Those who follow abuse in other faith traditions may be familiar with the case of Fairview Baptist Church and its youth pastor, Cory Wall. Both have come under fire after Wall distributed stickers with the message, “i ❤️ hot youth pastors.” As a result of a tsunami of criticism, Wall has been suspended, and the church says it is conducting an investigation. But before Episcopalians look down their noses at participants in this debacle, its important to note that boundary violations of this sort are far too common in the denomination. Moreover, the church is both unwilling and unable to address these issues in an appropriate manner.
Clueless and not sorry
Before we go further, we should briefly touch on another issue that lurks behind the scenes. That issue is that there is precious little evidence that either Wall or Fairview Baptist understand the problem, or that they are sorry for their conduct.
Granted, the church says it is investigating:
Our student pastor, Cory Wall, acknowledges that he made a poor decision and a mistake by making a sticker available that was offensive to some.
Cory has been placed on administrative leave and will not be involved in student leadership responsibilities while this situation is being investigated. There will be a thorough and comprehensive investigation. We take this matter very seriously and want to be proactive as we move forward. Our main goal is to always make our campus a safe place for anyone who attends.
This decision was made by our deacon officers and personnel team in keeping with our by-laws and personnel procedures. If questions, please contact them.
We will keep you updated as the process moves forward.
But the issue isn’t whether the sticker was offensive. Nor is the issue that the sticker was stupid on multiple levels. (While Wall is charismatic, he is not exactly a heartthrob. Thus, those who ❤️ hot youth pastors may well take their adulation elsewhere.)
The issue is about boundaries. One’s priest or minister should not position himself as an object of attraction, admiration, friendship, sexual desire, athletic prowess, intelligence or any other positive attribute. As a mediator of Christ, the focus should be on God and the divine. The bishop, priest or deacon is only there to help people along the path to a deeper relationship with God. And in most circumstances, one’s priest should be friendly, but not our friend.
And for the record, this is not Wall’s first time at the rodeo. Earlier, he told youth about his porn addiction — before telling parents. At this point, the grooming alert klaxons should be blaring, folks should be at DEFCON 2, the silos open the and bombers ready to roll. It is, or should be, all hands to battle stations.
As for the confidentiality of personnel matters, we’re calling BS on that. That’s straight out of the Episcopal everything-is-confidential playback, and it doesn’t work. Potential predators don’t escape scrutiny simply because they are employees or because the church recites the personnel matters mantra.
What can TEC learn from this mess?
There are lessons that the Episcopal Church and its denizens need to learn from this situation, and they are not pretty:
- There is next to no accountability in the Episcopal Church. If this issue were to come up in an Episcopal parish, the sycophants in the local vestry would shrug and say, “whatev.” The person or persons who complained would be persona non grata, and that would be that. And if several years down the road it turns out that Wall had larger boundary issues, the church would say, “We had no way to know.” Been there, done that, have the t-shirt to prove it, thanks.
As to the possibility of a tenacious parishioner, they would not fare any better at the diocesan level. Complaining to the diocese would result in the direction to file a Title IV disciplinary complaint. From there, the diocese would decree the matter “not of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church,” and take a pass. No pastoral response would follow, and the complainant would be — you guessed it — persona non grata. Nor is this conjecture — we have seen this fact pattern play out many times. Got the t-shirt, the hat, and the flip-flops to prove it, thanks.
- The Episcopal Church is rife with similar situations. Far too often, Episcopal priests are the holders of the “magic hands,” imbued with supernatural powers far beyond that of mortals. As a result narcissistic clergy swagger about, playing to the church’s clericalism, proudly displaying their (choose all that apply):
- Athletic prowess.
- Golf game.
- Knowledge of biblical criticism.
- Interpersonal skills.
- Family we
Many times, these narcissists hide in plain sight. They are the priest who’s too good to be true, charming, well-dressed, erudite. And plenty of Episcopalians fall for them—every parish with a narcissist as priest is full of folks with advanced educations and successful careers who’d run like hell if they encountered the narcissist in other settings. But put a dog collar on the narcissist and plop them in front of an altar, and common sense flies out the window, never to return.
