The Spiritual Landscape
Mean Sheep: When Clergy Are Abused
It is easy to make too much of fractious, nasty behavior.
For some mean sheep, name-calling is an attention getting device. The best response can be to ignore it. Refuse to pay attention and the motive for the behavior is neutralized.
For others the meanness is about anxiety or anger that has little or nothing to do with the pastor or priest. The causes lie in a fear of change or an unrelated personal crisis. In those cases, it can be important to learn how to count—slowly—giving yourself time to avoid returning the favor. The ability to graciously absorb some anger is a gift and it can give expression to the patience and love that shapes God's attitude toward us.
But pastors and priests who are conflict-avoidant almost always make matters worse by refusing to confront persistent, mean-spirited behavior. When that kind of behavior is in play it is not just the pastor or priest whose well-being is at stake. It is the church's health and safety that is compromised, if not destroyed. In those cases it is not only appropriate, but important to confront divisive, mean-spirited behavior. It is possible to do that lovingly and truthfully. It is not necessarily possible to change every situation. There is a time and place to recommend that people who are deeply unhappy worship somewhere else.
Five, nurture a life beyond the walls of the church.
It is important for us to remember that we have never saved anyone and workaholic behavior is not devotion. In fact, non-stop, obsessive work is usually evidence that we don't really trust God with the results of our efforts.
Healthy, intimate relationships and interests outside the work-world introduce balance into our lives that is impossible to achieve by any other means. To affirm that there is more to our lives than the ministries in which we are engaged reminds us of God's grace.
It also erodes the ability of mean sheep to destroy our sense of wellbeing. Clergy who are all work and no play are not just dull—they live in a small, fragile world that is easily compromised.
Whatever you do, be gentle with yourselves. Remember, God loves you—always has and still does.
What can laypeople do?
In every volunteer organization in which I have worked, I have found that good people become involved in that kind of work because they want to "do" something good. The church is no exception.
But when conflict arises, caring people who want to do something good often run away because conflict seems to make that impossible. But when good people withdraw, they abandon their churches and their clergy to mean sheep.
Don't run. Stay present. Remain committed. Tell the truth in love. And stand for what is right. Christian history is not just the story of committed clergy. It is the story of committed laypeople, people who don't just choose to do something good, but are people who choose to do God's work.
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/