Burnout, Harm, & the Lack of Accountability in the Church (Part 1)

Systemic Issues in the Congregationally-Governed Church, Part 1

I was burnt out more than I even realized! A global pandemic, an abusive individual, and the nature of pastoring a congregation coalesced, leaving me wounded and scarred. Improving now, after a 6+ week pilgrimage to reset my physical, spiritual, and emotional health, I am surprised at how I still cringe at going to church – any church! I thought my injury and feelings were specific to my place, time, and congregation. But it was more than that. There is a broader context that a global pandemic and the particularities of my experience uncovered.

Photo by Tim Graves

My life has been in the mainline, progressive, congregationally-governed church. My parents were seminary graduates; my retired father is an ordained clergyperson. I grew up in the church. I’ve been a member of rural churches, storefront churches, suburban churches, northern and southern churches, downtown churches, and falling-down building churches. In many of these, I was laity. In others, I was the pastor’s spouse. And in several, I was the pastor, having come to ministry as a second career.

Each of these churches includes people who take the Bible seriously but not literally. These churches were full of people who, when right-wing evangelicals try to take away rights or control the government, say, “We’re not that kind of church.” Each of these churches wanted to make the world a better place by following the teachings of Jesus. In reality, they were all imperfect, but I don’t believe it is their imperfections in meeting Jesus’ model that makes me cringe. No one is perfect.

In previous posts, I’ve hinted at systemic flaws and limitations in the congregationally-governed church that lead to clergy abuse, neglect, and harm. As I begin a more formal exploration, I am tempted to start with the sin manifest in job descriptions that encourage clergy to abuse themselves in striving to meet the impossible. (I know of one church explicitly stating in the pastor’s job description that 60 hours is the minimum work week!) However, I think the problems begin well before congregations write clergy job descriptions.

Until recently, I did not realize how embedded and harmful the system itself is. It hides behind love and concern between congregants and pastors. As pastors, we develop a deep love for our congregations. Most, though not all, congregants love and care for their pastors. This is the only reason we survive: good-hearted, well-meaning people.

But it is not enough.

The core problem that leads to the mistreatment (and abuse) of clergy in the congregational church is the misuse of power coupled with a lack of accountability. The commitment to freedom of expression of various viewpoints is positive. No pastor can faithfully lead a group of people without listening, affirming, and learning from the laity. A healthy relationship between the clergy and laity in a congregation is collaborative in nature. Collaboration is distinct from cooperation in that both function as equals. Cooperation is an imbalanced relationship: If I cooperate with you, you maintain the upper hand.

Unfortunately, the complexity of the relationship between pastor and laity in a congregationally-governed church is confusing. While the congregation calls a pastor [1]Even the terminology we use in the church is confusing. A clergyperson is “called by God” to the ministry, and a church “calls” a minister to be their pastor. This connotes a … Continue reading, pays their compensation, and has the authority to terminate the relationship, they are not employers in the traditional sense. (Even the Internal Revenue Service recognizes this unusual relationship. Clergy file their taxes as self-employed.) The pastor is a spiritual leader (which means challenging people to live in ways they might prefer not to live), an administrator (often of policies set by the lay Board or Church Council), an authority and biblical expert, an educator, a collaborative partner, a counselor, and accountable to the congregation and denominational bodies.

In practice, the pastor is called by God to challenge the people to live as Jesus taught. This can be risky. Too often, sermons or Bible studies that reflect the radical nature of Christ’s teachings result in angry congregants, charges of getting too political, and harassment of the pastor. While teaching the counter-cultural message of Jesus can lead to deep and meaningful discussions and growth within the congregation, often, that is not the case. Too many people are far more interested in a faith that emphasizes personal salvation rather than the faith of Jesus that transforms individuals and the world. Many want to be assured that their comfortable lifestyle is A-OK with God and guarantees a ticket through the pearly gates. Writes New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine,

“It’s much safer, in many congregations, to assure the faithful how our souls are saved through divine grace rather than to suggest that our societies are saved through personal and corporate aid to the poor.”[2]See Amy-Jill Levine in Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.

