Monday, March 2, 2015

Church Abuse Tool: The Nondisclosure Agreement

I read an article on Huffington Post called “Silent Clergy Killers: 'Toxic' Congregations Lead to Widespread Job Loss’ and the following statement struck a chord with me:

“It is difficult to get specific denominational figures, Tanner said. Many churches do not keep records indicating when a pastor was forced out as opposed to leaving voluntarily. And not only is it difficult to get clergy to open up about such painful experiences, many ministers are forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement to receive their severance package.”

Even more unsettling than the blackmail used by church leadership when they offer a severance package in exchange for nondisclosure about their actions is their intentional deception of the church body as a whole about these actions. And equally unsettling to the deception is the refusal of church members to ask questions and hold the clergy killers responsible for their actions. The article also addressed this:

"Everybody knows this is happening, but nobody wants to talk about it," Tanner said in an interview. "The vast majority of denominations across the country are doing absolutely nothing."

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For the people who can’t believe this happens in church, I’d like to share one example (there are more) of how this scenario played out in our church. If we don’t talk about it, it will never change…

In mid-February 2012, the church bulletin and church newsletter included an announcement regarding the resignation of a minister to the church congregation saying that church leadership had received a letter from the minister. To make sure their story was convincing, they reported his comments from the letter in quotation marks. They did not print the letter in its entirety or allow him to read it to the congregation. Instead, they chose to publish only the quotes they wanted the congregation to hear. They quoted him as saying that he wanted to express his deepest appreciation for being allowed to serve at the church. He was also quoted as saying that he was pursuing a career on a different ministry path and was resigning in order to have time to get the necessary education, sell his house and tie up loose ends in preparation for this career path change. They reported that the minister’s resignation would be effective on July 31, 2012 and that he would continue working in the church office until March 4, 2012 to hand off his responsibilities. They mentioned that after March 4, 2012, “[the minister] will be granted sabbatical leave to prepare himself and his family” for his new job. It also asked for the church members to be in prayer for the minister and his wife and 4 children during the “time of transition”.

The congregation at large accepted the statement at face value and congratulated the family on their choice to pursue a new career path.

The statement left some big questions in my mind:

1. Our church bylaws described sabbatical leave this way:

Sabbatical Leave- Upon completion of each seven year period of service to the church, members of the Ministerial Staff are eligible, with full salary, a leave of thirteen (13) weeks.

Since this minister had just taken sabbatical leave during 2009, he was not eligible for the sabbatical leave the church was claiming they were extending to him. He would not be eligible for sabbatical leave again until 2016.

2. If church leadership was telling the truth about their offer of sabbatical pay, why would they offer to pay a minister while he made preparations to pursue another job? What would be their motivation for extending that kind of offer?

3. Why would the minister resign before he had another job when he was the sole source of income for his family which included his wife (who was finishing up her college degree) and 4 small children?

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In reality and unbeknownst to the congregation, the Pastor, the Chairman of the Personnel Committee and an attorney (who happened to be on the Personnel Committee) had called a private meeting with this minister on February 2, 2012 and asked him to sign the following document:

severence agreement 1page1e

severence agreement 2page2

severance agreement 3page3e

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Once I saw this document, several things became evident. Unfortunately, by the time I saw it, this minister and several others had been forced to resign or left the church under fear of their own families being treated in a similar fashion in the future. Regardless of their absence, this document helped clarify the answers to a few of the questions I’d had about the situation…

1. Church leadership was able to directly quote the minister as saying he was leaving to pursue another ministry path (instead of the truth about why he as resigning) as a result of the agreement they bribed him with in order for him to receive severance pay which was crucial to support his family since he didn’t have another job lined up. The agreement above states: “If asked about his departure, [the minister] may say only words to the effect of, “I resigned to pursue other opportunities.””

2. The Pastor and Minister of Education had been untruthful when they stated to me that they intended for the minister and his family to continue attending the church until they left town for their new ministry opportunity. The agreement above states: “[The minister] further agrees that he will never again access Church’s premises, computer systems, or other personal or real property unless he has the express written permission of a member of church management.”

