Friday, April 24, 2015

Some Thoughts on Why Episcopal Parish Clergy Keep Failing -- Part 1

As I chat with lay and clergy members of my diocese and elsewhere, one of the disturbing pictures that has emerged in the last dozen or so years is what I call Failed Cleric Syndrome (FCS).

I don’t mean a moral or mortal failure; rather, I am using the word in the sense of collapse, breakdown, and frustration. I'm talking about ministries that keep experiencing one “bad call” after another, and where the clergy person in question seems unable to choose aright in succeeding calls, usually assigning almost all the blame to the congregations involved, preceding clergy, the bishop, etc.

The failures that concern me here are not the Really Big sins and vices that have always plagued the ordained and call for immediate action or removal. Nor am I focusing on the issues of addiction, mental illness, personality disorders, &c. that plague many—though these matters do intersect with some of what I will write about.

I am speaking here of some ways a cleric can make the often difficult situation of parish ministry much, much harder than necessary. If parish and diocesan ministry committees and commissions, rectors/vicars, and Bishops were more attuned to these things the rate of failed calls would likely decline, with corresponding benefit to congregations, clergy, and dioceses. In fact, the entire Church would be blessed if there were fewer such situations, as they give rise to  an ever-increasing level of frustration, cynicism, and bad feeling in congregation after congregation.

The reason I am writing about this when no-one asked me is that I am growing very concerned about the mounting number of failed calls and hurt clergy/congregations. How many tearful lunches and conversations have I had with colleagues who find themselves in terrible situations, unable to see any way out, yet whose perceptions and actions are almost guaranteed to make the situation worse? How many times have relatively new clergy been assigned to parishes that require considerable skill in leadership—clergy whose formation has been of a kind and duration that makes patient, grounded-yet-flexible, creative response almost impossible. I believe this to be wrong and unjust to all involved.

To top it off, the general culture in our tradition seems to have decided that the best solution to such situations is to “blame and move on” after a relatively short time, creating a sort of morbid game of musical chairs, with fewer and fewer viable positions—and a considerable number of embittered clergy and congregations who don’t seem to learn very much from their sorrows.

It isn't that those with FCS are unaware of a problem. Such clergy often go to trainings, read books, articles, and blogs—but frequently for the wrong reasons. They are most interested to find out why other people failed them, or what whizz-bang technique, like a newly-discovered vitamin, is missing from their own personal arsenal of skills (and will thus make it "all better" with a minimum of actual alteration and growth). What is needed is a deeper appraisal, a willingness to see what needs radical renewal or completion on the level of our being, not just our doings.

I don’t personally see failure as a bad word, in and of itself. I tend to think we don’t learn much from success, but can learn a great deal from failure. But, if we cannot deal with failure openly, honestly, and with a sense of humility, it means we will not be learning much at all.

Friends across the Episcopal Church tell me that what I am styling the FCS phenomenon continues to mount in parish after parish, diocese after diocese, but that the responses from “on high” seem calculated only to deepen the problem, focused as they tend to be on techniques or ideals that avoid the root causes. We have talked ourselves into a corner; more "techniques" won't fix things. They might help here and there, but this is more a matter of fundamental principles.

I am also very conscious as I write this that I am hardly a model cleric. Indeed, as I go through the list of FCS symptoms, I cannot help but see that some of this symptomology has been with me from the start, while others come and go.

There is only One Great High Priest who is perfect and without flaw: Jesus Christ our Lord. All other Christian priesthood is derivative from him, and there are no perfect lay or clergy persons—and the one writing this is almost painfully aware of this on a personal level. My concern is about saving the Church and its ministry much pain...and perhaps putting the focus back on our mission rather than on retrenchment resulting from FCS.

The degree to which our ministries point to Christ, glorifying him, is the degree to which a ministry is whole and holy. There comes a point when having too many symptoms of FCS begins to obscure the view of Christ Jesus in our ministries. What I am writing about are some of these symptoms, especially those having to do with elemental skills in faith, relationships, and leadership.

This is not meant to be an exercise in egotism, but the fruit of 20+ years of ordained experiences…my own and others’. It should go without saying that many clergy do not suffer from FCS. It is entirely possible that I am totally wrong about everything I am writing. That is for others to decide. Obviously, these are personal opinions, perhaps worth what you have paid for them. But, the heartache I witness seems to call for a response, and this pastor wants to think aloud about it as well as pray about it. So, whatever you might think or feel, here goes…

1. Lukewarm discipleship

Of all the symptoms of FCS, this is to me the most significant and common. 

