The Bishops and the Clergy Killers
by Kristin D. Anderson (July / August 1998 — Volume 14, Number 4)
Serious congregational conflicts can be a harsh reality. When it happens, how can synodical leadership best serve in these situations?
A play, Bad Seed,1 stars a little girl whom everyone thinks is perfect. She is capable, sweet, and accommodating. But she seems always to need to be acclaimed the best. She insists on her own way. Odd things begin to nag at a viewer's sensation of well-being. The sense of alarm grows with the school picnic scene, when she goes off with the little boy who has unexpectedly received the special penmanship award. It peaks when she returns alone, wearing the medal, and he cannot be found.
Later, after the funeral for the boy who "fell into the water," and the arson death of the janitor who told the child he had her shoes with the distinctive cleat, the mother finally begins to suspect a horrible possibility. Unable to contact her husband, who is out of town, she tries to deal with the overwhelming terror of her situation.
Our relief that someone is catching on to this evil child is decimated by the sudden realization that there will be no consequence. The final scene is of the father back home, in his own need comforting the sweet and adorable child. Her mother was dead.
Bad Seeds Exists
Bad seeds exist. They grow up, are in our parishes, and are calling our bishops2 to get rid of pastors who don't please them.
In Wisconsin and Minnesota "63 percent of pastors know of a colleague who has been seriously abused by a congregation, colleague, or denominational executive. Approximately 25 percent of pastors have suffered such abuse themselves," according to G. Lloyd Rediger, in Clergy Killers. 3
Rediger also notes, "The results of Leadership magazine's national survey of Protestant clergy indicated that 43 percent said a faction (typically less than 10 people) forced them out."4
Lost in these statistics are good pastors who have been destroyed by their congregations, by parishioners like those described by my colleagues and like those I have encountered in my own congregations. These parishioners are selfish, want their own way, and are determined to get it at any cost to the congregation or the pastor. They leap over pastors, support committees, and lay leaders to put their complaint directly to the bishop.5
These complainers are not easy challenges for any bishop, and certainly circumstances vary. But how the bishop responds to the "bad seed" or even the disenchanted member or colleague can destroy the health of a pastor and the viability of his/her ministry. What do you think will be the ending for this one?
A personal handwritten note in my friend's upbeat yearly form letter concluded with, "The 'honeymoon' is over here and there is a small group wanting John to leave. Do you know why things are going like this? Just about all of the pastors in the area are really going through some rough stuff."
She commented on a clergy spouse gathering that she had attended; "We figured out that 17 out of 18 of us were on anti-depressants."
This is not good news. Her "why?" hangs in the air, but maybe we need a different question.
Maybe what's important is not so much, "Why do they do it?" as it is, "How do they get away with it?"
And they do "get away with it." I have heard many horror stories from colleagues and followed pastors who were devastated. I have experienced the ineffectualness that results from destroyers successfully leaping over pastors, support committees, and lay leaders of the church to gain control through bishops. I have been supported by one of the best bishops there is, but have also come face to face with those unable to discern or believe what was happening, thus preventing any resolution of conflict.
Yet we must work together, pastors and all synod executives, to fight this traumatic phenomenon. Clergy killers are a mutual problem. Hope lies in believing that bishops and pastors want the same things: healthy congregations, valued pastors, and good reputations.
Unfortunately, what we may find is bishops who "are frustrated, unsure of what they did or did not do, unclear about whether they helped or hurt the situation, suffering from guilt because they did not make the outcome better than it was, and also often happy to forget about the whole thing as quickly as possible."6
Those who are hurt would also like to forget as quickly as possible, but the residue of the experience clings, and they cannot — nor can their families or congregations.
In Clergy Killers, Rediger encourages us to confront the reality of evil in the church, which, he explains, is often covered up because, "The mainline church and popular culture essentially have discarded the concept of evil by labeling sin and evil as mental illness or human failure."7
In addition, Rediger has determined that many bishops "do not understand the realities of clergy killers. Some even collude with clergy killers by pandering to their threats and presumed power. A few are clergy killers themselves."8
What to Do
To change this, he encourages denominational officials to consider three tasks:9
1. See and believe the reality of clergy killers and evil in congregational life.
2. Develop political clout — policies and support necessary to undergird the good people and excise evil ones and their methods.
3. Foster the research and development of clergy support systems.
He summarizes this section by saying, "Perhaps clergy, out of self interest and pastoral concern for their families, and the church, can lead the way."10
First, we can begin by taking evil seriously ourselves. There must be a reason for the 535 biblical references to evil. We can study Martin Luther's serious consideration of the devil, whom he says "creates no substance, merely corrupts it" and is "after our very lives."11
We can contemplate interpretation of evil from various art works to books like The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. We can believe in our need when we pray, "deliver us from evil."
