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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Ethics and Spiritual Care

Twenty-five years ago, I never would have put the word "ethics" in the same sentence with the words "spiritual care."

Perhaps, if we had put these words together sooner, we might not have some of the problems we have today.

I remember the first time I heard the term "spiritual abuse". It was used by a man to describe how his pastor had used a form of "prayerful aversion therapy" to "cure" him of his homosexuality.

Now, I clearly understood what he meant, and, in fact, agreed with him. Even though my friend had gone to the pastor because he was tired of the abuse he had taken from society - the taunting and the tittering, the need to keep secrets and tell lies and really hoped that he could change so that he might know what it would be like to be "normal" -  there was no doubt in my mind that this cleric had abused the spiritual power of his office. And breached some ethical boundaries.

I mean, if someone told you that s/he was able, through the power of prayer, to turn an apple into a pear, and charged you pots of money to do it, and, in the end, the apple was still a pear, you'd feel ripped off, wouldn't you?

Wouldn't that be an ethical violation?

Indeed, if you had sincerely and genuinely and earnestly prayed along with the pastor to change the apple into a pear - and later discovered that prayer does not - cannot - change the essence of God's creation, that you'd simply become an apple who was foolishly trying to "pass" as a pear - you'd feel that your spirituality had been abused, wouldn't you?

But, is that "spiritual abuse"?

What are the "outward and visible" signs? How do you measure it? What are the parameters?

What may look like spiritual abuse to some is religious practice to others.

For example: What if your sister, at age 18, told you that she wanted to join a religious group? In fact, she's very excited about joining this community of all women who live by a very strict set of rules, including life-long celibacy.

First of all, she'll have to change or alter her name. She couldn't wear her own clothes and, instead, had to wear a shapeless, drab, ill-fitting garment that covered most of her body.  Indeed, she would have to give up all of her possessions, leave her home, and live at the group's headquarters where everyone there will become her new "family". They will, in fact, call each other "Sister".

She will not be allowed any contact with her family of origin for the first several months, and silence is enforced between 9 PM every night to 9 AM the next morning. Silence is also enforced during meals where she will, instead, be forced to listen to passages read from the sacred readings of her religion. She will spend most of her day in a very regimented order of prayer, most of it on her knees, and some of it in ritual chanting.

Would you be concerned that your sister was joining a wackadoodle religious cult?

You might, unless you knew that much of what is written above describes many Roman and Anglo-Catholic religious orders for women - and, men.

Another example: I can't tell you how many clergy colleagues I've spoken with who have called - outraged and upset and shaken - to tell me that when they've tried to revitalize a stagnant or dying congregations with some innovation - liturgical, mainly, but also with outreach or especially evangelism - programs to the increasingly ethnically or racially diverse neighborhood - they've been charged by some angry parishioners with "spiritual abuse".

Indeed, I've had some lay folk from other congregations ask to talk with me about how their pastors were "spiritually abusive" because they had "ruined" or were "trying to kill" the congregation with their "pastoral style" or "innovation".

Now, there are some cases where "spiritual abuse" is as clear as the Iberian nose in the middle of my face. However, we call it a "boundary violation". Or "clergy misconduct". Or, "conduct unbecoming".

Whenever a clergy person uses the power of his or her office to take advantage of a vulnerable parishioner - financially, sexually, emotionally - it is certainly an odious violation of ethics and professionalism.

The Episcopal Church - and many other denominations - are pretty clear about these things and have canon law which defines it and outlines how these cases are to be handled and the clergy "disciplined"

But, is that "spiritual abuse"?

Besides the normative non-maleficence ("do not harm") and beneficence ("do good") are there ethical standards of practice for pastors, chaplains, pastoral counselors and spiritual directors that are not set in the negative by punitive, disciplinary regulations and canon law?

Moreover, are those standards the same for pastors, chaplains, pastoral counselors and spiritual directors? Do they differ for laity vs ordained? If not, then who or what is the regulatory body for the laity - especially if they are independent practitioners?

Or, is pastoral care and spiritual direction both so innocuous and innocent - and, ultimately ineffective - as to render them so meaningless and irrelevant that no one really cares?

Until and unless, of course, harm is done.