Does that mean the minister was welcome to attend church with his family only after getting express written permission from church management each Sunday he planned to attend his own church until he left for his new career opportunity? After all, the sanctuary happens to be on the “church premises”.

3. Church leadership hoped to carry out their plan for a forced resignation without presenting the minister with a list of allegations against him or a chance for him to address the claims upon which they were basing the forced resignation. They also planned to keep said allegations secret from the congregation, but allow members to speculate on them publically which would further damage the minister’s reputation and divert suspicions about their own actions. They were successful on both accounts. No allegations were mentioned in this document or in the minister’s personnel file. The minister was not given a list of allegations against him. The minister was not given a chance to address the allegations against him. The church congregation was never told the truthful reason for the minister’s resignation. Church leadership never disclosed to the congregation their allegations against the minister. When church members began to speculate on the reasons for the minister’s departure, church leadership never intervened to dispel the rumors even though they knew many of them to be false and realized the irreparable damage being committed to the minister and his family.

I also found it suspicious that the minister was asking for the allegations against him to be made public, but church leadership refused to reveal the allegations to the congregation because they said they were “protecting” the minister and his family. If the minister had done something horrendous, wouldn’t he have wanted to quietly leave without it being made public? If, however, he knew the rumors swirling through the congregation (and consequently, through the community) of his misconduct were false or misleading, wouldn’t he want the allegations to be made public in order to set the record straight and save his reputation?

Church leadership refused to reveal their allegations even at the minister’s request. They remain mute on this point.

4. Church leadership planned to keep their actions secret from the congregation and community while purposefully deceiving them with an account of the situation that was riddled with half-truths and lies. The agreement above states:

“[The minister] agrees that he will not disclose, communicate, disseminate, or publicize or cause or encourage another to disclose, communicate, disseminate, or publicize the existence of this Agreement or any of the terms of this Agreement, directly or indirectly, specifically or generally, to any person, business organization, corporation, association, governmental agency…”

5. Church leadership threatened to stop the minister’s severance pay (falsely reported to the church as sabbatical leave) if he violated the terms of the agreement by telling anyone the TRUTH about was happening to him. The agreement above states: “In the event, [the minister] breaches this Agreement, including, but not limited to, the confidentiality provision of Paragraph 3 below, Church is relieved from making additional monthly payments; provided, however, [the minister] shall continue to be bound by the release and provisions hereof.”

6. The minister had no choice, but to comply with church leadership to keep his situation quiet because he needed the severance pay to provide for his wife and children until he could find another job. Church leadership made it clear that they had no problem with stripping him of his means of supporting his wife and children if he spoke to anyone about the truth of the situation. (see agreement quote in #5)

7. Church leadership lied to the congregation about giving the minister sabbatical pay. The agreement above is titled: “Severance and Release Agreement”. The words “sabbatical pay” do not appear even one time in the document.

8. Church leadership aimed to isolate the minister from communicating with those who would have been able to care for the emotional needs of his family during this time, speak up publically about his situation, ask questions about the Biblical validity of the actions by church leadership, or demand he be presented with a list of allegations worthy of termination. They succeeded in keeping him isolated long enough for the congregation to hear and accept rumors concerning the basis for his departure and then lose interest in the situation…and “move on”. They succeeded in keeping his wife and children isolated from those who could have provided support and comfort during the ordeal.

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Thank you, Huffington Post, for writing about the church culture we’ve witnessed first hand. We continue hoping for the truth about the treatment of several ministers and their families to be spoken and acknowledged by church leadership and congregants at this church. While the church as a whole has moved on and allowed time to dull the gravity of their actions on these families over the last 3 years, the ordeal left lasting effects on the psyche of these ministers, their wives and their children.

Note: The minister mentioned in this post refused to be bullied into signing the agreement (shown above) on February 2, 2012, but did finally sign a similar agreement days later in order to receive his severance pay. While the new agreement was slightly less severe, he was not allowed to discuss the truth of his situation according to the new agreement without risking the loss of his severance pay. Church leadership warned him that anytime he told someone the actual reasons for his resignation they would consider that to be “disparaging the church” which would be a breach of the agreement.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Overcoming Repulsion

It’s Sunday morning once again. And once again I feel a sense of relief when I open my eyes and realize I don’t have to go to church. And once again I feel a pang of guilt when I realize I won’t be going to church today by choice.

