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Monday, November 01, 2010

When Sheep Attack

I was attacked by this book.

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.

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."
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.

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."

One could hear that as a lament that this is some kind of aberrant situation. I don't think that is what's being said. I don't know the actual statistics, but I am willing to bet the deck on the front of my house that I love so much to say that there are probably more clergy who are silently suffering from PTSD - most of whom are too embarrassed to apply for disability benefits from the church - than anyone could imagine.

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.

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."
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.

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?

Good question.

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.

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."
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.

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.

44 comments:

Elaine C. said...

think I better read this one -- sounds a little too familiar

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Your story as a new associate with the insecure rector really caught my attention. I know of two clergy (both women) who suffered under a painful rector. Why this strikes a nerve with me is it is SO very similar to an experience that creates damaged physicians--the resident and the overbearing, insecure, attending or the new attending and the overbearing attending.

I think it "primes the pump" to make the low person in the power differential become a people pleaser in some ways. They don't get strokes from their peer seniors, so they go looking for strokes among the parish (or in the case of the docs, the nurses or office staff or techs, or medical students.) Which, frankly an "lay antagonist" will smell out, I am guessing, in the same way abusive clergy smell out their targets.

I also bet that it's not an accident that the associate is often female.

I wonder how much "affluenza" plays in the role of the antagonist, as well.

I also wonder how many of the antagonists come from the ranks of the abused, either in their church life or work life. I know in my secular world, having been one of the abused in my training process always makes me very on guard not to be the abuser in the workplace--Yet, God help me, I also know how stress can make things flare up that one realizes he/she can be just as skilled as the ones who abused him/her on rare occasions.

Oh, my dear Elizabeth--have you been out in the boat trolling, and accidentally hooked Leviathan here?

Beverly Huck said...

I recently read this book and I think many of us can identify with it. I know I could - there are stories to tell there!
I gave the book to the rector at one of the churches I currently am affiliated with. She took over a troubled parish that had a toxic priest who attempted to remove them from the Episcopal church. He managed to split the church in 9 months and then went to the Anglican church that eventually threw him out. He's now a Methodist!!
In the past three years she has gradually built the church back up but definitely has her hands full with detractors and previous disfunction. Fortunately she has good wardens and vestry that are slowly but surely trying to deal with the detractors. She gave the book to her wardens and last week in a meeting with them they told me how this has helped them put a lot of things (and people) into the right perspective. Hope is transforming!

Bill said...

This is all too familiar and all too recent. I recognize too many of the actors in this Greek drama. You have those who can’t have it their way so they take it upon themselves to destroy it for everyone. You have your plotters and schemers. You have the ones who smile as they stab you in the back. And of course you have the ones who choose to stay out of it. They see what’s happening and they do nothing. These might be the saddest of the lot. They just let it happen. History is rife with these sorry excuses for human beings.
I especially remember the last days when all the efforts of the plotters come to fruition. They stand there dumbfounded amidst the destruction of their own making. They shake their heads and wonder how it came to be. Then at the very end, they are hurt to the quick when you confront them with their own duplicity. How dare you not love them? How dare you not forgive them? How dare they be that stupid?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Elaine - I think EVERYONE should read this book. Really.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - Nope. Dr. Maynard did that. I'm just reporting.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bill - Here's what Dr. Maynard reports: "Every congregation experienced negative repercussions when the priest left the parish. The negative impact on the parish was seen immediately. Attendance and giving decreased dramatically. Membership declined and program growth became stagnant to non-existent. Empty pews at Sunday worship and declining parish collections were the most noticeable consequences. On average, 28% of the worshipers left these parishes and united with another. 19% left the parishes completely and have yet to return to that parish or any other. Only 35% of the membership remained as members in good standing, maintaining their giving and attendance. 38% of those that remained decreased their financial support and activity in the parish. Another 18% remained on the membership rolls but became inactive."

Stupid doesn't come close to the appropriate descriptive word for this.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey Bev - Unfortunately, these folks had to shoot themselves in both feet before they realized that the reason they weren't walking was their own damn fault. Hope is transforming. Here's praying this congregation will be "up and running" again soon.

MarkBrunson said...

I am in the embarrassing position of having a brother who is one of the "antagonists."

Our new priest came, and, immediately, he began his "teasing" references to the new rector's youth - he's 32, I believe - and referred to him - again "teasing" - as "Fr. Skidmark" because of the little chin-beard Fr. Jay has.