It’s also important to recognize that these issues are, themselves, boundary violations. Yes, folks in the pews need to see priests as human, and we need to know enough about our priests to be comfortable around them. Indeed, there is something inherently creepy about someone who is too secretive. But when the priest becomes the focus, the source of joy and comfort, the fount of honour, the decider of who serves on the parish executive committee, those are per se boundary violations. As such, they are symptoms of deeper problems. And they are far too common in the Episcopal Church.
- The Episcopal Church has no mechanism for dealing with boundary violations, narcissists and narcissistic grooming. It’s important to remember that it’s not just sex offenders who groom. Narcissists invariably do, and when they think we are of value to them, they are sunshine, hugs, smiles, flattering words, and hot youth pastors.
But beware the day they decide we are no longer useful — we are cast off without a second thought.
And if we are seen as poking holes in their narcissistic veil of illusion, watch out. The narcissist will lie, claim we have threatened them, say we are mentally ill, assert that we are domestic terrorists, and more. Anything to support their shaky ego and discredit us.
And while the church often screens postulants for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), the screening typically is cursory. There is no consistent nationwide standard. And older clergy, who typically were not screened for NPD, are unlikely to be screened following ordination. Not to mention that the really toxic ones are experts at lying their way through most standard assessment tools.
Nor is there a way to address warning signs of grooming. Indeed, Anglican Watch knows of only one diocese, Connecticut, that might take these issues seriously. Emphasis on the word “might.” And even then, we doubt the matter would get the attention it deserves. NPD is an impairment, every bit as dangerous as substance abuse. But the Episcopal Church can’t and won’t deal with substance abuse, so it surely cannot deal with the more amorphous issues of NPD, grooming, and boundary violations.
This needs to change.
- The Episcopal Church is acutely vulnerable to boundary violations of this sort. Unfortunately, the Episcopal Church operates under a “no blood, no foul” approach to clergy disciplinary complaints. As we have often said, if it doesn’t involve sex, children, drugs or money, forget it. Even then, don’t get your hopes up. It’s extremely rare for the denomination not to bollix these situations. There are a host of reasons for the ongoing failure of the denomination to act with integrity. But all these reasons operate under cover of the small size of the denomination — which allows it to fly under the radar of most media — and the illusory belief that the Episcopal Church is good at dealing with abuse. (Just in case we weren’t clear, we will say it again: When it comes to dealing with abuse, the Episcopal Church is a hot mess.)
And so, evangelicals may be foaming at the mouth over Wall’s conduct, but Episcopalians are unlikely to see anything wrong with some “good-natured fun.” Indeed, the Episcopal Church doesn’t see allegations of torture as a potential boundary violation, so why would anyone imagine that Wall’s behavior would warrant censure?
Anglican Watch recognizes that it’s profoundly unlikely the Episcopal Church will ever address the issues of narcissism, grooming, and narcissistic abuse within its ranks. But in keeping with our informal policy of “never complain unless you propose a solution,” here goes:
- The church needs to take boundary violations seriously and address them with urgency.
- All clergy should be screened for NPD prior to ordination and prior to moving to a new position, regardless of the time they have been a priest. In other words, just because someone has been a priest for 40 years doesn’t mean they should be immune from scrutiny. Indeed, some of the worst narcissists are bishops and priests close to retirement age.
- All dioceses, churches, and Episcopal entities need written policies to help identify and address boundary violations of this sort and the potential underlying narcissism. As things stand, common sense is far from common, and it’s even less common when God enters the fray. Or when four Episcopalians are enjoying a fifth.
- All dioceses need to honor the canonical requirements of the Title IV disciplinary canons, including providing a pastoral response for all parties whenever a complaint is filed. This allows the church to deal with these issues in an informal way and actually understand the concerns, versus the church’s usual approach of the “big brush-off.”
- As a matter of practice, it should be profoundly rare for clergy disciplinary complaints to be dismissed as “not of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” Many boundary violations first come to light due to micro-aggressions that may not be seen as full-on malfeasance. If someone goes to the time and trouble to complain, honor their efforts and take them seriously.
Will this ever happen? In the immortal words of Princess Anne, when confronted by an intended kidnapper, “Not bloody likely.”
But it needs to be said: The Episcopal Church is woefully incompetent at dealing with grooming and similar issues. Hot youth pastors and other narcissistic vermin, welcome!