by G. Lloyd Rediger, PhD (Directory of Clergy Counseling Services, Wisconsin Council of Churches)
March 1994 +The Clergy Journal It has taken awhile for church leaders to recognize the reality of intentional, destructive attacks on clergy. Now we must teach ourselves the skills needed to survive these attacks.
This is not an “us versus them” game to be played in congregations. It is a fact of life for clergy — “it goes with the territory.” You may not have encountered clergy killers (CKs) in your ministry, but it is likely you will one day. Or at least you know colleagues who have encountered CKs, and usually have the scars to prove it!
My column in The Clergy Journal (“Clergy Killers,” August 1993)
brought an outpouring of phone calls, letters, and requests to come speak to clergy groups and conventions. These responses affirm my thesis that CKs are not figments of clergy imagination, nor excuses for discouraged pastors to whine. Many of the letters and phone calls recounted experiences of traumatic pain, forced moves, and career destruction, besides the typical self-doubts and damage to personal faith. Nearly all reported the loneliness of fighting the battles with little support. And all expressed appreciating that this phenomenon had been named, and that its occurrence in many places reassured them that they were not alone as victims.
A couple of the letters reminded me that a few clergy are not above the possibility of using criticism and resistance in their congregations as a cover for incompetence and laziness. Whatever the origin, when we encounter negative feedback in ministry, we need to review the situation to see if it is generated by our own mistakes, or by pain and habits in the lives of our detractors. But the reality of our own mistakes, and of hurting parishioners using pastors as scapegoats, should not distract the church from learning to deal with clergy killers effectively. For their unrelenting and vicious attacks sap the energy of the entire church.
Our whole society is having its consciousness raised regarding abuse and violence. We are learning that there is a level of conflict that goes far beyond disagreement, audacity, and obscenity. There are vicious, evil persons whose intent is destruction. This is the evil we have forgotten about in the church. One form of it is the person or persons whose intent is the destruction of the pastor.
Once we understand the reality of CKs, we may be able to learn from this phenomenon. I say we may learn from it because it remains difficult for us to realize that it is up to us to remedy the situation. For the church still is not dealing with CKs effectively.
We can review and summarize the CK phenomenon by listing the “Six D’s” which identify this problem.
“Destructive” — CKs don’t just disagree or criticize, they insist on pain and destruction for their targets. Their tactics include sabotage, subverting noble causes, pushing others to do their dirty work, and causing victims to self- destruct.
“Determined” — CKs don’t stop. They may pause, go underground, or change tactics. But they will intimidate, network, and break any rules of decency to accomplish their destruction. They insist that their agenda have priority.
“Deceitful” — CKs manipulate, camouflage, misrepresent and accuse others of their own tactics. Their statements and negotiations are not trustworthy, unless negotiations are based on enforcement powers or their departure.
“Demonic” — CKs are evil or mentally disordered, depending on how you define intentions and behavior which do not yield to patience and love, nor honor human decency. They are attracted to spiritual leaders as symbols and scapegoats for the internal pain and confusion they feel. And since their mental pain and spiritual confusion are unidentified, these foment unusual reactive and destructive motivations.
“Denial” — this fifth D is the typical church and clergy resistance to admitting the reality and destruction of CKs. And this is how we collude in their nefarious purposes.
“Discernment” — this is the prescriptive sixth D. The spiritual gift of discernment is God’s gift of grace proffered in an enlightened mind which sees and understands evil, and then allows itself to be empowered to follow God’s Holy Spirit in being an agent of exorcism by confronting evil in the form of CKs. This works best, of course, in a community of faith.
SURVIVAL SKILLS FOR CLERGY
Since CKs typically target clergy (or perhaps another authority figure in the church), we’d better learn survival skills. This seems incongruous, for we tend to think that since our role and intentions are so noble, no one will attack us. But we must come to terms with diversity and critics, and learn how to negotiate differences. We must learn survival skills, for we may encounter CKs. And if we do, noble intentions, Christian love and negotiation will not save us. Even if we are willing to sacrifice ourselves, we share responsibility for defending our congregations. For CKs are perfectly willing to destroy congregations in their efforts to destroy pastors.
It’s often called “street smarts.” I’m referring to the know-how needed by those who live and work in areas where extreme danger from other human beings is prevalent. Such awareness and skills are distant from the typical training and experience of clergy, unless we have worked in dangerous neighborhoods. Therefore our starting place is a new perspective, — a different kind of awareness.
Those of us who live in large metropolitan areas have learned to do things we don’t want to do, in order to be safer and help protect our dear ones. We don’t leave car keys in the ignition anymore (it’s painful to recall that in a previous era we used to leave keys in the car all the time, and probably didn’t even remember the last time we locked our house doors!) We don’t travel alone in certain places after dark. We avoid giving personal information over the phone. And we even avoid calling on members of the opposite sex alone.
Survival skills for clergy begin with changing our thought patterns. Here are some examples.
