How to Survive a Church Fight & Avoid a Spiritual Lobotomy
K. D. ‘Casey’ McKibbon
1. Recognize the hidden agenda is to blame and get rid of you no matter what; never deal with the troublemakers and make it seem like justice. I don’t expect you to buy this but I ask you to try and use this statement as a working hypothesis for now.
2. It is in this context that I ask you to examine your options. It soon becomes clear that you have none unless you create them and bring them about. The church’s basic position is they control the process, they interpret the rules, so from their perspective all you do is co-operate and obey or else.
3. The goal for every pastor should be to create a win-win. That means all parties to the conflict must agree to negotiate. You will soon find out that you may be in favour of a just resolution but no one else is unless they get to define ‘just’ resolution.
What to do? Where to start? I suggest that early in the process ministers caught in these situations consider writing local church officials a letter. The letter should address your concern for fairness and a concern that a win-win resolution be the agreed-upon goal. It will invite all involved to enter a creative process of mediation. This letter will serve to surface and focus the issue.
Next, the letter should outline what you need to know as a critical minimum. You need to ask for the information that prompted the attack on you to begin with. How was such negative information verified as true? Ask for dates, times, places, and names of all people involved etc. Ask for the opportunity to address the concerns raised in the information. At the bottom of your letter place the notation that you are copying the Clergy Support Network. The letter serves to tell them you are serious. (see 9 below).
You will soon learn what you are up against and whether or not ‘real’ negotiation is possible. The church will raise some of its objections to giving you any information. They will give you the ‘we can’t break confidentiality’ speech, we’re only out to help you so please be a good little child and obey the rules, blah blah blah.
The point is to get the issues surfaced and stop the denial. Next, you have to anticipate and prepare for the inevitable objections that will be raised. That is where a team comes in. (see 6 below) Most initial objections will tend to patronize you so at this point it may be a good time to bring in your lawyer to get them to take you more seriously. Most likely you will have to ‘make’ them want to talk with you. As long as they are talking ‘obedience’ and quoting rules of process you’re dead! So you need different agendas for different goals. If you want to stay that’s one thing, but if you want to get out then that requires a whole different action plan. Both can be dangerous to you. The way forward is by proactive, assertive, non-passive resistance. No more ‘smiling pastor perfect face’. Get the real issues surfaced so they can be addressed.
Churches will now mediate when that option becomes the lesser of two evils as it were; compared to talking with you or ‘fighting’ with you in court. Mediation raises problems as well. It is only good if the trust level exists. If the church gets to pay for or pick the mediator, it is not mediation it is intimidation. Besides, who says the church will obey the results of the mediation. Be careful!
Most clergy need a constant reality check. You need someone to help you break out of your ‘lone ranger’ syndrome. In other words you need a strong BS detector in the form of an honest person who will help you deal with your denial. Many studies show clergy are in a dependency relationship with their congregation and the wider church. This is reflected in our inability to see anything really wrong with those causing us the trouble. In addition one needs to get out of the manipulation mode, rationalizing, conning etc. We all do it but it kills us in conflict situations. Attempts to survive by manipulating people and the process are a waste of everyone’s time yet clergy are masters of the art. Again a supportive team of friends helps with all of this.
The sooner you get creatively ‘paranoid’ the better your chance of a successful resolution. Even better, get to the stage of empowering anger at the unfairness and injustice of it all. Know this, allow it to sink in, resistance to injustice is a ministry to the wider church and in time you will see how your situation will help others to resist and help the church. Resistance is an act of love for the body.
4. The mother of all denial is that you think your conflict is different than the conflicts you have seen in your time in the church. After all, you’re a nice ‘guy’, a loyal servant of the church. You’re not like the other ‘losers’ you have seen mistreated. All they need are the actual facts as you see them and you will be treated differently and the injustice corrected.
Sure and pigs fly. I don’t care how many committees or positions you have filled, your case is no different in their eyes. Think of the worst case you ever saw where the cleric ‘really brought it on themselves’ and they were guilty as sin and deserved what they got. I can guarantee this is how you will be treated. The thing to understand is church staff and colleagues will play on your guilt, dependency, and denial like strings on a fine-tuned violin. Scripture is quoted, statements like ‘good Christians don’t fight’ etc. They will assure you that your case is indeed special so just trust the process and all will be well, blah blah blah. I am here to warn you, you’re no different as relates to the bottom line. You could be out of your congregation and perhaps out of the church all because you trust the system.
5. So for now don’t trust anyone in the system. There is plenty of time to be trusting later on. If you are to survive then no one can be trusted in the short run. Don’t think the system is just missing some information and when you give it to them they will say, “Of course, how could we have been so mistaken?” Remember the system historically solves the problem by sacrificing you. After this is over you can go back to loving mother church. Right now, she’s a junk yard dog about to tear you to pieces. You forget that at your peril.
6. Form a support group of friends and family that meets regularly, not just in moments of crisis. A warning, don’t take expressions of sympathy or concern from other clergy as real support. They may be at best social pleasantries, or at worst expressions of cheap grace aimed at feeding your denial and rationalizing their own cowardliness. Seldom do fellow clergy take a public stand with you. Ask for some concrete help of every person who offers these expressions of sympathy and see them disappear or listen to the excuses they mouth.
