Though I have now moved away and moved on to what is a rewarding and affirming ministry in a different diocese and with an entirely different population, there is still the lingering pain of what happened to me at a congregation I served briefly.
It was a toxic congregation, but I didn’t know that when I interviewed with them or when I took the call. They had already chased out one priest and the congregation had long been divided.
The vestry member who had announced publicly that she would never vote for a woman candidate was out of the country when the Vestry had their meeting with the Bishop. After I accepted the call, I learned that some members of the Vestry wanted to vote “no” because she would have voted “no”. The Bishop put a halt to that. However, he couldn’t/didn’t put a halt to the maneuvering that began the night the vote was taken
17 months into the call, we discovered that the Parish Administrator had been cooking the books and stealing from the parish in every way imaginable. The treasurer who might have caught this right away did not check the Quicken records against the returned checks, and the senior warden and I had not been asking the right questions. What I didn’t know was that the interim had not run a background check on the administrator when the administrator was hired, and I did not check background checks of people already employed when I came on the scene. Had that background check been run, the Administrator would never have been hired–she had an outstanding warrant for embezzlement and also a previous conviction. Once we discovered the theft, I worked with due diligence to protect the parish and to determine the depth of the theft while staying within the limits of employment law and charting a course that was consonant with the Gospel.
As you can imagine, all this gave the pot-stirrers a field day. Once the insurance check came in, the man who had been maneuvering from the beginning held a meeting at his house to which Vestry members were invited and which some attended. I also got wind of an e-mail campaign that had been going on for some time. I contacted the bishop and began to consider my options.
At that point I realized that we were at a Level 5 conflict stage and had hoped to get Speed Leas to be the consultant. The Vestry was not about to spend the amount of money Speed Leas would have cost nor would the Diocese. The Bishop came to a vestry meeting which was a very painful meeting. Then the diocese offered to pay for a consultant but only $2000. The vestry reluctantly agreed. (At that point, I had decided to leave but wanted the parish to have some sense of the long-standing pattern of behaviors and to begin work that would lead to a healthier congregation.) The consultant the diocese sent in was a psychologist with limited experience with conflict management. (He had not even heard of Speed Leas’ work!)
There was a vestry meeting and then parish meeting with the consultant. The bishop was present at the latter. The parish meeting was neither helpful nor healthy. I did not feel safe at either of those meetings. After the parish meeting, I told the Bishop and the consultant that I would likely take early retirement but would sit with it for a week.
A week later I announced my retirement.
There are parts of all this that I own–I should never have accepted the call. Yet I believed my gifts matched their profile. I never could come to love the town, and I should not have accepted a call to a place I knew but did not love. I should have worked with the Senior warden in supervising the treasurer. I should have demanded that the diocese send in a qualified consultant at the first whiff of trouble.
I think there’s a lot more that the diocese needs to own. I felt that no one had my back. At the time I was experiencing that conflict, five other women priests in the diocese were experiencing the same kind of conflict. One who was working with the same consultant later died of a stroke.
Fortunately I had the resources to move on. I was vested in the Church Pension Fund. (Not much but enough to qualify for retired clergy health insurance that is costing me a fortune!) I had a fine reputation in other dioceses and good support in those dioceses. I had a husband that stuck with me and believed in me and weathered great pain because of that congregation.
I have landed on my feet. God’s grace has carried me to a ministry for which I am uniquely qualified–a ministry with the homeless. I serve two congregations–one a congregation of homeless and housed that meets in a day shelter and the other a congregation consisting of young, gay, hispanic, anglo, straight people that is a mission of a very successful parish. But I couldn’t be doing this ministry if I needed a clergy salary to put bread on the table. I couldn’t be living into the fullness of the priesthood God has called me to if it weren’t for a serendipitous combination of God’s grace and my husband’s resources.
We don’t all land on our feet. We are all bruised in the process. The collateral damage to families, parish members, the church is horrendous. That’s why I am so very glad the Rev. Bill Doubleday written an article for The Lead and that my friend posted it on Facebook where I could see it.