Then - came last Christmas. Fr. Jay used incense, and my brother wrote him a towering tirade of an email, referring to the use of incense as "pagan ritual" and blah-blah, and "we've never used it before!" and blah-blah, and crud about his having had to go to the ER because he couldn't breathe, and if things didn't change pretty damned skippy, he wouldn't be back, and neither would any of his family. (I should point out that Fr. Bullion - our previous rector - used incense ever Christmas and Easter, with no huge reaction, and, quite apart from no conclusive findings on actual "incense allergies" my brother, who'd been to the ER and couldn't breathe, was able to hold forth on his tirade, sitting on the sofa with no sign of distress, with a similarly sore-headed old friend who left St. Pat's long ago, because we didn't all recognize his greatness).

In this case, the secrecy didn't work. I went to Fr. Jay and refuted the claims, assured him my brother didn't speak for anyone but himself, and, while he had been "a member of the church for 15 years" - he'd attended maybe once a year and bore absolutely no clout. Indeed, my sister-in-law made no effort to stop attending and acting as altar server. Not a single other soul - including one of our regular members with emphysema - said anything about the incense.

However, when the "antagonist" has real clout in the congregation, the problems become parish-threatening. We had that in the past, as well, and refusing to be silent about it was what saved us.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Mark, for pushing through your embarrassment to tell this story.

I'm absolutely convinced that the more we talk about it, the better able we'll be to deal with situations like these that are happening all over Western Christendom.

Mary-Cauliflower said...

I'm not sure whether all parishioners who stay out of these controversies deserve to be labeled "sorry excuses for human beings." At the outset, it's not always easy to tell what's going on. Powerful parishioners tend to be, well, powerful. The average food pantry volunteer, Sunday school teacher, lay eucharistic visitor is not part of their inner circle. There is also sometimes a dynamic where a new rector initially courts the powerful until they turn on him or her. A lot of the initial harm gets done on a personal level, and it's hard to figure out exactly what has happened until the atmosphere has soured.

Then there is the question (for the parishioner who is neither an "offender" nor able to fix the situation) of how to be a steward of one's own time and resources. Let's say you join a parish to do service in the world. Gradually you perceive that people with authority and wealth are locked in an endless battle. Do you stay locked in a dysfunctional system that you have neither the power nor skills to change ? Bear in mind the offenders could toss crap at you and say just the right things to ruin your reputation and/or ability to be allowed to minister to kids or the homebound. Or do you focus on the reason you became a Christian in the first place, prune the branches that are sapping your energy, and stay focused on the ministry you are called to do?

Part of the "niceness" that is asked of us parishioners who are outside of the disputes is to pretend that we are being cared for pastorally. So we have to figure out a way to cope with health scares, family illness, etc. to not hurt the feelings of the pastor whose energies are directed at the "offender" parishioners. And there's no mechanism for the average Jane or Joe to call on a neutral mediator - because it's not like the bishop is going to want to hear from some dweeb who gives three grand a year and builds houses for Habitat.

When dioceses have better resources for facilitating disputes, investigating these controversies, and providing a way for disinterested parties to give their side of things, maybe I'll feel more inclined to get involved. Every day I am more accutely aware that my time on this earth is limited, that I have gifts to share, and that parish controversies are a black hole.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. I, too, am a priest in treatment for PTSD to the tune of $450 a week paid out of my pocket since I can't get disability without exacerbating my condition. Of course, my bishop took the side of my tormentors - it's all about taking care of the bishop's tender feelings. I was even told by the Canon to the Ordinary not to try to communicate with the bishop lest I slip up and mention my suffering. I wish I could say this isn't surprising. Naturally, I was dismayed and burst out laughing when the PB made those fatuous remarks about the ministry of our bishops at the last EC meeting. I would love to sign this, but know it would lead to more hounding, humiliation, etc.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mary C, I think Bill was commenting on his own situation. That was his assessment of the people he knew.

Which is not to diminish your position. Which is why I call it "silence of the lambs". You are a much a victim as the clergy-target. And, when you stay and focus on God and Jesus, you are constantly victimized. It may well be an issue of "good stewardship" but O Lord what it does to your soul.

I'm glad you wrote, Mary C. Yours is a very important perspective. I hope you read the book.

James said...

Thank you for a great post, Elizabeth. "Our" parish has been though this situation three times (the antagonists being a mother and daughter and very affluent). The first time was about twenty years ago and our parish still hasn't recovered.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

James - I don't think many congregations do. Dr. Maynard makes that point clearly in his book.

Nomads said...

Bonjour Elizabeth!

