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.

About Eric Bonetti

I'm a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids' cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I'm also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.
This entry was posted in Abuse in the church. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *