When Nice Ain’t So Nice: Eight Dangers of Being Churchy Nice

Some years ago, BYU magazine ran a great article titled, “When Nice Ain’t So Nice.” It was a telling and insightful look into LDS society, which often places a high priority on being nice, even when perhaps not the right response for a particular situation.

Similarly, my online buddy Susan Brown Snook likes to talk about being, “all churchy nice.”

That got me to thinking; Are there times in progressive denominations when nice ain’t so nice? Maybe even when being nice is a warning sign of serious problems? I think the answer to both questions is yes. My belief, too, is that some of the least healthy churches are the outwardly nicest. All churchy nice, as Susan would say.

So, here are eight dangers of being all churchy nice.

1. Stifled discussion

How many times have you heard around church, “I don’t want to say anything. I might offend someone.”? If you’re like me, plenty of times.

But that begs the question—why do we assume that saying something will risk offense? Most adults know strategies to raise concerns without sounding bombastic.

2. Hidden conflict

Hand in hand with the first point is that conflict goes into hiding when the priority becomes “being nice.” That’s a shame, because conflict is normal and, if handled correctly, healthy.

Or put in other words, we are to work to build the kingdom of heaven. But nowhere in the Bible does it will say that this will happen without conflict. Indeed, much of the Bible suggests that change will only come in conjunction with conflict—just ask John the Baptist.

3. Shallow relationships

When substantive conversation is hard to come by, it’s difficult to form meaningful relationships. Instead, relationships among parishioners remain cordial but superficial, with the result that the deep bonds of friendship that carry us through death, divorce and disaster never form. That’s sad, because no one is the richer for it when these connections aren’t made. Indeed, churches without these bonds of affection can be brittle, falling apart quickly in the face of adversity.

4. Parking Lot Conversations

Faced with perceived pressure to be all churchy nice, conversations too often go underground. As a result, little knots form in the parking lot after vestry meetings, and phone lines are abuzz the next day with rumors and speculation. And triangulation becomes the norm. These breakdowns in communication themselves engender further dysfunction in the church.

5. Nice Replaces Faith

On some level, we all understand that we join a church community to grow in the knowledge and love of God, versus to learn how to be nice. But in far too many churches, the priority is in being nice, versus deepening one’s faith. My sense is that this is a particular risk in liturgical churches, where outward observance may reduce the perceived need for inner scrutiny.

So, if people are friendly but not kind, consider the possibility you’re in a “nice,” church. Kind is what matters. Nice is, well, nice.

6. People Don’t Know How to Resolve Conflict

In an environment where conversation focuses on being nice and there is a reluctance to look conflict in the eye, it goes without saying that parishioners either don’t learn conflict resolution skills, or if they do, can’t find others willing to have the open and honest conversation needed to resolve conflict. As a result, conflict may simmer underground for years, erupting periodically in the form of yelling, bullying or other bad behavior. So, if you are in a church where these sorts of things happen, it may be that your church has a bad case of churchy nice.

7. Built-Up Anger

Have you ever been in a church where people explode over something stupid, like the color of the flowers on the altar or a minor change to the building? If so, there may be hidden issues or pent-up frustrations that would have been dealt with long ago were it not for the perceived need to be nice. Again, consider the possibility that your church has a bad case of nice.

8. Nice Becomes a Weapon

Ever watch someone, perhaps a clergyperson, with narcissistic personality disorder? They are, in many cases, some of the friendliest, nicest people around. And they know how to play the part to perfection, looking, acting and speaking like someone you’d love to have as a friend. That is, right up until the narcissist feels you have criticized him or her. At that point, they do a 180, and become the most petty, vindictive, vile person you ever met.In short, they take back nice as a way to punish you.

Similarly, churches where being nice is a priority often will yank the welcome mat right out from under someone who is seen as having having rocked the boat, even going so far as shunning the offender, either on a formal or quasi-formal basis.

The typical reason?

He or she wasn’t, “being nice.”

