by Daniel Schultz
Nobody wants to talk about the details. They’re too painful, too lurid, too subject to dispute and quibbling. Half the time the details wouldn’t make sense if you weren’t there, and the other half you wouldn’t believe.
Yet forced clergy terminations—pastors, priests and rabbis being fired or resigning under pressure—is a persistent problem. A 2012 study found that 28 percent of Christian ministers surveyed had experienced a forced termination, some three or more times.1 Other surveys put the figure at anywhere from 19 percent of all ministers to 41 percent in some denominations.2
Getting hard data can be tough. Denominations don’t track the problem, judicatories impose non-disclosure agreements as part of mediation, clergy and congregations don’t want to cop to a failed relationship. Sometimes, the distinction between a forced raesignation and leaving for other reasons isn’t very clear.
Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that the problem is real—and it may be getting worse. William Doubleday taught pastoral leadership classes on the seminary level for twenty-five years. He’s now priest-in-charge of an Episcopal congregation in New York, but he keeps up with “seven or eight hundred” former students. It used to be that Doubleday would hear of about one firing a year, which “tended to be related to misconduct.” Over time, the rate has been going up: to twice a year, then once a month. In the past year, he says, “I had a spell where it was once a week.”
Some congregations are repeat offenders: one study found that just 7 percent of congregations were responsible for 35 percent of the total reported conflict. Doubleday knows of one parish that has forced out seven pastors over fifty years. A congregation I served has done the same to at least four in 35 years, including one who was fired while on a mission trip to India.
The causes of forced terminations tend to be “more systemic than situational,” says Scott Peterson, an Episcopal priest in western North Carolina. Peterson went through one himself a few years ago. He worries about clergy who experience it with “no knowledge of these trends that are happening. It feels very situational, like ‘What did I do wrong?’” Sometimes, the precipitating issue is seemingly minor, such as moving church furniture, or tangling with the organist. Sometimes the reason is never properly articulated, as in the case of one associate minister at a large congregation whose senior pastor simply told her to collect her personal items and hand in her keys.
Academics don’t have good information on what forces clergy from their pulpits. Interpersonal conflict is often cited, as are budget concerns and differences of opinion about the direction of the church. A few leave because of allegations of sexual misconduct. Still, according to Marcus N. Tanner, there is “no one set pattern or sequence of events” to point to as the culprit.3
Donald Romanik, President of the Episcopal Church Foundation, believes that congregations’ need to adapt to modern realities stresses their relationships with their ordained leaders: “We need to make significant and fundamental change in how we do church if we’re going to survive, let alone thrive,” he says. But “change at any level usually results in conflict, and what happens in some of these situations, it seems, is that church structures do not have adequate ways of handling that conflict.” Fairly or not, it’s often the clergy who take the hit. Removing them from the parish becomes an expedient way to tamp down the conflict, if not resolve the underlying issues that created it.
Peterson thinks economics are a factor: “The financial decline or recession that we just went through put a big strain on parishes,” he says. “Some of the storm that parish clergy are walking into is an already heightened anxiety about how to support clergy due to the recession.” Romanik has a similar take. Money questions, he says—often framed in terms of program or staffing—reflect deeper, usually unresolved questions of purpose and identity. By the time those issues do surface, it’s almost too late to deal with them effectively. Romanik offers a simple analogy, comparing pastoral relationships to marriages. Both often “fall apart when there’s conflict because the underlying infrastructure isn’t there to absorb the shockwaves.”
Spiraling health care prices in particular stress church systems. The Presbyterian Board of Pensions recently estimated that the cost of health insurance amounted to about 8 percent of clergy salary in the 1980s. These days, it’s about 21 percent, with rate increases of up to $5,700 a year, effectively pricing some smaller congregations out of the market for a full-time pastor. Proposals to save the Board of Pensions health plan became contentious early this year, with one board member quipping in reference to critics of the plan, “I just don’t think we should cave in to the whiners.”4
But the pressure is not just financial: “We’re in a culture that is shifting away from Christianity at its center,” Peterson says. “You don’t have the folks coming to church that you may have had forty or fifty years ago, so there’s an anxiety about how we pass on the church.” That often translates into a loss of perspective: “As you get into these anxious systems, these very anxious congregations, people don’t make decisions intellectually, or necessarily by logic. I’m not saying people have to become intellectuals, but I think when it comes down to it, people will make decisions more emotively than by logic.”