I got to your blog via our diocesan clergy listserve. One of our deacons wanted to know what others thought.

As a former diocesan staff person conflict management was one of the many hats I wore so everything you noted in your post (and I assume in "When Sheep Attack") rings so very painfully true. I have a lot of thoughts about the dynamics present in church conflicts; how they start, are sustained, and ultimately (and often poorly and dishonestly) resolved. As I have always said (tinged with a great deal of sarcasm): "Church politics are the most insidious of all politics."

But apart from all that I have thought as of late that conflict, as a sign of the brokeness of the church, goes much deeper than some sheep wanting power, or having some other issue (real or imagined) with the shepherd. The brokeness is organizational (systemic) in nature and I believe has to do with the way we 'manage' the church. And the way we 'manage' the church is not always honest or truthful. We give lip service to our baptismal vows in that they are not really a requirement for church membership. The grace and absolute love Yeshua taught, lived, and died for has given way to an organization that, as one priest said, is in tension with Yeshua's movement. Because most of the laity, and many clergy, do not fully understand or even subscribe to the baptismal vows, much less the concept of absolute love, we have all fallen into giving lip service to love and grace. We have done this because of our desire to keep the organization together (whether at the parish level or higher). (We)Church leaders, ordained and lay, have had as our first priority the integrity of the organization and not the truth of the Gospel; the two are not necessarily compatible. As a result, conflict is but one of the tougher distractions from our true mission and ministry.

When we confront our 'corporate' behavior and more fully embrace the concept of absolute love, I think we will discover fewer 'killer sheep' because we will be able to 'cull the flock' of those who seek power and control and not love and grace.

Blessings,
The Rev'd Canon Pat Genereux

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dear Pat - As the Quakers say, "This friend speaks my mind". I think I was getting at what you are saying when I talked about a "business plan" not being built on a "gospel plan". There are faith communities in The Episcopal Church that do just that, but they are the exception to the rule, unfortunately. When mission comes first, money follows. I've seen it over and over again. Thank you for your valuable contribution to this conversation.

IT said...

Actually, Elizabeth, I think this can be broadly true of many institutions, particularly academic ones. The difference is that in church, one expects better....of everyone.

In a previous job I had, a new leader came aboard who managed to make many of the disenfranchised feel wanted again. The loss of power felt by those previously in the top tier led to a vicious power struggle that overturned the leader and poisoned the atmosphere. Many of the disenfranchised eventually left, burned out, angry, and cynical. I was one of them.

Comeuppance happend though because the victorious party had a leader even less to their liking put in by the Board, which had got tired of their games. The place has funadmentally changed and not for the better. And I am glad to be gone yet sad at what might have been.

People are people, more's the pity. And they do bad things to each other.

Cassandra said...

And people trained in toxic parishes like this end up as Bishops, and being appointed to the PB's staff at the Episcopal Church Center, and other national bodies, doing exactly the same thing but on a much larger scale.

This kind cometh not out but by prayer and fasting.

Malinda said...

Elizabeth, thank you so much for this, it is certainly the systemic dysfunction I experienced as a lay leader in a parish I used to attend - and the more I talk to people from other places the more I see that it is not a unique situation. Breaking the cycle is difficult, as Mary says sometimes you cannot see it when you are in the middle of it, so again this post is so helpful as a mirror for us to try to see what is going on in our midst while we still have the chance to change.

Susan Hagen said...

Reading about this brings me close to hyperventilating. My parish has been through many years of this kind of behavior. Even after a period with a trained interim and now a new rector 'the bosses' are firmly in control. I have had to disengage and stop caring what happens.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Susan - "You wrote: I've had disengage and stop caring what's happening"

This breaks my heart. How do you do the gospel?

In one of the case studied Dr. Maynard presents, he talks about one of the strong bishops who when to the congregation and asked, "What can I do for you? What will make you happy?"

And the antagonists said, "Fire him."

And the bishop listened. And the bishop went back to his office. And the bishop wrote out and sent letters freeing each of the antagonists from their membership in that parish and welcoming them to worship in any other congregation in the diocese but forbidding them from being members in or attending that church.

Sounds like this is what needs to happen in your church.

You are in my prayers.

Susan Hagen said...

Elizabeth, you wrote:
This breaks my heart. How do you do the gospel?

