Healthy Churches: Families of Unconditional Love

Note from editor: This article was written by the Rev. Stephen Parsons a retired priest in the Church of England and an expert on abusive churches, and is reposted with permission. Visit his wonderful blog at http://www.survivingchurch.org.

My hope is that persons who attend churches in which love for one another is conditional — whether that involves behaving in a certain way, not complaining of abuse, or any other factor — will take a deep breath and ask the tough question, “Is my church an abusive church?”

And if you are a member of a church who conditions your love and acceptance of others, what might that say about your faith?


When I began my study of the phenomenon of abusive churches some 20 years ago, there was no conceptual model around to help me see what might be going on in these communities. Two questions loomed large. One was why anyone would want to attend a church where they might come to harm. The second question was why there should be Christian leaders prepared to exploit their followers. My reading over the years has helped me towards answers to both these questions. While I obviously cannot rehearse all these answers in a short blog, I wanted today to share a very helpful model that I came across as I struggled to begin to understand the mystery of church abuse. One very helpful book that I came across early in my studies was entitled Righteous Religion. This book likened and compared the church to a human family. Just as the good healthy family allows the children to flourish and grow to maturity in a safe, secure environment, so a dysfunctional family cramps and restricts the personalities of the children through a regime of fear, control and coercion. The same contrast can be found in churches. Some allow their members to grow to spiritual maturity while others control the development of their members so that there is little in the way of spiritual flourishing or joy.

In describing two models of family, church or human, Righteous Religion describes the difference between conditional and unconditional love. Conditional love is the kind that is only offered when a child (parishioner) pleases the parent by a rigid conformity to the parent’s wishes and desires. Unconditional love on the other hand, is one that allows a child to grow through mistakes as well as pursue his or her own interests. There is never too much in the way of control over these emerging events. The love that is expressed for the child will never be destroyed however much the child may appear to rebel and chafe against the discipline of living in a family.

The positive experience of church for many people is much like the experience of growing up in a family. Some things that a family offers are also offered by a church. A human family offers (or should offer) protection, love, food, shelter, and education. Although these needs are not precisely the same as those offered by a church, a growing child might well understand a church as being like a second home. The church will be an important part of the way that a child comes to be socialised and educated in learning to be part of the wider community beyond the home. The church community in turn is a prelude to recognising we are part of a worldwide community. It does not need to be emphasised how important church belonging can play in the rearing of a child.

An abusive church is likely to have much in common with a family where love is conditional. Some styles of Christian teaching seem to imply that God’s love is somehow conditional to our believing and behaving in a defined way. Although most of us find in Scripture the central proclamation that God loves us unconditionally, there are many churches where the message received is that God is preoccupied in punishing eternally those who do not turn to him. It is of course possible to read certain passages in this way but this is not the teaching of the Prodigal Son or the central thrust of Scripture. The model for human families that we applaud is one where love is offered unconditionally. Can we really believe that God is like an angry parent who withholds his love except for those children who successfully negotiate a long narrow list of commands?

The family model that seems to be followed in certain conservative Christian communities is similar to one known in Victorian times. Then the ideal father was one who maintained strict authority through the exercise of fear. This whole process of comparing the church to styles of family life and parenting models is one I have found helpful. Just as we rightly shrink from a model of child-rearing which emphasises terror, fear and threats, so we should also purge church communities of the message that God’s love is withheld from individuals and groups that a minister does not approve of. Exclusion of despised minorities was never something that Jesus did. We also should uphold at every point the message that God includes all and that it is never for us to declare that his love is anything other than unconditional.

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Clergy Abuse: Is Forgiveness Possible?

Yesterday’s lectionary reading was about forgiveness. That brings up the question: In cases of abuse by clergy, is forgiveness always possible or even desirable? Based on my own experiences with an abusive member of the clergy, I think the answer is mixed.

To be sure, forgiveness is always desirable. By forgiving the other person, the injured person frees himself to move on. He or she lets go of hurt and anger and moves toward healing. This outcome has very little to do with the person who caused the harm, but instead is all about protecting oneself against further pain and suffering.

