#Metoo: Why I Left The Episcopal Church

Having spent almost my entire life in The Episcopal Church (TEC), and being an unabashed liberal, some might say I would seem an unlikely candidate to leave TEC. But that’s exactly what I recently did, and I’d like to share my reasons for doing so.

Married in The Episcopal Church, I’ve served the church in many roles over the years, including several times on various vestries, as both a junior and senior warden, and on the standing committee of one diocese. I’ve headed up several task forces, spearheaded a successful major capital campaign for one of the most prominent parishes in the country, and am a well-known blogger in progressive Episcopal circles.

My reason for sharing that information is to show that I’m not someone who asks what church can do for me. Instead, my view is that I am there to serve God, other people, and the church itself. So my decision to leave has nothing to do, as is all too often the case in such situations, with any feeling that the church hasn’t met my needs.

Instead, the problem is that the church is simply too far behind the times. In a day and age when corporate America must, by law, require reporting of harassment and protect those who do report it, I know firsthand that TEC takes a very different approach.

In 2015, I complained to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia about a possible case of gender-based harassment in my parish church, Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria VA. Approximately four weeks later, I got a curtly worded “Notice of Dismissal,” which stated in writing that my concerns did not amount to matters “of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” Days later, the  rector of the church, Bob Malm, sent me an email, telling me and my family to find a new church. Subsequently, he instructed church staff to exclude us from the church building, to remove our names from the church directory, and even to misuse funds we had given to the church. In short, Bob engaged in retaliation, which would be illegal if it occurred in a for-profit.

I promptly notified the diocese, which simply ignored me.

More than two years later, the matter continues to ricochet around. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say, things remain ugly. And the church is still saying that Bob’s retaliation is not “of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.”

For me, that’s the final straw. As a result, I have asked +Todd Ousley, the bishop who handles intake for disciplinary cases involving bishops, to help me have my name removed from all church records. Curiously, there’s no provision in Episcopal polity to do this, and while I could simply stop attending church, I cannot in good conscience give even tacit support to any organization that thinks retaliating against those who oppose sexual harassment is acceptable.

I am painfully aware of the suffering that women and men experience due to sexual harassment, and have experienced sexual harassment myself. It’s a heavy, dark, crushing thing, that causes lasting damage to the soul and to one’s sense of self. I’m told that I do better than most with these issues, and that I am strong and resilient. But in many ways that’s small comfort. If sexual harassment effects me the way it has, I am not sure I have any sort of meaningful handle on the suffering it causes others.

Officially, TEC opposes sexual harassment.

But does it really oppose harassment? My feeling is no. If you cannot provide a safe means to complain about it — or about other forms of harassment — how can you claim to oppose it? If you allow retaliation for a claim of sexual harassment, aren’t you supporting the abuser?

Note, too, that in writing this piece, I deliberately use both the phrases “gender-based harassment” and “sexual harassment.” Too often, The Episcopal Church treats sexual harassment as involving sex—salacious images, unwanted touching, offensive remarks. But gender-based harassment, which need not involve sex or sexually oriented conduct, also is illegal, and is remarkably common in an organization that claims to “respect the dignity of every human being.”

I also shared my experience as part of TEC’s pastoral response to #metoo, in which material is sent directly to the House of Bishops (one of the two chambers in the bicameral Episcopal General Convention). The response was underwhelming. Having my concerns acknowledged is great, as is being told that people will pray for me. But that does nothing to solve the issue, and I see no sign whatsoever of any meaningful changes any time soon.

Meanwhile, the church has had 2000 years to address issues of sexual harassment, and it’s just now holding “listening sessions?” Spare me.

The fact that neither the denomination, nor the Diocese of Virginia, understand why it’s wrong to retaliate against someone complaining of sexual harassment, even if they are not the direct victim, shows that TEC is utterly incapable of addressing serious issues of this sort.

It’s telling, too. The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia spent millions in legal fees to retain ownership of several crappy old church buildings, but it spends nothing to fix its own issues. If it spent a tenth as much on social justice and healing its own problems, it would be a very different organization.

Similarly, the diocese talks out both sides of its mouth when it comes to my situation. It loudly proclaims the matter not “of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church,” but it wants me to quit telling my story on the grounds that it may damage its reputation. But it is not my telling my story that damages its reputation; it is the diocese’s support for sexual harassment that damages its reputation. Or, as a young family member of mine once put it, “Don’t be a jerk, and I won’t call you a jerk.”

Tellingly, at about the same time I said goodbye to TEC, the Diocese announced that it had canceled its search for a bishop suffragen due to problems at Mayo House. The diocese treats it like this is breaking news, but the fact that the diocese is screwed up has been clear for many years. That includes its inability to address clergy misconduct in an appropriate manner, as well as its utter lack of resources for its constituent parishes. Think conflict resolution, training, or templated stewardship materials.

