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."
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?
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:
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.
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.