When it comes to clergy abuse, however, the very nature of the relationship between clergy and laity makes the path to forgiveness arduous. Any betrayal of that trust by clergy — whether the abuse is spiritual, emotional, sexual, physical or relational — can have profound implications for the victim and his or her sense of self. In addition, the abuse inevitably implicates the victim’s spiritual and emotional lives, often resulting in lasting harm. Indeed, it is well documented that victims frequently suffer PTSD and other stress and anxiety disorders. (Spiritual abuse can be particularly devastating, for it typically is difficult for adjudicatories to recognize, and complaints may initially be ignored or dismissed out of hand. This compounds the suffering of victims. My strong suggestion to bishops, canons to the ordinary, and other church officials is to avoid dismissing complaints of clergy misconduct whenever possible.)

One precursor to forgiveness is timely access to justice. With church officials all too often reluctant to address clergy misconduct, victims may not only have to deal with the original harm, but also their own powerlessness as well. It’s also essential that adjudicatories believe victims; in cases of abuse, studies show that the overwhelming majority of complaints are truthful.

Further, the relationship between clergy and their congregations means that victims who tell their stories may be shunned and excluded at church–the very place they should be able to find comfort and healing. For example, one dear friend of mine, now in her eighties, recounts how she was shunned by members of her Episcopal parish for complaining about the rector’s attempts to ruin her marriage. It was not until years later, when it was discovered that dozens of other women had faced similar experiences, that members of her church apologized to her for their conduct. But by that time, the damage had been done, and many of the fractured relationships have never healed.

The story above also illustrates another important issue, which is the breadth of harm caused by abusive clergy. Not only does evidence suggest that the vast majority of clergy abuse go unreported, but in my experience the circle of harm often extends beyond the obvious victims. Even well-intentioned church officials may overlook or fail to fully recognize the vast swath of friends and family who are hurt when clergy misconduct occurs. This is particularly the case with spiritual and emotional abuse, in which initial reports often represent only the tip of the iceberg.

Another precursor to forgiveness is allowing victims the space to process abuse in their own way. Officials who urge victims to “move on,” risk trivializing the pain and suffering of victims. Similarly, it can be counterproductive to attempt to shut down public criticism of the offending clergy, for telling of one’s experience can be therapeutic. And criticizing victims for responding badly to misconduct, as happened recently in one prominent case of clergy abuse, is inevitably counterproductive. The reality is that victims often engage in counterproductive behavior, up to and including suicide. This is not a result of moral failing, but instead of human suffering.

Lastly, for forgiveness to occur, there must be care and support for victims. This may include professional counseling, medication, pastoral care, listening with compassion, and other support. Church officials also need to recognize that victims may spend months, even years, “wandering with intention,” absenting themselves from their church or house of worship. Some may transfer to other parishes, or leave church altogether. But in all these cases, it is incumbent upon church officials to continue to regard victims of abuse with love and concern. And unless someone asks to no longer be considered a church member, victims of abuse should be accorded the same rights and privileges as other church members. In short, being a victim of abuse constitutes good cause to withdraw from involvement in church, and should not be regarded as reflecting badly on victims.

And, of course, prayer is important for all affected by abuse, including abusers and their families.

In conclusion, in cases of clergy abuse, we can never really know whether forgiveness is possible. Nor should we assume that it is, or that we can dictate to survivors when or how they should forgive. We can only offer love, care, and support for those affected by the scourge of clergy abuse and trust that God will work through the situation in the end.

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Ten Signs Your Church is Dying

Attending church no longer is normative. As a result, almost all denominations are experiencing decline. But that decline is spread unevenly, with some churches in a death spiral, others holding steady, and others doing well despite these trends.