Nor are these issues confined to the Diocese of Virginia. Indeed, at one point I wrote directly to the Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, about my issue. The response? Utter silence. So while ++Curry is gassing on about the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement and the power of love, I’m not seeing the latter in practice. Talk is cheap, but it’s actions that count.

So what next?

Certainly, I still believe in God. In fact, stripped of the frustration of dealing with stupidity in TEC, I now can see God and Jesus more clearly. I also know that, while right now I have a hard time finding Jesus, he will find me. He’s there, and he loves me regardless.

Will I settle in another denomination? I surely don’t know. Certainly, many, including the Disciples of Christ, have a much more mature understanding of clergy boundary issues and don’t focus exclusively on sexual misconduct. At the same time, I am not convinced other denominations do better when it comes to sexual harassment. We will see.

For those of you who read this post and trot out the whole, “don’t-be-hateful-and-I’m-praying-for-you” routine, spare me. If you’re serious, do something useful and prove me wrong. Make it clear that all allegations of sexual harassment, including gender-based harassment, ARE issues “of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church,” that they will be addressed immediately and effectively, and that it’s safe to raise these issues. And a little hint, since you are pretty clueless in this matter: Retaliation by clergy is inconsistent with these goals.

One long-time friend asked if I am sad to leave TEC. The answer is not at all. This is long overdue, and I gave the church the benefit of the doubt for far too long.

Do I think God will punish those who support sexual harassment? The answer is that I tend to not believe in a God of judgment, tempting though that may be. But I do think the inability of TEC to address sexual harassment probably spells its end.

If it can’t manage even this most basic component of the baptismal covenant, that’s probably not a bad thing.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Abuse in the church, church ethics, healing after clergy misconduct, The Episcopal Church, Title IV, Whistleblower protection, wholeness | Leave a comment

Why the Episcopal Church’s “Pastoral Response” to #Metoo Is a Mistake

A few days ago, possibly in preparation for the coming triennial general convention of The Episcopal Church, the House of Bishops extended an invitation to those who have experienced abuse or harassment to share their stories. The purpose, the House stated, would be to offer a pastoral response to the burgeoning #metoo movement. While no doubt well-intended, the announcement misses the mark and demonstrates how thoroughly clueless The Episcopal Church is when it comes to the dynamics of abuse.

For those who have not seen the announcement, feel free to check it out here.

So, where to start?

Let’s begin with a look at the announcement itself. Things begin promisingly enough, with the comment, “In the Episcopal Church, our practices have not always reflected the values we say we hold. We do not always practice the reconciliation we proclaim.”

Fair enough. The church has not lived up to its rhetoric; of that, there is little doubt.

Things quickly head downhill, however, with the church’s press release adding, “The House of Bishop’s Pastoral Response “will focus on listening, liturgy and steps for healing….”

Um, that’s an issue.

Is listening important?  Of course it is. Is liturgy important? Given that The Episcopal Church is a liturgical church, the obvious answer is yes. Is healing important? No doubt.

The problem comes when the three are linked. I doubt there is an Episcopal bishop out there who has no heard of sexual harassment or abuse within the church. More than a few have, themselves, engaged in such misconduct. Yet, as an organization, and as the individuals who make up the organization, too little has been done for far too long, with many bishops turning a blind eye to these issues. And now suddenly we’re going to listen and trot out some liturgy, and voila!, the problem is solved? It doesn’t work that way.

Part of the problem is that The Episcopal Church still doesn’t recognize that sexual harassment need not involve sex. As our legal system recognizes, gender-based harassment, abuse or discrimination is illegal. It is morally wrong. Yet a careful look at the announcement reveals that much of the language is couched in terms of sexual abuse.

Moreover, sexual harassment rarely occurs in a vacuum. Rather, it typically happens in an environment where people are not treated with respect, and where there are not adequate protections in place to ensure that the organization is a safe place. So, while I in no way minimize sexual harassment, it’s important to understand that its prevalence indicates deeper problems with boundary violations and lack of accountability.

The announcement also fumbles when it offers “guidelines” on sharing one’s experiences. As anyone who has worked with victims of abuse knows, the secret to effective listening is to, well, listen. But the church bollixes this by asking people to focus on their reactions to the abuse, versus the specifics of their experiences. A far better approach would be to listen with no preconceived notions, agendas, or guidelines, thus allowing victims of abuse to share what is important to them, and to avoid those topics too painful to be shared. But The Episcopal Church trots out the “father knows best” routine, and talks about how sharing specifics could re-traumatize victims. That’s certainly true, but I am prepared to bet that the vast majority of victims of abuse can decide for themselves what is traumatic. They don’t need the church to make that decision. Nor do they need to have their experiences trivialized by being told not to share the ugly details.