Secondly, we need to do our best to prevent folks from "getting away with it." There are many resources available for pastors to learn conflict resolution skills. What is overlooked is that the way a bishop responds to a parishioner's complaint has an immense bearing on the outcome of conflict.
With effective responses from the synod, the congregations might get conflicts resolved. With detrimental reactions from the synod, there is no hope for success. No matter how capable a pastor is in this area, efforts can be for naught because of the way the synod involves itself, or is manipulated by the "concerned" in the parish.
Lastly, we continue leading the way by becoming pro-active with our synods, offering to help develop policies that will "support good people and excise evil ones and their methods," Rediger's second task.
To be successful we need to know our bishops and ourselves. Some bishops do want to deal with the realities of conflict, and are very competent. Some synods have already taken steps to develop policies. The Southwestern Minnesota Synod, for example, has an inter-staff document regarding approaches to conflict. The Southeastern Minnesota Synod has a policy document that states that unless certain steps are taken first, the synod will normally refuse to become involved in any dispute within a congregation.
But there are some bishops who are not skilled in dealing with conflict, and yet try to do so. A pastor may not recognize this executive weakness until it is too late, and the agitators are successful. The pastor often must resign, and the congregation is on the road to being known as a church that "eats its pastors."
Policies are not merely a nice idea for some day. Rediger observes that "we have developed strong ethical codes for clergy. We will unbalance the system seriously if we do not do the same for laity."12 As the system becomes more unbalanced, more good clergy are likely to leave the ministry or refuse to serve in certain synods. It is imperative that our congregations become accountable, but they will not under a weak or accommodating bishop.
What does your bishop do when called by a congregational member? Clarify for yourself what your own expectations are and see how that matches with your bishop's response to the "concerned" in the parish. Then offer to lead the way. Bad seeds are always with us, but they can't have control if we refuse to give it to them.
The following scenarios will help us clarify some of these issues for ourselves:
1. The bishop is considering suggesting your name to another parish, and has called you to find out if you are interested. He thinks you would work well in this parish that has a history of some sticky problems and pastor-bashing. S/he would:
a. Openly include the background information.
b. Withhold any information that might be prejudicial.
2. The council president doesn't like something you said at a regular council meeting. Instead of returning your call the next day, he waits several days and then calls the bishop to complain. S/he would:
a. Listen to everything the president has to say and take note of it, possibly putting it on file.
b. Listen to everything the president has to say and then call you for an explanation.
c. Interrupt to ask if the president has spoken with you about the matter and then be firm about that needing to be done first.
3. A church council decides that their pastor must be involved in weddings at which former pastors preside. A long time member is irate that you, the pastor, support the council's decision. She writes a letter of complaint to the bishop, including as many negative things she can think of regarding you and your ministry. (There is no copy to you.) S/he would:
a. Call the writer and ask if it's all right to show you the letter.
b. Call the writer and suggest she speak with you first, and then the council if she still has concerns.
c. Not respond to the letter.
4. You've been serving your new church for less than a year when the seeds of conflict begin to sprout. People are still upset because they think the council did things behind their back regarding the resignation of their former pastor, leaving them confused and unknowing. Understanding this, you work hard to keep discussions open and communicate decisions. Rather than speak for the council, you encourage people to talk with council members to get their perspectives. You mention this to the bishop, not knowing a disgruntled council member has already called to complain about your undermining the council's position. S/he would:
a. Thank you for keeping the synod informed about potential conflict.
b. Encourage you in your efforts to avoid secrets.
c. Criticize you for interfering with council efforts to provide a united front.
5. Your colleague calls the bishop to give him/her a list of complaints (unknown to you) that he has about you. S/he would:
a. Advise him to talk to you about them, and then go to the mutual ministry committee if needed.
b. Call you and ask for an explanation.
c. Reprimand you.
d. Advise him to find a wise person to mediate now while he works with you to promote the creation of a staff support committee.
Kristin D. Anderson, who has served 10 parishes under 9 different bishops, is an interim pastor who has recently resigned.
1. Maxwell Anderson Dodd, Bad Seed: A Play in Two Acts (Mead & Company, New York, 1955). The play is based on a novel by William March.
2. Or other judicatory representative.
3. G. Lloyd Rediger, Clergy Killers (Logos Productions Inc., Inver Grove Heights, MN, 1997), p.13.
4. Ibid. p.13.
5. An intentional interim pastor, Kristin Anderson has served congregations in seven synods under nine different bishops, including one interim with a change of bishop midway through the call. She has compared synod styles, noting how the responses of bishops directly affected the likelihood of successful resolution.
6. Leas, Speed B., "How to Deal Constructively with Clergy-Lay Conflict," a research report (Washington, D.C.: The Alban Institute, Inc.), intro. by Loren Mead, p.1.
7. Rediger, p.9
8. Ibid., p.143
9. . Ibid., pp.143-144.
10. . Ibid., p.144
11. The Book of Concord, p.667.
12. Rediger, p. 143.