Since Anglican Watch began in 2015, we’ve had the chance to talk with countless persons who’ve left the Episcopal Church. In almost every case, it’s been because of bad behavior within the church. And what we find remarkable is not just how similar the experience of leaving is for many; it’s also astonishing how little those who remain understand “life in exile.”
Why Do People Leave?
Before we go further, a disclaimer. In the last decade, departures from the Episcopal church rarely involve political issues, perceptions of liberalism versus conservatism, or the inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons. Those who leave are almost invariably long-time loyalists who once had a deep commitment to the church. Thus, it is important to set aside stereotypes of who leaves and why.
In our experience, leaving is almost always a last resort.
Typically, the process begins with lousy behavior by clergy or others in positions of actual or perceived power. Specific behaviors include:
- Substance abuse.
- Passive-aggressive behavior, including gossip, failure to respond to legitimate concerns, or refusal to address conflict.
- Abuse of power, including wage theft by taking unauthorized leave, refusal to perform specific job requirements or pastoral indifference.
That said, it’s rarely the bad behavior that causes members to leave. Instead, in almost every case, the issue is the reluctance of vestries and others in authority to address the underlying conflict.
Over the years, we have heard countless stories of assistant rectors, church staff, and vestry members who thought they could work together with their rector to resolve problems, only to have the matter blow up in their faces. The rector takes things personally, then retaliates by trying to force the member out, either of critical positions or the parish entirely.
Why does this happen? In most cases, there are signs that the rector is a narcissist or has anti-social aspects to his personality. (These issues can apply to women, but we use male references for convenience because narcissism is more prevalent among males.)
Because members in conflict with their rector are usually deeply involved in their parish, the typical next step is to go to the vestry or diocese. There, their concerns meet with stunning silence or disbelief. “Why would you say that? He’s a good man,” is a very typical response.
Nor does it matter what the evidence is. The reaction is based purely on the existing perceptions of the rector, combined with his role in their faith. In other words, calling the rector’s conduct into question challenges their beliefs, so people passionately resist going down that path.
The rector then treats the complaint to a vestry or the diocese as an escalation and deploys rumor and his swarm of flying monkeys to counter-attack and discredit the victim. “She is disgruntled,” the rector claims, conveniently omitting that the parishioner is justified in being disgruntled. Or “she is unbalanced.” Or, in one particularly egregious case, “He is a domestic terrorist.”
The rector’s smear campaign quickly takes hold within the parish, and what started as a benign complaint now is World War III. At this point, things have become a matter of self-preservation, and the parishioner quietly slips away.
Life in exile has begun.
Initially, the loss of trusted friends is traumatic. But there’s typically affection for the denomination, which results in a transfer to another Episcopal parish. Sometimes, it’s a formal request. Other times, the victim quietly moves on without asking for a letter of transfer. That approach can be beneficial, giving the victim some distance from the abuse.
But Planet Episcopal is small, and things catch up to the parishioner sooner or later. Fellow parishioners may eye the newcomer warily, and there may be a feeling that the parishioner is “not one of us.” Nor is it safe for victims to share their experiences; even support groups for those hurt by the church often kick the parishioner out for perceived “disloyalty.”
This follow-on ostracism and criticism often results in a final break with the denomination. Sometimes the victim may try another denomination; often, they leave organized faith together.
Meanwhile, back at the original parish, the family system has tried to return to the status quo. The person who left the church is persona non grata, and the remaining members develop theories to explain the blow-up in ways that make sense to them. “She hadn’t been happy in a while,” they say. Or “well, she always was a bit prickly.”
Again, these claims are usually divorced from reality, but they help remaining parishioners avoid inconvenient truths. Unfortunately, some will jump on the bandwagon with false claims about the person in exile. This allows persons who are insecure to position themselves as “in the know.”
Nor are junior clergy immune from piling on. Faced with a manipulative rector and the possibility of unemployment, many will feel they must demonstrate their loyalty by shunning the former parishioner or saying negative things behind their back.
Life beyond the break
Once the victim decides to leave the church altogether, there’s often a profound sense of depression and betrayal. PTSD and clinical depression are both common.
And while there is some lingering affection for the church, the hurt victims have experienced colors their perceptions of other faith communities. As a result, they may go on looking at other potential church homes for years to come, but typically without finding a new church home.
Persons in exile may also have problems in their connections with others. They may become overly defensive or guarded in their interactions. And the trauma they have experienced may result in moments where pent-up anger or hurt are triggered, boiling to the surface in unexpected ways.
The sense of alienation may be exacerbated by those who tell the victim, “Just find another church.” But these comments are ill-conceived and fail to recognize the underlying dynamics of the situation, including the emotional investment many make in their parishes.
Life in exile also can be expensive. For example, mental health care, which often is needed to deal with issues related to the loss of community, can be costly and time-intensive. Similarly, pastoral counseling can cost hundreds per month, even with insurance. And if it comes to it, attorney’s fees can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Nor is it easy to set the sense of hurt and betrayal behind. Because faith is so personal and sits at our center of being, life in exile can be a lasting trauma. This trauma may extend to family and friends, and result in significant declines in parish membership. Tellingly, those who leave a church after a blow-up or due to unresolved conflict rarely do so out of principal; more often, it’s a desire to avoid conflict and the associated stress.
Ironically, if the person in exile shares their experience publicly, that may garner the attention of bishops and other church officials. But the goal in these cases is rarely to address the underlying issues. Instead, the goal is to protect the organization’s reputation. And some clergy may try to claim defamation, regardless of the truth of the victim’s claims. Some go even further, falsely telling judicatories that the church member threatened them in an effort to shut down the flow of information.
There also are a number of cultural Episcopalians. These individuals often have a continuing interest in the church, follow issues, and in some cases maintain ties with friendly members who remain Episcopalian. But they typically have little or no interest in going beyond their role as church observers.
Some Episcopalians in exile tell us they find comfort in occasionally being part of worship in other Episcopal churches. Often this involves a church far from home or large enough to afford some anonymity. For instance, the National Cathedral is a favorite destination church for those in exile.
Still others find a home in the Unitarian Universalist Association. Although small, the denomination’s liberal views and lack of a creaky hierarchy are often reassuring, especially if the break with the Episcopal church involves misconduct by a bishop.
There’s another curious phenomena we have seen, which is finding friends among Missouri Synod Lutherans and others with ostensibly different viewpoints. Freed of the sometimes closed worldview of the Episcopal church, even LGBTQ+ persons in exile are sometimes surprised to find that evangelicals and other conservatives are more welcoming than than the ostensibly inclusive Episcopal church. Indeed, this phenomena should cause Episcopalians to ask, “Do we really welcome all, no exceptions?” Unfortunately, the reality often is, “All are welcome. Just don’t make waves.”
Others find anything involving church profoundly traumatic. Indeed, one member of the Anglican Watch team has a panic attack every time he sets foot in a church. In these cases, it is difficult to envision those in exile ever returning to the church.
But our experience is that relatively few in exile become atheists or agnostics. Most retain a lasting belief in a kind, inclusive, loving God, even as they move away from the church.