Friday, March 17, 2017

Conflict and the Church: Are We Equipped to Serve as Peacemakers?

There's an interesting discussion under way at The Episcopal Cafe about conversion. Specifically, how as Episcopalians do we view conversion? As a liberal, multicultural church, do we even seek conversion?

I think the answer is that we do, but not in the sense of bringing the Gospel to the heathens. Rather, we seek to bring all persons closer to the love of God.

For us as individuals, that means a life of constant renewal and rebirth. We move from our past, while turning towards the future, while seeking to leave behind our sins and failures.

As part of this effort, we are called to pursue peace in every sense. Peace in society, in the world, in our homes, in our relations, and in our houses of worship.

But do we have the skills needed for this endless cycle of healing, renewal and rebirth? My belief is that we as a church do not.

My views are informed by a lifetime of witnessing conflict in the church, including the culture wars, the litigation with the so-called Anglicans, and my recent multiyear dustup with a priest here in Northern Virginia.

In every case, I have seen those who wish peace and those who reject peace. All too often, the desire for peace has been earnest, yet discussions have broken down in the face of absolute demands. "Marriage equality anywhere is sin everywhere," was the modus operandi of the Anglicans.

I also have been very disturbed at the means through which some have sought peace. While I will not mention any names, one individual in my conflict with clergy asked what it would take to achieve reconciliation, all while sandwiching the request in layers of lies and invective. Needless to say, I was not very responsive to that request.

Another person resorted to lies and ad hominem attacks, only to be called out for her lies and invective on a sister blog.

Still another (no doubt observing similar behavior from her parents), posted the following:

"Dude, you're a f***** loser stalker. Your name is mud in Alexandria. Go kill yourself."

Amusingly enough, this person put her name down as "Eat_a_D***." I wonder what her parents think of that? LOL

Of course, all this calls into question whether these persons ever wanted reconciliation. Perhaps not. But as Christians it's something we are called to do--to bring light into darkness and reconciliation into despair.

So, to give folks the benefit of the doubt, do they have the skills needed to move towards healing? Clearly not. But has the church offered these skills? Not at all.

Or in other words, it's great to proclaim our churches to be places of healing and acceptance. But if we don't have the skills to make these goals a reality, are we telling the truth? Will they ever become places of healing?

In this holy season of Lent, these are worthy questions for our consideration.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Eleven Ways To Avoid Clergy Predators

Following church today, I had a great discussion with a UCC minister. The discussion centered on narcissistic and sociopathic clergy and how to avoid them.

So how do you avoid narcissistic and sociopathic clergy? Is there a secret?

Background

First, recognize that predators about in the population at large. Per the American Psychological Association, it is estimated that 4-5 percent of the population consists of predators. Recent studies, including one by the Presbyterian Church of Canada, suggest that the number is almost three times as high among clergy.

But what do we mean when we call someone a predator? Sexual misconduct typically is what first comes to mind, but it encompasses much more than that. At its most basic, a predator is someone who places his or her needs above your own, or the organization's own, and doesn't care if others get hurt as a result.

And what is the difference between narcissism and sociopathy? A narcissist believes that he or she is better than others, that they need other special people to understand them, and that they don't need anyone else. At the same time, they crave the adulation and attention that comes from being clergy. As a result, narcissists often are superficially charming and may be very adept interpersonally.

A sociopath is someone with no regard for the feelings or needs of others. He or she knows right from wrong--they simply don't care. Today, mental health professionals usually lump the term under the broad banner of antisocial personality disorder.

It's important to realize, as well, that the two disorders may be present concurrently, and often do intertwine.

To make matters worse, both may be personality disorders, meaning that they are largely untreatable.

Of course, that begs the question, "Why should I care? What does this mean for me?"

The answer is simple: Because of the imbalance of power between clergy and laity, it is easy to get hurt emotionally, spiritually, financially, sexually, and physically by a predator. And the more invested you are in your church, the more hurt you will be.

Both narcissists and sociopaths view people in one of several ways:

- As someone to be used and regarded with secret contempt.
- As a discard, or someone to be tossed aside when no longer useful.
- As an enemy to be neutralized, either by charm , or threats, or intimidation.

