Sunday, May 12, 2013

Making Sense of the Last 25 Years

As I struggle to make sense of the events of the last 25 years in regards to my spiritual walk, I find myself referring back to a book I read over the last year. I find comfort in the words of the author only because it helps me know that our experiences aren’t all together unique and others have walked this road. The book is, however, incredibly sobering and sad. The book is called Clergy Killers by G. Lloyd Rediger. In the Introduction Rediger says, “This book is a sincere effort to awaken the church to a nightmare coming true. I speak from the experience of many years as a pastoral counselor specializing in the pastoral care, across denominational lines, of clergy and their families. The results of my research and experience, and that of a growing number of  concerned leaders, require a responsible cry of alarm and a prophetic warning. ” (pg.2)

I have witnessed many of the things described in this book…not once, but three times over the last 25 years. I was relieved to find this book because, at times, I’ve felt like I was living in the Twilight Zone. It was as if the people around me were completely oblivious to what was actually taking place right before their eyes. If I dared to mention the possibility of something being amiss, they quickly dismissed it or made an excuse that seemed to justify what was happening. When I began reading Clergy Killers, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Real scenarios that happened to other people that were nearly identical to the scenarios that have played out in my church over the years.

I think it’s important to note that Rediger refers to “pastors” most of the time in this book and occasionally references “clergy”. Over the last year, many in church leadership at my church expressed the believe that there is only ONE pastor. The other church staff ministers are not considered pastors and should not be referred to as such, in their opinion. Because of this sentiment,  I had to continually remind myself as I read Clergy Killers that the author is most likely referring to all clergy members when he refers to “pastor”. He describes the “nature of the problem” like this…

“One informed estimate indicates that a pastor is “fired” (forced out) every six minutes in the United States. This is a shocking figure, even for those who have been dealing with abuse and conflict in organized religion for many years. Clergy killers are few in number, but awesome in the damage they create.”

“The name we give this phenomenon is significant. Words such as “disagreement”, “clash”, or “conflict” do not deliver the wakeup call the church needs. “Clergy killers” tells it like it is, for killing is the agenda and pastors are the target.” (pg. 6-7)

I found it interesting that he seems to equate “fired“ and “forced out”. In all three of my experiences, the ministers have been “forced out”. The ministers were told behind closed doors to find a new job and move on and make it look like it was their choice to the congregation…or they were “asked” for their resignation and offered severance pay only under the condition that they would not disclose to anyone the conditions of their departure… making it appear to the congregation that the resignation was the choice of the minister. The ministers were threatened with losing their severance pay if they were truthful about the forced nature of their departure.  This essentially puts a minister in a situation where he has to keep quiet and lie to the congregation about why he is leaving because being truthful would cause him to put his family in jeopardy of having no paycheck and no health insurance. These ministers are established in the community with children in school and mortgages and financial responsibilities.  They have no choice but to cooperate and accept the conditions laid out by these church leaders/committees in order to provide for their families until they can find another job. Church leaders/committee members will vehemently deny that these ministers were “fired”, but insist, instead, that they resigned. Call it what you will. They were forced to “choose” between being fired or resigning. They “chose” the lesser of the evils. In other words, they were “forced out” and told to keep quiet.

I’ve been told by many church members that this is a compassionate way to handle this situation because the church could have fired the minister and only been required to give the minister 2 weeks severance pay, but instead they chose to give the minister several months severance pay and prevent a termination from appearing on his employment record. Seems compassionate on the surface. I think it’s important to point out, however, that they 1)neglected to give the ministers a list of allegations leading to their forced resignations, 2)document any grievances in their personnel files, 3)give the ministers an opportunity to respond to the allegations or defend themselves against rumors swirling around the church  or 4) grant their requests for mediation and reconciliation.

I’ve also been told by many church members that this is just the nature of employment. Forced resignations happen behind the scenes in business and coaching all the time. They say it’s painful, but you just have to move on. I wonder, though…shouldn’t church be different? Shouldn’t we take the Bible into consideration when dealing with one another in the church? Do we have a responsibility to go to one another with our hurts and complaints one-on-one before taking them to groups of people as allegations? Do we have a responsibility to show grace and offer each other a chance for forgiveness and reconciliation? If we run the church as a business, what sets us apart? How are we any different than a country club or civic organization? What does this type of behavior and deception say to our children? Or new believers? Or believers such as myself who have been in church for a lifetime? Why is it so taboo to admit wrongdoing in the church and openly discuss what is actually happening? Why do we feel the need to appear perfectly pious to the community while the guts of the church are churning with ugliness? How can you ever be a real church “family” without being honest with one another? What do we “do” with the secrets and deception we witness?

I have no answers. Only questions.

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