That corresponds with my own experience: the principle antagonist at one congregation was so beset with anxiety about young families not attending Sunday School that he called one of them 27 times in a single day, and would go to their houses, tapping on doors and peeking in the windows to see if they were home. This, of course, had the opposite of the intended effect, driving these families from the church. My antagonist blamed me for not doing enough to keep them in the congregation, and his complaints on the subject (among many others), caused so much turmoil that my ministry there became untenable.
Doubleday is not surprised by situations like this. He believes that systemic problems spark fast-burn conflict that overwhelms congregations and judicatories. In a Facebook post, he talks about churches
where, often relatively early in a pastorate, or at a point of some crucial decision making, a group of antagonists emerge in the parish who rapidly rise to what Speed Leas would characterize as Level 4 and/or Level 5 conflict with their priest. Usually, at least some of these antagonists are on the parish vestry, or even among the officers of the vestry. Very often these conflicts escalate so rapidly that it seems almost impossible to mediate or deescalate the conflict with either skilled consultants or mediators or through skilled intervention by bishops of their staff.5
He faults dioceses for not intervening soon enough or adeptly enough, and for sometimes taking the easy way out in resolving conflict. “There is growing evidence,” he says, that “diocesan bishops or staff often begin to collude with the antagonists when it appears they are going to win.” This reflects the situation of judicatories, Doubleday believes. As with congregations, money plays a big role here: the “quality and availability of diocesan consultants and staff has diminished greatly due to financial pressures,” he argues. “Even if a parish asks for help, there’s less help likely to come. Tightness of money and decline of numbers has everybody frightened. So everything is being dealt with at an increased level of anxiety and fear.”
It takes time to come back from a termination, to do the work of healing and discernment. Peer support is crucial, says Peterson, particularly being allowed to tell one’s story and have it accepted. Peterson found this support in a group of clergy golfers. The contacts he made during retreats or on the links helped him “cross the threshold” as he prepared to leave his congregation. One friend put him in touch with a mentor who listened patiently while Peterson worked out “a lot of the pain I had to go through to discover that my call still existed.” He feels blessed to have the informal support of fellow golfers, but wonders about others who might not be so fortunate: “What about the clergyperson who plays cribbage? Or what if a young woman who’s pursuing her call hasn’t made it into the old boys’ network? Do we have anything institutional to help those folks to get them what they need to discern whether their call was still true?”
Even with institutional support and a desire to continue in ministry, turning the corner can be difficult. “The most challenging thing in the world,” says Peterson, “is you come out of one of those experiences with this self-assessment like ‘What did I do wrong?’ Then you’re thrust out of the position, and you come out of the situation just emotionally beat up, and at that same moment you’re trying to start a search.”
Through it all, clergy families have to hang in on the roller-coaster ride. “They’re even more powerless” than clergy are, Peterson says. “It’s not just difficult for the clergyperson, but for those who love and care for them.” As if the normal demands of ministry on time and attention weren’t enough, when clergy are forced out, their spouses and children watch their loved ones go through “traumatic and demeaning psychological and emotional abuse.”8After one particularly difficult congregational meeting, my wife and I got into a frustrated discussion about whether I should stay or resign. Our then eight-year-old son cried and asked “Why do people have to be so mean all the time?” He told us that he wanted me to leave the church because “It makes you guys argue all the time.”
Indeed, forced terminations have created “a crisis of disaffiliation” by pushing clergy families out of the church altogether, says Donald Romanik. He remembers one rector’s wife in particular, a woman whose family had deep roots in the Anglican tradition. She now refuses to set foot in an Episcopalian church after seeing the way her husband was treated.