We will be discussing some of this issues later this afternoon in Kwok Pui Lan's class here at EDS in Cambridge, MA where I am privileged to be Proctor Scholar for the semester. We have a guest lecturer coming - someone who is a well-respected ordained pastoral counselor in the area.

We've been using the book Ethics and Spiritual Care: A guide for Pastors, Chaplains, and Spiritual Directors by Karen Lebacqz and Joseph D. Driskill to prepare for this lecture and discussion.

Rather than present a "rule" book, the authors present a guide for what they call "mapping the muddy terrain" and intersections of spirituality and ethics, raising some excellent questions for consideration.

For example, "spirituality" is, as the authors say, a "slippery and indefinite term." Two people can define themselves as "spiritual" and speak of their "spirituality" but it is not at all clear that they are speaking about the same thing.

So, too, with ethics. "Is it possible to have ethical standards in a pluralistic world?" the authors ask.

Which raises a question in my mind as to whether or not it is acceptable for a profession to have and operate out of a different set of "spiritual ethics" depending upon their individual religious beliefs.

Does any other profession operate in that way?

Which, of course, raises the whole question of whether or not pastors, chaplains, pastoral counselors or spiritual directors are - or should be considered - 'professionals'.

In the Episcopal Church - and many mainline Protestant denominations - that question is, ironically enough, pretty much answered in the affirmative, mostly by the negative posture of regulatory canon or church law.

In terms of this question, the authors rely heavily on the work of Paul F. Camenisch, "Clergy Ethics in the Professional Model," (from 'Clergy Ethics in a Changing Society'), who moves us from the traditional professional model of rules and principals to one that is marked by four things: skill, autonomy, goal, and motivation.

There are an increasing number of voices who argue that ministry is not a profession, or caution that the traditional professional ethics model does not fit ministry well because of the diversity of approaches which flow from a variety of social locations, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.

There are more and more voices arguing for "clergy ethics" to have a model of its own terms and justifications. I tend to be one of those voices. Readers of this blog will recall that one of my projects has been to develop a model - a template, if you will - of professional standards for Clergy and Professional Church Work.(Click on the link to see that post).

I sort of backed into this issue while preparing to do a Mutual Ministry Review with my Wardens and Vestry. It became painfully clear to me that most people in the pew - indeed, most elected leaders in the church - have no idea what clergy do. None.

Oh, some "know" clergy preach on Sunday, so we have to write a sermon. And, others have "heard" - or may have even personally experienced - that clergy visit people in hospitals and nursing homes and rehab, hospice and extended care facilities, and, perhaps, prepare people for marriage and baptism when not presenting a Sunday Forum or Advent or Lenten Educational Series.

Beyond that, however, there really is not a whole lot of sophistication - and, I would dare say, not much concern - about the role and function of clergy. Except for these three unwritten rules
(1) Be there when I need you. Immediately, if not sooner.

(2) Meet all of my expectations for what clergy do for people in need or crisis.

(3) You must be able to discern when and how I need you because I'm not going to tell you that ahead of time. Mostly, because I, myself, don't know and think you should.
This discussion is rarely rarely meant with malice aforethought, but is part of the "magical thinking" some people have about the church in general and clergy in particular.

It is even more rarely spoken out loud, and that conversation is never held with the clergy person in the room or anywhere within listening distance. Except, of course, by gossip and rumor and innuendo. After the fact. Usually by someone else with an "axe to grind" with the clergy person.

It often surfaces for discussion in one of these occasions:
(1) During a mutual ministry review

(2) During the annual budget formation when increases to clergy salary are discussed.

(3) When there is a budget shortfall

(4) When the clergy person has preached something controversial from the pulpit or tried a liturgical innovation or is trying to lead an unpopular outreach ministry to the neighborhood or world that stretches folks out of their comfort/safety zone.
When I began the discussion with my Wardens and Vestry, in preparation for the Mutual Ministry Review, I was asked, "Well, what are the professional standards for clergy?"

"What?" I asked, surprisingly started by the question. "You mean, beyond the Book of Common Prayer and Scripture?", I sort of joked.

"In our professions," these mostly corporate types said, "there are professional standards. Don't clergy have them?"

Good question.

No, I mean, that's a Really Good Question.