So how do you know if your church is in trouble? Based on my experiences, here are ten warning signs:

  1. People are reluctant to invite others. A healthy church naturally and easily engages with the community around it. But if special events, like church anniversary celebrations, parish picnics and other events don’t include an invitation to the surrounding community, chances are your church has lost touch with the outside world.
  2. There’s empty triumphalism. Pledging and other measurable criteria are dropping like a rock, yet folks talk about what a special, welcoming place the church is. But if it’s really so special, why are your church’s numbers declining?
  3. There’s no plan for the future. What will your church look like in 5 years? In 10 years? In 50 years? No one can know for sure, but if there’s no plan or vision for the future, chances are that’s exactly where you are headed.
  4. Everyone knows there’s an elephant in the living room, but no one wants to discuss the situation. If your church is seeing multiple years with back-to-back declines in pledging or attendance, something’s up. But if no one talks openly about it, or if the conversation focuses on inconsequentia like which pledge cards work best, the church is in real trouble.
  5. Fighting has become normative. Conflict is normal. Fighting, and its evil siblings shunning and exclusion, are not. If you see the latter, or you see conflicts that drag on for months and years, your church has lost the love and care for each other that mark a healthy church.
  6. Only the political survive. If every time you paint a hallway, change a lock, or replace carpet it takes 3 meetings, 5 approvals and you still feel like you are walking on eggshells, things are in sorry shape.
  7. Unacceptable behavior is okay. When bullying and other behaviors that normally would be considered violations of Christian values become okay, your church has lost its way. And when people are afraid to speak up in those situations, things are doubly bad.
  8. Gossip and triangulation are the norm. A certain amount of gossip is normal in any organization. But when the rumor mill is part of day-to-day life, it’s a sign that the fabric of the church is coming unraveled.
  9. Newcomers are welcomed with open arms, but the back door is wide open. Churches in trouble often will proclaim loudly that newcomers will be warmly welcomed, yet no one says a thing about leaders who have left. That’s because real leaders typically gravitate towards places where they can make a difference. Be particularly alert to former leaders who leave without transferring their records, or who leave on bad terms. These are signs of fractured relationships and a church that does not know how to resolve conflict.
  10. The focus is on keeping up appearances, versus taking care of priorities. One church I know, faced with major capital expenses and sharply declining revenue, withdrew $8,000 from its rapidly dwindling cash reserves to pay for a staff retirement party, versus taking care of a leaking roof and failing HVAC systems. Such decisions not only show that a church is unhealthy, but they also accelerate the downward spiral, for they demonstrate poor stewardship, thus disincentivizing member giving.

Keep in mind that none of these warning signs guarantee that a church will close its doors. Many a church has gone through periods of extended decline, only to emerge better and stronger from the experience. But survival inevitably requires a willingness to take a tough look at serious questions, to embrace change, to let go of the past, and to focus on healing and rebirth. Only when these happen can any church become truly healthy and vibrant.

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The Perils of the Fauxpology (Or How NOT to Fix Things When You’ve Hurt Someone)

Of all the places we spend time, you would think that churches would be places where people understand conflict and know how to work through it in positive ways, wouldn’t you? Seems sensible enough, but my experience is that churches, which typically lack HR departments and similar “safety valves” found in other settings, are among the worst. And they are particularly bad when it comes to the non-apology, or what I’ll call the fauxpology.  Come to think of it, some of the most egregious and knuckleheaded examples of fauxpologies are ones I’ve heard in church. But more on that later.

So what is a fauxpology? Definitions vary, but we all know it when we see or hear it. It’s the classic non-apology. Often couched in the language of contrition, it avoids saying anything of substance. Our society is replete with examples: “I’m sorry if I made mistakes,” or, “I’m sorry you were upset.”

Of course, that begs the issue: What is the real value of an apology? Done right, an apology can be tremendously healing for both sides. Indeed, having practiced law for many years, I am astonished to this day by how many lawsuits get filed where all the plaintiff really wants is an apology. Similarly, a great many cases in which the defendant obviously was going to pay, and pay big, have been resolved when an apology was offered. Clearly, in many cases, people view an apology as worth more than an economic recovery.

But for these goals to happen, the apology must be sincere. This typically means that it must include:

• An acknowledgement of the harm that was caused.

• An empathy for the hurt or suffering the other person has experienced.

• Restitution, or making the other person whole again, or as whole as possible under the circumstances.

• Genuine contrition, including an implicit or express commitment to end the offensive behavior.

The commitment to ending the offensive behavior is particularly important, for if the person who has been hurt sees the behavior repeated in the future, she or he is likely to conclude that the apology was insincere.

