Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Needed: Accountability and Support

A key part of my CPE experience has been reflecting on and growing from my parish experience. I believe that I have been mostly healed, thanks to God, my colleagues, an insightful supervisor, and my husband. As I see it, what happened was really the intersection of three parties and the issues we had that contributed to "the perfect storm", as Henry (my supervisor) calls it. First, there was the church, which was small , dying, and consisted mostly of individuals over 55. It had been through some pretty deep divisions in the past. It was also located in an economically depressed area. As of result of those issues, it was an anxious, immature, and insecure system. The church specifically asked the District Superintendent for an older pastor, preferably one with more experience. Instead, they received me, a 29 year-old pastor who was in her first appointment with ministry being her first career. My husband did not fit their idea of a pastor's spouse and had no desire to conform. I was inexperienced, lacking confidence, and was learning how to be a pastor, while they needed someone who could lead them boldly. I also went through a number of personal issues during my two years as their pastor (father-in-law dying, pregnancy, baby, dog dying, mother diagnosed with cancer, husband getting job four hours away, etc) which made me unable to be as emotionally available to them as I could have been, and as they needed me to be. They felt threatened and scared, so they did what they knew to do...fight for their church. I still don't think they have any idea how much they hurt me and my family; if I were to confront them now, they'd probably react very defensively. Anyway, that's their story.
Second, there was the Cabinet (the bishop and all the District Superintendents in the annual conference), which needed a pastor for this church. The DS either had her head stuck in the sand or had no clue about how damaged this church was. Anyway, I needed an appointment close to my husband's job, this church needed a pastor, and it was just about as close as I could get and still be within the boundaries of the Annual Conference. So, the Cabinet appointment me to the church. The DS didn't see fit to tell me that I was the EXACT OPPOSITE of what the church had requested. The outgoing pastor didn't tell me anything about the church's history or about any issues that I might encounter. Actually, she didn't tell me much of anything, except the very basics. Of course, the church didn't tell me until 18 months later, but I'm not sure that it was their place to do so. When everything seemed fine the first year, my DS didn't pick up on any of the "warning signs" that I now recognize: mostly superficial and petty comments by the PPR, almost no contact outside of worship/meetings unless initiated by me, frustrations expressed by my PPR that I "didn't know how to lead" and doubts about my maturity. When I got a new DS my second year, he seemed better at first and I connected with him easier, but he seemed to minimize the situation and really wasn't proactive and prophetic enough with either me or the church. I don't know what he told the Board of Ordained Ministry about me, but it must have been pretty negative, since the Provisional Process Committee required an in-person meeting with me.
The third story belongs to me, and you've heard most of it through this blog. If you haven't read the "back story", there's a link in the sidebar. I certainly had my own issues that contributed to everything and take responsibility for that. I didn't claim or utilize my authority well (sometimes, at all), I didn't set and enforce appropriate boundaries, I didn't work hard enough at my relationships with certain individuals, etc. I've identified key growing edges and have seen a lot of improvement and will continue to seek growth.
I've pretty much forgiven the local church for their part in what happened. There are certain people who I don't ever want to see again, but my anger toward them is mostly gone. I am still mad at the district/conference, though. They certainly had a part in this, but it feels like they just left me out to dry and may even have written me off as an ineffective pastor without knowing the whole story. My DS certainly knew much of what was going on in my life yet offered very little support or understanding. He also offered almost no insight on what I could have done to make things better. Anything he suggested (be transparent, increase visitation, communicate clearly) I did, but it didn't do the trick. I got the feeling that I was simply supposed to "bend over and take" whatever abuse the church threw at me. It would also have been nice if some sort of action had been required from the local church after I left...more training, a stern talking-to, some sort of severance pay for me. I don't know what's happened since I left, but my gut feeling is that life continued as before (except they had no pastor for six weeks) with no or very little acknowledgment.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again; my clergy friends helped bring me through that situation. They provided a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, compassion, and affirmation. However, I wish that they would have been a little firmer with me and been willing to confront me, especially when the trouble was beginning. They mostly patted my hand and sympathized with me as I told horror stories.

So, those are my thoughts these days. I guess I feel like I was either offered sympathy and further enabled in my behavior OR abused/neglected. Some empathy partnered with constructive criticism and practical help/advice would have been the best. I know that's rare in the local church, but I think the district/conference officials and my clergy friends were capable of offering it.


Pastor Joelle said...

This is a pretty common story with unhealthy congregations. If they survive with their faith and sense of call intact (which isn't always the case) the pastor moves on a much better pastor and stronger person. The congregation learns nothing and simply gets another innocent and inexperienced pastor to chew up and spit out.

The will never get an experienced pastor because we've done our time at those places and we ain't going back.

Father said...

Just read through your whole blog so far. Good stuff.

It's almost ten years since I left my first, disastrous, call. The three worst years of my life. Very nearly considered leaving ministry altogether, but I didn't, and I'm glad. In the years (and churches) since then, I've met some great people, had a lot of fun, and done some work that was and remains profoundly satisfying. Most days -- and especially during the last four years -- I wake up in the morning eager to slap on a collar and get to work.

But I still wake up some nights thinking about *those* people. (Weirdly, it's worse when I'm running the vacuum cleaner. My therapist swears that's not unusual.)

This is trivial, but I have to say it. You call your former parish "SJ," which could stand for anything. (I assume it's not "Society of Jesus," though.) My first call was to a parish called St. John's, and -- years later -- my wife had a very different but extremely painful experience of betrayal while serving a parish with the same name. Although the name is common among us Lutherans, she and I have decided that we'll never serve another St. John's. Ever.

Wounded and Healing said...

Father, ironically, the parish was named St. John's. And I feel the same way about churches with that name. The name is common among us Methodists, too.

John said...

I know that's rare in the local church, but I think the district/conference officials and my clergy friends were capable of offering it.

This is pretty much why I ended up leaving Christianity altogether. The corruption of the laity was (for no good reason) tolerable, but the overt dishonesty and heartlessness of the clergy, DS, and bishops involved invalidated Christianity to me. I'm still hurting from these old wounds, but I'm not receiving any new ones.