Also problematic is the assurance that responses will be confidential. As anyone who’s spent time in The Episcopal Church (or any other, for that matter), can attest, there’s very little that’s truly anonymous, confidential, or secret in the church. And given that the church has no canonical protections for whistleblowers, what is a victim going to do if their comments are leaked? Or if the person reading the comment is, themselves, the abuser? My own experience makes clear that the church considers retaliation acceptable conduct, so I would be very cautious about claims of confidentiality. At a minimum, any comments that may be offered are made at the victim’s own risk. That much is very clear.

Then there is the mention in the announcement that Title IV disciplinary resources will be available in cases where this may be appropriate. That’s a real problem, for based on my experiences, the best way to be retraumatized is to file a Title IV complaint. If it doesn’t involve sex or jail time, your complaint will be dismissed, and, as in my case, the person about whom you complained will be free to retaliate against you for making a complaint. Nor will the diocese do anything about the retaliation, or offer any meaningful pastoral response. In fact, your diocese will treat you as a troublemaker and persona non grata. In other words, if you fall into the Title IV trap, you’re a goner.

Am I saying that it is a mistake to take the House of Bishop up on its offer? No, I am not.

Do I think the invitation misses the mark? Yes, I do.

Should victims of abuse or people who have reported abuse approach this offer with caution? Definitely.

Participating in a process that so clearly reflects a lack of understanding about the dynamics of abuse, and that comes from an organization with such a dismal track record on these issues, carries inherent risks. These include, ironically enough, the possibility of being retraumatized by a church that undoubtedly means well, but simply doesn’t know how to handle allegations of abuse.

 

Posted in gender-based harassment, healing after clergy misconduct, sexual harassment, The Episcopal Church, Title IV, Whistleblower protection, wholeness | Leave a comment

Disturbing Commentary In the Jules Woodson Case

Most of you will by now know of Jules Woodson, the young lady whose youth pastor, Andy Savage, molested her as a teen. The story broke jointly with The Wartburg Watch and another blog, and has since gained worldwide attention. What is troubling, in addition to the already appalling story, is both the response inside Savage’s church and some of the recent commentary about Jules.

The response inside Savage’s current church already is well known. Folks weren’t shocked and outraged, He wasn’t immediately suspended from ministry. Instead the man received a standing ovation.

So help me get this straight. The guy does something illegal, and members of Highpoint Church give him a standing ovation? Even among those who have teenagers? We are talking seriously broken ethics.

Meanwhile, there are commenters who lament Jule’s unwillingness to reconcile, What? Since when did a victim have an obligation to reconcile? That’s the doubly the case, when as here, nothing has been done to care for Jules.

Even forgiveness, which benefits the victim, comes in its own time, if at all. But forgiveness is not something victims owe. Instead, it’s something aspirational, and for their own benefit. It is injurious to the victim to try to set a timeline on healing. Jules’ only obligation is to herself, which is to become healthy and live the life God wants her to live. And as that happens, guess what–she likely will forgive Savage. But it’s up to her, including when and if it happens.

Most troubling are comments from some suggesting that Jules had a crush on Andy. That would not be surprising–he’s a good-looking guy, charismatic, and he has a position of power. But the one great truth of clergy relationships is that clergy always are responsible for maintaining boundaries. Always. No exceptions. So, if Andy knew or suspected Jules had a crush, all the more reason for him to make sure he wasn’t alone with her. (Actually, he should have never been alone with any of the teens entrusted to his care.)

I’m also going to raise another possibility. My hunch is that Andy is a narcissist. Many of the trappings are there: The attention to his body/looks, the ability to almost magically engage with others, the over-the-top proclamations about how special his marriage is. In such cases, narcissists crave attention, and it would be entirely typical for Andy to deliberately work towards that goal. Why? Because it gives him adulation, power and control.

In that sense, the abuse of power isn’t just about sex. It goes deeper. It’s about worship of the pastor or priest. Indeed, I have known more than one perfectly straight clergyperson who has a string of gay admirers, and it is very obvious that they court this very result. Would it ever lead to sex? Highly doubtful. But sexual attraction can be a powerful magnet and means of control.

So, before folks at Hightower and elsewhere try to slut shame Jules, let me give you a word of caution: Don’t go there. If Jules did have a crush on him, then he is doubly responsible for his failure to protect against abuse.

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New Study Suggests that 72% of Churchgoers Suffer Spiritual Abuse

Note from publisher: My apologies for the dearth of posts the last few weeks, as I’ve been caught up in several personal matters.

The original of this piece appeared on SurvivingChurch.org, a UK-based website that focuses both on abuse in the church, and on the power dynamics behind such abuse. The article can be found here.