You can see the challenge when a pastor a congregation “hired” challenges them to follow the Jesus, who claims his counter-cultural mission,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[3]The “year of the Lord’s favor” refers to Jubilee, a year of debt forgiveness and letting the fields remain fallow. Jubilee is a year of liberation for all people.
(Luke 4:18-19 NRSVUE)

Without a clearly defined relationship, the pastor is faced with a difficult choice: deny their calling from God, rationalize and teach a softer Jesus, or risk their own family’s financial well-being by preaching the gospel. Among faithful, loving, and respectful people, the complex relationship works well a remarkable amount of the time. It gives me hope.

But when conflict, crisis, or toxicity enters the church, in my experience, church people struggle to navigate in healthy ways.

Like a family, churches are systems.[4]Search Murray Bowen, Family Systems Theory for more information. Each member is interconnected with every other member. The actions taken and the challenges one individual faces impact everyone in the system. I saw this in my first career as an educator. Every child in my classroom influenced every other child and how the whole group functioned. Just as a child can disrupt the class, an adult can harm or strengthen the culture of a church. Applying Family Systems Theory to churches, Ronald W. Richardson writes,

“Every church is more than a collection of individual members. People in the church, as in any group, are intricately interconnected. They exist in a system that is much bigger and more powerful than the individual members. Each person both influences and is influenced by everyone else.” [5]Ronald W. Richardson. Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life (Kindle Locations 264-266). Kindle Edition.

As a teacher, church member, and as pastor, I have seen one or a small group positively change the culture and tone of the whole. Just as often, I’ve seen the opposite. Negative influence is not usually consciously undertaken by an individual though it does happen. In a church I served, it became clear that one individual intentionally stirred up conflict. It gave her a sense of control and power. Her motives were anything but holy. As a pastor, I was unsuccessful in dealing with her until I realized she did not have good intentions[6]I recommend reading Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict by Kenneth C. Haugk. This book challenged me to adapt how I dealt with my antagonistic individual..

I am most concerned, however, about those whose good intentions manifest in battering the pastor without consequence. Enter power dynamics, anxiety, or unrealized expectations. In my experience, there are two primary ways of misusing power in the church. The first is used by those who are accustomed to the power they have outside the church. They don’t know how to follow or how to function in a democratic, non-hierarchical environment like the congregationally-governed church. This arises from a lack of self-awareness or willingness to let the last be first (Matthew 20:16).

I have seen this most often among professional white men who are accustomed to being in charge, being revered, and being the boss. They are often generous and beloved people who do much good in the church. They also manifest a classist system that breeds resentment. When they do follow protocols, money or their skill is used as a carrot to get their way. For example, approaching the Church Council or Board, they might begin, “There will be no cost to the church, I will pay for this.” Alternately, I had a congregant use money as a threat, saying, “I am withholding my giving” because of the decision made by the church. In both situations, they use money to control others rather than following church protocols and respecting the community’s decision-making processes. In time, those with money (or specific skills) are not held accountable. Numerous times I’ve heard other congregants suggest, “We cannot say anything to them because we need their money.” This lack of accountability steers the church away from following the teachings of Jesus.

The second misuse of power is used by those who feel powerless in their daily lives. The church becomes a place to experience agency over others rather than a place for serving others. While it is possible to feel a sense of agency while serving others, when the motivation is other than servanthood (serving others, serving the church, following the command to love our neighbor as ourselves), it becomes harmful.

I am aware of a man who was forced into retirement by the global pandemic. Coupled with the external rules of the elder facility where he lived, he felt utterly out of control in his personal life. To regain a sense of importance and power, he embarked on unilateral actions and triangulation[7]Read When “Some People” Complain by Matthew L. Kelley for more about the problem with triangulation. that unsettled the whole congregation. The pastor and lay leadership lost focus on following the leading of the Spirit as their time was consumed by his vitriolic misbehavior. Sadly, this kind of distraction from following Jesus is common.