It is sad. I have to do most of my ministry elsewhere. In the parish I will support the food pantry, help feed the homeless, do other specific outreach projects when asked. There are people there I care about and I can now attend a service without acute anxiety. What I can't do is imagine that I can change or influence anything. I gave it everything I had during the last transition period. More recently I have decided I can't keep being frustrated and angry. The parish is an occasion to sin for me. Maybe it's not for others but it is unhealthy for me to invest much of myself there. I work with the diocesan discernment process, find companionship and spiritual nourishment in my Benedictine community, study and share fellowship with a few good friends. Maybe someday it would make sense to go somewhere else but my pessimism suggests that other places may have the same issues.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I see. You do the gospel. You just don't do "church" as often as you do the gospel.

That sounds about right.

Susan, please know that I will keep you in my prayers. I may forget your name from time to time, but I won't forget your story and I'll direct my energy your way.

Ben said...

What I would like to know is this:
At my job, if I piss enough people off, if I refuse to play well with others, if I use my power to enact personal vendettas, I can and likely will be fired. Why should Rectors be exempt from this? The other paid staff at the church are disposable... Rectors can oust Christian Ed people or Organists... why is ousting a Rector who has pissed everyone off such a horrible thing?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ben - it shouldn't. I thought I went through pains to explain that there are LOTS - unfortunately - of 'toxic' as well as incompetent clergy.

Dr. Maynard is not addressing that problem - which is serious in and of itself. I encourage you to read the book.

Ben said...

Well, our rector of three horrific years is now labeling anyone with complaints or concerns "antagonists" and the bishop just stepped in and dissolved the vestry and put in the rector's own band of syncophants. In our parish of 160 pledging units, we sent a letter to the presiding bishop with 162 member signatures, asking her to intervene against the unholy alliance between our bishop and our rector, and we got a "well, tough toenails..." Now the rector is refusing burial rites to anyone who signed the letter, and is using it as an enemies list, removing everyone who signed from any service work they've done. I see the other side of this coin. Clergy DO come and go. The community is destroyed--and because the rector has acted within the scope of the canons, there's nothing that can be done. So there are two sides to every equation.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Actually, there are three sides to every story: Yours, mine and the truth.

Having said that, given the fact that most bishops will not intervene in these situations, and when they do, they take the side of the antagonists, I find it extraordinary that your bishop has stepped in and seemingly taken the side of the priest.

I suspect there's more to this story than either you or I are aware of.

May all your prayers and petitions to God be answered in the abundance of the justice and mercy and peace of God.

DavidJustinLynch said...

I am well-traveled in the Episcopal Church and know many clergy. I am familiar with the Haugk books and others of the same genre. My personal opinion is too many clergy live in their own world isolated from the rest of us and that too many of them think they are "better" because they are ordained. This is not true of all clergy but it is true of many. What I think would help are more bivocational clergy and second-career clergy. I have found these traits of isolationism and narcisism to be less prevalent the more the clergy are part of the rest of us.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

David - Well, my experience is a bit different than yours. First - there are no part time positions in the church - just part time pay. So, if by "bivocational" clergy you are talking about clergy who work part time in the church and part time in another profession, I couldn't disagree with you more.

Arrogance is arrogance - it doesn't change if a person is working part time in a church.

I think the better answer is a better educated laity, a better trained clergy in the field of conflict management and resolution, a bishop with the same training who also sets expectations for clergy behavior and firm guidelines for congregational behavior.

I also agree with Maynard that a Letter of Agreement with clear guidelines for a dissolution of pastoral relationship helps.

Have you read Maynard's book? You might have a better idea of what he's talking about if you did.

Anonymous said...

Hello everyone

I have not seen this addressed yet----a parish that was flourishing, growing and active who called a rector who proceeded to do little work toward getting to know the parish, failed time after time in pastoral situations,openly critized lay leadership without consulting with them or offering his leadership, cut working programs and did not replace them and declared that he was in charge of the church. The vestry did not protest but tried to compromise and work with this priest. Ultimately the numbers went to 50% of what they were when he arrived, pledges also fell to about 60% and when his vestry tried to suggest alternative ways of dealing with issues he bought this book and accused them of being antagonists. This book is being used in ways I don't believe the author has meant it to be used.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Anonymous, you missed my several disclaimers about how clergy are far from perfect. Clergy can be abusers, just as laity can. Anything can be abused - even this book - and especially by abusive clergy who see it as something to hide behind. If you have a strong bishop, this would be the time to call him. And, this is where an outside consultant can be very helpful. If he's still in place as rector, I would strongly advise that you call the bishop and get a consultant in place.

BTW, I appreciate a need to be anonymous, but I would really encourage you to leave a name.

