Our question this week is from a clergywoman wondering how to be a friend when a colleague is in trouble.
Dear Women of Experience,
I know a few people who have been the subject of review by their judicatories. One friend was prevented from joining clergy formation, another friend was subject to fitness review and censure, and a third – an acquaintance – had her credentials suspended. As a friend, I was as supportive as I could be with the first two. But the third is someone I don’t know well, and is someone with a higher profile than the first two.
It’s easy to be a friend to someone when times are good, but sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge when people are struggling – especially when the person is a colleague rather than a parishioner. Yet it’s in these times that people need the most support, especially those whose star might have been burning bright before the problems became known.
So my question is: how can we be supportive of other clergy in trouble? If we can be there for the parishioner in jail, can’t we also be there for the colleague whose boundary, financial, or theological ethics have come into question?
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Our matriarchs offer words of grace and wisdom:
We walk each day with the humility and the knowledge that we are held together by God’s unconditional grace. Those of us in ministry understand the temptations which surround us each day. To deny support and forgiveness for fellow clergy in times of trouble would be to deny God’s own forgiveness for us. May we live into the grace by which we have been saved.
Kelley Wehmeyer Shin
Dear Faithful Friend,
I have to answer this first from the point of view of someone who has sat on and chaired a Committee on Ministry in the past. I find the situations you describe so different that I cannot speak to them collectively. A decision not to approve a candidate for discernment or formation does not mean that person has done something wrong. It means the committee, through prayer and its own discernment, sees some reason that the candidate is not a good fit for ordained ministry. In that case, one hopes the local church sponsoring the candidate will offer support and perhaps have a serious conversation both internally and with the committee about what qualities the committee feels are important. In the United Church of Christ, we use the Marks for Ministry. When a candidate came to us from another denomination, whether having withdrawn themselves or having been turned down, we took especial care to discern whether the person had a call to ministry *in the UCC* which is not the same thing as having a call to ministry generally.
When a pastor has violated ordination vows and undergone a fitness review (our terminology), the committee will offer support if there is a censure or suspension, with the support team drawn from the Committee on Ministry. I’ve also seen a pastor refuse the support and the program prescribed; that person lost her/his credentials permanently. I’ve never seen a CoM offer a plan of growth and not offer support along the way.
As a pastor not in the process, and particularly as a friend, I would hope we would offer companionship, prayer and support, with these conditions.
1) Examine your context. Are you the pastor of a neighboring church with a social or extended family overlap? Consider the hurt that may have been inflicted by the ethical breach and your local situation. The last three churches I served in Maine (two as Interim) were close geographically and had significant overlap of past and current members as well as multi-generational extended families and community ties. Would my contact with a suspended pastor create more suffering for his/her church members or mine?
2) Be realistic. You may wish someone would reach out to you if that were your situation, but you are not the gal/guy who did the thing or engaged in the situation – whether the problem be sexual or financial or of some other kind – and, well, you’re someone who values relationship, and you probably already have the kind of friends who would support you or call you out before you got into trouble. The person in question may not want support anymore than he/she wanted honest feedback.
3) Be yourself. If you are moved to reach out to someone who is suffering, and not to be a hero or to get more information because you are curious (two of the reasons pastors sometimes do reach out to others, unfortunately), and you are not serving in a capacity where your responsibilities to others might be compromised, then by all means contact the person and offer your prayers and a listening ear if it is desired.
We all need friends in ministry. Bless you for being a good one.
Martha Spong at marthaspong.com
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Have you walked with a colleague through similar circumstances? Please share your experience and supportive advice in the comments.
We love questions! If you are facing a dilemma or challenge in your ministry, send your scenario to the matriarchs at askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com.