In a church setting, the predator may build you up. Life is all smiles and hugs and sunshine if the predator thinks you'll provide the adulation he seeks. But at the same time, you're expected to give him a free hand. Challenge him and he will try to intimidate you, shout you down, or shun you.

But while the predator is building you up to your face, he's busy undercutting you on other fronts. It may be starting little rumors about you, or dropping hints about you. Do it often enough, and soon the whole parish will be buzzing about how you can't be trusted with money or some other serious charge.

If you're like many Christians, your first instinct will be to try to fix things. Big mistake.

The predator doesn't want to fix things. Yes, you may get a seemingly abject apology, but trust me--it's only a matter of time before he regroups and comes at you again. Bottom line, there is no such thing as a healthy relationship with a predator. Let me say it again: There is no such thing as a healthy relationship with a predator. And for heaven's sake, don't share secrets or otherwise open up to a predator.

Precautions and Warning Signs


  1. If you are church shopping, take your time. Go slow on opening up to your priest and others,  and watch them in action.
  2. Carefully watch how your priest treats others. Is he or she respectful to their spouse or partner? If he or she makes disparaging comments about their spouse or partner, be very, very careful. Remember, the predator's spouse is presumed to occupy a privileged position. You're just a parishioner, so you won't even fare that well.
  3. Watch for faux pas. The predator learns to mimic normal behavior by keen observation and mimicry. So when the predator ventures into unknown territory, he may say something utterly "off," like the priest I know who once announced that the church would be opening a new columbarium, so people could now be happy about their own demise.
  4. Watch for a lack of faux pas. I get that this sounds paradoxical, but hear me out. Confronted with bad news, normal people often have very odd reactions, like the mother who, when I served as a police officer, tried to punch me out when I told her of her son's death. But if this sort of thing happens to your priest and the response is flawless, proceed with caution.
  5. Monitor your own emotions. If, for example, your priest gives you a hug and it feels like there's no affection there, you may well be right. Again, proceed with care.
  6. Watch for indifference to the wellbeing of others. If your priest simply doesn't care about financial, HR, or interpersonal problems in your parish, don't be careful. Run! It's his job to care about these things.
  7. Watch for boundary violations. If you priest thinks it's okay to yell at vestry members, for instance, yet takes leave whenever he or she feels like it and in excess of what is allowed under his letter of agreement, you have a problem.
  8. Look for an inability to apologize or accept responsibility. If your priest cannot manage to do these things, he may not be a predator, but he's not much of a priest, so don't bother.
  9. Listen to warnings. In my own experience with predatory clergy, more than one person warned me. But I overlooked those warnings, to my own detriment.
  10. Watch for personalities that feel they must live up to parental or other expectations. If your priests' father, say, was a Rhodes scholar, and your priest grew up thinking he had to achieve the same thing, this may be a warning sign, as narcissists often grow up feeling like they are obligated to live up to extreme parental expectations.
  11. Consider the "rule of three." Propounded by a fellow blogger, he contends that if you see three major incidents of misconduct, it's time to pack up then and there. Examples including lying, failing to take responsibility for actions, verbally or emotionally abusive behavior, inappropriate profanity, or flying into a rage (often a sign of narcissism.)
All this said, it's important to be open and approachable. It is not healthy to treat other people with suspicion or contempt. At the same time, it's important to protect you and those you love from predators, so don't be blind to the warning signs of an abusive priest.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Christianity's Dirty Secret: Spiritual and Emotional Abuse in the Church

One of the things that never fails to amaze me is, as Christians, our collective ability to minimize, deny and avoid our faults and problems. That's particularly the case with spiritual and emotional abuse, which are widespread in our churches, yet all too often ignored.

Why is that? First off, my sense is that seminaries rarely teach seminarians how to spot, prevent, or react to these twin evils. Thus, a great many clergy -- even bishops -- will give you a perplexed look when you bring it up.

Second, there's the good old "can't happen here," routine. But neither congregational size, friendliness, nor political bent preclude abuse.

