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When Congregations Turn on Their Shepherds

Ministers Share Stories of 'Sheep Attacks'

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Above image credit: Anxiety about broader trends in church membership often drive congregations to turn on their ministers. (Frank Hoermann | AP Images)

His eyes grimace in anguish, the grief on his face as telling as his words: “I feel a very strong sense of betrayal and a real sense of pain.”

Darryl (not his real name) is a Kansas City-area Mainline Protestant pastor whose congregation — after seven-plus years of what he believed was a successful ministry — recently (before the COVID-19 pandemic) gave him a bleak choice: Resign and get a severance package or be terminated without one.

Sad to say, his experience isn’t unique.

As many faith communities suffer declines in membership — a trend dating from the 1960s in Mainline denominations — clergy are among the rarely considered victims. (Mainline denominations include The United Methodist Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Presbyterian Church (USA); the American Baptist Church; the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ; the Episcopal Church; and the United Church of Christ.)

“The main reason (for the internal church conflict that cost him his job) is these macro, larger forces at work that stir up anxiety and fear,” Darryl explained. “And when a congregation buys into that anxiety and fear, oftentimes clergy will be scapegoated. So there’s a certain amount of grief for a way of life that’s passing away.”

A year ago Darryl would have said his congregation was too healthy to fall into that — despite substantial shrinkage in the denomination of which that church is a part. But he was wrong: “I missed a lot of red flags. Am I wiser at this point? I think it’s too early to tell.”

The larger question, he told me, is: “Can congregations, synagogues, churches, in these times of cultural change, find a way to deal in healthy ways with their anxiety and disagreement and even their grief about losing members?”

Clearly not always.

Karen (also a pseudonym and a Mainline Protestant pastor), tells me that when she was shoved out of her Kansas City congregation several years ago, “I was really just wounded and raw.” She thinks the primary reason she was let go had more to do with the strains that churches are feeling because of shrinking interest in institutional religion in the U.S. rather than with individual church members who didn’t like her.

“Anxiety works like a virus,” she said. “I think that what they (church members) expected was a charismatic pastor and preacher who by her own magnetism would fill the pews. But it’s hard to attract new people by doing things the way you’ve always done them. You need to be doing new things.”

But, she said, there was always resistance to change.

She is, however, recovering: “Wounds have become scars and they’re just part of who I am.”

Bob (another pseudonym) also says the larger story of church membership decline contributed to him being forced out of his job as an area pastor.

“For me,” Bob said by phone from the state in which he’s now in ministry, “there are unrealistic expectations that a clergy person can save a dying or dwindling congregation. It’s the mechanical view that we have a bad part and if we just change the part, that will make everything run smoothly again. But replacing parts doesn’t necessarily make it better. I’ve been clergy for 40 years and it’s just gotten worse in the last 10 years. It feels significantly different. I have clergy friends who are ready to quit.”

The growing number of religiously unaffiliated people, Bob said, means that “very few congregations understand the reality that they’re actually living in.” And for him it’s become personal: “I never thought I’d think about retiring early before. But the minute I feel like things are going to go south (in his current situation), I’m done.”

No doubt some leaders of the congregations that Darryl, Karen, Bob and others led would say those clergy failed in some way unconnected to the broader story of denominational decline. But my guess — and my own experience — is that Bob also got it right when he said congregations often don’t understand their own reality.

When Darryl was first hired by the congregation that fired him, he knew there had been turmoil over previous clergy, but “I accepted their word that they had worked through a lot of stuff and that with the last pastor most of the issues were on him. I think there was some willful blindness on my part by taking their word for it.”

Darryl said causes of clergy being fired include “the massive cultural shift — to the so-called ‘nones’ (the religiously unaffiliated) and the ‘spiritual but not religious’ people. You have a time when literally churches are closing. You’ve got a sense of scarcity and fear and ‘let’s retrench,’ which is exactly the wrong way to go. And there’s a lack of faith that God can do a new thing.

“What I’ve learned is that there’s a lot of identity and memory caught up in buildings and our sacred spaces. To let go of that and even close churches is interpreted as a failure.”

Darryl believed “that what I knew was happening to some other ministers wouldn’t happen to me. But, in the end, I lost. What people don’t understand is the price that clergy families pay.”

Indeed, Darryl’s experience has soured his children on church in various ways.

As he has told his story to other clergy, “I’ve been shocked at the number of friends from seminary and colleagues in ministry who have either had similar experiences or are going through them right now. I always knew many churches were unhealthy and mistreated their clergy, but the sheer amount of wounded and hurting clergy out there is astounding to me.”

One reason for that is entrenched lay leadership in congregations. As another shoved-out clergyman told me, “I was in a congregation where the leadership never changed. So if something was wrong, it couldn’t be them. I would bring in new members and they would tell me, ‘Those are not the right kind of members.’ ”

Karen had a similar experience with lay leadership when she was hired without a unanimous affirmative vote of the congregation. “I felt that once people get to know me then they’re won over,” she said. “But as it turned out those few people who weren’t convinced weren’t isolated individuals but a powerful small group in the congregation.”

Among clergy — who sometimes are referred to as shepherds — the experiences I’ve described are called “sheep attacks.” Several books have been written recently to help clergy deal with them, including Healing for Pastors and People After a Sheep Attack”, by Dennis R. Maynard.

“The victims of a sheep attack often share some of the same emotions as victims of physical and sexual abuse,” Maynard writes. “There is a sense of shame and embarrassment. Talking about the event is difficult for them. The ideals that called them into ministry have been bashed on an ugly rock. The attacks go to the very heart of a pastor’s identity and integrity. When those are destroyed, their very moral authority, which is the keystone for ministry, is destroyed.”

So as a smaller percentage of Americans identifies as religiously affiliated, some of those who remain commit sheep attacks in their angst about the future. That, in turn, reveals their human frailty and sinfulness. Ironically, that’s what many of them joined a congregation to fix about themselves.

Sigh.

Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.

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