Sometimes families themselves become the focus of criticism, often as a tool to put additional pressure on clergy. One parishioner—herself childless—told me that I should take a parenting class to deal with our adopted daughter’s mental health problems. “You can’t raise them like your own, you know,” she said. That comment alone was enough to distance my wife from the congregation. Nearly a year after we left, she’s still leery of being hurt again. “I don’t know what kind of church could draw me back in,” she says. The local food pantry she helped establish in our former school district now seems like more a Christian community than any congregation she’s known.
The emotional difficulties of a forced termination are matched by economic realities. Clergy entering the job market often find it tougher than anticipated. Despite an official religious unemployment rate of just 1.7%,6there is some evidence that the US has moved from a clergy shortage to an oversupply, with many more looking for work than pulpits for them to fill.7To make matters worse, religious workers aren’t eligible for unemployment compensation, which often leaves little financial cushion to fall back on when a job is lost. The shortfall can be exacerbated when clergy live in church-provided housing, particularly in expensive areas. Clergy who don’t live in the parsonage are not immune, either: like other workers out of a job, they still have to pay the mortgage or rent. That can be daunting when facing sudden unemployment while holding a lease on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, as one pastor was.
Even the positive stress of finding new work can be difficult. It often requires the family to move to a new town and a new school district, and it brings back all those tough questions about the burden of ministry on families. One clergyperson recalled her partner’s interactions with the search committee: “She’s sort of nervous and I watched her being—there were people being friendly, but they were grilling her, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to put my family through this.’”
All of this stresses the family and leads to feelings of frustration and helplessness while the clergyperson has the sense of taking charge of a bad situation. The result, says William Doubleday, is that in some instances, “the clergy end up coping better than their spouses and children do, that in fact, marriages and mental health are ransacked in a pretty bad way.” Because perceived family health is linked to measures of stress and general health, a forced termination can have a ripple effect across many more people than just the clergy.
The problems can be surprisingly long-lived as well. Long-term unemployment has been linked to shortened life expectancy and stress-related conditions like strokes, heart attacks, heart disease, or arthritis, even decades after the fact.9
A forced termination can also derail careers. Doubleday worries that clergy pushed out of their churches can become unemployable, “relegated to supply work or one-quarter time undesirable assignments.” for the rest of their careers. “You get blackballed and eventually people don’t even remember what your failure was or why you were terminated but you’re still marginalized 10 or 15 or 25 years later,” he says. “When you think about the amount of time and money that goes into theological education, it’s pretty jarring to see somebody trashed that way.” Even when clergy want to continue in ministry, a forced termination can leave doubts about the church. “Bishops often will say to clergy who are in this situation, ‘Trust the system,’” says Donald Romanik. “And then the person is screwed by the system. How do you ever get that person to trust the system again?”
As with many aspects of this story, it’s unclear what can—or should—be done about forced clergy terminations. Doubleday has some broad suggestions: better interventions, greater understanding of “the pendulum swing between the idealization and the demonization of clergy leaders,” institutional resources directed at supporting clergy who have been through the wringer.10 Romanik agrees on that last point. “We have to provide structured and personal opportunities for people to debrief” their experiences, he says, “and prepare themselves to continue to serve the church” through supports like “counseling and coaching or mentoring, which are very personal to the individual.”
But the first step may be simply to recognize that forced terminations happen—and that they have consequences for all the parties involved. Too often, Romanik says, negotiated departures include non-disclosure requirements that hamper intstitutional learning. “The bishop puts the separation agreement in his locked personnel file and then doesn’t want to deal with it anymore.” Without formal recognition of what has happened, clergy often simply disappear from the life of their congregations, leaving a “void of unresolved issues. We talk about reconciliation in our local faith communities, and often in the primary example of how reconciliation happens, which is at the congregational level, we take a conflicted situation and pretend it never happened.”