In some cases, the fauxpology comes about because the person offering it simply isn’t very socially adept. In a great many more cases, people’s egos creep into things, and they just aren’t comfortable acknowledging their bad behavior.

In still other cases, the fauxpology is more malevolent, in that it attempts to sandbag the dispute. In these cases, it’s quickly becomes clear that the culpable party has simply tossed the words, “I’m sorry,” out there in an effort to move past the dispute. One clergyperson I know, when confronted with incontrovertible evidence of his misconduct, responded with a hasty, “Well, I’m sorry.” Leaving aside the fact that this person consistently prefaces sentences with “Well,” when he doesn’t like the topic, saying, “Well, I’m sorry,” doesn’t demonstrate the empathy or understanding needed to promote reconciliation. Indeed, such an “apology” just fans the flames, because it confirms what others have suspected all along, which is that there is a dearth of sincerity.

In other cases, the fauxpology is even more malevolent, in that it tries to shift blame to the hearer. “I’m sorry you were upset, but…,” is the language often used here. In those cases, the implicit conclusion is that the hearer wouldn’t be upset if they just understood what had really happened. Thus, the reasoning goes, there’d be no reason for an apology if the hearer weren’t  friggin’ stupid in the first place.

Particularly upsetting is the “empty words,” fauxpology. These typically involve artful choice of words, but give away little. For example, in one situation with which I am familiar, the priest in question said, “I’m sorry for my inexpert response.” This, despite the fact that her objectionable behavior was both deliberate and malicious. Thus, the fauxpology is doubly offensive, for it suggests that not only is there nothing to be sorry about, but also that the recipient is so damned dumb that they aren’t likely to even recognize that they have not received an apology.

Needless to say, in cases where the fauxpology tries to shift the blame, or says nothing at all amidst a sea of pretty words, the recipient often is enraged. Many an otherwise good apology, and the person offering it, have gone down in flames due to the inclusion of “and,” or “but,” or “however,” or “if.” And the “pretty words,” fauxpology not only inevitably gets rejected, but it often hardens the position of the recipient, resulting in a conflict that is almost impossible to resolve.

By the way, an apology can be sincere, even if the person offering it is unsure of his or her own culpability. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I am so very sorry I have hurt you. How can I make this up to you?” This simple acknowledgement can open doors to further discussion, to healing, and to reconciliation.

Nor is there anything wrong in going above and beyond. If, for example, I know I have hurt a friend, there likely is nothing improper about including her family members in the apology. Or, as a mentor of mine used to say, “It’s never wrong to do right.”

One final observation: An apology, done right, often allows the offeror to make a clean break of things. In short, it offers healing to all who come in contact.

So, next time you’re tempted to minimize the harm you’ve caused, to brush things aside, or to offer a lame fauxpology, consider whether it’s in your best interest to take a deep breath, think carefully about the situation, and see if a genuine apology might not be the better path to take. And if you’re clergy or a lay leader, maybe it’s worth talking with others about the real benefits of real apologies.

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Eight Steps to Avoiding Toxic Clergy

Numerous studies show that there is a very high percentage of predators among clergy. Not just sexual predators, but emotional predators as well. These individuals, present in every faith system, inevitably cause lasting harm to their houses of worship and the people they serve.

So how do you avoid these persons?

Before we go further, it’s important to know the signs. These include:

  1. A surplus of superficial charm
  2. An uncanny ability to anticipate what people want to hear and to say it plausibly. A lack of real emotion and connection with other people.
  3. Unstable emotions.
  4. A sense that they are better (more intelligent, more athletic, more powerful) than others.
  5. An ability to subtly, almost imperceptibly, play people against each other. (Look for statements like, “Others may not appreciate you, but those who matter do.” And guess who they think matters? You guessed it. Them.)
  6. An ability to dish out criticism, but a response of rage over even slight perceived insults. This is the infamous, “narcissistic rage.”
  7. A belief that they do a great job at work, despite often actually underperforming.
  8. Disregard for rules and regulations, often including the terms and conditions of their employment contracts. For example, they may take leave without approval in excess of what is allowed under their letter of agreement, yet react with anger and disdain if you ask why this is happening.
  9. A subversion of checks and balances. For example, the toxic clergyperson may be indifferent to the wellbeing of her parish, yet insist on hand picking members of the vestry’s executive committee. By doing so, the clergyperson insulates herself from accountability.
  10. Verbally facile, but often distorts or misrepresents facts, including outright lying.
  11. Has a Jekyll and Hyde component to their personality. Ostensibly innocent and charming, right beneath the surface is a vile, vicious person. The Hyde side, often described as evil, is the real person. The Jekyll side is an act.
  12. Loves to play games, often to show their own power.