Posted in Abuse in the church, Bullying, church ethics, church health, Communication, Healthy relationships, respect | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Shocking, Disgraceful and Appalling: LA Diocese Continues to Play Games with St. James the Great

A few days ago, news broke that the deal between the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and the developer who planned to rebuild the land associated with the parish of St. James the Great had fallen through. In conjunction with that news, the diocese announced that the building would not be returned to the parish, but instead would be treated as a “bishop’s chapel.” The news is nothing short of disgraceful, and both Bishop Taylor and the standing committee should be ashamed of their appalling conduct in this matter.

By way of background, the physical plant was reclaimed from the so-called Anglicans, who lost multiple court cases in which they had claimed the right to seize Episcopal assets for their own use.

Shortly after, Episcopal Bishop Bruno encouraged the parish to work towards health and wholeness. It appears that it did exactly that, and successfully.

In the meantime, however, Bishop Bruno appears to have agreed in secret to sell the building. Loyalists objected to that, and his alleged deception, and filed a Title IV disciplinary case against the bishop.

At the end of the day, the loyalists won. Bishop Bruno is on his way out the door, and the national church has recommended that the diocese and parish begin working towards reconciliation.

But, in true Bishop Bruno fashion, Bishop Taylor has criticized parishioners, claiming that they have behaved badly. But that is disingenuous; parishioners faced with abusive conduct by their bishop may well engage in counterproductive behavior, and that should neither come as a surprise, nor be treated as reflecting badly on the victims of Bishop Bruno’s abuse.

Meanwhile. Bishop Taylor apparently did not talk directly with members of the parish, but instead sent out a press release via email announcing that the building would be a “bishop’s chapel.” But even the most basic notions of respect suggest that those affected by Taylor’s actions should be the first to know. Yet they found out from the media? How does that work? And how does it further the goal of reconciliation?

Moreover, +Taylor has said that guest and supply clergy will officiate at the new, “bishop’s chapel.” This, despite the fact that canon Cindy Vorhees, vicar of the church, and the members, want to move back into their building. Now Bishop Taylor appears to be backtracking, saying that, under the right circumstances, Cindy will be welcome to officiate. But that is a red herring; Cindy and her parishioners deserve to be returned to the property, no questions asked. Issues beyond that are matters for Title IV, or for the bishop to intervene if there are breakdowns in governance. But unless and until those occur, the parish should have the right to democratic self governance.

This comports with church canons, which provide that the primary ownership interest in parish assets is held by the parish, as long as it remains within The Episcopal Church (TEC).  If that fails, then and only then do the diocese and the national church have the right to exercise their trust interests in the assets.

St. James the Great has done its utmost to remain within TEC, even when Bishop Bruno tried to shut it down. That was one of the bases of their successful Title IV disciplinary case against Bishop Bruno. And yet now it has no claim to its own assets?

If that is the case, Bishop Taylor has pulled a bait-and-switch, and, as an ethical matter, is obligated to return to parishioners their gifts to the church. After all, they did so with the understanding that they were giving to their parish. Now that +Taylor claims that the parish has somehow magically dissolved, despite the clear provisions of the canons. Yes, I get that the diocese was the entity that wrested assets back from the dissidents, but at the end of the day the building ws paid for overwhelmingly by members of the parish, and not by the diocese.

This all sounds suspiciously like Bishop Taylor and members of the standing committee are trying to punish the “uppity” Cindy Vorhees, vicar of the parish.

I urge the the diocese to embrace a good thing, and welcome a group of loyal Episcopalians into fuller communion with the diocese. It’s time for a “Welcome Home,” party for Cindy and her parishioners, a celebration of homecoming and Thanksgiving, and heartfelt efforts at healing and reconciliation. Nothing more. Nothing less. Just focus on welcome and heal.

Press releases about the future of the building, pointedly vague comments about discernment and the parish, and the other fun and games simply serve to make the diocese of LA and Bishop Taylor look bad.

Moreover, if the diocese indeed believes, as appears to be the case, that Cindy Vorhees and her parishioners have behaved badly, Bishop Taylor has ample resources available to him to address those issues. Specifically, to my knowledge, the diocese would still hold title to the physical assets—how would it hurt to allow the parish to move back in, to worship, and to be near the remains of family members interred in the columbarium?

If  bad behavior were to occur, Bishop Taylor would have access to the full range of Title IV solutions, as well as various practical solutions. That includes locking the doors to the church. That said, it seems unlikely that this would be an issue, for none other that the national Title IV panel has noted that Cindy has been very compliant with Bishop Bruno’s directives, even when possibly not in her best interest.