Over the weekend spiritual abuse has come into the news. A survey organised on behalf of the Church’s Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) by Bournemouth University has discovered that 72% of the Christians surveyed claim to have experienced it. Although the study uses this expression ‘spiritual abuse’, it does not provide a definition of what this is. It speaks about a ‘systematic pattern of controlling and coercive behaviour in a religious context’. Further on it mentions ‘manipulation and pressuring of individuals, coercion through the misuse of religious texts and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behaviour’. All these ideas have challenged me to come up with my own definition of what I think spiritual abuse consists of. As someone who has been thinking about this subject for the past 20 years I thought it would be useful to offer my attempt at defining or at least describing it. These comments that follow are just as applicable to someone with a Christian background as they are in another religious context.

Spiritual abuse is an abuse of power within a religious context. It may involve one or more of the following.

The use of Scriptures or doctrinal statements to undermine or frighten an individual/group to create in them passivity or compliance.

The exercise of institutional or charismatic power to cause a person/group to submit to the will of a perpetrator for selfish ends.

The manipulation of another person by alternately withholding and dispensing favours within an institution.

Spiritual abuse takes place most typically where there is a leader who for complex reasons seeks the gratification of having subservient followers. Such followers also may have their own reasons for seeking the ‘safety’ of apparently strong decisive leadership.

My effort to set out the nature of spiritual abuse is one that would certainly cover not only churches but also most of the groups that we call cults. Each of the sentences above could be filled out extensively and, as readers of my blog will know, there is a great deal more to be said about the psychology of abusive leaders. Power and psychological neediness are dangerous partners and we see this at work in current American politics. The major question that my short definitions has not tackled is the question as to why spiritual abuse happens in the first place. What is in it for leaders or any members of a religious organisation to exercise abusive power over another? Power exercised over another person is apparently gratifying for the one who has it. This gratification is sometimes an urgent need for an individual whose life story has denied them significance or self-esteem. The power abusers among us who are the most dangerous are the ones who have been treated badly themselves.

My hope is that this conversation which CCPAS has begun will help to move the debate away from the narrow area of sexual abuse which is so much under public scrutiny at present. We need to understand this wider power abuse that exists in the church. As I have said many times before we need to have better insight as to how power operates in the church. It is important to create a church environment where it is possible for authority to be exercised without any trace of gratification or inappropriate abuse. There is simply too much of what we call bullying. This is another word for power abuse. The church has simply no mechanisms for adjudicating and checking when an individual misuses institutional power. Power abuse does not just happen between leaders and followers, but it also happens when any individual uses techniques which seek to manipulate or intimidate another person. This of course can happen in Anglican parishes where powerful laypeople gang up against their vicar. Mediators and people experience in power issues should be available both formally and informally, to come into situations before they escalate into terrible destructive confrontations.

My readers will have noticed that I began in a place which is somewhat unexpected. I began with the use of Scripture and the way that the text is used in many contexts as a weapon of power. I am thinking of course of coercive preaching and the use of terror techniques in sermons. Hell has become, not a point of doctrine, but an idea with which to pummel and control people you dislike or want power over. Many sermons constitute on their own examples of spiritual abuse. Sometimes a congregation is regaled with hearing about the fate of other people outside the building who differ in some way. Such people are thought to be destined for hell. This is spiritually abusive even if the targets of the abuse of not there to hear it. Those who do hear it are being seduced into a way of thinking which is hateful, spiteful and vindictive. To become hateful in this way and thus perpetrators of actions like shunning and exclusion is also to be the victim of a heinous indirect act of spiritual abuse.

In my past discussions of power, I have noted a variety of power techniques that can control others. I cannot now rehearse all these but quickly here I mention how much the Church of England uses social power to maintain order and control. The church is, perhaps unwittingly, encouraging status and ambition-seeking among its clergy. This is a way to reward and punish individuals according to whether they find favour with bishops and others high up in the organisation. This, arguably, is also a form of spiritual abuse. It can only be properly understood when, as I’ve said many times before, the dynamics of power are properly understood within the institution. That may be long way ahead.

This is a rapidly written piece but I want all my readers to read the story at CPPAS and consider what they think to be a good definition of spiritual abuse. Perhaps we can further this debate within this blog and help the wider church to see how important it is to have a proper understanding of the meaning of this term.

www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/12-january/news/uk/spiritual-abuse-recognised-but-not-defined

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When Churches Can’t Heal

Have you ever been in a church that is mired in conflict? One where chaos and disagreement have become the norm? Almost invariably, there are a few specific reasons for this. This post explores those reasons.

One common reason is that the organization in question has become a religious club, versus a church. Churches represent the body of Christ, where there is a shared understanding that the role of the church is to offer love to God, to each other, and to the world around them. If this understanding is lost, the focus becomes liturgy, worship, the praise band, the building, or some other alternative. Thus, anything that disrupts the business of the religious club quickly becomes a conflict. Paint the bathroom the wrong color? By gosh, you’ll pay for that. In these situations, disputes can drag on for years, because the focus is on all the wrong things.

Another reason churches get mired in conflict is that there is that there are unhealthy people at the top. Leaders who put their own priorities first; who are there to be served, versus serving others; or who have emotional or psychological issues can quickly create a toxic environment. These situations are easy to spot: Newcomers are welcomed with open arms, but the backdoor is wide open, and real leaders rarely stick around. In these cases, vestries and other internal safeguards are often missing or ineffective, with either one person or a small clique of insiders making all the decisions. Some churches facing this situation will even refer, only half in jest, to having “A-List” and “B-List” members. It’s also worth noting that clergy ultimately set the tone and direction for the church. Even if it’s just by refusing to get involved, clergy through their action and behavior establish organizational norms.

On a related note, it is well-established that the ministry is a magnet for narcissists and other emotional predators; many clergy I know estimate that at least 1/3 of their peers suffer from narcissism. Churches in this situation invariably are headed for trouble, and ultimately need to get rid of the troubled clergyperson as quickly as possible. In the meantime, it is essential that vestries and other leaders establish and enforce strong boundaries across the board.

Yet another reason churches can become toxic is that they are still responding to issues from years ago, often around unresolved conflict. In these cases, the real problem lurks behind the scenes, creating seemingly ludicrous disputes over trivial matters. For example, in one church with which I am familiar, the decision by the altar guild to quit wearing blue smocks led to a dispute among members of the altar guild that dragged on for more than a year, replete with the silent treatment and other forms of abusive behavior. Clearly, the real issue was not about proper attire for the altar guild, but instead was something far deeper and more troubling.

Still another reason for ongoing conflict is the presence of bullies in the church. Typically, it just takes one or two to do tremendous damage to a church. The ever-widening circle of conflict can result in major declines in membership and giving, and often requires outside intervention to resolve. Ironically, these often are churches that place a high priority on being friendly and nice, for it is this very emphasis on being nice that makes people reluctant to challenge bullies. Double ironic is the fact that the most effective weapon against a bully is the sweet parishioner who otherwise never says boo to a goose. It is that very person who, when he or she stands up and says, “I’m sorry, but I don’t like what I am seeing,” brings conflict screeching to a halt.

Keep in mind that healthy churches are almost never an accident. Typically, they are healthy because they’ve made a deliberate decision to be healthy, and to take steps in that direction. Similarly, unhealthy churches, often without realizing it, have made decisions that create that situation. Becoming a healthy church thus invariably involves calling a spade a spade, looking issues straight in the eye, and dealing directly with them.

Posted in Abuse in the church, church health, Healthy relationships, respect, wholeness | Leave a comment

Abused in Church? Know Your Rights

One of my policies, generally speaking, is to avoid politics. While I make no apology for being progressive, I also feel that it is best to focus on abuse on church, versus larger political issues.

That said, the recent wave of sexual abuse claims directed at politicians and public figures, combined with the #emptythepews and #churchtoo Twitter discussions, gives me hope. Hope that we are finally beginning to take sexual harassment and abuse seriously. And hope that this increased awareness will also result in additional attention to spiritual and emotional abuse in houses of worship.

At the same time, I was impressed with the number of people who have complained of abuse in church via various Twitter hashtags. Clearly, many have suffered in church, and the damage, as I have seen firsthand, can be devastating.

So, in an effort to help those who have experienced any sort of abuse in church, following are my thoughts on your rights, your responsibilities, and related issues.

Your rights:

  • You have the right to be heard and believed.
  • You have the right to be treated with respect.
  • You have the right to have your concerns understood, including the effect that abuse has had on you.
  • You have the right to have your concerns addressed in a meaningful way.
  • You have the right to have irrelevant factors omitted from discussions about abuse, including your gender, your age, your income, your sexual orientation or your gender identity.
  • You have the right to move on when you’re ready, in the manner that works for you.
  • You have the right to refuse anyone who tries to force you to move on before you’re ready.
  • You have the right to publicly share your story.
  • You have the right to blog, post to social media, go to the news media, picket, or do whatever you believe will help you heal if church officials are not responsive, or if you are not comfortable going to church officials, or if you simply feel it will help you move on.
  • You have the right to a prompt, effective response from church officials.
  • You have the right to have all forms of abuse treated as abuse, and treated with equal respect: Spiritual, emotional, relational, financial, sexual, physical or any other form of abuse is just that, abuse.
  • You have the right to file civil suit, or criminal charges, if appropriate.
  • You have the right to an apology.
  • You have the right to restitution.
  • You have the right to appropriate pastoral care and/or counseling.
  • You have the right to be in s safe environment.
  • You have the right to be treated with respect by fellow church members for complaining of abuse.
  • You are right to be free of smear campaigns or other bad behavior that may be used in an effort to discredit you.
  • You have the right to be free of retaliation.
  • You have the right to “wander with intention,” attending church or not, as may work for you, and without being criticized for your decisions.
  • You have the right to be angry.
  • You have the right to make mistakes in how you respond to abuse, without being criticized for those mistakes, or having them used as an excuse to avoid dealing with the abuse.
  • You have the right to be loved.