When a pastor is pretty clearly neither a committed believer nor a transmitter of the “saving message” of the Gospel, the community suffers. Christians generally do not come to church to prop up an institution—though some parishes try to operate this way. For the most part, we come to church to worship God and share in community, to be forgiven, inspired, connected, taught, healed, nourished, and sent out renewed to “love and serve” God and neighbor. In Anglicanism, clergy are central to this—like it or not.

When the discipleship of the pastor is weak for a long while the effect is to dampen the discipleship of the flock. The stronger disciples in the parish will gradually have to go to other places for nourishment, dividing their loyalties and eventually withdrawing support. The weaker disciples will find comfort—for a while—in their pastor’s non-committal stance; but eventually the lack of challenge and experience will tell. Attendance at worship and formation offerings declines; leadership then decides to pare offerings because “no one is coming,” and the cycle becomes a sort of reverse feedback loop of retrenchment.

It is not that every cleric has to be “on fire” for God all the time; not at all. Our humanity is and must be central to our calling, and there are times when we are tired, hurt, or very needy disciples. But it is essential that the people—on the whole—see in their pastor the life of faithfulness, wrestling, and raw discipleship that shows courage, commitment, and clarity about where the source for Christian life, teaching, and practice lay: Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit. We will all manifest this in somewhat different ways, but manifest it we must.

FCS often becomes quite clear when some group, cause, or identity secondary to the Gospel overtakes our primary identity as disciples. The late Terry Fullam had a saying that went something like this: “When Christ is at the center, everything else is peripheral; when anything else is at the center, Christ becomes peripheral.” This is a very useful thing to hold onto in ordained life.

Churches where discipleship is being lived out in some clear way by the clergy are churches where the culture, conversation, and capacity for discipleship in all members likely flourishes. Such communities can address a wide variety of issues and concerns in ministry that finds its power in the Risen Christ. To minister from some other source—no matter how energizing—is unsustainable and often leads to damaging results.

Much like how children at home can see the true state of their parent’s marriage, those we serve can see very quickly in our manner of leading liturgy, sermons, pastoral care, writings, and conversation whether we are active disciples—however poor, fragile, or unskilled—or just institutional hacks. If the former, they will have more patience with us and indeed often labor alongside us to make up our lack; if the latter, they will tend either to collude with us in turning the church into some sort of social, political, or elitist club, or reject us for the frauds we have become. Either way, we are not living up to our vows, and our tenure will be made much harder and more conflicted.

2. An inability to sustain healthy relationships

This is another of the major symptoms of FCS, and is surprisingly common. I have spoken to many clergy over the years who not only do not like many of the folks they serve, but feel they cannot worship with them, avoid visiting them, and in general develop elaborate bureaucracies of congregational avoidance. They find this to be true in parish after parish.

There can be many reasons for this. I have met a fair number of clergy who managed to get through the discernment process (and even psychological examination) who have some serious undetected organic or personality problems (e.g. bipolar disease, severe depression, narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personalities). The stress and strain of ordained life quickly exposes what was hidden or ignored earlier. This gives rise to many very real tragedies.

Often, such people exhibited some “star quality” that the Bishop, Commission on Ministry, or home parish leadership idolized to the exclusion of balance, common sense, or sustainability in ministry. Modifying St. Paul, “the wages of idolatry is despair.” When we put forward people for Holy Orders because that individual has some narrow but currently attractive characteristic, we do no one any favors. It simply is not provision enough for the journey ahead.

For a long while, for instance, the emphasis in the Episcopal Church was "being pastoral." So, we looked for this in people to be ordained...almost the to the exclusion of most other qualities. The upshot is that many folks in a collar today lead with a wishy-washy sort of attitude, looking for the best way to smooth over things and be "welcoming" but avoiding substantive teaching, spiritual depth, transformative worship, tough decisions, setting healthy boundaries, and establishing clarity about God's mission to the Creation through the Church. Being "pastoral" became an idol, and (as idols always do) led to paralysis in the Church's true, diverse, and complex work.

My experience is that the majority of FCS sufferers simply don't have very good interpersonal skills. What was valued in them by others in the ordination process was something other than a gift for being in community, for enduring character, or something so simple as being able to hold a conversation with someone with whom they differ for more than thirty seconds. 

This is often rooted in ecclesiology. If a person thinks the Church is a body of like-minded people who gather for religious activity, or a spiritual club for one identity group or another, it is easier to keep our distance and take no risks. If a person believes the Church to be Christ's Mystical Body, then the hard work of being in community over time takes on spiritual urgency and value. FCS tends to see church as the former and makes light of the latter view.