The late Danni Moss covered these and many other indicators of personality-disordered clergy in her excellent article on serial bullies, which can be found here. I encourage you to read this very useful piece and to consider, when appropriate, if it applies to you.

So, once you are equipped with this background, how do you put it into practice? Here are my eight tips, based on my own experience with a clergy predator.

First, take your time. Most churches are all light and sunshine when you first get there. But church membership is a serious thing, and choosing the wrong one — or one with the wrong clergy — can cause lasting harm. So don’t rush into things–you deserve better than a quick rush to membership. Remember: Joining a church is entirely voluntary. Don’t be pressured into joining, You’re the one in charge, and don’t forget it.

Second, listen closely. Listen for hints of power cliques in the church, often signified by seemingly offhand comments like, “Don’t tick off the altar guild.” And if you do hear stuff like that, ask why. What has happened in the past that would make someone say that? Or you might hear, as I have, references to an “A List,” and a “B List,” of church members. A healthy church has no such “inner circle.”

Third, keep an eye on the back door. Churches with toxic clergy invariably lose real leaders at an alarming rate. They may tell you that you’ll be welcomed with open arms, but if persons already there are headed for the hills, there’s a reason. Find out why.

Fourth, looks for signs that conflict is poorly handled, or not at all. Often, toxic clergy will publicly profess to dislike conflict, but when you look behind the scenes, they like conflict just fine, as long as it’s THEIR conflict.

Fifth, watch for unacceptable behavior in the parish. Over time, churches inevitably become like their clergy. If relationships within the church are healthy, that is a a good sign. But if bullying and other forms of abuse are acceptable in the church, there’s a reason for it, and that’s because clergy and other leaders turn a blind eye to it, or engage in that behavior themselves, thus showing others that it’s okay.

Sixth, go for the “three strikes” rule. Clergy are human and inevitably make mistakes. But if in any one-year period, you see multiple boundary violations, leave. This includes lying, inappropriate comments about other parishioners, yelling at parishioners, failing to follow through on major commitments, taking leave without approval, and more. In short, any behavior that would get you in trouble at a for-profit job should be out-of-bounds for clergy. And if you see multiple warning signs of this sort, you need to leave, then and there. Don’t think about leaving. Don’t start looking for another church. Don’t make excuses.

Just leave.

And don’t hold back based on affection for other church members. Your job is to protect yourself. (Of course, some behaviors, such as sexual contact with a parishioner or child, warrant both an immediate departure and a police report).

Seventh, if you see something, say something. Toxic clergy thrive in a culture of secrets and by playing people against each other, so openness and transparency are deadly to them. Like vampires, they whither away when exposed to sunlight. So, if you are in a hierarchical church, tell the bishop or other senior official. If you are in a church with congregational polity, tell your local board or vestry. Not sure? Write a blog. Post a review. Doing these things will not make you popular, but do you really care? As a Christian, you’re obligated to resist injustice and oppression. And you’ve already cleared out of a potentially toxic situation, so what do you have to lose? Just be careful to confine any public remarks to accurate statements of fact, and make clear when something is an opinion, so you can’t be successfully sued for defamation. Note an important distinction: Saying that you believe Fr. Bedlam suffers from a personality disorder is not defamatory, as it is an opinion.. Stating that Fr. Bedlam has a personality disorder, absent proof, may well be defamatory. So call a spade a spade, but be careful as you do.

Eight, pray about things. Yes, God helps those who help themselves, but God also helps those who aren’t too proud to ask for help. Allow God to help you make wise decisions. And pray for the clergy in question…if you’ve read this far, they surely need it.

