Dealing with Community Destroyers
by Lyle G. Miller (July / August 1998 — Volume 14, Number 4)
A Response to "The Bishops and the Clergy Killers"
It is obvious that G. Lloyd Rediger's phrase "clergy killers" has struck a responsive chord in the lives of many clergy and their families.
While doing interim ministry, Pastor Kristin Anderson writes out of her experiences working with congregations in transition. She has experienced the "clergy killer" phenomenon both from within congregations and bishops' and synods' offices.
I found much of her article helpful as it moved from observation to generalized cause and blame to possible solutions (again, using material from G. Lloyd Rediger's work). There is no doubt much pain and hurt exists in clergy families these days. The causes of this are varied and complex. They are also not new to our day, age, and settings.
If I had been writing such an article, I would have probably used the words "Community Destroyers" instead of "Clergy Killers." That is what really happens in times of intense congregational conflict. The entire community of faith (congregation, pastors and families, bishops and synods), and even the community-at-large can be chewed up and spit out.
There are many causes of such destruction. Anyone who cares is affected. It is not helpful to simply blame one category of people (either manipulative, evil laity, or inept bishops) for difficult times, if this allows the pastor to deny or escape his or her responsibility. All are involved.
The question is, therefore, how can we resolve this time of conflict so as to bring the least damage to the body of Christ? Or, more positively, how can God work in this mess to bring out something redemptive (for pastor and congregation)?
My 26 years in parish ministry and 7 years as synod bishop have made me painfully aware that there are evil forces alive and active in the church — among both congregations and clergy. As certain congregations can obtain a reputation for "killing" the clergy who serve them, so also some clergy produce track records indicating the destruction of several congregations.
Some congregations have people within them who delight in destructive rumor. Some have agendas that motivate them to tear down rather than build up the pastor and his or her ministry. On the other hand, some pastors succumb equally to the temptations of self-serving manipulation or withdrawal of pastoral care.
In the midst of this are the bishop and his and her staff! Bishops and staff realize they must care for the whole church, congregations, and rostered staff (both pastors and rostered lay ministers). Becoming commandeered by one group or another is not a healthy solution (nor is, as Pastor Anderson states, pandering to one power group or another).
In my experience, some pastors may only see the bishop's office for their personal support and mobility needs (after all, these were primary in his or her election!). On the other hand, congregations often see the bishop's primary role as one that "solves" their problem (often by getting rid of the pastor — somehow, someway, but soon!). I even had one congregation that suggested I do this by simply putting their "unpopular" pastor on the synod staff. I said I would if I could also tell them who their next pastor would be! That suggestion didn't go very far.
While there are many such realities, I believe most of our congregations and pastors enjoy, relatively speaking, satisfactory life and service together. Yet, "abuse" does occur, and there are "bad seeds." Pastor Anderson is correct in speaking of some members as being "bad seeds."
What can we do?
G. Lloyd Rediger's suggestions, outlined by Pastor Anderson, are worth paying attention to. Clergy can help "lead the way" by discovering or creating resources and support systems. I also agree with Pastor Anderson that the discernment of evil (in whomever and whatever shape it appears) is important, and that we need to address it, and if necessary, "exorcise" it. Yet even as I say this, we must avoid the "blame-game" if this means the denial of our own role and responsibility.
Honesty, openness, care, grace, directness, confession, and absolution remain the best methods.
Regarding Pastor Anderson's comments on the importance of developing synod policies, I believe such policies ought to be clear, fair, and well publicized. They should be developed in consultation with the synod's council, clergy, and congregations. If the policies are well-known by all parties and made clear in advance of any conflict situation, they are less likely to be perceived as "tilting" toward one group or another.
Such policies should include that the bishop and his or her staff will not respond to the concerns and complaints of individual members of congregations unless the member(s) have first talked with the pastor(s) and church council. Even then, an "official" representation from the congregation is necessary. No end runs are allowed.
On the other hand, the pastor is also expected to operate with honesty and openness, exercising both pastoral care and seeking ways to apply conflict resolution methods.
Much more could be said! At the very least, clergy, congregations, and synod staff ought to be very clear about how the process "ought" to work.
Pastor Anderson's article clearly expresses the pain of clergy and their families. What was not heard was the pain of parishioners (and also bishops and staff) who also experienced the consequences of abuse.
Part of the problem also involves confusion over the changing roles of clergy. Congregations are not so sure what that role is; even written job descriptions may leave out the congregation's "real" expectations. Pastors, who lose their own strong sense of self and professional identity, fall prey to their own disappointments of self and congregation.
Another part of the problem is the subtle but real erosion of the sense of "call." Congregations seem to "hire" pastors rather than speaking of God as the one who is "calling" the pastor to serve a particular congregation. Call committees shape themselves more like personnel committees with all of the professional methods and materials. Even the bishops' offices sometimes find themselves becoming personnel clearing houses!
I am glad that Pastor Anderson has voiced such concerns. However, the problem is broader than "bishops and clergy-killers." The problem — and it has always been with us — is how the church deals with evil, sin, and the variety of confusions that would destroy us as a community.
To deal with such formidable enemies, we need all of the resources that the Holy Spirit can give us of wisdom and grace.
Lyle G. Miller, pastor of St. Marks Lutheran Church by the Narrows, of Tacoma, Washington, is bishop emeritus of the Sierra Pacific Synod of the ELCA. Pastor Miller was the synod's bishop from 1987-1994.