Knowing when it’s time to say goodbye

By | January 17, 2023

As the Episcopal Church continues to shed members, a related issue arises. Specifically, when is it time to cut one’s losses versus staying and trying to improve things?

That question extends to individual programs, ministries, parishes, and the larger church.

There’s no easy answer. But we asked dozens of readers and experts on church abuse and tried to organize and collect the best of the data we pulled in.

  • Other gods. This one sounds vague, but it’s not as out there as it seems. You are in trouble when the focus is on the church as an organization or a particular clergyperson.
  • You serve the rector. There are two kinds of clergy — those that want to be of service and those who want you to be of service. If you are in the latter situation, you’re in an unhealthy church.
  • Echo chamber. If your church is a self-contained system, where most members have all their friendships in the church, that is a warning of dysfunction. Healthy systems look both inward and outward.
  • No inreach. If your church has limited social activities or inreach, that also is a problem. There’s more to the Christian faith than worship.
  • Empty triumphalism. If you are at a church where people talk about it as a “special place,” but the numbers are dropping, it’s time to ask why. Why are people leaving if your church is such a slice of paradise?
  • Health or home life. If being with a particular church or ministry is causing you trauma or distress, or your spouse, it’s time to cut loose.
  • Monument to the dead. If your nave has more memorial plaques than people, that’s a bad sign. Healthy churches live for today, not the good old days.
  • Concerns brushed aside. If your rector rejects or ignores your concerns or demonizes you for sharing them, you are in the wrong church.
  • No savings. If your church refuses to save for the future but spends every penny, that is a bad sign. 
  • Actions and rhetoric. If your church talks about being inclusive, but some people are unwelcome, that is hypocrisy.
  • Conflict ignored. Conflict ignored is conflict multiplied. Conflict can be an engine for growth, but long-term trouble looms if ignored or brushed aside.
  • Bad examples. If your rector sets a lousy standard or is a serial bully, run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit.
  • No plan. Far too many churches and dioceses want to grow but have no plan to make it happen. Or cling to tired, useless plans that don’t work. If that’s the case, your church has lost its way.
  • No spine. If parishioners and church leaders won’t stand up when they see bullying or other bad behavior, don’t bother.
  • Bullies. Related to our previous point, bullies thrive because people allow them to do so. All it takes is one or two to cause permanent damage. If that’s the case in your church, it’s time to go, even as you ask what your role was in opposing them.
  • Broken ethics. There is a difference between inclusion and anything goes. If folks who engage in illegal or unethical activity serve as leaders, it’s time to cut and run.
  • It’s too good to be true. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
  • Narcissists are at the top. About one-third of the clergy are clinical narcissists. So get out now if you see the warning signs, including limitless charm and feckless work performance. And beware of hoovering, where the narcissist charm bombs you to suck you back in.
  • Continuing decline. Yes, we get that this applies to much of the denomination. But if your church has had more than five years of continued decline, chances are it’s locked into that pattern. 
  • Gaslighting. If your rector repeatedly revisits the past and tries to convince you that what you saw isn’t real, you’ve got a serial bully on your hands.
  • One strike rule. Everyone has a bad day. But if you see more than one incident of bad behavior in a year by your priest, it’s time to quit making excuses and start making plans to leave. Bad behavior includes lying to you, yelling at parishioners, or other behavior that should happen rarely, if ever.

What other warning signs have you experienced?

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Another indicator of a narcissist as rector is: Disconnect between rhetoric and reality when he describes his work performance. As in he tells you that he is a great boss. In reality, he is one of the worst you’ve ever experienced.

Another indicator: Toxic clergy always avoid taking a position or stand.

A possible warning sign: More than ten years in office. While some excellent priests have stayed in one position for longer, they are few and far between. Most people start to lose enthusiasm after 7-10 years. So if your priest has stayed 20+ years, look very carefully.

Another warning sign: Entitlement. Priests who want 200K a year, a private school for their kids, and crap like that are likely fakes. Real priests are there to serve, not to swallow one-fifth of a church’s revenue.