Is it not reasonable to assume - since we use many templates from the secular world in terms of everything from budget formation to job descriptions and contracts which define parameters of performance, accountability and responsibility and performance evaluation, and, more recently, marketing-as-evangelism - that clergy would, in fact, have 'professional standards'?

Perhaps there is a little "magical thinking" on the part of clergy, as well. At the very least, we have certainly been naive.

Camenisch's argument is that it is not sufficient simply to define a profession and then to see whether clergy fit the description. There are enough similarities between clergy and other professions to appropriately deem the clergy a profession, but enough differences that clergy cannot be entirely subsumed under the professional model.

For example, Lebacqz and Driskill point out that "... while other professionals such as doctors or lawyers may deal with individual clients, clergy usually deal with an organized clientele. This structural difference," they note,"is significant."

We have much ground work to do in defining professional standards, which must be based, I think, on a definition of spirituality and spiritual care before we can begin to approach what "spiritual abuse" really means.

Unfortunately, in this present litigious culture, it is increasingly incumbent upon clergy and "professional laity" in the church who are pastors, chaplains, pastoral counselors and spiritual directors, to begin to be proactive in this area.

I understand that some denomination in some specialized fields - such as chaplaincy - have already taken the lead in this. I will be following up on this and exploring this more fully. I'm also expecting this afternoon's lecture and discussion to bear much fruit.

Lebacqz and Driskill discuss some very important work in defining "spiritual abuse" which has already been published and is being used in the court room.

Indeed, the book "Ethics and Spiritual Care" arose when Lebacqz was asked to be an "expert witness" in a case where there were allegations of spiritual abuse.

Several works are noted by the authors:
Lloyd Rediger (Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack), who uses the term in describing the "killing" actions of parishioners toward clergy and clergy toward parishioners.

Archie Smith, Jr. (Navigating the Deep River: Spirituality in African American Families), uses the term in describing why some LGBT people leave the church.

Michael Langone (Recovering from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse), uses the term in talking about recovery from cults.

Flora Wuellner (Feed My Shepherds: Spiritual Healing and Renewal for Those in Christian Leadership) uses the term to describe spiritual practices that focus on the structures of religion rather than our freedom in relationship with the divine.

Matthew Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Dennis Linn (Healing Spiritual Abuse and Religious Addiction) use the term in describing their own spiritual journeys and recovery from certain church practices and experiences.
But it is two books which the authors lift up as providing public attention to the term "spiritual abuse":
Ronald M. Enroth's, Churches That Abuse and
David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen's The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.  
Taking these texts as a foundational basis, Lebacqz and Driskill present a five point "Composite Picture" of spiritual abuse of parishioners by clergy, which would look something like this:
1. Spiritual abuse can consist in
+ damaging or diminishing parishioners' spiritual growth
+controlling or confining parishioners' spiritual growth or possibility
+neglecting parishioners' spiritual growth.
2. The notion that some spiritual practices can be defined as abusive has scriptural warrants in the discussion of false spiritual leaders. (Matthew 23 and Matthew 11:28-30)

3. The understanding of spiritual abuse rejects any perpetrating of shame in personal and spiritual development.(Family Systems theory)

4. Spiritual abuse is also seen as closely linked to patterns of addiction in which people try to find meaning in an all-consuming system, structure or process that in fact limits their human freedom and growth or makes them control others.

5. Although spiritual abuse can happen between any two people, it is linked with power or perceived power and thus is most likely to be perpetrated by a spiritual leader or director.
Even so, the authors point out the various difficulties with this "profile", which I will not enumerate here. I highly commend this book - and all the books listed here - to you for your own further reading and consideration.

Perhaps a definition of "spiritual abuse" is somewhat akin to the definition of pornography. You can't always define it but you know it when you see it.

It's a bit like Bette Midler's infamous definition of a promiscuous person who, she says, is anyone who is having sex more than her.

That's not to say that, like it or not, judgment is not an integral part of the work of the church. It is. It is offered, however, in love and with kindness and always, always, with the opportunity for confession and repentance and the assurance of God's forgiveness and absolution.

