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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Dignity at Work

Four clergy from The Episcopal Diocese of Newark have submitted a resolution to Diocesan Convention, asking the bishop to convene a Task Force to develop a policy to address the bullying, harassment and abuse of clergy by lay persons.
It is very much worth reading the supporting information.

While Title IV Disciplinary Canons address in detail policies and procedures for bullying, harassment and abuse by clergy, there is no policy or procedure to address bullying, harassment and abuse of clergy.
Click on the following link to read the resolution and supporting information:


I think this diocesan resolution begins to break the silence of a widely systemic problem which needs close examination by the whole church.
I am very proud of the diocese of my canonical residence for addressing this problem and I hope this resolution begins a crucial conversation in the wider church.

The title of the resolution, "Dignity at Work," comes from the title of a wee bookie that was published by The Church of England in 2008. 
Unfortunately, I'm told by friends across the pond that, "The problem is that not all dioceses have done much about it.  A number have not officially adopted a policy, let alone published it. Where they have the identity and contact details for the harassment, advisers can be almost impossible to find so it is a policy on paper only."
Meanwhile, in other parts of the church:  Citing bullying and isolation, a group of United Church ministers has teamed up with Canada’s largest private-­sector union to create Unifaith, the nation’s first union for clergy.
In a recent article in the London Free Press, the following quotes give an interesting insight into part of the problem. 
The formation of a union comes amid unprecedented upheaval in the United Church, with the closing, on average, of one church a week. That pressure has been tough on ministers and congregations, leading to problems such as bullying, said Rev. Jim Evans of New Vision Community Church in St. Thomas.
“Somebody once said to me: ‘You can’t kick God, but you can certainly turn to God’s representative and kick her,’ ” said Evans, who served as interim president of the union chapter.

Evans said the wider church is aware of issues of workplace violence and harassment and has made efforts to address them. But ministers, often working in isolation, need more support than the church has provided.
This is a complex but not complicated problem. 
The causative factors are simple enough to understand. Bullying and harassment are always perpetrated by an imbalance - perceived or real - of power.
The "solution" is simple: We ought to have a Zero Tolerance Policy for Bullying and Harassment. At all times. By and for all people.  Everywhere. Especially in the church - by and for laity and clergy and, yes, by and for Bishops.
In the church, the simple solution is made more complex by the power structure inherent in our admittedly (whether or not we want to admit it for whatever particular purpose) hierarchical structure of governance.
I have heard concerns that the above resolution will "disempower laity even more . . . . . . devolving into a place where laity fear speaking up."
Here's my response: Generations of laity who have known their clergy as 'Father' (and now 'Mother' ) and laity who have assumed the attendant roles as "God's children" in "the church family" complicate the power dynamic.
I think the problem is not that the laity do not have any power. They DO have power. Our canons are guided by the principle of a balance of power between bishops, clergy and laity.

One example: The bishop has the power to ordain, but the ordinand must have congregational (laity) support and endorsement as well as the consent of the Standing Committee - made up of clergy and laity. Without that, the bishop can't ordain.
Balance of power. It's a beautiful thing. When it works.  When the balance of power is maintained.

The problem is not that the laity don't have power. It's that they don't think they have it or can use it. (It's the old "church family" dynamic stuff about "Fathers" and "Mothers" and "children").
Or, it's the dynamic of "magical," "mythical," "archetypal"  powers some ascribe to priests.
Or laity have lived in a hierarchical structure long enough that they really don't believe they either have power or can use it. This is a set up for passive-aggressive - or just flat out aggressive - behavior.
Or, they simply don't care to engage in conflict or have the emotional energy to invest in the situation and so they walk away. Or, walk to another church. Or, another denomination.
That, I think, is another part of the problem.

Bishops and diocesan leadership who avoid or ignore or are otherwise adverse to conflict add to the complication.
I know more and more clergy - good, competent, wise, experienced clergy - who have had breathtaking and heartbreaking experiences with a few, hand full of parishioners who have driven the congregation to near rupture or complete rupture and the sent the clergy fleeing for the protection of their hearts and souls and minds and yes, even bodies.
I understand - unofficially - that there are more clergy out on Medical Leave for PTSD following congregational conflict than ever before.
One clergy person out on Medical Leave whose bishop and canon essentially added to the conflict, tells me that whenever the CPG representative calls, there is always a profusion of apology.

Are there incompetent, controlling, unwise clergy who have broken boundaries, betrayed trust, bullied, harassed, and driven good Christians from their spiritual homes?
No doubt.
We have Title IV Canons - flawed and faulted as they are, in my opinion - to deal with these clergy and situations. That is prime facia evidence of the existence of clergy who have bullied and harassed members of the laity.
The flaws and faults I see in Title IV Canons, I believe, are part of the problem.
The balance of power has, in my opinion, been "over-corrected," placing too much power into the hands of the bishops, changing their jobs from "Chief Pastors" to "Judge and Jury".  Clergy are now presumed guilty until proven innocent - and all in the name of "reconciliation"
The balance of power is decidedly off-balance.
I have heard the argument that "legislation is not the solution". You won't find an argument here. Title IV, I think, proves that point.
But, please, do read this resolution again. It does not call for legislation. However, our polity does require the legislative process to ask the diocesan bishop to appoint a Task Force to look into the issue and develop a policy.

The legislative process is just how we roll in The Episcopal Church. It's how we got the Title IV canons in the first place.

