Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ever since the Roman Catholic Priest Sexual Abuse scandal broke a few years ago the topic of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy has been front and center. It has been the topic of books, articles, lectures, conversation, and jokes. We have speculated why sexual abuse at the hands of clergy happens and have come up with more questions than answers. The recent news of a well-known, well respected cleric being under investigation for sexual abuse and taking his own life and a Youth Minister from Lewiston, Maine sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy proves, once again:

1.Clergy sexual misconduct is not simply a problem for our Roman Catholic brothers and sister. At one point research was reporting that Protestant clergy sexual misconduct was as prevalent.

2. Clergy must take care of themselves by maintaining well-established boundaries.

Clergy sexual misconduct transcends denominational affiliation. We know very little about why people abuse other people except to say that there’s a high proportion of perpetrators who have been victims themselves. We know that sexual predators abuse over and over again. Abusers, more often than not, do not simply give up offending like someone might give up smoking or drinking. If I learned anything from my days spent working at a Rape Crisis Center, perpetrators don’t stop offending, they just get good at not getting caught again. There is room for redemption if the perpetrator takes proper steps, but that’s another blog for another time. For every victim that boldly comes forward there are countless others who suffer in silence because of the stigmas associated with being a victim of sexual misconduct.

Another important lesson that still rings true every time I read or hear a story of sexual abuse is that when that abuse is at the hands of clergy the issues are compounded. That the abuse is not merely at the hands of a trusted family member or friend but that the abuse is intimately connected to God. As clergy we represent something much larger than we are and much larger than the institutional church is. Often times when we walk into a room we walk in as a representative of the Divine, or as my friend KBW puts it, as an “Agent of God.” The collar, pulpit, and other symbols of the office give us, in some situations, especially with vulnerable people who are suffering, ultimate authority.

Authority like the kind yielded to us comes with ultimate responsibility. When we yield that responsibility we do more harm than good, thus violating founder of the Methodist movement, brother John Wesley’s first rule, “Do no harm.”

Clergy Sexual Misconduct happens for a lot of reasons, just like misconduct at the hands of anybody. That said, in large part, Clergy Sexual Misconduct happens because of a violation of boundaries. As leaders, charged with the care of God’s people, it is our job to set boundaries and uphold those boundaries. Innocently bending the rules, over time, can lead to misconduct of all kinds. Please read, it does not always lead to misconduct, but it can. Not taking time for one’s family, friends, and hobbies--life outside of “Rev. Soandso” or “Pastor Whatshisname.” It is easy to turn the work of the clergy into a way of life, never turning off the identity you claim as a member of the clergy with the rest of you. Disaster strikes when everything you are is interconnected with the people you are called to serve among.

I do not pretend to make excuses for clergy who violate the sacred covenant that God has made with all of creation and of which we are called to point to day in and day out as a sign that God loves the world so much that he sent His own son to live and work among us and who, in His death and resurrection delivered us from death to eternal life. I do acknowledge, however, that we are all human and as humans sin, we mar the covenant which God has made with us. We, though, hold out hope that we can turn back to God in repentance.

I believe we also have to look at the covenant which we all enter into as clergy, as well. In my denomination there is a covenant we agree to when we are licensed, commissioned, and/or ordained. This covenant includes a lot of things but the most basic message is that we will take care of one another, support one another, pray for one another, and hold each other accountable. Perhaps I am an eternal optimist or perhaps I put to much faith in ecumenism but I believe this covenant with one another transcends boundaries that have been drawn in generations past. So, part of me has to ask myself, “what could I have done differently to bear the light of Christ to these brothers who have violated the clergy covenant?”

Our response to these two cases and the plethora of other sexual misconduct cases perpetrated at the hands of clergy-people, should not be the easy one of simply writing them off, admonishing the good they have done, and turning our backs on them as if they no longer exist. Our response should be one of loving accountability. We cannot forget what they have done and need to speak the truth around the pain they have caused. We, their colleagues, need to be the first to remember they are human beings who have committed a sin, albeit a very large sin, but a sin nonetheless. I would be the last to give them the keys to another church or allow them to continue to hold the title “Reverend” but our covenant with each other and with God reminds us that God loves them and we are called to speak truth and hope to their pain and brokenness.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

"Why are you a Minister?" "The same reason I put pants on, seemed like a good idea."

