I want to bring a key issue into focus at a time of year when many judicatories anticipate holding annual or regular meetings that may choose new judicatory executives. I believe that the position of judicatory executive is the most important in the life of the Church today. If we have the wrong person in that office, then it is all the more difficult for parish clergy to effectively do their ministries in the face of all the pressures and problems that exist in congregations.
To get at my proposition, I want to cite a very simple piece of research that Loren Mead and I did some years ago. Loren put together four questions that we then asked judicatory executives to answer. The questions were:
- What three areas do you feel lay and clergy leaders would say are their most pressing concerns?
- What changes do you see in the pipeline for the churches that are likely to make life more difficult for professional church leaders?
- What changes do you see coming that seem hopeful for professional church leaders?
- What are your two or three most pressing personal concerns about your professional future and that of your judicatory?
This set of questions was sent to several hundred judicatory executives in a variety of denominations such as Lutheran (ELCA), United Methodist, Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ, and Episcopal. We received 52 responses to the four questions, thus yielding 297 individual statements.
Those 297 statements were then categorized into four groups as follows:
- Group one would be called “Interdependence” or the “I’m okay, you’re okay” category, meaning that there were signs of positive, respectful, and supportive interaction with honesty and closeness while maintaining healthy boundaries.
- Group two would be called “Hidden Codependence” or “I’m okay, you’re not okay” category with signs of dominance, control, and grandiosity on the part of the professional leadership who tries to rescue the laity from their mediocrity.
- Group three would be called “Hopelessness” or “I’m not okay, you’re not okay” category with depression, anger, and a sense of “nothing ever changes.”
- Group four would be called “Codependence” or “I’m not okay, you’re okay” category with submissive, martyr, and hero or suffering servant role for the professional leadership who sacrifices to meet the overwhelming demands of the parishioners.
Of the 297 statements, none (not even one) fell into the healthy category one grouping, “Interdependence”. There were 42 in the “Hidden Codependence” category. With 157 statements in the “Hopelessness” category and the remaining 98 statements were in the “Codependence” category. Thus, according to this simple piece of research, there were no judicatory executives out of the 52 who responded to our questions who believed that the Church had a healthy future!! A very large number (33%) supported the “Codependence” grouping capitulating to the notion that professional church leaders ought to be submissive martyrs for the desires of the congregation at the cost of their own health and well-being and that of their families. And the largest grouping of statements, 53%, identified the “Hopelessness” category as being present now and into the future. The remaining 14% envisioned the “Hidden Codependence” category now and/or into the future.
Here’s the scary outcome of this study: None of the judicatory executives who responded saw the present or future as hopeful and holding even the possibility that the Church might be a healthy and wholesome place to do ministry!! Every one of them had either capitulated to the pressures of a codependent system demanding the self-sacrifice of the local clergy for the demands of the congregation or saw the future either hopeless or in need of “Hidden Codependent” leadership (i.e. dominating and grandiose).
This is more than scary. This is dramatically sad.
What we need are judicatory executives who will assertively insist that congregations relate to the professional leadership in ways consistent with the “Interdependent” category; mutually respectful and trusting, open and honest, close without crossing boundaries. What we need are judicatory executives who have the skills to discern and diagnose the situation, make meaningful and effective interventions and not be afraid of the normal and healthy conflict that will naturally result.
More than good theologians and solid biblical scholars, we need judicatory executives who have the knowledge and skills to manage a pathological system, recognize its ills and be a critical facilitator of movement into healthy and caring interactions.
The “popularity contest” means of choosing these executives is not working. We need to examine their backgrounds, their practices of ministry, and their orientations more thoroughly before the selection process unfolds very far.
On the other hand, and perhaps even more dangerous, are those executives who are gooey-eyed optimists who refuse to see the burnout and codependence and who declare that everything is just fine and that folks like me are just choosing to see the glass half empty when it is really more than half full. These types, in their denial, are more troublesome than those who at least recognize the severity of the situation even if they are not prepared to handle it.
What we need are executives who know the synthesis that results from balancing optimism with some realistic pessimism, but without yielding to the pessimism or an exaggerated optimism. These are executives who know that balance and can function comfortably in it.
Let me suggest that we not busy ourselves blaming others. That will not move us forward. In fact, the executives serve under the very same pressures as do the parish clergy – and perhaps even more.
As our parishioners demand of us submission and denial of our well-being – even so do we burden our judicatory executives with the same demands? They are not rewarded for good self-care but rather for “duty above and beyond the call.” They are not praised for attending to their own needs and those of their family’s in a healthy balance with the duties of their ministries. They are not commended for being a role model of an appropriate practice of their calling so that we can fulfill our callings in that commendable shadow.
We are as much the problem as they are for we are participants in the process that puts them in their executive positions and establishes and perpetuates the pathologies that poison our Church.
A true example: recently the judicatory to which I belong (an ELCA synod) re-elected our bishop. Everyone knew going in that it would happen. That wasn’t the problem. The problem for me was how it happened. With the ecclesiastical ballot, the first ballot was a nominating ballot and no one was elected. If we got past the second ballot, then the top seven candidates would be allowed to make brief speeches before the third ballot. I had hoped that we would have that opportunity – not to unseat the incumbent, but to at least hear some varied opinions on the status of the synod and some ideas of what ought to be done. Instead, the mood of the assembly was to hurry and re-elect the current bishop on the second ballot so we could all go home early. So we could all go home early… No discussion about what was going right or what was going wrong in the synod. No effort was made to identify areas in need of improvement or to congratulate the current administration for specific work well done. Just get it over and go home; that was the prevailing attitude.
That’s us – all too often. We fail to venture into the fray with any ardor. We are reluctant to bring up delicate topics and call into accountability those who don’t want to be subject to such fair and open scrutiny. I’m not calling for obnoxious behavior, but proper and assertive action to lay open the wounds that need healing rather than ignore them to fester without care.
Instead, we can be voices that speak up and ask for full and open dialogue with our executives. We can be champions who support our executives when they dare to do the right thing, when they dare to challenge the codependence, when they have the audacity to envision a Church that is healthy and free of pathology – as idealistic as that may seem. Without a vision, it will not come to pass.
And God has provided us with a vision of God’s Church that we have abandoned. God set the example in the Incarnation. Our calling, our privilege is to be responsible to that calling. Our opportunity is to lay claim to the vision, to encourage and support our judicatory executives as they struggle against the pressures to instill that vision into the congregations, and to be agents of that vision in our own lives and ministries.
You can’t cure what you refuse to diagnose. You can’t cure what you refuse to envision as healing and wholeness.
What we need are judicatory executives who truly understand and are more than willing to champion the cause. What we need are clergy and laity who will demand that there be a healthy process to obtain such executives and then support them when they are so chosen.
I see the Academy of Parish Clergy as a fantastic presence within the Church to begin this transition. We are dedicated to a healthier Church. We lay claim to a better vision. And we desire to support each other in the struggle. We are a natural vanguard for the movement. What we need is the blessing and grace that God so freely gives us to be God’s people – even within the Church.
Dr. Fred Lehr, APC is author of Clergy Burnout: Recovering from the 70 Hour Work Week and Other Self-Defeating Practices (Augsburg Press, 2006)