And no matter what happens, remember that you are loved.

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The Trouble With Title IV

I’ve written before about Title IV, which is the collection of clergy disciplinary canons in The Episcopal Church. And while recent changes are largely for the good, there remain some serious shortcomings.

As illustrated by the +Bruno and +Cook cases, the biggest shortcoming is that, while there are multiple paths forward within Title IV, there aren’t multiple paths forward to address disciplinary matters.

Or, in other words, how do you address an issue with possible substance abuse, as in the Cook case? Or a serial bully, as in the +Bruno case? Because ajudicatories are often reluctant to cross the Rubicon of Title IV, the entire process becomes binary. Either the behavior is so egregious that it simply can’t be ignored, or it gets brushed off.

And so it was with both +Cook and +Bruno. Years of warning signs were ignored, until things reached a head. In Cook’s case, the end result was the death of 41-year-old cyclist John Palermo. In the case of +Bruno, the result was turmoil and disruption to the entire diocese of Los Angeles and hundreds of fractured relationships, many of which will never be healed.

In short, Title IV often does too little, too late.

So what’s the solution? In the case of bishops, the presiding bishop needs to get over the whole hand-wringing routine, and exercise her or his authority to issue a pastoral directive. Per the canons, this can happen absent a disciplinary proceeding. In my opinion, this can and should happen more often, for if it does, debacles like the mess in the +Bruno case could have been prevented. Moreover, early intervention would have left +Bruno’s reputation intact. In short, everyone would have benefitted.

Perhaps there would be less reluctance to this route if the presiding bishop had access to a panel of bishops, canonically created, with the authority to advise and consent in these matters. Or perhaps the House of Bishops could establish a mechanism to police its own, before things get ugly.

Similarly, many a bishop diocesan would find life a lot easier over time if there were better local structures to head off problems. My observation is that a great many clergy go over the Title IV cliff simply because no one warned them off before things came to a head. And in some cases, clergy who are able to lie and bluster their way out of a Title IV proceeeding are the worse for doing so, for they wind up victims of public opinion, which can be far more aggressive than the remedies one can expect in the majority of Title IV cases.

Is the solution quick and easy? No, it isn’t. But as it stands, Episcopal polity leaves gaping holes in our ability to respond effectively to trouble in the church.

Perhaps the Standing Committee on Constitition and Canons could add this to its to-do list. Might be very much worth the effort.

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Shocking and Appaling: The Two Words that Best Describe the Most Recent News in the Bishop Bruno Matter

Just days after the hearing panel issued its decision in the Title IV disciplinary case against Bishop Bruno, Bishop Coadjutor Taylor has issued a letter stating that the diocese intends to proceed with the sale of the physical plant that previously belonged to the parish of St. James. The news is shocking and appalling and a stain on the reputation of the entire Episcopal Church.

In its decision, the hearing panel recommended that the parish be returned to its building. Given the amount of time and money spent on legal counsel in the Title IV matter, there surely was ample opportunity to determine whether returning the parish to its church was even a possibility. Indeed, when I read the decision, I assumed that the hearing panel had done such basic due diligence.

Today, however, it emerges that there was a sales contract in place with the developer, and the developer apparently intends to proceed with the transaction. To make matters worse, the diocese has agreed to move forward with the sale.

Moreover, +Taylor’s letter suggests that friends of the parish have engaged in misconduct by sending anonymous, angry emails to members of the standing committee and others. In light of +Bruno’s abusive behavior, it’s hardly surprising that people would respond in this manner. Yet now Taylor seemingly wrings his hands and decries people being angry over the fact that they’ve been abused. Abused financially, abused emotionally, abused relationally. But per +Taylor, if you’re abused, you have an obligation to be nice.

In addition, +Taylor adds some cryptic comments about how both sides share responsibility for the fact that St. James cannot stay in the building. While I do not know what he is referring to, this comment is hardly helpful. Members of the parish have been  through far too much already–it’s time to focus on showing them love, care, and concern.