I’m just back from the 2011 edition of the New England School of Congregational Development. I was reminded of a few things, learned a lot, and was inspired to put a lot of both into practice. Two of the most important things I was reminded of was: 1. Telling the story is important. 2. Consistency matters. As I sit to write this I find that the two are inextricably linked.

As a clergy-person, I’m often asked, “what was your call to ministry like?” Or, my favorite, “why did you decide to become a pastor?” The last person that asked me this was my doctor. My answer to her was, “the same reason I put pants on this seemed like a good idea.” Of course, the answer is a little more involved than that; and, it’s a story that I would be happy to share with you, if you’re willing to tell me why you serve God’s people in the way that you serve. Friday afternoon I was reminded of what my Evangelism professor used to tell us was the more important question, “why are you a Christian?” Margaret Feinberg, though I struggled with some of the content of her presentation, reminded me that the more important to question to answer is, ‘why are you a Christian?’ “Why do you follow Christ?”

I don’t believe this question deserves as flippant an answer and is, and should be, a key way we can call people into a deeper relationship with God. It’s true that people are drawn into a community because of something interesting or what they hear about that community but that surface introduction soon wears off and unless there is a purpose for that person to fulfill, they quickly loose interest and move on to the next group. Unless there’s a good reason why you and I are part of our congregations, or more importantly, why we are Christ-followers, the reason why someone should have a relationship with Christ goes out the window soon after flying in through the window.

I grew up in a home that it was expected that we attend worship, Sunday School, and Youth Fellowship every Sunday. We didn’t have much choice in the worship service we attended, either. This night owl was expected to be in the car by 7:30am, ready for the 30 minute drive from our home to the neighboring town, where the closest United Methodist Church was located. To deny any bribery on the part of my parents would be a lie. It would also be a lie if I didn’t admit to several loud protests on my part and on my sister’s part.

When I was old enough I was sent to summer camp. I hated it. If they gave such awards, I would have gotten the homesick award for sure. If it wasn’t for a certain Gary Marsh, I would have probably gone home early in the week. If Gary and my mother hadn’t schemed I would have gone home, but they sneakily schemed Sunday night and Gary vowed to get me through the week. The next year was fun and by the time I was in middle-school, a riveting rendition of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” and a few new friends later, I was hooked. Looking back, Mechuwana was the most influential part of my faith development and today I tell people that I believe in God and am a follower of Christ because of my experiences while I was a camper, staff person and volunteer. I learned what it meant to live with and love the unloveable. Those people who live hell-like lives but for a few days or a week they could be kids.

I remember about 8 years ago there was a camper who was from somewhere north of Augusta, Maine. He was prone to violence. Sunday night, while playing basketball, someone stole the ball from him. Instead of taking it back within the rules of the game, he popped the kid that stole the ball from him between the eyes and took the ball back. If this wasn’t enough, the next day he hit someone else, if memory serves me right it was one of his youth leaders. The point that my heart broke was when, after calling his mother, Norm informed me that “...his mother didn’t want him...”

After about an hour long car-ride we arrived in a dilapidated trailer park. I couldn’t believe, pulling into the drive way of the trailer in the back corner, that someone could live in the structure standing before us. The front steps were falling apart, but the floor of the mobile home made the front steps look like they were in great shape. I don’t know what has happened to that kid. I hope that the 48 hours he spent at Mechuwana changed his life in a positive way. He taught me some important lessons. He especially taught me that not everyone has what I had, something that I knew, intellectually, but until that moment never believed.

It wasn’t the experience itself, or the countless other experiences that inspired within me a deeper yearning for a relationship with God, but the relationships with people that already had those relationships and in turn encouraged me to ask the tough questions and wrestle with those hard issues of faith. Those issues that I still wrestle with and usually walk away with more questions than answers. The only thing that is for sure, that I still hold onto, is a lesson taught by a certain “Big Jullio,” that is God loves you, no matter what...A lesson that I try to impress upon the youth groups, widows groups, and other church groups that I get to work with today.

So, I’m a Christian because God loves you and God loves me and the way that I experience that love is through a Protestant Christian lens.

Take away number 2: Consistency matters. This lesson made it clear that I need to be better about updating my blog...