In short, Bishop Taylor, you are sounding increasingly like Bishop Bruno. While you claim you desire health and healing, your actions suggest that you seek a very different outcome.

Posted in Abuse in the church, Bullying, healing after clergy misconduct, Healthy relationships, Title IV, wholeness | Leave a comment

Healing After Clergy Misconduct: How to Help Churches Move Towards Wholeness

In this post, I want to explore how churches heal after clergy misconduct. Specifically, I want to explore the questions, “What does it take for a church to heal? How can church officials help a church heal?”

First, an important disclaimer, which is that misconduct comes in many forms. In a faith too often obsessed with sex, we tend to think of clergy misconduct as inherently sexual in nature. White it is essential that we not minimize the harm caused by clergy sexual misconduct, the reality is that the vast majority of clergy misconduct takes other forms. These include relational, emotional, financial, and spiritual.

Spiritual abuse is particularly troubling, as it is often difficult for adjudicatories to detect, and often even harder to address. Many times, clergy who engage in spiritual abuse do not engage in a single, serious incident of misconduct. Rather, they engage in a pattern of abuse that consists of seemingly petty slights, power plays, and other insidious misconduct. Taken individually, they seem minor, but when viewed as pattern, they are anything but.

Because clergy misconduct can cover such a broad spectrum, it’s also important to recognize that parishioners often don’t realize that they have been abused. In such cases, it often is only after a clergy person leaves or retires that they realize just how unhealthy things have become. Indeed, in some cases, patterns of unhealthy behavior may persist for decades after an abusive clergy person no longer serves a particular church.

It is the latter paradigm that is key to understanding how churches heal. Specifically, just as conflict ignored is conflict multiplied, so too do very few churches heal on their own. Instead, they must bring in outside help, who can assist in building and implementing strategies for recovery.

Thus, in churches that are hierarchical in nature, like The Episcopal Church, diocesan authorities must intervene when there has been clergy misconduct. In denominations that are congregational in polity, regional officers may be able to provide assistance. But in all cases, outside help is essential.

In such cases, it is essential that the truth be uncovered. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” is not only biblical, but it is one of the great truths of human psychology. We must know the truth, explore the truth, and understand our own role in misconduct.

The latter is a point with many subtleties. On the one hand, there is one great truth in cases of clergy abuse, which is that clergy always are responsible for maintaining boundaries. There is no exception to this; “they made me do it,” or “she came onto me,” never cut it. Again, clergy always are responsible for maintaining appropriate boundaries.

That said, parishioners may feel complicit for not speaking out against abusive clergy. They may have benefited from positions of power and influence under an abusive priest. Or they may feel remorse for not having recognized the abuse. In other cases, they may have unwittingly taken the side of an abusive member of the clergy, and thus feel that they aided and abetted in the misconduct. Still others may regret having turned their backs on friends in the midst of the conflict that inevitably erupts when allegations of clergy misconduct arise.

These are normal reactions, and their implications are magnified by the hurt, pain and betrayal that parishioners feel when they learn of clergy misconduct.

The only way for congregations to move past the trauma is to talk openly about it in a moderated, safe environment. Participants must know that their views will be respected, even if others may not agree. They need to know that they will be loved and cared for, and that pastoral care is available. And they need to feel safe in moving at their own pace; there is nothing more counterproductive than insisting that those struggling with their hurt and pain “move on.”

As part of this process, diocesan officials must disclose the misconduct. While there is a right to privacy, and legal counsel must be involved to avoid charges of defamation and other legal issues, it is important that parishioners know enough about the misconduct to be able to process it, heal, and move on. This need is reflected in the Episcopal disciplinary canons, which provide that the bishop diocesan may disclose confidential aspects of disciplinary proceedings if necessary, while considering carefully the privacy rights of all parties involved.

Thus, most parishes require at least one parish-wide meeting, and some will require multiple such facilitated meetings in order to move towards healing.

It also is worth noting that people must feel free to not attend such meetings, for there will be some who simply are not ready to do so. Additionally, while such meetings should be limited to parishioners only, it may be useful to invite those who have left the church due to clergy misconduct to attend, as well as those (like parish employees), who may not be members, but have also been hurt by the misconduct.