1. Believe that it is possible for someone to want to destroy you.
2. Understand that your denomination typically has little power or inclination to save you from CKs.
3. Recognize that the danger signals and patterns of behavior of CKs can be learned (vid. the “Six D’s” above).
4. Be aware that pro action is far better than reaction in dealing with CKs.
5. Accept the fact of evil and mental disorder in the church.
6. Expect the attacks of CKs to have serious negative effects on your congregation and loved ones. Therefore, your survival skills are important for their protection and should be taught to them as well.
7. Learn that awareness and survival skills need not produce paranoia, nor rob us of the joy of ministry. They simply aid us in functioning in ways appropriate to contemporary reality.
Think with me for a few minutes about these seven factors. For even though they are self-evident, most of us have to think and rethink them so they will become part of our professional repertory.
The belief that someone — a parishioner — may want to destroy me because I am their pastor is astounding … but true. I can cite many cases, across denominational lines. Perhaps you can, too. It’s a little like military training, when we were reminded over and over that the enemy’s purpose is to kill or disable us. Or when we first learned that even if certain foods or medicines are attractively packaged and advertised, they still may be seriously harmful. Or when we heard that wild animals are never fully domesticated, and are likely to turn on us, no matter how kindly we treat them.
The understanding that our denominational officers often have little power or inclination to rescue us when we come under serious attack is one of the shocks of early vocational awareness. Such officials may even collude in our destruction. We need to remember, of course, that most are well-intentioned, but they are vulnerable also. The reality is that they may need us as much as we need them on occasion. And “us versus them” thinking is counterproductive for all. This does not mean we should avoid denominational relationships or become loners. Rather, we must learn the realities of what to expect from our denomination. One of the most helpful awarenesses is the realization that CKs give signals and operate patterns (review the “Six D’s above). The signals and patterns can help us recognize that our assumptions of normality are wrong. We must shift to a different way of functioning when dealing with CKs. When we pick up the signals and note the patterns, we must then empower ourselves to act with a different than normal agenda. For normal pastoral behavior is not effective with CKs.
The fourth necessary change in our thinking is to take the initiative when dealing with CKs. If we remain reactive, their persistence is likely to wear us down (or our supporters). Most of us prefer to wait for consensus or assume CKs will quit. Neither of these is likely to occur. Allies are obviously important. Therefore, the suggestions listed later under congregational and denominational skills should be factored into our proactive strategy. Knowledge of evil and mental illness and disorder are curiously missing from our arsenal of defenses when we deal with CKs in the church. Though we know these exist, insights about them are not associated with CKs until too late. Because CKs usually appear to be relatively normal adults, we tend to miss negative data. And because we tend to believe the myth that love conquers all, we fail to deal with CKs in ways appropriate for evil and mental disorders. We need to remind ourselves often of the insidious abilities of CKs to camouflage their intentions and to enlist normal but naive cohorts. In order to develop skills for handling CKs, we must study evil and mental disorders. We will not avoid injury unless we understand evil and personality disorders. Our normal strategies of patience, love, consensus, courtesy, and cooperation are ineffective. “Tough love” works.
In my experience the wake-up call for a pastor under attack by a CK comes when (s)he sees the injury that is occurring to loved ones and the congregation. The thinking of CKs resembles military officers who are willing to destroy a village in order to save it from the enemy. CKs pay little attention to “collateral damage” when pursuing their destructive goals.
Finally, this new awareness should not become paranoid, for this hands a victory to CKs by default. Neither should we allow ourselves to lose the spiritual disciplines that keep our vision of ministry clear, and allow us to savor faithful ministry. Good survival skills require neither paranoia nor somber supererogation.
The limited space of this column precludes a full discussion of survival skills besides consciousness-raising. But the following list of additional resources and skills can trigger the development of a personal strategy for your situation.
1. Personal support system.
2. Personal health and well-being.
3. Professional competence.
4. Professional consultants — legal, medical, religious, clinical, educational, and political. 5. Continuing educations — negotiating skills, intervention skills, career planning, etc.
For many years I have been advocating and teaching clergy support systems. As spiritual elders, we are beginning to learn that we are responsible for our own physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Having a personal support base is critical to survival of CK attacks.
Energy and its management is another resource and skill critical to healthy pastoring, whether we are under attack or not. Physical, emotional, and spiritual energy is a limited and precious resource. We all have a lot to learn about this human and planetary resource. CKs can distract us into dissipating our energies into hopeless worry and fighting.
Excellence in ministry is a noble and satisfying goal. We are more vulnerable to CKs, and to loss of support and failure when we fail to learn and grow … intentionally.
We are not alone in our struggles with CKs. There are professional resources and persons to help: lawyers, pastoral counselors, mentors, etc. When we are unaccustomed to using such resources, we must learn what many others learn in times of deep distress– we are only alone if we choose to be.