In my opinion, this diocesan resolution is a pretty modest request. Indeed, it allows the bishop to appoint whatever members of his choice to the Task Force. It is certainly within the realm of possibility for him to set up a small group of people who will be blind and deaf to the problem and see no reason for a policy and process to be defined.
He won't, I'm quite certain, and while it is certainly a cynical view, it certainly is true that it places the power to define in his hands.
That having been said, the resolution is an important first step to admitting that there is a problem and that we have nothing in our polity - no tools, no policy, no canon - with which to address it, beyond the unsatisfactory 14 day excommunication which then sends the problem to the bishop's desk. (See that discussion above and below).

In my experience, excommunication simply creates martyrs and martyrs live on longer than the original conflict - or, worse, perpetuate the conflict, long after the initial incident has been resolved.
Besides, the 14 day excommunication is the "Father/Mother" in the "church family" equivalent of being sent to one's room without any supper. It's a rubric which emerged from another time in the life of our church that, perhaps, also needs to be reexamined and reconsidered.

A policy which defines the problem and begins to define a process to deal with the problem is, I think, the intended goal of this resolution. (But, please do read the supporting information.)
A diocesan policy to balance national canons is a pretty modest attempt to provide an avenue of some remediation for bullying and harassment of clergy by laity.
Forgive me if I repeat: The "legislation" of Title IV is not a solution to the problem.  In fact, I believe it is a contributing factor to the problem.
It places enormous power in the hands of the bishop, who, if they are adverse to conflict and/or unskilled in dealing with conflict (as so many are); or, as is the increasing case, are of the attitude that "clergy come and clergy go but the congregational pledge must always increase - at least incrementally", they tend to either make the situation even worse.
I have heard some clergy describe the feeling that some bishops see clergy as "ecclesiastical toilet paper," (this term was actually heard by an office worker being said by a bishop who, in absolute horror and disgust reported it to her rector) wiping up the mess in congregations, tossing them out and getting another in.
Wipe, rinse, mess, repeat. 

Some bishops always see the clergy person as at fault and the "solution" to the "problem" is to initiate "dissolution of a pastoral relationship" (without a thorough examination of the situation or characters or actors or dynamic involved, so "the problem" continues).
Or, some bishops simply strongly - but earnestly and tenderly and kindly- suggest to the clergy person to leave - quietly, sometimes requiring the clergy person to sign a statement that they will never speak of the situation.
And then, these same earnest, kind, tender bishops hang them out to dry in the deployment process while the congregational members continue to make phone calls and run a whisper campaign.
Is it any wonder that there are so many "unhealthy, dysfunctional congregations" in the Church?
Are there bishops in the church who are strong leaders, more concerned with congregational health and vitality than the congregational pledge to the diocese? Of course. Unfortunately, the anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that they are few and far between.
Then again, since silence is such a big part of the problem, how would we really know? 

As President / Convener of The Episcopal Women's Caucus for 10 years, I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with clergy - mostly women, but some men - who have been under attack by a small group of congregational members. The stories have sickening similarities which are all there for the reading and understanding in a series of excellent books by various authors on the subject.
I am reminded of this quote from one of those books, "Clergy Killers" by G. Lloyd Redinger: "The record of human history shows that the tribe that kills its shaman loses its soul."

Other good resources include (but are not limited to):
When Sheep Attack
I'm glad we're talking about this. Out in the open. As mature adults.

Specific solutions will come.

First, we talk and acknowledge, learn and discuss.


Pepper Marts said...

Absolutely first rate, Elizabeth. The problem has been around as long as I've been in the Church (now well over 60 years) and I have seldom seen it addressed honestly. The most common scenario has involved throwing the problem at the bishop who is usually clueless and is looking for a quick, easy solution.

"Jesus described for us the reign of God on earth. We settled instead for the kingdom of the Church … and pushed heaven out the door."
– From _The Little Red Book: Sayings of Chairman Pepper_

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Pepper, thank you for that affirmation. I've had some private emails from clergy thanking me for raising the conversation. I haven't. This conversation has been going on for a long, long time, with some excellent books being written on the subject. Some folks have simply looked the other way and/or said, "Oh, that doesn't happen in OUR church." I think naming it - correctly - as "bullying / harassment" also has helped to break the silence which, of course, only perpetuates the problem.

I love your quote. I want the book when it comes out.

8thday said...

While I don't know the particulars of the politics or institutional systems of the Episcopal Church, I can say that as a public servant, it is not just in the church that bullying and harassment has turned from top down to bottom up. Ask any teacher in a public school.

I am glad to read that this issue is being taken seriously and hope that all institutions begin to address it. I just have zero tolerance.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bullying and harassment have no place, no where, no how, by no body, anywhere, anytime.

Paul said...

Thank you for this discussion. The last congregation I was with is truly wonderful and supportive. But there have been some tough times before that and the cumulative effect has a lot to do with the reality that I have nothing to with church anymore except reading my friends' blogs. I don't miss it either. Life "in the world" is simpler and happier.

Anonymous said...

Excellent discourse on a very real situation. I speak as a priest persecuted by a narcissistic inexperienced bishop with an ambitious agenda of self promotion, intent on destroying the ministry of good priests, especially women. The problem with this is there are no sanctions keeping such bishops in check, and don't they flaunt the power!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Paul - Isn't it amazing how much less drama there is in the world than in the church - you know, the "sanctuary".

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I certainly understand the need for anonymity, but the irony, of course, is that silence just fuels the abuse of power of that bishop.

I wish I could say something hopeful. All I can say, in truth, is that I'm so very sorry.