Anglican Watch

Knowing when it’s time to intervene

Toxic churches

One great truth about change management and family systems is that bringing about change from within can be challenging. People often are too close to the matter, protect their turf, and can’t see the forest for the trees. And it’s doubly hard if you are a bishop or priest whose job could be affected by the outcome. Thus, it’s common to use outside experts.

But when should an outside expert be brought in? The answer depends on what stage the problems are at.

Scenario one: troubled priest

Let’s take the most common situation: A caring but troubled priest, possibly with substance abuse issues or other pastoral concerns. In those cases, understanding the problem and having buy-in from the vestry is vital. 

Often, in counseling situations, the conversation reaches a point where it becomes clear that what people thought was the problem isn’t the real issue. Thus, involving other stakeholders makes it safe to discuss progress, offer caring suggestions, and provide mutual support.

Relatedly, more than one priest has bitten the dust because their vestry didn’t understand they were working on a problem. Treating such issues as nothing to be ashamed of makes it possible to ask for help, have others keep the clergyperson accountable, and get assistance when things get challenging. And something that would otherwise be a problem — like time away from work — makes sense when people realize it’s for pastoral counseling or other needed care.

So, bring outside help in early, but enlist the aid of parish leaders to ensure that the help is welcomed and supported.

Scenario two: interim periods

The next scenario is the one that’s most often overlooked. Studies by the Alban Institute make clear that an intentional approach to an interim period is vital to the success of the newcomer.

What does that mean? It means:

  • Identifying past problems and working through them.
  • Making peace with the past.
  • Fixing unresolved conflicts.
  • Having open, inclusive discussions about the future of the parish.
  • Assuring conformity with denominational norms.
  • Examining financial records, parish registers, and other records for accuracy.

But far too often, an interim is some old retired priest with little or no training in interim ministry whose primary role is keeping the rector’s seat warm. Show up, offer an innocuous sermon, dispense smiles and hugs, then wander off and play golf.

An intentional interim period is crucial following a rector of long tenure. Indeed, while there are notable exceptions, long tenures correlate highly with parish dysfunction.

What is the result? According to the Alban Institute, the incoming rector will likely fail.

Another caveat: The Alban Institute has found that having interim training is insufficient. A successful interim has a passion for the work, a high emotional IQ, and likely was successful in growing a healthy parish.

Nor should an interim serve only a few months. Interims often serve two years or more; if it’s done right, it’s not wasted time.

So, vestries, bishops, and other leaders should insist on an intentional interim period in which the focus is building a healthy parish. But sadly, this happens far too rarely, with the result that many churches in transition see members wander off, never to return. And well-qualified candidates will ask if there was a meaningful interim period. If not, they will typically take a pass, no matter how attractive the parish otherwise is.

Bottom line: Always have an intentional interim period planned by an expert. 

Scenario three: parishes in conflict

This scenario is tricky because it comprises two subsets: parishes in open conflict and parishes with hidden conflict.

Compounding matters, many parishes experiencing hidden conflict are friendly, welcoming places. So, even after being there a few years, you might not realize the problems that lurk. 

But in both cases, some simple truths apply: Conflict ignored is conflict multiplied. Churches in turmoil invariably require outside help to resolve their issues. 

Often, bishops diocesan say, “Well, we just need to get the right person in there.” That never works and is a recipe for disaster.

Unfortunately, parishes with deeply entrenched behavioral patterns see nothing wrong with lying, shunning, bullying, and other toxic behaviors. So, trying to address these issues gently is like jumping in front of an angry bull and hoping it will stop. It might, but the more likely outcome is you get gored.

So, how do you know when to intervene?

In cases of open conflict, the answer will be obvious. People will be calling, writing, and more. Christians being what they are, many won’t have the courage to sign their name. Sad, but these complaints need to be taken seriously.

Hidden conflict is more challenging. Parishes may go for years with unhealthy family systems. But signs of trouble often are hidden in plain sight and include:

  • A narcissistic rector.
  • Triumphalism, or a belief that the parish is somehow special.
  • People talk about each other versus to each other.
  • A notion that “that’s just how we do things here,” whether doing so makes sense or not.
  • Parking lot conversations.
  • A lack of real leaders.
  • A notion of insiders and outsiders.
  • Bullying, shunning, and other behaviors that are inappropriate but considered acceptable anyway.
  • Off-limits information, like details of the church budget or compensation of key personnel.
  • A priest who encourages you to love him versus loving God.
  • Unkind conversations about fellow parishioners.
  • A lack of boundaries among church members, whether it’s having affairs, gossip, or drunkenness at church events.
  • An inability to effect change.
  • A tendency to kick the can down the road on important decisions.

Bottom line: Parishes in conflict don’t fix themselves, even over decades. So, get advice from a professional at the first sign of conflict. The longer you wait, the worse things will get. And don’t be deceived by excuses, like “it’s always been that way here,” or similar platitudes. Unhealthy family systems are toxic, no matter what reason is offered.

Next up: How to intervene

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