I would suggest that, instead of grabbing people for Orders that fit one or another highly desirable criterion just now (and such new "essential" criteria seem to be cooked up every few years), we look for the ability of that person to get along with a variety of people, make and keep commitments and friendships, follow through over time, think spiritually about community, and manifest balance and steadiness in relationships. These are all essential skills in parish ministry, ignored or downplayed at our peril.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Remembering the Love of Our Father: St. Isaac the Syrian on recovery from temptation and sin

For those who take the spiritual life seriously, there are times when our own sins and failures can seem proof-positive that the task of following Christ is simply too daunting—even if all we do is respond to what Christ is doing in us. When such moments arise, we need encouragement.

One place to go for this is the writings of a person who has gone before us and met with the same temptations and discouragements. Like visiting a trusted and experienced mentor, confessor, or spiritual director, such an encounter draws us out of the isolation of failure into the embrace of God’s power, love, and renewal.

The following passage from the Ninth Ascetic Homily of St. Isaac the Syrian is such an encounter. The author, a Christian mystic who lived from c. 613 to c. 700 AD, wrote a large collection of works on prayer and living as an ascetic in stillness and humility. He is one of that great cloud of witnesses in the Communion of Saints the Church honors as an authentic spiritual guide. His words are those of deep wisdom and a compassion based on experience—not theory.

This compassion is not “cheap grace” as Bonhoeffer would say. Rather, it is purchased at a great price by Christ himself, and then through that purchase, the life of anyone who would follow after Christ. This compassion is the fruit of a total commitment to the Gospel and to communion with God the Holy Trinity…a communion that will not give up simply because we have failed. The Love of God is too important to let failure get in the way…

            Diverse are the slips and falls which can occur on the path of virtue and the way of righteousness, as the Fathers write, saying that on the path of virtue and the way of righteousness there are falls, oppositions, compulsions, and the like.
            But something quiet different is the death of the soul, complete destruction and utter abandonment. By this is evident that whenever a man falls, he should not forget the love of his Father. And if it happens that he fall into many diverse transgressions, he should not be negligent concerning the good, nor should he stop his onward course, but even though he was vanquished, he should rise up again and struggle against his adversaries and each day begin to lay a foundation for his ruined dwelling, having the words of the Prophet in his mouth until his departure from this world, ‘ Rejoice not against me, mine enemy, that I have fallen; for I will rise again; for though I should sit in darkness, the Lord shall be alight unto me.’ (Micah 7:8) May he never cease from making war until his death, and as long as there is breath in him may he not surrender his soul to defeat, even at the very moment of his defeat! But if each day his ship be broken and his cargo perish in the deep, let him not cease from acquiring new possessions, trading, and also from borrowing; let him set out in other ships, sailing in hope, until beholding his struggle and taking compassion on his ruin, the Lord sends down upon him His mercy and gives him powerful motivations to enable him to undergo and resist the flaming darts of the enemy. This is the wisdom which is granted by God, and this is the wise invalid who has not cut off his hope. It is more expedient for us to be condemned on account of particular deeds than on account of our abandoning all.
From Homily IX
The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian
Translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery
Boston, Massachusetts, 1984

Notice how St. Isaac uses the language of an oft-unfortunate but persevering entrepreneur starting from scratch once more in the pursuit of gain, applying it to our own tenacious desire to attain Holy Wisdom. St. Isaac also reminds us that we are all “holy invalids” in spiritual matters, utterly dependent on God for each gift, each advancement, each breath and hope. This is a Christianity that holds our minds and our affections in balance and wholeness, providing nourishment for the total person.

Classical Anglicanism often speaks of various spiritual practices such as the Daily Office, spiritual self-examination, fasting, confession, preparation for Communion, corporal works of mercy, &c., often collectively gathered into what we call a Rule of Life. This is one of the great gifts of catholic Christianity.

But gifts can become arid and legalistic without love and mercy. Anyone who lives a Rule of Life knows that following Christ through a Rule means dealing with much failure at every stage as we learn the spiritual craft. How we understand, respond to, and learn from failure is extremely important. St. Isaac shows us that the mark of true discipleship means a tenacious commitment to Christ through “good report and evil report,” or (as the Baptismal liturgy in the current Book of Common Prayer has it) repenting and returning to the Lord when we sin—there to receive healing and knowledge that can be found no other way. Of such is the Kingdom of God built…with our loving God’s help, always.