Congregationally-governed churches struggle to provide accountability to the laity. In the above example, the individual was never held accountable for his unilateralism or treatment of the pastor. “He means well” and “What’s the harm?” were typical reactions. Letting people off the hook[8]This is different than grace. for poor behavior is not unusual. Sit in on a gathering of clergy in which pastors feel comfortable sharing. You will be appalled at what we put up with! Pastors of local churches are often the target of our congregants’ angst, insecurity, and frustrations. Without healthy accountability and boundaries, it becomes toxic.

Clergy live in a fish bowl. Too many congregants act as if entitled to criticize every choice and action of clergy (and their families). One pastor I know had the car she drove criticized publicly in the Church Board meeting. They said it was too nice, reflecting poorly on them! Another pastor’s decision to replace her high mileage, ten-year-old car with a low mileage used subcompact was used as evidence that “the church was paying her too much”. This became a topic of discussion at the monthly Board meeting.

It is not just financial but personal decisions that are criticized! Some years ago, my Board Chair sat with me to share that he had received a complaint that I was exercising too much (on my own time) and would be too tired to care for the congregation. I am thankful I was not expected to stop my self-care practice because of a member’s selfishness. However, rather than holding the individual responsible for inappropriate expectations, this became my responsibility. I was charged with “reassuring members that I could take care of them.”

On my summer journey across the continent to reset my spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being, I stopped to visit my 94-year-old father. He insisted on hearing the “real story” of my resignation from my pulpit at the end of May. Finishing my tale my dad, a retired minister, shared several stories of his own mistreatment. As I reflect back on the churches I attended as a lay member, I see things I didn’t at the time. My thoughts turned to the rural church in the Northeast that routinely belittled my beloved pastor and significantly underpaid him. It wasn’t until he retired that I realized how unhappy he had been in the ministry. My wife left the pastoral ministry for hospital chaplaincy after multiple experiences of mistreatment by congregations. (I think there is a particularly egregious kind of mistreatment that women receive even in denominations like mine that have ordained women since the late 19th century.) As pastors called by God, we convince ourselves we can fix these rampantly unhealthy relationships without help. The result is we are injured over and over again. We lose a little of our soul each time. But I do not believe God wants us to be victims!

Clergy are often hesitant to call how we are treated abusive, but it often is. As I reflected on my experiences of pastoring, I thought of a particular church. Although by most measures, it was healthy (filled with loving, caring, faithful, open-minded, mature people striving to follow Jesus), I was shocked when I was finally able to name the abuse I endured there for years. This epiphany came as the result of a comment on one of my posts this summer. My eyes opened to the abuse. As hard as admitting I was abused, is the formal congregational bodies I reached out to failed to hold that person accountable. I was miserable because I was gaslit, under continuous pressure, all while playing the role of the sacrificial lamb. Again, this is common. Clergy are expected to bow to the needs of others at the expense of themselves and their families. Is it any wonder that studies indicate clergy have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, depression, and stress?

While pastors have responsibility for setting healthy boundaries, the environment in which we operate can be toxic. Workshops, books, or mandatory clergy training that teach us how to do self-care and set healthy boundaries fail to solve the problem. The clergy must be accountable, but we cannot do it alone. Unless the laity understands the toxic environment the church can be for their pastors – and hold accountable those who mistreat and abuse – more clergy will burn out and join the Great Resignation. Writes Kirk Byron Jones,

“Being saved from deeply entrenched, unrealistic ministerial expectations involves radical reformations of ministerial understandings and behaviors on the part of ministers and their congregations.”[9]Kirk Byron Jones. Rest in the Storm: Self-Care Strategies for Clergy and Other Caregivers (Kindle Locations 397-398). Kindle Edition.