Finally, we didn’t learn all we need to learn about ministry in seminary. No seminary is so good that it produces perfect pastors. Our continuing education and growth must be formulated to expand our perspective and skills. Part of our problem with CKs occurs because we haven’t learned how to deal with diversity, dissent, and conflict.
SKILLS FOR CONGREGATIONS
Even the finest pastor cannot save a congregation from the collateral damage CKs produce when they go after an authority figure (the pastor is not always the target). Parishioners need to share responsibility for their own well-being and the wholeness of the congregation and its mission. This includes investing in and supporting/protecting a primary congregational resource — its pastor.
Since institutionalized religion bought into the business model as its operational style, laity have been relegated to the role of spectators and stockholders. As spectators they feel free to applaud or boo the performances of leaders. As stockholders they feel free to criticize the CEO. It will take time for us to teach and learn the shared responsibilities of ministry in local congregations again.
A specific task for congregations is investing in and protecting its pastor(s) and other professional leaders. For when its spiritual leaders are under attack, the ministries by and for parishioners suffer. Uninformed and theological illiterate laity are vulnerable to the blandishments (threat, cajolery, and misrepresentation) of CKs.
Several of the many responses I’ve received to the column on CK’s have come from national and regional denominational offices. They reflect an obvious gap in church teaching materials. We have many biblical and theological curriculums, a few conflict management materials, but few resources which teach congregations the realities of church politics, or the true nature of clergy killers-congregation killers, and what to do about them. My book on the subject will soon be complete. And I’m pleased to recommend the Alban Institute, Washington, D.C. (1-800-457-2674), and its fine resources for such instruction.
Until educational materials on this subject are commonly available, we can list the key issues and be creative in our own congregations. Following are the basic ingredients.
1. Awareness. It is apparent that most parishioners are unaware of church politics, and feel little responsibility for them. Until they can understand CKs, they will collude unintentionally with the destruction of clergy and congregations.
2. Theological literacy. Theology is a dry subject until laypersons experience its value in explaining the Bible and the evils, sicknesses, reconciliations and ministries of ordinary believers just like us. Without biblical- theological literacy, we are left to our own devices and vulnerabilities.
3. Conflict management. This generic term suggests that responsible parishioners learn the harsh and joyous realities of diversity, conflict, and abuse in congregational life. Clergy and laity together need to understand diversity and how to negotiate differences. But we also need to learn how to deal with evil in the form of demonic and cunning pseudo-believers. This requires an enlightened skill in what is often called “interventions.”
Intervention is the clinical method of identifying a communal problem and its perpetrator, surrounding this person(s) with caring but severe treatment, and insisting that the treatment continue until wholeness is restored or the perpetrator chooses to leave or is expelled (also called “tough love”). All this must be done carefully, prayerfully, and resolutely, now that secular courts feel free to intervene in church life. Like major surgery, the congregations must be prepared to excise the cancer CKs induce. Even though our denominational polities may provide only limited guidance for interventions, God’s Holy Spirit, biblical insights, and contemporary clinical-legal knowledge can guide caring believers in the excision of CKs. Congregations can become so healthy that they are immunized to CK infection.
SKILLS FOR DENOMINATIONS
The above suggestions apply to denominational offices. Though there is diversity in our denominational configurations and missions, some generic improvements for dealing with CKs are apparent.
1. Awareness. When I consult with bishops, et. al., I find most are aware of local conflicts, and some provide training in conflict management. But many do not understand the evil realities of CKs. Some even collude with CKs by pandering to their threats and presumed power. A few are CKs themselves, at least they function this way for unfavored clergy under their care. And seminaries barely acknowledge conflict and CKs. So the first task with denominational hierarchies is the same as with clergy and parishioners — see and believe the reality of CKs and evil in congregational life.
2. The second task unique to denominational offices is the development of political clout — policies and support necessary to undergird the good people and excise evil ones and their methods. Even in congregational styles of polity, denominational officials have a mystique which can tip the balance away from CKs in local struggles.
The limitations, however, can make this type of conflict leadership difficult. For most bishops feel beholden to power brokers. And if CKs are perceived as such, great courage is required to confront them. It is also apparent that standards for judging clergy and moving them are clearer than for doing the same to laity. We have now developed strong ethical codes for clergy. We will unbalance the system seriously if we do not do the same for laity.
3. Finally, denominational offices need to foster the research and development of clergy support systems. The breakdown and malfeasance statistics for clergy are large (25 percent)
and rising. Since the health of the clergy is crucial to the health of the denomination, realistic clergy support is mandatory. This does not imply pampering incompetent and lazy clergy, it means encouraging all clergy towards excellence. It is obvious that traditional clergy support presumptions and strategies are inadequate.
The CK phenomenon need not distract nor injure the church. But it is becoming apparent that evil in the form of CKs, along with debilitating social trends, is actually threatening the existence of the church as we know it. Perhaps clergy, in self-interest and in pastoral concern, can lead the way.
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