Many well meaning people give me advice each week… “You should come back and visit. We have a new preacher!” “Church members are just people and people make mistakes. You can’t let that hold you back.” “Come on back. Eventually the trouble makers will die off. They won’t be around forever.” “You need to get somewhere. Being unchurched isn’t good.” “Most of the people at church don’t even know what happened [making them innocent bystanders]. Come on back.” “You should watch our church on TV! We have a new young pastor. He’s really good.” “You should read [this or that] book.”

I have a hard time explaining to people where I am spiritually.

After my first two experiences with deception by church leadership, I knew what to expect. I knew that cynicism would be the toughest part of the fallout from this latest episode to overcome. At least that’s how it played out for me the last two times. But, I was wrong. This time I moved past cynicism into a place of repulsion. Repulsion at the sight of the church building, the sight of the sanctuary on the TV broadcast, the ‘church talk’ buzzwords, the committees, the prayer request-veiled gossip, the ‘deacon body’, the programs, the ‘stewardship’ of the offerings, the culture and those who buy into it and the hurtful deceptions hidden behind a fa├žade of unity and godliness.

I wish I could find a way to describe this repulsion to people. I’ve thought a lot about it and this is the best I can do for now:

Let’s say you go to your favorite restaurant on Friday and order your favorite salad topped with grilled salmon. Later you come down with a terrible case of food poisoning. You are ill for several days and it takes a trip to the ER for IV fluids to help you regain your strength. The doctor mentions that you probably got the food poisoning from the mishandling/prep of the fish by the restaurant food staff.

As soon as you are over the initial trauma of the food poisoning, do you want to go right back to that restaurant and eat the salmon salad again? Or do the memories of vomiting every hour override your desire to go back and eat the same meal again? Do you think, “Well, chefs are people and people make mistakes. I’m sure the chef usually washes his hands after using the restroom. I can’t let that one mistake keep me from eating there again this week.”? Do you realize logically that the possibility of it happening again is slim, but still can’t seem to overcome the feeling of nausea when thinking about eating the salad again? What if your friends suggest that you celebrate your birthday or anniversary at that restaurant…after all, they’ve never gotten sick after eating there. What if they suggest that you simply order the salmon salad as a take out meal if you’re having a hard time stomaching the thought of eating it inside the restaurant?

Now, think about what would happen if you had eaten the salmon salad 3 different times over the years and had gotten a case of food poisoning each time. How likely would you be to visit the restaurant again? Even if you realized the likelihood of getting sick again was slim. Even if you realized that chefs and food staff are just people who make mistakes occasionally. Even if you realized that the staff had changed since the last time you visited the restaurant. Even if all your friends thought it was ridiculous that you couldn’t get past the memories of being ill as a result of the food poisoning, and urged you just to go on back to the restaurant where everyone else still felt comfortable eating.


Repulsion. Not repulsion toward God. Repulsion toward all things ‘church’. That’s where I am. Repulsion manifested as physical symptoms that can creep up and hijack my body before I even realize what’s happening. Repulsion brought on by triggers that no one else even notices or thinks are relevant. The sight of the church building, the presence of certain people in a room, bits of conversations, photos, memories.  I hope not to stay here forever. But it’s where I am right now and I can’t deny the truth of my situation. I don’t want to go back and get sick again. I don’t want another helping of church for a while…neither dine-in nor carry out. It makes no difference who the chef/pastor or staff happens to be. It doesn’t make me feel any better to know that they make mistakes that make people sick and excuse it because they’re human without acknowledgement or apology.

I wish it were as simple as people make it sound to ‘come on back’. And I wish it were possible for those who desire that for me to understand the depth of the devastation ministers’ families must navigate long after everyone else has moved on and forgotten the parts of the story that were just too uncomfortable to hold on to. For ministers’ families, time inevitably moves on. You learn to function again, you learn a different way to exist and be happy…but, you never get to reclaim that part of your life that was violated and lost. And you must mourn that loss…which takes a while.

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