All of this begs the question: Did the hearing panel not do its due diligence prior to issuing its decision? Why would you not find out early on whether the building even COULD be returned to the parish? Why did the presiding bishop instruct +Bruno not to sell the building if it was already a done deal? Doesn’t that diminish his credibility and authority? And if the hearing panel did do its due diligence, then why would it create false hope? Why would it ignore the fact that bulldozers will apparently soon be rumbling back and forth over previously consecrated ground?

The hearing panel recommended that a process of reconciliation commence following the conclusion of the Title IV matter. But it will indeed be difficult to find peace and reconciliation when the hearing panel cannnot even get its act together in this case. And Bishop Taylor needs to focus on creating a safe place for people to share their pain, hurt, and frustrations, versus feeling that he needs to crack heads on all sides as a precursor to healing. 

In short, people who’ve been bullied often behave badly, particularly when the bully is someone they liked, trusted, and whom they supported via pledges to their local parishes. That’s no surprise, and +Taylor is simply clueless if he believes that people won’t react with anger, bitterness, and sometimes even malevolence after being lied to, bullied, and mistreated over a period of years.

So, to +Taylor, I say this: Get over your bad self. Your priority needs to be showing love and compassion for people who have been harmed by +Bruno. If you think people are going to put up with additional criticism and still remain in The Episcopal Church, you are sadly mistaken. Indeed, keep it up, and you will find that people leave the Christian faith altogether.

That’s the bottom line.

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Study Shows One in Ten Protestant Churches Have Experienced Fraud

A recent study reveals some compelling statistics about fraud, effective financial controls, and cash reserves in churches.

The study, done by LifeWay, indicates that:

  • The prevalence of fraud rises as the size of the church increases, with parishes of more than 250 persons experiencing a 12% incidence of fraud.
  • 47% of churches have had an audit within the last year, but 10 percent have never had one.
  • Many churches operate with dangerously low cash reserves; 26 percent have enough cash on hand to survive for seven or fewer weeks, with 24 percent have enough to cover eight to 15 weeks operating expenses. Fifteen percent have enough for 16 to 25 weeks, 12 percent have reserves sufficient to cover 26 to 51 weeks. Twenty three percent have enough to cover a year or more.
  • One third of churches have experienced financial struggles.

My take: The percentage of fraud is a little low. Fraud Magazine suggests that the number of reported cases vastly outstrips those that are, and finds that 13 percent of churches have experienced fraud.

Read more here.

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The Weaponization of Faith

In a development that mirrors the decline of courtesy and community-mindedness in society generally, one of the disturbing trends in society is the increasing weaponization of faith. By this I mean the use of a person’s faith to gain power over him–a trend I see at all levels of church.

In my own experience, I have seen members of local churches who, when they disagree with someone or something, will use groups within the church to bully the person responsible. In my own parish, groups that deploy these tactics include the altar guild and the choir. And, my priest instructed parish staff and clergy to shun me and my family. While these situations are, from my perspective, resolved, they underscore the larger question, which is, “When did it become okay to use a person’s faith against him or her?”

Unfortunately, my experience is more common than I would like to admit. When I wrote an article about shunning for Episcopal Cafe, dozens of commenters shared similar stories. 

A similar experience pertained when my story ran on The Wartburg Watch. Many recounted being pushed out of their church homes by bullying priests, pastors, and lay leaders.

We see common elements in the absolutely sordid chain of events leading up to +Bruno’s efforts to sell the church building in the case of St. James the Great. There, it turns out that he allegedly took a number of steps to marginalize Cindy Vorhees and her congregation in the runup to the sale.

That begs the question: How can The Episcopal Church claim to be inclusive and welcoming, when nonsense like this happens? Many parishes now embrace the, “All are Welcome. No exceptions.” motto, but the reality is there are plenty of exceptions.

Weaponizing one’s faith also is a stupid move. Most Americans values their individual freedoms, so the notion that they will give another power over them by participating in a faith community is improbable at best. This, at a time when attending church is no longer normative.

I also believe that this tactic disincentivizes otherwise faithful church members. I mean, do you really want to give sacrificially of your time, treasure and talent when your investment could go down the drain, just like that? If one dispute with your rector can result in your being shown the door, you are well-advised to limit your giving and participation. That way, if worst comes to worst, you can live with the consequences.