William said...

As a newly-installed rector, I read this book and it confirmed what I had already known. Small parishes that want to rebuild are particularly vulnerable to antagonists; I'm dealing with two right now who both seem to think that anything I do is fodder for their disagreement. We just had a heated email exchange last night and I'm meeting with my Sr. Warden this afternoon to discuss strategies. This place has, at best 2 years of life left going the way things are going now. One just tendered resignation from the parish over my wanting to do a Spanish immersion course, as it had no bearing on the "current" needs of the congregation. Her resignation is, of course, a ploy. I've half a mind to accept it. No amount of explaining or stroking will satisfy these people.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

William, when I read stories like yours I want to weep. Please remember what Maynard says, over and over again, that the bishop is very important to this situation. Without the firm but loving hand of the chief pastor, the sheep will always attack the local shepherd. They will not only attack, they will eat you alive. If your bishop isn't behind the mission of the church, if s/he doesn't energetically support your work, then, here's my best advice: Get out! Leave! Now! As Maynard points out, you won't win this one. They don't want to do what needs to be done in order to live. And, without the authority of the episcopacy behind you, the best you can do is to kick the dust from your sandals, wish them peace, and move on.

I'm sorry if that sounds dismal. It's not a message of despair. It's a message which I hope conveys the truth that you are the priest. Jesus is the Savior. Let Him do his work and judge them by the fruits - or paucity - of the work they do - or don't - for the Gospel.

Anonymous said...

What does a congregation do when it is rapidly failing due to the Rector's lack of leadership, vision, and accountability? Our Rector hides behind Maynard's book and presents herself as a victim who is under attack and being abused. This "state of attack" is cited as justification for the fact that after two plus years as Rector, our attendance at Sunday Mass is down dramatically; pledges have decreased appproximately 20%; the women's group has disbanded and its fellowship programs are gone; there is no youth group, Sunday School, or Youth Acolytes; our Parish Newsletter is no longer published; and Pastoral Care is provided on a "request basis" only (if you're sick or had surgery and would like to receive Communion at home or in the hospital, the Rector expects you to call and ask her to visit). She started her Ministry with enormous support from the congregation and our great optimism, but in 2 1/2 years she has introduced only one new ministry (prayer shawls, despite her reactive approach to pastoral care). Many in the congregation have found her to be manipulative and not completely honest or trustworthy; there has also been stiff resistance to having an annual Mutual Ministry review, so we've never had any. Although we are now a very small parish, she continues to enjoy a six figure compensation package; while the Wardens and Vestry seem to be oblivious to all that has been lost, as well as the congregations's increasing frustration, they are extremely supportive of the Rector and endorse everything she asks them to do. Unlike Maynard's case studies where clergy were attacked after success in improving and rebuilding ministries, our Rector's passive-aggressive and rigid management style has taken successful ministries / programs and created a dynamic where they are encouraged or allowed to die. What can a congregation do when the Shepherd's ministry is ineffective and destructive, but they claim they're a victim and being attacked?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'm breaking my own rule about anonymous comments, but I'm posting your comment, Anonymous, b/c I think it's important.

Here's my response:

1. Organize. Get a group of people who feel as you do. Compile your complaints. Provide CONCRETE evidence and examples.

Jesus said, "Love one another" not "Like one another". You don't have to like her and she doesn't have to like you. However, you DO have to love one another - and that means telling the truth in love. Facts. Present facts.

2. Understand and accept that results are not going to be immediate. This is going to take time.

3. Understand and accept that your goal is not to get rid of the rector but to change the behavior and the climate in the church.

4. Present your case to the Wardens and Vestry - with your rector IN THE ROOM. Do not talk behind her back. Do not turn this into a gossip/attack session.

5. The best case scenario would be for you to not only present your complaints, with concrete data, but also provide some remedial steps to change the situation.

What can you all do - together, she and you - to make this work? What behaviors - on both sides - need to change? Include those in your case.

6. Present an anticipated time line to implement and evaluate changes. Immediately? In six months? A year? Be realistic and as generous as you can possibly be. You decide but be willing to negotiate. Good will, generosity of spirit and charity go a very long way. So does clarity.

If you haven't already picked up on it, you are beginning to implement a mutual ministry review. Granted, it's less than optimal circumstances, but you will be providing the first concrete data to evaluate the lay and ordained ministry of the congregation.

7. Oh - one last thing: Document. Everything. Dates. Times. Responses. You may need it.

8. If this doesn't work, then you take your case - with all of your documentation - to the congregation at the Annual Parish Meeting.

