in the denominational press.There are several signs of hope in this book - and several "ounces of prevention" that don't necessarily offer a cure but begin to articulate some things laity and clergy can do to raise awareness about the problem and take steps to take care of the particulars of situations when they develop.
Perhaps the universal frustration for all the clergy is summarized in this statement by one of the priests, "I still don't know what I did wrong. Everything was going so well. Then a group of no more than a dozen people brought it all to an end. I just don't get it. Dennis, I hope your study will help me understand. I feel like I was being punished for doing a good job. Am I wrong? I loved my parish. I loved the people. My ministry with them energized me. Please somebody tell me what I did wrong."
Clearly, raising awareness in terms of the leadership of bishops is key. Indeed, Dr. Maynard devotes a section to one bishop whose clergy identified his leadership as crucial to a successful outcome in situations with antagonists.
He also discusses one situation in particular where the clergy person was clearly at fault. After Dr. Maynard's interview with the staff and leadership of the congregation, the wardens and vestry developed a plan of action which included anger management courses as well as leadership development for their rector. On the ride back to the airport, Dr. Maynard asked one of the wardens why they elected to take this particular path.
Her response was simply startling: "We don't allow our rectors to fail," she said. And, he didn't. He went on to become a highly effective leader in that congregation and in the church.
Healthy practices can also be part of the DNA of congregational life.
So, you may be asking yourself why Dr. Maynard's primary intended audience is the laity of the church. Why is he not directing this to clergy so we will gain better understanding of the antagonists in our midst? Why is he not addressing the problem directly to those who have power and control - the bishops and judicatory leaders?
I suspect there are a few reasons, none the least of which is that, despite what we think of institutional power and authority, the most powerful people in the church are the laity. It's time we started acting like it and respecting their intelligence as well as the authority of all the baptized.
That is not to say that this is the only reason for Dr. Maynard's targeted audience. He knows that an informed, educated laity leads to an informed, educated - if not intensely curious - clergy.
Clergy and bishops will read what laity are reading - even if only in self-defense.
Besides, if every one of the 25 clergy studied in the book walked away from their positions to end the dispute, and if every single one of their bishops or judicatory leaders offered no help or were part of the problem, then it falls to the laity to take some real leadership in these situations.
Frankly, I think this book ought to be widely read by everyone in the church - laity, deacons, priests and bishops. There is a great deal to consider in this slim little book with large print. Lots of good information. Lots of startling data. Believe it or not, even more hope.
There is also "tough love" - the kind that Jesus gave. I found this one, in chapter six, a real eye-opener. It's under "Dissolution Clause" in the Letter of Agreement:
"In light of the current climate, I would like to recommend an additional clause. This clause would include the following details. That if the governing board should pursue a dissolution action against the rector, then any and all legal expenses resulting from that action incurred by the rector or the parish shall be paid for by the vestry.Some of us love the church enough to risk saying - and doing - what is necessary to bring about change and transformation so that She may be the vehicle of love and change and transformation that Jesus and his disciples intended.
Then, I would recommend one further clause. It should be clearly agreed at the beginning that if the governing board initiates the dissolution of ministry action, the rector shall receive a minimum severance package. Depending on the size of the parish, this should be a minimum of eighteen months and for larger parishes where the job possibilities for a removed priest are fewer it could go up to five years salary and benefits.
I would especially recommend a dissolution clause in the Letter of Agreement before accepting the call to serve a parish that has removed a previous senior pastor."
If you are about that kind of sacrificial love, please read this book. The life you save may be your own - and that of the church.