For example, in counseling men and women who have come to me to admit that they have strayed from their marital vows, I always gently remind them that they have "missed the mark" of God's standards for us while at the same time, offering them the opportunity for the Sacramental Rite of Penitence and the assurance of God's forgiveness.

That is always accompanied with an invitation to "pray for me, a sinner."

Here's the thing: Guilt and shame are not always bad things. Sometimes, guilt and shame are the internal warning signs that something is not 'right' and needs, at the very least, to be reconsidered.

However, when one becomes the vehicle to deliver and produce that guilt and shame in others, one has begun to place one foot over the boundary and disturbed the delicate power balance between that person and the pastor, chaplain, pastoral counselor, or spiritual director.

This is why I, personally, consider it a form of "spiritual abuse" to coerce anyone into a decision about matters of reproductive choice or to attempt to "change" - through the "therapy of prayer" - someone's sexual orientation to conform with someone else's understanding of the meaning of scripture and God's intention for us.

Neither do I insist on confession and repentance of sin. My role, as I see it, is to gently remind people of how they have "missed the mark", offering the Sacramental Rite of Penitence as a gift of the church.

Others may disagree with me, considering my choice to honor the gift of free will and choice as a form of "spiritual neglect" or even "abuse".

Others may be appalled that I mention sin at all, much less offer the Sacramental Rite of Penitence.

So be it.

And therein, my friends, lies the difficulty with Ethics and Spiritual Care.

I will be leaving my time as Proctor Scholar here at EDS in a little over a month with more questions - deeper, more profound questions - than when I first arrived.

Certainly, my questions are more spiritually mature than when I arrived here, almost three decades ago. Well, I suppose, one would only hope that to be true.

I have rediscovered and reaffirmed my sense that the best tools one can come to "professional" ministry - lay or ordained - besides an active religious imagination, is one's curiosity in the human enterprise.

What one learns in seminary about scripture and church history, theology and pastoral care, homiletics and liturgics, provides an important foundation for the rest of one's life of service in the church.

Of this I have no doubt.

It is, however, the commitments of our Baptismal vows to love and serve the people of God, respecting the dignity - and intelligence - all God's children, seeking and honoring Christ in all persons, that, at the end of the day, provides the foundation for the ethical structure of spiritual care.

Equally important, as Rainer Maria Rilke writes, is to “Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.”

Not "the" answer, but "your" answers.

That, I have come to believe, is a foundational principle of 'Ethics and Spiritual Care'.

I hope this has been helpful to you. Please don't hesitate to leave your questions or comments or stories here on this blog.

My hope is that this will be part of an on-going, more intentional, crucial conversation that will bring us to be a more authentic Body of Christ.


Mary-Cauliflower said...

This is a very interesting and very heartfelt post. I read it earlier today, then went back to work, did some cleaning, made dinner - all the while turning these issues over in my mind. As a parishioner, I feel called to grow the heck up and let go of the "we've always done it this way" attachments. And I can see Spiritual Abuse becoming one of those pearl-clutching terms that gets tossed around too easily. That said, I have sat in the pew during innovative liturgy after innovative liturgy, willing myself to stay seated, not walk out, and put my envelope into the plate. My resistance isn't to change, it's to the "We'll show those rubes in the pews" attitude I sometimes feel. To spring changes on a parish without explaining what's being done or why may not be abuse, but it's not kind. And given the rapid turnover of clergy in some parishes, it would be helpful if new rectors understood the sense of whiplash we have when there's a revolving door of theologies, styles, passions, and priorites.

The other issue that is tricky for me is the question of relationship with a rector. I understand that the parish is not about me, that it's the Vineyard where I labor, and so I look outside the parish for spiritual care and fulfillment. I aim to be helpful and respectful to clergy leadership. That means I don't want my hand held or my shoulders rubbed. If a priest is standing next to me when someone offers a word of praise, I don't welcome that priest ruffling my hair. (I'm not the freakin' family pet, thank you very much.) If we hug lightly, I don't want to be dragged into a full body embrace. Intimacy can't be forced. Those are boundaries I have set because I want to be honest about the relationship we have. Boundaries work both ways. If someone demands respect from me but minimizes my concerns, that's, um, not so good either.

Ultimately, I think that the Public Conversations model is useful. I wish parishes had the opportunity to work with neutral mediators who could help them get clear on language and ways of communicating.