In all of this, there is an important corollary, which is that simply removing clergy who have been accused of misconduct without more is gravely injurious to a parish. Ignoring an issue almost never results in healing, but instead may be seen by parishioners as minimizing the hurt and pain of clergy misconduct. Even if the alleged misconduct did not directly involve the parish, the departure of a much-loved clergy person will inevitably bring with it feelings of loss and betrayal. And when a diocese or other adjudicatory removes clergy as part of a disciplinary proceeding, failing to help the affected community move towards health and wholeness is itself a betrayal, and likely will result in diocesan officials being viewed as high-handed or arbitrary.

In addition, my experience is that an inadequate response by church officials may result in waves of follow-on conflict among those affected. Such conflict may spread and pull in others who otherwise not be affected by the misconduct.

Of course, the healing process also must be handled with great care and sensitivity. Announcements about clergy misconduct must be made in a way that allows time for members of the community to process the news, and to choose whether to participate in the process. Announcements should not, under any circumstances, be made at regularly scheduled worship services.

Lastly, it is essential that victims of clergy misconduct see that their concerns are taken seriously and addressed. For instance, they may wonder what will become of their church, or how long an interim will serve. While there may not be clear answers to these and similar questions, church officials must share as much information as they can. With this in mind, it is useful and appropriate for church officials to “loop back” with victims of clergy misconduct, and to let them know that they may call, visit, or write any time they have questions, concerns or comments.

A final comment: The purpose of this article is to help those who have been affected by clergy misconduct. It is not intended to address any particular church or situation.

Posted in Abuse in the church, church health, healing after clergy misconduct, Healthy relationships, Title IV, wholeness | Leave a comment

Dear Church: Ten Things I Hate About You

Okay, so right about now, you probably think I’m a millennial.

The reality is far different. I’m a cradle Episcopalian, active in my church and community, and I love the people in my church. I’m also in my 50’s — an age when many have made peace with issues of this sort.

I also know that hate’s a strong word. In fact, I often caution family members not to use the word unless they truly do hate something, which I hope is a rare thing.

But there are times it’s the right word to use, and here are ten things I hate about church. So, church, here goes:

You’re bad with money

Early in life, I learned the importance of managing money carefully. That means living within my means, having a budget, and saving for the future. 

But you don’t save for the future. Chances are you have no meaningful savings for the future, and lots of deferred maintenance—the most costly type of maintenance. And your purportedly balanced budget is bogus, since you don’t include depreciation in your financial reports.

Yet Easter rolls around, and you dig deep, coming up with funds for luxurious banks of flowers, a gargantuan reception, and more.

In short, you’re like a self-indulgent teenager, who spends money with no thought for the future. And you have no idea how close you are to the edge—you have barely enough money on hand to cover unexpected  repair bills or other possible crises.

That makes me really uneasy.

You’re a lousy employer

Here, you talk a good game, but the reality is very different.

In the case of your rector, far too often he or she comes and goes at will. Something going on in your family? Just take a few weeks. But you still get your annual summer vacation and more. Given that I’ve had one vacation in the last 21 years, it’s hard for me to feel generous come pledge season. I don’t mind clergy taking leave as specified in their letters of agreement, but far too many get paid leave over and above that amount—a right typically not afforded lay employees.

Meanwhile, lay employees either work like dogs, or have zero accountability. That’s not surprising, since you have slipshod employee records.

You also have no idea what effective performance management is, or about legal issues like overtime or Age Discrimination in Employment. I mean, some of the stuff I’ve seen go on would get you sued in record time if you were a for-profit. How does that work?

So church, charity starts at home, and I wish you’d take a good hard look at your employment practices.

You’re unethical

In a day and age when publicly traded companies have mandatory ethics reporting and anti-retaliation provisions, you have no such policies.

There’s an important reason for these provisions, and that is to make it easy for people to do the right thing. But you don’t want to go there, and in fact you typically do retaliate against whistleblowers.

It’s a sad day when church is less ethical than corporate America.

Church, why are you clinging to outdated notions of ethics?