All serious supporters must understand what they are in for. Attending a few meetings just won’t cut it. They too may be attacked and the road to a win-win could be long, painful, and dangerous. It may cost them big time. You need marathoners not 60 metre dash people to support you! Make sure you are upfront with what you want. This group should plan to meet for as long as you remain in the community.
7. Quit trying to manipulate your way out. You can’t ‘stick-handle’ out of this. Normal crisis management just will not work. By now you are phoning everyone, leaking hints of legal action, and sending various other ‘messages’ hoping it all gets back to ‘them’. Quit all this. The process is not the least frightened of you or your local lawyer friends nor will it be manipulated. Officials have heard it all before and know every procedural move there is. Any attempt to survive by manipulation will only prove to them how ‘sick’ you really are. Those against you will deny, delay and discredit you.
8. Watch for a verbal ‘blacklisting.’ Trying to keep the conflict confidential is impossible. The jungle telegraph is already beating out the message about you. It may be hurtful to your family and it will crush your ego.
Since your life is being discussed on the grapevine you had better monitor it and let officials at all levels know you are doing so. Verbal ‘blacklisting’ is common so at some point you may want to ‘shop the system’ Get a friend to phone the powers that be for a reference on yourself and have them listen up! If later you must leave, be sure to have a chat with officials to get them to agree not to harm your chances of a new situation. Get it in writing that they will behave — or you won’t behave or leave.
9. Count the cost as early as possible. You will probably be slam-dunked more than once. You are entitled to justice but any more than a superficial attempt by you to receive justice will be met with repression and punishment. If you do anything more than protest verbally you will find it will be met with great force. Early on tell them you have been talking to the Clergy Support Network and your lawyer or just put ‘CC Clergy Support Network or CC lawyer on the bottom of a letter to people in authority. This puts them on notice to go slowly and allows you to hear some ‘interesting’ comments.
10. Quit all that Christian talk about love and reconciliation etc. The coalition of clergy killers doesn’t like themselves, each other, or you. Don’t write pastoral letters or talk in terms of love, forgiveness, and endearment. Leave off with the scripture verses for now. This is a spiritual battle so it is enough to remember that the power at work in you is greater than the one in them. Take the high road, rise above it all but be tough as nails doing it and stay in touch with that power that energizes you.
11. Don’t think co-operating with them will make the pain go away. They will just keep on coming. If you make ‘please don’t hurt me any more’ responses you will get badly hurt.
12. Now to the most difficult one of all. Try not to resign while in the numbing period of shock when you find out ‘they’ want rid of you. You are very vulnerable to bad advice and manipulation at this point so try not to resign. But it’s not the end of the world if you do. It just weakens your position. After all they want rid of you so why give up your best bargaining chip. It won’t make the situation better; it probably will get worse. When you resign you’re at the mercy of everyone. You can’t get ‘pogey’ as quickly either.
13. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Document everything; never fight alone; form a team to face this; call your family together tell them what is going on; call supporters together and share your pain. All of these will help empower you.
14. It is important to name the abuse and the abusers. Surface the issue. Say the names to those who will listen. Let it be known that you will not go quietly. Build up inner resources (spend as much time praying about it as talking about it.)
15. Create an action agenda. Have a plan and work your plan. Attend no meetings alone. Did you read that? Attend no meetings alone. Have someone with you to keep notes. Debrief after all meetings. Negotiate ‘safe passage’. (If you are not allowed a supporter with you, the process is dead and you should consider your options.)
16. Safe passage. When and if you decide to go, you will need to have a separation agreement ready. Remember safe passage out of there is what you want. Safe passage is made up of the critical minimum conditions you would agree to leave under. Things like an assurance that the conflict stops immediately, you get time to find another place, negotiate a buy out package, holiday pay, an assurance that there will be a reference and no hint of blacklisting, etc.
You may find that mediation, safe passage, negotiation are unheard or unwelcome concepts in fellowships that expect blind, dumb, obedience to church rules applied and interpreted by church officials.. Part of the whole resistance thing is to send the message that you’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. If you can’t get the church to negotiate ‘safe passage’ you may need raise the level of your resistance till they are ready to talk.
Let me say it again, the goal and whole point of resistance is to get the church to the point where it takes the path of least resistance. You either want to move or stay. The church officials will allow one of these two options if these options become easier for them than dealing with your resistance in a long protracted conflict with you. The key is to get the church to agree that the solution to the problem will be a win-win and not a lose-win as is now too often the case. Somehow I think this is what Jesus would do, and he will do it through you. I don’t know if one ever gets closure on these fights, but that’s another story.
The only reason these cases ever get to the civil courts is because pastors can’t get the church to recognize the unfairness and take these clergy seriously. Court is a rare and unhappy option for a tiny minority of these cases. Most are never resolved as win-win but this continues to be our goal.
My hope is that you will contact me as well as share this info with others. Clergy will not receive fair treatment in church fight till all of us learn to demand that fairness be the norm. Your comments and feedback are most welcome.