My strategy, of course, has been to find other places to worship, bouncing through my home parish for weddings, funerals, and the occaisional service where I know I will like the music or readings. My time and resources go to building up other churches, and my will no longer leaves everything to my church; indeed, it leaves nothing at all to the parish.

Why do I share those details? Because it’s the only situation where I can truly map out the real-life consequences for a church that weaponizes members’ faith.

That said, my guess is that many others have quietly responded in similar fashion. In my experience, that’s normative in progressive denominations–people just quietly walk away when faced with bad behavior or conflict.

My suggestion is that The Episcopal Church — and other denominations — make clear that, absent criminal activity or a restraining order, all are welcome, and there is no room for bullying, shunning, or the other stupid antics that cause people to leave church. Further, there is a tremendous need to teach laity and clergy alike how to wage peace and engage in positive conflict resolution. Not study the problem. Not pass resolutions. 

Just do it.

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Abusive Clergy: The Aftermath 

Based on my own experiences with an abusive clergyperson, I’ve come to a realization. That realization is that there often is little that can be done to repair the harm that results, no matter how sincere the efforts may be. Moreover, the betrayal of trust often results in cascading layers of misconduct, both within the church and among those who are not members, but are affected by the misconduct.

Underpinning this paradigm is the nature of the relationship between clergy and laity. By nature of their role, we trust clergy with our hurts, our joys, our secrets, and often the most intimate details of our lives. In addition, clergy are there with us at most of life’s milestones: birth, marriage, children, divorce, death. So they become part of the fabric of our lives.

So, when clergy engage in misconduct, they rupture an important reference point in our lives. The result is a deep sense of hurt among those affected.

It is this same paradigm of trust that often leads churches to deny that clergy misconduct has occurred, even when the evidence is overwhelming. This in turn leads to fracturing in the local church, as people turn on each other.

In some cases, people will blame the victim for disclosing the misconduct. The truth shall set you free–right up until you speak it. In these situations, where churches have not learned to deal appropriately with the allegations, conflict and unhealthy relationships can fester for years.

Another twist is that some will attempt to discredit the victim; this may even include other clergy.  This in turn leads to the feeling by family members and friends that they need to take sides. That’s understandable, but unfortunate, because with no one taking the high road, things just cascade and behavior gets worse and worse.

Fueling this is the all-too-human notion that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. People, not without reason, conclude that clergy who engage in misconduct are likely capable of additional misconduct. So particularly in environments where there’s a dearth of structured business practices and internal checks and balances, people may assume the worst. And if the clergyperson in question has played fast and loose with leave, or expenses, or their discretionary account, it is easy to see these issues in a whole new light.

Regrettably, those who have experienced clergy misconduct may suffer from anxiety, depression, PTSD, panic attacks, and suicide. Physical symptoms, including irritable bowel syndrome, sweating, and more.

Unfortunately, while these situations can and should receive medical care, counseling, and pastoral care, there’s no easy fix. Victims may suffer for the rest of their lives.

Of course, appropriate apologies are the right thing to do, and may help victims move towards healing. Fauxpologies, on the other hand, inevitably make things worse.

It’s interesting, too. Clergy, ajudicatories, and churches may be eager to move on, but victims can and will move at their own pace towards healing, and some never will. This is particularly the case if abusive clergy have enlisted the aid of allies in the church, such as staff or the vestry. If these participants in misconduct have not also attempted to make things right, conflict and pain will continue.

This paradigm illustrates another important point, which is that churches that have experienced misconduct often need professional help moving past the experience. Healthy boundaries and healthy relationships must be fostered and, in some cases, rebuilt. Ignoring misconduct simply fosters additional discord.

Meanwhile, it’s very common for those affected by misconduct to go through a period of wandering with intent. They may not attend church at all, attend rarely, or attend another parish. This is healthy and normal, and ajudicatories or caregivers can help by ensuring that victims have access to clergy who will provide pastoral care and support during this time.

In short, there’s no easy road back from clergy misconduct. The path forward is arduous, costly, and painful. But healing requires a very intentional effort and commitment on the part of all involved.

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