Your obligations:

  • You are obligated to avoid acting in a way that results in harm to yourself due to possible defamation, harassment, or other civil or criminal charges.
  • You are obligated to do everything you can to heal, recover, and bounce back.
  • You are obligated to get adequate foot, rest, and nutrition.
  • You are obligated to seek immediate help if you are suicidal, dealing with PTSD, or facing other major psychological issues.

Note a pattern here? Your only obligations are to yourself. You owe your abuser nothing.

Things you might want to do:

  • Be careful around persons who may be mutual friends with your abuser. They may face issues of divided loyalties, or may be under the sway of your abuser in ways you don’t fully recognize.
  • Keep a journal, so you can reflect more fully on your progress as you regroup.
  • Avoid or limit alcohol or other substances/behaviors that may have harmful effects over time.
  • Take steps to ensure your personal safety, if appropriate.
  • Consider, when the time is right, whether you could help other victims of abuse.
  • Identify others who have had similar experiences who can offer you unconditional love and support.

Things you’re not obligated to do:

  • Agree to reconciliation or a ceasefire.
  • Trade silence for an end to abuse.
  • Worry about the wellbeing of your abuser or his or her family, including over threats to commit suicide or to otherwise engage in self-harm.
  • Spend time in any situation, or with any person, who makes you uncomfortable.
  • Forgive before you’re ready.
  • Worry about the effects of your accusation on your church.
  • Honor your pledge or other financial commitments to your church if doing so would make you uncomfortable, or make it financially unfeasible to get needed psychological or pastoral care.
  • Accept any responsibility for abuse. Clergy and other persons in positions of power have total responsibility for maintaining boundaries in any and all cases. No excuses, no exceptions.
  • Meet with your abuser.
  • Engage in mediation if doing so would be traumatic for you.
  • Sit in silence if your abuser lies about what happened, disclaims responsibility, or denies everything.
  • Assist church officials in ending public criticism of your abuser.

One final thought: If you have been abused, you are not alone. There are many out there who will pray for you, care for you, and do everything they can to help you.

Posted in Abuse in the church, church health, clergy predators, harassment, healing after clergy misconduct, Healthy relationships, wholeness | 2 Comments

Breaking News: Episcopal Priest Michael Glenn Rich Arrested on Allegations of Child Pornography

A well-known Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Alabama, the Rev. Michael Glenn Rich, has been arrested on three charges of possessing child pornography.

Formerly a professor of journalism at Auburn University, Rich was ordained in 2006. Most recently, he served at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham.

According to the diocese, Title IV disciplinary charges have been initiated, and Rich has been suspended from ministry.

The arrest arises from a massive state law enforcement operation targeting child predators.

Details here.

Posted in Abuse in the church, child pornography, clergy predators, Title IV | Leave a comment

Anglican Consultative Council’s Safe Church Commission Gives Grounds for Hope

Robin Hammeal-Urban

One of the disappointing things about many progressive churches, including The Episcopal Church (of which I am a member), is that they largely ignore abuse within the church that doesn’t involve sex, drugs, violence, or mayhem. That is unfortunate, for it overlooks the fact that most of the abuse that happens in churches is relational, emotional, or spiritual. Moreover, it ignores that fact that these forms of abuse can be every bit as damaging as sexual abuse.

Today, however, there are signs of positive progress. The Anglican Consultative Council’s (ACC’s) Safe Church Consultation (SCC) has released its, “Charter for the Safety of Peoples Within the Churches of the Anglican Communion,” which can be found in PDF here. First published in 2012, the document is now gaining attention due to the appointment of a commission to help implement its promises.

Even better, the American representative to the SCC is the Rev. Robin Hammeal-Urban, head of the Office of Mission Integrity and Training for the diocese of Connecticut. Robin is the author is the sensitively written and very well done, “Wholeness After Betrayal: Restoring Trust in the Wake of Misconduct.” The book should be mandatory reading for all clergy, with an emphasis on bishops diocesan and canons to the ordinary, many of whom, in my experience, have scant understanding of their obligations under the Episcopal disciplinary canons, otherwise known as Title IV.

Particularly compelling is the fact that Robin recognizes that spiritual abuse is, indeed abuse. In her book, Robin cites examples of spiritual abuse, which often can be difficult for adjudicatories to recognize. She also notes, accurately, that reports of spiritual abuse often represent just the tip of the iceburg.

