Nancy Myer Hopkins, one of the primary contributors to When a Congregation Is Betrayed, was once making a presentation to a group of afterpastors about the dynamics of grief in a congregation where clergy misconduct has occurred. As she spoke, she suddenly noticed the faces of the people she was addressing: they themselves were experiencing deep grief about their situations. They were dealing with multiple losses, including lost dreams about “the ministry that might have been” in the congregations they served.
Afterpastors, or clergy who minister in the aftermath of betrayal of pastoral trust, are challenged with a complex and stressful set of circumstances as they assume the leadership of the troubled congregations their predecessors have left behind. The relationships and interactions in their ministries are frequently characterized by distrust and suspicion. Afterpastors often feel misheard or unheard by lay leaders and congregants, and they often report feeling manipulated, coerced, and sabotaged by lay leaders or seeing their decisions co-opted or corrupted by poor process or underhanded leadership. And many say they are often criticized without cause or unwarrantedly berated for incompetence.
Nearly all afterpastors describe a general reactivity to their presence or position that encumbers their work and relationships. And some describe reactivity so acute that it makes them lightning rods for every upset, conflict, and complaint—large or small—in the congregation.
More often, afterpastors are triangulated in petty, perennial conflicts or caught in webs of mixed messages. Communications are characterized by boundary challenges, power struggles, threats, and coercion. Each requires considerable perspective, diligence, objectivity, and grace from the afterpastor, lest he or she become entangled in the dynamics.
Feeling the Stress
No wonder, then, that many afterpastors report experiencing increased stress. The constant boundary violations and confrontational interactions provoke in the afterpastor a sense of urgency, hyper-vigilance, and increased anxiety. “I am always on high alert,” as one afterpastor explained, “always on edge. I used to be able to get away a bit each day and relax, but I can’t seem to since I’ve been here.”
Because of their congregations’ reactivity and the stress on the afterpastor, early terminations and shorter tenures are common among them, and many seek treatment for depression or anxiety.
Ministry as a profession is often challenging and stressful, but those serving in afterpastor ministries must give extra attention to stress management and wellness issues. Under extreme stress or situational challenge, some ministers may choose coping strategies that are neither effective nor healthy. Afterpastors who overwork, try to be all things to all people, or substitute professional relationships for personal ones will increase boundary challenges and their risk of ethical violation.
Sometimes congregations will flatly refuse to do anything about their problematic past, and, most disconcertingly, the refusal can be coupled with the assertion that this current pastor is really the problem. Under this circumstance, the afterpastor will need to work with a therapist, pastoral counselor, or spiritual director who is knowledgeable about the dynamics of traumatized congregations. Family members can be supportive, but they are unable to bear this burden, and it is not fair to ask them to. A judicatory staff person might help start an afterpastor support group, or several afterpastors can establish a group themselves. A good model for structuring such a group includes several elements:
- Find a professional facilitator who understands the issues. If necessary, ask him or her to learn more about the dynamics of congregations that have been betrayed.
- Work across faith traditions in your region. This is a great shame-reduction strategy and immensely enriches the sessions.
- Sign people up for a specific number of sessions and get commitments that they will be at every meeting, barring emergencies. Limit the size of each group.
- Give participants chances to describe dicey congregational situations and to have access to the group’s wisdom for solutions.
- Help participants determine if and when the messages he or she is getting are “not about me” or “about me.”
- Offer some family of origin work, but be clear that this is not a therapy group. Often the themes prevalent in a pastor’s family of origin and the religious system dovetail. Participants can be invited to answer such questions as: Who is getting under your skin, and why? What family member are you reminded of? Who in your family supported your decision to go into ordained ministry? How is the stress of your position affecting your relationship with your current family, and how are you taking care of yourself? It helps to see the humor in some of these situations. Often they are bizarre in the extreme, and a good laugh helps.
Group members will also want to explore how much of the anger the afterpastor is feeling originates in residual anger still circulating in the congregation from its own grief. Therapists have long been aware of this dynamic; now we know that it is also present in the congregant/pastor relationship, and it is not limited to pastoral counseling sessions. Therapists are trained to welcome and deliberately use transference and counter-transference during structured counseling sessions, however, and there are far more boundaries established by the psychotherapy profession. Unlike clergy, therapists are not living day-to-day with their most troublesome clients. Clients are not harassing therapists at the door on a Sunday morning, calling with endless harangues during the family dinner hour, or threatening to get their therapists fired tomorrow.
Afterpastors will also want to help one another take responsibility for setting their own personal boundaries, such as letting people know that their voice mail picks up messages during family time in the evening and that only emergency matters will be dealt with after a certain time. Afterpastors may also need support from denominational officials to establish new boundaries. Because boundaries have always been egregiously violated in these congregations, people may test them, to see if this pastor “really means it.”
Besides participating regularly in a support group, afterpastors appear to serve and survive best when greater attention than usual is given to stress management and health maintenance and when their need for additional support and resources is recognized by denominational officials and congregational leaders.
Congregations are called by God not just to “manage” but to be at work in the world. Congregations led by healthy, well-supported afterpastors can move beyond the betrayal they have experienced and once again open themselves to God’s direction and begin to serve as they are called.
Adapted from When a Congregation Is Betrayed: Responding to Clergy Misconduct, copyright © 2006 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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When a Congregation Is Betrayed: Responding to Clergy Misconduct by Beth Ann Gaede, editor
This book provides non-technical guidance for the those on the front lines in congregations where misconduct has occurred. It provides readers tools to engage congregation members in the issues surrounding clergy misconduct so that real healing can occur, helps congregations understand the victim’s/survivor’s experience, and offers strategies to help afterpastors and other leaders manage a difficult situation, serve effectively, and even thrive.
Preventing Sexual Abuse in Congregations: A Resource for Leaders by Karen A. McClintock
In this comprehensive resource, Methodist pastor and pastoral psychologist Karen McClintock demonstrates that sexual abuse in congregations is preventable and gives clergy and lay leaders the tools they need to prevent sexual abuse in congregations. This book shows congregations how to protect children and vulnerable adults, prevent sexual harassment either by clergy or of clergy, and strengthen clergy families by raising awareness of the occupational and emotional risks inherent in pastoral ministry.