There are some tools available to congregations but in my experience few utilize them. One with a lot of promise is the Behavioral Covenant[10]The Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota Conferences of the United Church of Christ have a number of resources available on their website. Another resource is Gil Rendle’s “Behavioral … Continue reading but it requires recognition of the problem and commitment. Denominations with congregational governance have ethical codes and procedures for holding clergy accountable for misbehavior. In my denomination, for example, the clergyperson’s standing (required for serving a church) is controlled by national level standards and regional church bodies. While imperfect,[11]I will address the inadequacy of these systems in a future post. Just as hierarchical churches can lead to the hiding of abuse by clergy, congregational churches have their own accountability … Continue reading they provide some guardrails and accountability.

The lack of accountability for the mistreatment of clergy and others by the laity is exacerbated by the idolatry of independence and freedom embedded in congregational governance. In my denomination, for example, having emerged during the era of Jacksonian democracy, we take pride in our (reckless?) freedom from hierarchy. The result is that congregational independence too often takes precedence over accountability and arguably the teachings of Jesus.

We cannot solve this problem or live into the teachings of and life modeled by Jesus until we confess the problem. We need consensus on congregation-wide and denomination-wide standards of behavior and accountability. The Apostle Paul reminded early Christian communities that the way we treat one another matters. This remains a truth.

I grew up in the church. I have not lost my faith. I remain a follower of Jesus. Yet, I am an ordained minister and I find it difficult to step into a church – any church. Though healing, I am wounded and scarred by the misuse of power and lack of behavioral accountability in churches. When we mistreat anyone in the church, we have lost sight of Jesus’ reminder that the love of God and neighbor are the foundation of our faith.

References

References
1 Even the terminology we use in the church is confusing. A clergyperson is “called by God” to the ministry, and a church “calls” a minister to be their pastor. This connotes a spiritual aspect not commonly understood. Secular language doesn’t help, either. I wince when a church member refers to “hiring a new pastor” because it implies an employer-employee relationship and lacks an understanding of not only the spiritual but the collaborative nature of the relationship.
2 See Amy-Jill Levine in Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.
3 The “year of the Lord’s favor” refers to Jubilee, a year of debt forgiveness and letting the fields remain fallow. Jubilee is a year of liberation for all people.
4 Search Murray Bowen, Family Systems Theory for more information.
5 Ronald W. Richardson. Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life (Kindle Locations 264-266). Kindle Edition.
6 I recommend reading Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict by Kenneth C. Haugk. This book challenged me to adapt how I dealt with my antagonistic individual.
7 Read When “Some People” Complain by Matthew L. Kelley for more about the problem with triangulation.
8 This is different than grace.
9 Kirk Byron Jones. Rest in the Storm: Self-Care Strategies for Clergy and Other Caregivers (Kindle Locations 397-398). Kindle Edition.
10 The Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota Conferences of the United Church of Christ have a number of resources available on their website. Another resource is Gil Rendle’s “Behavioral Covenants in Congregations: A Handbook for Honoring Differences”.
11 I will address the inadequacy of these systems in a future post. Just as hierarchical churches can lead to the hiding of abuse by clergy, congregational churches have their own accountability failures.

One comment

  1. After reading this, I can certainly understand why you continually pointed out that Church is not a building. Although this is true on its own because the Church is the body of Christ, it’s also true because those who can most afford to bear the costs of keeping the doors open often make demands that make it difficult to lead according to the example Christ set.

    With the increasing number of progressive churches closing because most young people don’t want to be part of such hypocrisy, I suspect we will soon find out what will happen when formal religion is represented almost exclusively by those who put personal salvation over following the example of Christ by working for the good of all. Perhaps the growing ecumenical movement will provide a counterbalance, if we work to do so intentionally.

    I hope you are aware that the local interfaith network of Corvallis and Albany is talking about working toward connecting with the community outside the doors of their buildings. It’s given me reason to hope for the survival of progressive Christianity that can be free of the constraints that you so eloquently describe.

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