Scott Peterson thinks the conversation is just beginning. “There are leaders around the church who have recognized there is an issue going on,” he says, “But what’s next? Should we do anything, and will there be enough political support to do something?” He sees an opportunity for clergy to do vocational formation for new ministry. The tricky part is that the discernment process might lead clergy to conclude that their active ministry is at an end. “If it’s not formation, will we still provide help to clergy as they move through the process?” he asks. To make matters worse, it’s hard to predict “when or where these situations might strike, or when somebody will go through it, but we do know somebody is probably going to go through it.”
Stepping outside the role of journalist for a moment, I have been through it—the tension, the anxiety, the hurt and disappointment and uncertainty and worry. After three difficult calls over thirteen years of ordained ministry, I don’t honestly know if or when I’ll return to a congregational setting. In ten months of searching, I’ve sent my papers to at least twenty-five congregations and a few other ministerial positions for which I thought I would be a good fit, with the sum total of one interview as a result. Just this morning, I heard from another church letting me know that they had to put their search process on hold while they considered yoking with another congregation. My pastoral career may in fact be over.
Under the circumstances, it seems like it would be easy enough to curse God and walk away from the church, but I find myself strangely unable or unwilling to give up on it, despite or perhaps because of its imperfections. Likewise, it would be easy enough to assign blame for what I have been through: on the congregations, on the associations and conferences I’ve served in, on myself. But I can never quite pin it on any one thing, beyond human nature. We are anxious, and eager to relieve our anxiety, even at the expense of someone else. We have a tendency to turn a blind eye to pain when we are tired or stretched thin or nervous about our place in the world.
Which brings me to a question Don Romanik—himself a layperson—asks the wider church on behalf of the terminated clergy he’s known: “Where were you when we needed you?” Many pastors are left to fend for themselves in extraordinarily painful situations, their finances, future prospects, sense of call and self-worth shredded, with what often seems like barely a shrug from the judicatory.
But it’s a question congregations might also ask of their judicatories as they struggle to do the right thing in the midst of turmoil. The conflict in congregations is often driven by small factions, against the wishes of the majority. Other times, the pastor is himself or herself the problem. Both situations leave church leaders wanting skilled and wise assistance from outside the system.
In the same way, bishops and conference ministers pinched by budget and time constraints might want to know how much support they can count on from the clergy and laity with whom they covenant to be the church. In fact, “Where were you when we needed you?” seems to me the fundamental question Jesus asks of his body. To whatever extent there are answers to the problem of forced clergy terminations—whether or not it’s a problem with congregations or with their leaders, whether or not it’s a growing problem, whether or not systemic resources are adequate to dealing with it—it seems to me that they will run through that single question. A strong and vital church will have to be there when it is needed, whether clergy, laity, or episcopate. How that happens, if it happens, remains to be seen.
- Marcus N. Tanner, “Forced Termination Among Clergy: A Study of Experiences, Processes and Effects & Their Connection to Stress & Well- Being Outcomes,” Texas Tech Ph.D. Dissertation, 2011, p. 24
- Ibid., p. 22
- Leslie Scanlon, “Breaking News: Lashed by criticism, health panel members tell their side of the story,” The Presbyterian Outlook, March 8, 2013.
- Ann Fontaine, “Forced clergy terminations,” The Episcopal Cafe, March 10, 2013. Speed Leas’s Levels of Conflict can be found in Moving Your Church through Conflict, Alban, 2002.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2012,” http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes212011.htm.
- Greg Warner, “From Clergy Shortage To Clergy Surplus,” Huffington Post,March 13, 2013.
- David Briggs, “Forced exits erode clergy morale,” The Christian Century, March 29, 2012.
- Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “How Does Employment—or Unemployment—Affect Health?” Issue Brief, March 2013; Daniel Sullivan and Till Von Wachter, “Job Displacement and Mortality: An Analysis Using Administrative Data,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 2009.
- Fontaine, op. cit.
Congregations magazine, 2013-07-10
2013 Issue 2, Number 2