One of our self-criticisms is that we spend a lot of time covering bad actors within the Episcopal Church. But we don’t always answer the question, “So what can I do to avoid bad actors?”
With that in mind, following are some suggestions for surviving church. That includes checking out a new church or perhaps acclimating to a new clergyperson.
- Go slow. We’re big fans of the one-year rule. That means that, for at least the first year, do not get volunteered into anything ongoing. No vestry, no altar guild, no grounds committee, nothing.
- Look and listen. Sit quietly, be super polite, and offer up little. Not only is this a strategy used by successful sales reps and politicians, as it adds an air of mystery, but it keeps you in the role of neutral observer.
- Check the traps. You can get a good feel for the parish in several places: coffee hour, vestry meetings, and parking lot conversations. Ask questions, listen, and ask more questions.
- Listen for the ugly. The gossip in churches can be amazing, ranging from allegations of penile implants, to rumors of straight married guys who are secretly bisexual, to discussions of affairs, to rumors of the rector’s compensation package (all real examples). If this is the sort of toxic nonsense you hear, run. Like. Hell.
- Watch for excess charm. Does it feel like your rector “completely gets” you? Is she super charming? Does he avoid giving straight answers? Constantly talk about their sports prowess, academic accomplishments, and other grand things? Point you towards loving them versus loving God? If so, approach with tremendous caution — you may have a narcissist on your hands. And our experts estimate about 30 percent of clergy are narcissists, so the possibility of a narc infestation is far from remote.
- Extend the one-year rule at the slightest hint of trouble. We know–it sounds harsh. But being objective is hard once you’ve committed to a particular church.
- Implement the one-strike rule. Even if things go well and you decide to join a particular church, hold fast to the one-strike rule. That means we’re all human, and clergy get one mistake per year, whether it’s losing their cool, saying something unkind, etc. But if you see bad behavior twice, leave. On the spot. Don’t try to work things out or make excuses. Don’t negotiate. Just bail. And of course, the one-strike rule doesn’t apply to sexual misconduct, child sexual abuse, or other major misconduct.
- Listen for clergy criticism of parishioners. This should seldom happen. One charming but profoundly toxic priest we know likes to make you feel like he’s pulling you into his confidence by telling you, “Jan’s an asshole,” and things like that. Yes, we agree that Jan is an asshole, but we’d prefer to reach that conclusion on our own, without the help of our priest, thank you. And guaranteed, you’re on the list when he’s talking with Jan. So get out while there’s still time.
- Watch how they treat their spouse. Our close relationships often are reflections of our relationship with God. So if your priest is dismissive of their spouse, yells at them, says vile things about them, or discusses confidential stuff with others about their spouse (with the possible exception of the churchwardens), exit, stage left, post haste. Any priest who can’t love and respect their spouse is a priest in name only.
- Watch the back door. Plenty of churches will tell you they welcome you with open arms. But be wary if the front doors are wide open and the back doors are open even wider.
- Don’t ignore the bad actors. All it takes are one or two gossips or bullies to make a church toxic. If you spot those one or two, that’s all you need to know that the place is unhealthy.
- Keep an eye open for excuses. If you hear things about your rector like, “Don’t take it personally. He’s like that with everyone,” or “don’t sweat it, it will be someone else’s turn next week,” save yourself wear and tear and get out now.
- Watch for secrets versus confidences. A healthy church treats some things as confidential, and rightly so. But secrets are different and invariably toxic.
- Relatedly, is there transparency? Can you see, without asking, the last parish audit report? A budget with genuine line items? (Forget the blended budgets churches use to hide salary and other “off-limits” data.) Vestry minutes? Are these on the church’s website? Ideally, they should be. And if you have to ask, don’t bother.
- Listen for stereotypes. Are all hair stylists gay? All women good cooks? If you hear nonsense like this more than once in a great while, think twice.
Bottom line, your faith is important. Don’t cast your pearls before swine. Or bullies. Or narcissistic clergy.