You bully

Speaking of ethics, bullying is illegal in almost all American schools. But you allow it to go on and rarely stand up to bullies. How does that work?

Dear church, if you can’t take a stand on bullying within your walls, what good are you?

You make bad choices when it comes to leadership

Lay leaders within churches should be chosen impartially, with an eye towards picking people who show spiritual maturity and a willingness to be a servant leader. But all too often, you pick the people least likely to challenge the rector, or to cause a fuss.

That tells me that your first concern isn’t the welfare of the church or the people who make up the church, and that is deeply troubling.

Church, when are you going to get it together and choose real leaders?

You’re all about power

Dear church, I have to tell you: You’re still way too caught up in power, at every level. From rectors who want iron-clad control of their parish, to altar guild presidents who feel like they can dictate policy to the rest of the parish, you’re a mess.

Let’s just say that if Jesus rolled through next Sunday, he’d either pull the Cleansing of Temple deal again, or he’d weep. Maybe both.

You love big issues, but ignore smaller ones

For the record, I’m all for you speaking out on DACA, LGBT rights, and other pressing social issues. I don’t suggest backing off on these issues, either.

But when, for example, a parish is having a tough go of it due to clergy misconduct or internal strife, it’s not okay to just ignore it.

Church, with all your people and resources, I can’t believe you can’t find a way to care for your people when they need your help.

You’re amateur hour when it comes to business practices

Church, I understand that you rely heavily on volunteers. But that’s no excuse for not providing a framework for sound business decisions. Even today, you have considerable resources at your disposal. Yet I continue to see shoddy accounting practices, facially inaccurate financial reports, and more. And the seminary system is a big part of the problem, as most still teach very little about sound HR, financial management, and other business practices.

What message does that send about your commitment to sound stewardship?

You’re over-indulgent of clergy

There, I said it. 

Being clergy isn’t easy, and it can be emotionally draining. But in a day and age when many of us work more than one job to stay afloat and haven’t had vacation in years, do you really need lengthy sabbaticals, six weeks of vacation, time for education and more?

Granted, there also are a lot of clergy who are lucky if they get off two weeks every year, and work for very little money. But there are far too many who still make very generous salaries, yet do very little for the money. And far too many clergy never have gone on a mission, or worked a shift at their church’s food pantry.

Church, we need clergy who lead through service, versus expecting to be served.

You’ve forgotten about love

Dear church, the worst of it is that many of these issues would fall into place if you were focused on your primary mission, which is to love God and other people.

If you love one another, you’ll want to make sure that your employees are treated with dignity and respect. You’ll want to make sure that sound leaders make the best possible decisions for your parish. And you’ll want to make sure that your church is lovingly cared for and maintained.

So church, when I see these issues, I fear you’ve lost your way and that you’re too busy doing church to be church.

Church, I love you dearly, but I worry about you.

Posted in baptismal covenant, Bullying, church ethics, church health | Leave a comment

The Need for Congregational Ethics Policies in The Episcopal Church and Other Progressive Faith Communities

My bet is that, when you saw the title of this post, you thought, “Why would we need that? This is a church, after all.” Or, you said to yourself, “Doesn’t the Bible provide the guidance we need?”

Natural reactions, for sure. But consider this: A December 2014 poll about perceptions of honesty and integrity among professions ranked clergy right in the middle of the pack when it comes to ethics. Nurses took the top spot, while pharmacists, police officers, and physicians all beat out clergy. (The good news, if that’s what you want to call it, is that clergy did manage to come in ahead of business executives, lawyers, and bankers. Small consolation, that.)

What’s really troubling, though, is that public perceptions of clergy integrity have fallen by almost 25% since 1977.The upshot is that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have a lot of work to do in this area, and being a church is no guarantee of ethical conduct. Or, put in other words, if we are ever going to turn the situation around, we need to set clear expectations and establish standards of behavior, then strive to live up to those expectations.

Consider: How often do children live up, or down, to the expectations that adults set? Church is no different.