Anonymous said...

This course sounds fascinating. No bright lines here I can see. Someone could say witholding the Eucharist is spirtual abuse. Another might reply it is a duty to prevent the person from hurting him/herself. Is the Church damaging or diminishing parishioners' spiritual growth by denying some the ability to become a priest i.e. women?
Does the church control or confine a parishioners' spiritual growth or possibility by denying the person a seat in the seminary?
Is it spirtually abusive for a minister to tell a person that they can be healed of cancer if they have enough faith?
Simply fascinating. I wish I could take this course.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I agree with Mary-Cauliflower...this term..."Spiritual abuse" has the potential to become a pearl-clutcher unless sub-definitions are agreed upon. Most of the clergy ones seem to be under the heading of "abuse of power." Most of the lay ones seem to be under the category of "dysfunctional family coping skills learned from family of origin." There needs to be a taxonomy here.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mary C - This is such a complicated and yet pretty straight-forward issue, isn't it? Someone brought up laity-laity spiritual abuse, which I hadn't even considered. There are lots of examples to go around.

I think it's helpful to have this conversation in the light of day. The more open and conversant we are about it, the less power it has over us. That's not the end to the problem, but it is a way to begin to bring about changes in our attitudes and behavior that will change the situation.

Thanks for writing.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Maria - I'm encouraging EDS to offer this course for distance learners. I think it's so important that everyone should have access to it and be part of the conversation.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - you are so right. Again. Thanks.

MackBeemer said...

Dear Elizabeth:

I confess, I've not read your post in detail... OTOH, I do know something about "spiritual abuse." How I came by this knowledge is personal and private.

IMO, one person, say Joe, spiritually abuses another, Miriam, in case (i) Joe is in a position of spiritual authority or leadership in relation to Miriam, (ii) Joe uses this position of spiritual authority or leadership to obtain some benefit or other from Miriam, and (iii) Joe does so either under the false guise of spiritually aiding Miriam, whereas in reality, Joe's primary objective is obtaining whatever benefit he seeks from Miriam.

It's important to note that many who are guilty of spiritual abuse in the above sense may themselves not be aware of what they are actually doing in the act. They may well be self-deceived owing to profound psychological deficits and pain stemming from having been abused or neglected as a child.


MackBeemer said...

Here is another thought:

We are entering troubled waters if we are more aware of our own need to help another than we are of that person's need to be helped.

A bishop once responded to a newly ordained priest who had asked, "Bishop, what do you look for in a new priest?" The bishop said: "Someone who does not need the church."

Not a bad answer, my way of thinking.


MackBeemer said...

Elizabeth, you wrote,
"What are the 'outward and visible' signs? How do you measure it? What are the parameters?

My Comment: It may be that looking for “outward and visible signs” puts us in league with those whom Jesus excoriated in Matthew 23 who were so desirous of making sure the outside of the cup was clean they had entirely neglected the cesspools of filth, hypocrisy, and rebellion within their own hearts. I desperately need to have the inside of my cup cleansed by the blood of Christ... long before I look at the behavior of others.

MackBeemer said...

Doesn’t Kant’s second form of the categorical imperative help here? Kant wrote we ought always to Act so as to treat other persons not as means merely but also as ends in themselves.

IMO, the essence of spiritual abuse is to use the other as a means to one’s own benefit, however that may be conceived. To have that person hang on my every word, present at my every teaching… not primarily because that will benefit her, but really and finally because that is what I need – this is the essence of spiritual abuse.


Kwok Pui Lan said...

I follow the comments with interest, and people have so many different take on "spiritual abuse." It can happen between clergy-parishioners; laity-laity, and reverse abuse of the clergy by members of the congregation. The clergy often symbolizes sacred power and when trust is breached, the hurt is so deep and painful.

Feminists have debated on the boundary issue too. Should we keep very strict boundary? Would boundary reinforce hierarchy? What about mutuality? How can professional ethics respect cultural and other differences? Some cultures like to hug, others don't, for example.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Pui-lan. Carter Heyward's questions - among other feminist theologians, are important for us to consider. The cultural implications to a therapeutic relationship add even more complexity. Thank you for raising these issues.