9. If there are still no changes, then you take your case - with all of your documentation - to the bishop.

10. If there are still no changes, find another church where you can worship God and love Jesus.

Hope this is helpful to you. Good luck and God Bless.

Anonymous said...

Your perceptive recommendations definitely provide clarity in identifying changes that can lead to reconciliation. I hope and pray that our leadership (clerical and laity) will be responsive and willing to talk. Thank you!

I appreciate your concerns about my anonymous posting, but felt it was prudent - the last parishioner who really tackled some of these concerns was publicly labeled as mentally ill, threatened with ex-communication, attacked from the pulpit during a Sunday homily, and forced out of the parish - all by the Rector. God may not practice retribution, but our Rector does.

Again, thanks for your constructive and positive suggestions.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, my dear Anonymous (and, I understand completely), it's the way I wish to be treated in a situation of conflict. I suspect you would, too, if you were rector.

"Do unto others," and all that.

Good luck. God bless. Let me know if I can be of any further help.

Anonymous said...

just found this after Googling Dennis Maynard. I am in a parish where this book is being used as a shield by the current administration.Take out the term "rector" and substitute beloved pre-school director" and you have the situation here. Actually, the new priest-in-charge wanted to force out all of the parish staff in the middle of this recession and hire new people who would be loyal to her , including a "personal assistant" who would "anticipate her needs"- this in a small, financially struggling parish. She formed an alliance with an affluent couple, corporate types, who are calling the shots.Needless to say, people are leaving, pledges are way down, and it is because of the very poor management decisions at the top.Numerous parish leaders went to or wrote to the bishop ( he was on sabbatical when this person came), but with little response.And, yes I know that a priest-in-charge has the right to do pretty much what they want regarding staff, programs, etc., but that doesn't make it "right".
By the way, Maynard's reputation in the diocese is not unsullied.Take him with a grain of salt.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Anonymous. I'm sorry for this trouble in your congregation. It's hard to determine who's right and what's wrong. It may be that all that is happening needs to happen. What I've learned is that when a new priest comes in and tries to change things - especially if the new priest is a woman - it never goes well.

I happen to think Dennis Maynard is very skilled and talented.

I understand not leaving your name but I really want to encourage transparency so next time, please do.

Anonymous said...

With response to your above statement- we previously had a very effective woman rector who led us through a major expansion but unfortunately had to take part time retirement secondary to health problems, so it is not a gender issue. It is an issue of poor management skills. The agenda is on the other foot, to mangle metaphors, in this case.
I understand your desire for transparency I hope that you will understand my desire for privacy.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I understand, and I thank you.

Susan Michelfelder said...

In reference to wounded clergy becoming "interims" (in reference to your original comments below), it is my experience that this is being addressed by most dioceses. In order to register to take the interim ministry training provided by the Interim Ministry Network you must have several letters of reccomendation before you even get started. I think bishops have finally begun to learn that transitional ministry is not for the faint of heart and it is not a place for clergy to heal from previously abusive congregations or anything else for that matter. They have learned that putting unprepared clergy in interim situations will only make more problems for themselves and their staff so they have stopped doing it.

It is also my experience that interims are a time of reality shock in many congregations. Either lay leadership was not aware of how much attendance, finance, building repair, and program had been slipping over the past years
or they had chosen not to deal with it in order to spare the previous rector's feelings as they retired in place, dealt with their own demons, or just did not have the skills to help the congregation adjust to a rapidly changing world context. The fact that interim transitions take longer than anticipated often is like when you go to put your house on the market only to have the inspector tell you there is a lot of work to be done before any one is going to want to buy it.

If transtions take too long, that is seldom the fault of the interim rector. The search process is clearly owned and run by the vestry, search committee, and to some extent the diocese. Interim rectors are not allowed to participate in this part of the transition but are frequently scapegoated because they are visible, convenient, and despite many announcements of all sorts, the congregation really doesn't understand "the process" because they want a quick fix to allieviate their anxiety and aren't really listening or are just angry because they are aware this is all out of their control. I'm not saying I blame them; this is just part of the reality of any time of transtion, church related or otherwise.


("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.")

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Susan - I can't stress enough the role of the bishop in these messes - usually as one who makes the situation worse. Bishops have a preferential option for the congregational pledge and will throw ANYone and EVERYone - lay or ordained - under the bus in order to protect it. It's a scandal that no one is addressing. Until they do, these situations will continue unabated, unhealed and unresolved.