What I find particularly troubling is that progressive faith traditions, like The Episcopal Church of which I am a member, by and large ignore these issues. Yet other denominations, both progressive and conservative, have implemented such policies. For example, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has published codes of ethics, with one set for pastors and another for congregations and their leadership teams. Apropos pastors, the NAE policy asks them to:

• Pursue integrity
• Be trustworthy
• Seek purity
• Embrace accountability
• Facilitate fairness

Congregations and their leaders are encouraged to:
• Honor and support the gifts Christ gives to the churches
• Promote the unity of Christ’s body
• Practice accountability
• Practice good stewardship
• Practice hospitality
• Seek the welfare of the community where God has placed it

Pretty straightforward, but I have been in plenty of churches where these would be useful reminders.The progressive Disciples of Christ has a similar code of ethics. Called the “Ethical Guidelines for Congregational Conduct,” it contains important reminders such as “we treat each other with courtesy and kindness,” and “Our personal conduct reflects the Body of Christ and our Christian values.” And the one that I really like: “We will select our officers intentionally and impartially on the basis of their commitment, competence, compassion and maturity in the faith. ” Unfortunately, I have far too often seen clergy either appoint members of their executive committee, ignoring canons that require them to be elected, or steering and manipulating the process from behind the scenes. Moreover, in far too many churches bad behavior is not an impediment to serving in leadership positions.

It also is worth noting that, in the wake of the sexual abuse cases, the Roman Catholic Church has done tremendous work in creating and implementing codes of conduct in many dioceses. These go far beyond the vague provisions of The Episcopal Church’s disciplinary canons, both in providing specific guidance as to acceptable and unacceptable conduct, and in addressing abusive conduct that is not sexual in nature. Moreover, these policies include both clergy, lay employees, and volunteers. This stands in stark contrast to The Episcopal Church, which got off to an excellent start with implementing model sexual misconduct prevention policies, but has not moved much past that. As a result, we have no denomination-wide policies on harassment, bullying, conflicts of interest, or other behaviors that could cause grave harm to the church.

On a personal note, I am reminded of my experience with an abusive member of the clergy–a situation that was not helped by fellow parishioners who, among other things, sent messages saying I should “go kill myself,” and threatening the employment of family members. The fact that anyone would think this was appropriate behavior under any circumstances is deeply troubling, and downright appalling coming from a fellow church member. It also underscores the fact that there are serious gaps in personal and organizational integrity in our churches. This view is reinforced by several recent high-profile cases of egregious clergy misconduct within The Episcopal Church, all of which have caused lasting reputational harm to the church.

So, given that ethics policies have been adopted by Roman Catholics, evangelicals progressives alike, why haven’t The Episcopal Church and other mainstream progressive denominations stepped up to the plate and done the same? I believe there is much we could learn from our evangelical sisters and brothers and others who have taken steps to bolster church ethics.

Posted in Abuse in the church, Bullying, church ethics, harassment, Title IV | Leave a comment

Ten Tips for Having a Healthy Church

Abraham Lincoln once said that most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. And the same is true for churches–most are about as healthy as they make up their minds to be.

Over the years, I’ve come across some astonishingly healthy churches, and in every case that has been the result of very deliberate decisions. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for ways your church can become healthier, offered in no particular order.

1. Decide to be healthy

My first suggestion is implicit in my comments above. Specifically, your church has to want to be healthy and recognize the value of health in every sense. That includes spiritual, emotional, relational, financial, and operational health.

Of course, the call to live as healthy community of faith is inherent in the baptismal covenant. If we indeed seek to “respect the dignity of every human being,” we must recognize what our Quaker brothers and sisters refer to as the “inner light,” the essence of the divine in every human being. It is this respect for each other and the church itself that draws us towards health and wholeness.

2. Don’t panic if your church is not healthy

The reality is that churches, like most communities, typically go through phases of growth and decline, health and unhealth. If it seems that your church isn’t healthy, just know your not alone, and things can be fixed. Just read some of Paul’s letters if you need a reminder that issues have been afoot since the first days of the church.

3. Assume good intent

Years ago, working for AT&T during a turbulent time for the company, I took a course in conflict resolution. One of the key ideas was to assume good intent.

At first, that seemed improbable. After all, there were plenty of people in the mix who were clearly malicious. But as I settled into the paradigm, I realized that it indeed worked. Even in cases where someone is deliberately behaving badly, it’s usually because they’ve learned unhealthy ways of dealing with conflict or stress.