This same perspective also is reflected in the SCC’s materials. Rather than focusing on sex, as we have done for far too long, the Charter commits to, “promoting the physical, emotional and spiritual welfare and safety of all people, especially children, young people and vulnerable adults, within the member churches of the Anglican Communion.”

Moreover, the Charter recognizes that the root of most misconduct, including sexual, is power. Specifically, it calls attention, “to the many forms of abuse of power within society as well as the church from which women and children suffer disproportionately, and the challenge to reclaim the gospel truth of the dignity of the human person and to exercise power in ways that would always be life giving.”

That recognition is important, for if our churches are indeed to be welcoming, safe places, we must recognize and prevent the abuses of power that harm the vulnerable, of every sort. For example, LGBT persons, many of whom may have been bullied as youth, likely will find any experience of bullying in church to be profoundly unsettling. Similarly, victims of domestic violence may find even minor abuses of power to be painful in the extreme. And women, who may experience lack of respect in the workplace, likely will retreat from a church that does not fully expect them, and their capabilities.

Additionally, the SCC’s work towards uniform standards, including pastoral care for persons and communities affected by misconduct, can only help. My experience is that many bishops diocesan have scant understanding of what it means to afford a true pastoral response to persons and communities injured by clergy.

Will these changes be a panacea? Of course not. But they are an important first step towards a holistic approach to misconduct that addresses abuse in all its forms, versus simply sexual abuse. And, as the SCC notes, promoting a “culture of safety,” will help preempt abuse of every sort.

Posted in Abuse in the church, baptismal covenant, church ethics, Church safety, healing after clergy misconduct, Healthy relationships, Title IV, wholeness | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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Ten Steps to Making Your Church Safer

For years, churches were the one safe place in our communities. Many stood open around the clock to provide quiet places for worship, contemplation, and refuge from the storms of life.

Today, it is a rare church indeed that stays open around the clock. And the recent Texas church shootings, coming on the heels of similar shootings in Knoxville, Charleston, and Ellicott City, underscore the need to be mindful of the risks our churches face and to seek to reduce security threats whenever possible

Of course, no one wants a church that is a fortress. We seek spaces of warmth, love, compassion, and welcome.Still, it is possible to remain an inviting church, yet one with reasonable levels of security. Here are ten steps you can take to make your church safer.

  1. Take security seriously

How often have you heard, “That wouldn’t happen here,” or “But we’ve never locked that door?” Probably more often that you’d care to admit. But ignorance isn’t bliss, and ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.

Moreover, there is an obligation to protect children, church employees, the elderly, and those who may not be able to respond readily in an emergency. Being safe requires that we reduce threats, both from within the church and from outside the church.

A great first step: Forming a security committee. Many larger churches will have law enforcement personnel as members, who may be able to assist in this area.

2.    Get an outside perspective

Many police departments offer free crime prevention surveys that can offer low- or no-cost steps to increasing security. Take advantage of these free resources and get an independent perspective. When I worked as a police officer, I often was surprised at some of the obvious and easily fixed issues I would find when I did security surveys for houses of worship.

3.    Control access

Access control has several components. One aspect is securing parts of the building that are not in use. This denies potential perpetrators of sexual or other misconduct privacy, and makes it easier to know what is going on in your facility. This also may limit exposure in the event of a crisis. For instance, if you have a school at your church, classroom doors should be closed and locked (but with two unrelated adults in the room at all times) whenever class is in session. This limits the ability of an active shooter to move quickly from room to room and buys valuable time needed for a police response. Similarly, the destruction wrought by arson may be limited if the arsonist does not have free access to all parts of the building.

Another aspect is knowing who’s in your building at all times. During the week, for instance, a security camera and door buzzer system can limit access to the building to those with a need to be there. And don’t fall prey to buzzing in anyone and everyone; if you don’t recognize the visitor, find out why they are there, and turn them away if you are alone in the building.

Keep in mind, too, that cameras can be a powerful deterrent. When people know that their coming and goings are recorded, it’s a powerful disincentive to crime and misconduct.

Key control also is important. Not only do most churches have next to no key control, but police officers will tell you how very predictable hidden keys are. Every bad guy and his twin brother knows to look in furniture outside the sacristy or the church office, for instance.

One person, possibly a vestry member, should have lockup duties after each service. This includes checking windows, which may be unlocked during services by persons wanting to return to the building later, checking interior and exterior doors, arming any alarm systems, and checking for things like toilets that may have overflowed during services.

Lastly, your church should never be open 24/7 via an access control system, a keybox outside the entrance, or other means. Having such an arrangement is an open invitation to those who need privacy to engage in untoward activities. Whether it’s as simple as a place to drink or smoke pot, or as serious as a place to be alone with a child, you are asking for trouble if you provide round-the-clock access to your building.