Third, as Robin Hammeal-Urban has wisely noted in her book,  "Wholeness After Betrayal," these issues can initially be difficult for an adjudicatory to identify. The secret, she states, is to look not just at individual incidents, but also to the larger pattern. Many issues, taken in isolation, may seem minor, but when viewed as part of a pattern do become clergy misconduct. Examples she cites:

  • A priest who tells parishioners that the adjudicatory is "out to get him"
  • Clergy who tell parishioners they may not be members of the church if they don't disown their LGBT family members.
  • Clergy who publicly humiliate individual parishioners.
  • Clergy who continue to place trinkets at the grave of a deceased parishioner, even after being asked to stop.
To Robin's examples, I would add:
  • Deliberately misunderstanding legitimate concerns, or blocking and countering those concerns.
  • Using yelling, intimidation and other tactics to try to control what parishioners say.
  • Rectors who deliberately ignore legitimate financial or operational issues, or who lie to avoid addressing them.
  • Controlling access to church leadership positions to prevent accountability.
  • Limiting the sharing of information to prevent effective lay oversight.
So how do you avoid these situations? There's no easy answer, but I would say:
  • Cultivate a culture of openness and transparency.
  • Change your perspective. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn't make it right.
  • Listen carefully.
  • Respond immediately and appropriate when someone complains of abuse.
For more information, check out http://archives.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/its-time-address-spiritual-abuse-church.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

My Conflict with Bob Malm: Resolved?

In Bob's recent messages, including his counterproductive apology, he states his desire for reconciliation. Is that where we're at?

My feeling is that the better word is a ceasefire. Open hostilities are over, and I have shared with Bob my expectation that there be no weasel attacks behind the scenes. Additionally, I have shared my expectation that there be no further disparagement or breaches of confidentiality, either by staff, clergy, or vestry members.

At the same time, this certainly is no reconciliation. Reconciliation would require:

  • A real apology.
  • Restitution.
  • Amendment of ways.
Granted, there's been some progress in the third category. We now get email from the church and emails from us to the church no longer are blocked. Beyond that, my expectations are minimal.

That said, with the first two categories seriously deficient and nonexistent, respectively, will there be reconciliation? Of course not.

It was amusing too--Bob argues that he has treated us with respect, as he has said thank you many times, both publicly and privately. Yet his email announcing that we were unwelcome in the church concluded with a thank you. So, thank you does not equal respect.

The interesting thing, too, is that Bob never has asked me or Mike what he can do to move past a ceasefire. That's too bad, as simply asking the question, "What can I do to fix things?', can be transformative for all parties.

Anyway, Mike and I will be headed to Mayo House late this month to visit with folks. I'm optimistic that the discussion will be every bit as good as my visit with +Shannon, Pat Wingo, Dee, and a guest.

By the Way

Someone recently asked if my original post was a bit naive, specifically about the whole junior warden thing.

The answer, I think, is no. It's entirely appropriate to be honored and humbled to serve one's faith community. Should I have bailed right after the altar guild decided to gang up on me? You bet. It's not wrong to say, "No mas," and to set boundaries--including the one of departure from an abusive situation.

So what am I up to now? Working on two articles for The Episcopal Cafe, and a lessons learned piece for the Wartburg Watch.

Another reader asked what my approach will to be the whole issue of Grace Church and my conflict with Bob Malm. The answer is that it's fair game to write about it, as this was a chapter in my life. That said, attacks on Bob's integrity, however well deserved, are out.

More on that situation in my next post.

Friday, May 16, 2014

I'm back!

It's good to be back in the blogosphere!

For the past year or so, I've been so busy with a new career as a realtor, writing for Episcopal Cafe aka "e-Cafe", and stuff in my parish that I let the old blog die.

Saying goodbye to the old blog was bittersweet. On the one hand, I loved some of the discussions and the chance to engage with other bloggers outside the purview of e-Cafe. On the other, I started the blog anonymously--not for fear of taking ownership of my ideas or sometimes snarky comments, but rather with the hope that my ideas would be evaluated on their own merit. As time went on, though, I was less and less interested in writing anonymously. And some of the content was quickly becoming dated, particularly my rants about the recent litigation and the timidity with which DioVA sometimes approaches social issues.

So, I'm at it again, but from a whole new angle.

This time, too, I suspect I'll write more about parish life. Last January, I was named junior warden in my parish--a large, vibrant, Anglo-Catholic parish. This JW thing has been a tremendous honor, and it draws on several skills I have, including construction and property management. At the same time, it's a staggering amount of work, and there are days when it feels like I am about to die in my tracks. But it's also been formative, and I have a deeper love for our parish, parishioners and clergy.