In other cases, we may be misreading the other person’s motives or actions.

Of course,  in some cases, we may be flat-out wrong, and the other person is malevolent, pure and simple. But even then, “There are worse things than to be thought a fool,” as my supervisor used to point out. Plus, taking the high road is essential to peace, for a tit-for-tat approach will simply engender additional conflict.

4. Consider outside help

Remember the old adage about where you sit depends on where you stand? So it is with churches. When we are too close to the issues at hand, it can be difficult to assess them with clarity.

The good news is that there is help for almost every issue. Denominational insurance carriers, for example, often have access to training materials on topics ranging from physical plant safety, to sexual misconduct prevention training, to financial planning and management.

Outside facilitators also can be quite useful in helping identify the root causes of ill-health and working towards resolution. Sometimes, all it takes is someone to step in who was no goal or objective except helping your church become healthy.

5. Avoid unnecessary power bases/cliques

Much as we hate to admit it, many of our church groups and meetings are unnecessary. They tire people out, diminish our enjoyment of church and each other, and often serve only to rehash issues that have already received adequate attention. At their worst, groups like finance committees and altar guilds can  become power bases that diminish the health of the church.

So, if possible, stick to your vestry or board, and leave it at that. That’ll still leave plenty to talk about, and free people up to do what’s really important, which is to love God and one another.

For groups that are essential, like the altar guild, clergy and vestry members alike should make clear that service is an honor and privilege, not a right, and is conditioned on maintaining a welcoming, healthy environment. And don’t assume that such are essential. Many a church, faced with a power block that “knows best” in the altar guild or other group, has discovered that the sexton, for example, is perfectly capable of setting the altar.

7. Don’t announce who’s officiating at services

If you’re lucky enough to be a church with multiple clergy, at some point in time you’ve probably heard people say that they prefer one clergyperson over another. But whether we like our clergy, or their sermons, or their clothes, or anything else is irrelevant. We’re there to grow, learn, and explore, so it may be best to focus on what’s important, versus inconsequentia. Besides, if there’s change in schedules, no one will be the wiser!

8. Embrace differences

My experience is that many churches that pride themselves on being welcoming, open, or affirming are exactly that–but only up to a point. For instance, your church might be fine with LGBT persons, but have a very mixed reaction if, for example, a crossdresser attends services. Or what about the homeless person who smells bad and spits when he talks? Or the obviously mentally ill person? Or the quasi-official church curmudgeon?

No one’s saying you have to like these persons, agree with them, or hang out with them socially. But church of all places should be a place where all are equal in the eyes of God. And absent criminal activity or a restraining order, all should be welcome.

Besides, who are we to judge any of these people? God’s perfectly capable of handing these issues without our help, and last I checked, hadn’t asked for our help.

9. Challenge bad actors

One reason churches often slip into ill-health is that people are afraid to challenge bullies and other bad actors. Granted, it’s not always comfortable, but it has to be done.

To do this successfully, make sure you have a witness present. Bring up your concern, focusing on “I” statements–“I saw you talking with other members of the altar guild, and you seemed to be very loud. Can you help me understand what was going on?”

Once you understand the problem, it’s important to set expectations — “I am not comfortable with church members yelling at each other.” Then, ask what it would take for the person to act appropriately, “What would you need in order to feel that you could discuss the matter without yelling?”

Of course, old habits are hard to unlearn, and you may need outside help, or to return to the fray repeatedly

Also, be alert to the possibility that there may be an innocent explanation. One older altar guild member, famous for raising her voice, solved her problem quickly when she got hearing aids. She simply didn’t realize how loud she’d become over the years.

10. Stay committed to each other

As one friend of mine noted following a disciplinary matter resulting in the departure of her priest, “clergy come and go, but we’re still here for each other.” That’s a healthy attitude, even in the worst of cases.

In one situation I know, a downtown church, once a bastion of wealthy area residents, closed after the area around it ceased to be residential. That was traumatic, particularly after more than 125 years as a vibrant church. The logistics were painful too–disinterring ashes from the columbarium, selling off beautiful stained glass windows given in memory of loved ones, and more. But to this day, former members of that church stay in touch and share a common bond, based not on the now-gone building, but on their love for one another.

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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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