The Spiritual Landscape
Mean Sheep: When Clergy Are Abused
William Bridges, who specializes in writing about transition, makes a helpful distinction between "disillusionment" and "disenchantment."
The disillusioned have excessively high expectations and they hold onto them in spite of real-world feedback to the contrary. For that reason they live in a constant state of disappointment and, unless conditions forbid it, they flit from church to church looking for one that will meet their expectations. The ideal is "out there" and frustration is a constant companion.
By contrast, Bridges notes, the disenchanted let go of their magical assumptions about church life and measure their experience against what they can reasonably expect, rather than labor under the illusion that things could be perfect. This doesn't mean that they can or should accept any kind of treatment. Having abandoned unrealistic expectations, some situations are quite simply unacceptable and the disenchanted know it. But they are freed of the notion that the perfect church exists.
Two, remember that even in the best of circumstances, churches are the places we work and the pastor's role is one of sacramental presence and missional leadership.
To be effective, pastors and priests need to be "real." Preachers who are in denial about the complexity of life cannot expect to preach effectively or challenge others to apply the Gospel to their lives. But being "real" or "vulnerable" is not an end in itself. There is a difference between measured self-revelation and self-immolation that turns our parishioners into our confessors and caregivers.
This is not to suggest that lay people cannot and will not minister to you. I have been on the receiving end of that kind of care as the uninvited gift of loving, thoughtful Christians. But when I have worked in parish settings it has always been clear to me that my responsibility among the people of God entails leadership and perspective.
This is not to suggest that I don't have my own spiritual needs. But it is to say that those needs should be met elsewhere.
That brings me to a third key to dealing with difficult parish dynamics: Find a spiritual director who can provide you with a place to nurture your own spiritual life and mentors, or advisors who can advise you in times of crisis.
Frankly, more often than not, these resources are not denominational leaders. There is a time and a place to advise bishops and others of the events in a parish. But a pastor or priest who regularly looks to denominational leaders for help in dealing with parishioners runs the risk of triangulating with the membership of a parish—and of modeling that kind of behavior for their members.
Churches are loosely linked bureaucracies. Pastors and priests are chosen to provide churches with leadership. Most dioceses, synods, and conferences are too large for bishops and district superintendents to deal with the day-to-day events in every parish. Clergy should also bear in mind that some passing and developmental struggles are best shared with advisers and spiritual directors who can free them to be completely transparent.
Four, depending upon the circumstances, the best way to deal with mean sheep often lies at one of two extremes: either ignore the behavior or confront it—directly, gently, but firmly.
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/