4.    Provide emergency responders with plans to the building

This may seem like an odd suggestion, but many police departments have to ability to store building blueprints and transmit them electronically to responding units in the event of a crisis. That can make a big difference to law enforcement officers who may struggle to know where your clergy offices are located, your sacristy, or other sensitive areas when called upon to do so in an emergency.

5.    Arrange to discreetly get help in a hurry

Many members of the clergy and church staff members have had awkward or difficult encounters with persons in need who come to churches looking for help, yet may struggle with mental illness or substance abuse. In addition, there are times where clergy meeting behind closed doors may need someone else in the room, or to simply politely end a meeting.

In such cases, having a signal worked out in advance can be helpful. In one church with which I am familiar, for instance, the rector signals the parish administrator to call for help by using the intercom and saying, “Would you let Mrs. Jones know I’m running a few minutes late?”

Needless to say, clergy and church employees should never conduct meetings without at least one other person within earshot. And clergy who are LGBT, alone with youth, or otherwise susceptible to charges of misconduct, should be especially careful, giving consideration to meeting with their office door open, or with another member of the clergy present.

6.    Pay attention to risk factors

Risk factors may be relatively minor, like a sudden increase in vandalism, or they may be significant, like threatening phone calls due to involvement in social justice issues. Take these seriously, and let the police know right away.

Consider, too, that some risk factors that are major red flags for police officers may go unrecognized by church members. For instance, you may consider graffiti on your building nothing more than an annoyance,  yet a sudden increase in graffiti is, statistically speaking, closely associated with an increased likelihood of arson. So when in doubt, let police know.

7.    Use multiple layers of security

When I was a police officer, I marveled at how often churches would have security alarm systems, but shoddy physical security. Or vice versa. Or great security systems and features, but these were left unused.

The reality is a great alarm system is almost useless without adequate locks and other physical security. Locksets, for example, which are door knobs with keyholes in the middle, are basically nothing more than privacy locks. Even with an alarm system covering the premises, your average intruder can be in, out, and long-gone before police respond. Conversely, mammoth door locks won’t do much if criminals have unlimited time alone to work on the lock, which is where an alarm system and surveillance cameras come in handy.

Also, don’t leave alarm systems off during times when the building is empty. If, for example, you have a mid-day service on Sunday and a 5 PM service, it is a surefire bet that anyone considering burglarizing or vandalizing your church will learn of your routine in short order. Same goes for interior signs that announce that interior alarm systems are on or off—a bad guy treats a sign saying that the alarm system is disarmed as the equivalent of an engraved invitation to burglarize your church.

8.   Consider locking the building during services

This sounds unfriendly, I know. But it can prevent people from slipping in and grabbing purses during communion, and buy time for ushers to size up visitors. Particularly if your church has glass doors, there’s nothing wrong with having an usher there, smiling and holding the door open in situations that are clearly non-threatening, yet keeping it otherwise locked.

9.    Train your ushers

Good ushers not only provide a warm welcome, but they can serve an important security function. The latter includes responding to parishioners who may be having health or other crises, ensuring that one usher is always at the door and able to observe what is going on in the nave/sanctuary, and keeping a watchful eye for signs of trouble. Indicators that trouble may be in the offing are persons who are dressed inappropriately for the weather, are visibly agitated, those who may have odd lumps or bulges under exterior clothing, or who may be looking around in an anxious and inappropriate manner. Another potential giveaway: Unknown vehicles loitering near the church, or in the parking lot during services, with persons inside.

Ushers also should be aware of persons who may be subject to restraining orders or other potential indicators of violence. The sad reality is almost every church sooner or later has a member who has a restraining order against a family member or ex. In cases where a violation may be imminent, there is nothing wrong with calling police before things get out of hand.

10.  Have a plan

Last but not least, have a written security plan. What would you do, for example, if a gunman burst into your church during services? Would you have means to notify your nursery so it could go into lockdown? Or what would you do if a noncustodial parent tried to remove a child from the building?

Another tricky one is persons who are nominally in the building to worship, but may actually be looking for a place to spend the night, or to see if there are small portable objects that can be carried off. More than one church has had a member get up during services to go to the bathroom, only to discover someone unknown in the halls, rattling doorknobs.

Consider, too, that church members may not readily recognize crime when they see it. In one church I attended, for instance, I observed a woman using prototypical techniques to try to pick pockets during coffee hours. Yet members were offended when I offered her a plate of food and a cup of coffee and walked her to the door, never realizing I had just watched her take wallets from two unsuspecting parishioners.

In conclusion, you can’t eliminate every threat, and doing so is not desirable. But there is a lot you can do to make your church or other house of worship a self, welcoming place for all persons.

Posted in active shooters, Church safety, Church security | 2 Comments