Separation of church and state fails to protect female clergy

Post Author: Lynn Horan

The founding fathers meant for religious freedom to stand as a fundamental principle of evolved civic life.  But in reality, church-state separation has had the unintended effect of protecting and enabling pedophilic male priests and endangering female clergy at the hands of abusive parishioners.  This two-sided coin of silencing abuse within church culture reveals a deeply patriarchal current that runs through not only conservative Catholic parishes but also highly progressive Protestant denominations.

With the Catholic church’s persistent history of child sexual abuse and institutional complacency, there is a tendency for Protestant churchgoers to believe in their own denominations’ infallibility, thinking “that would never happen in our church.”  

Having been raised within a small socially-conscious Presbyterian church in upstate New York, and later becoming an ordained Presbyterian pastor, I too have romanticized Protestant church polity, which appears to uphold values of transparency and accountability of both clergy and parishioners.  In fact, the main reason I left a career in public policy to enter the ministry was because I was impressed by the democratic-decision making central to Presbyterian governance.   

But even within the Reformed faith, which is ever conscious of the abuses of religion, ecclesial exemption from secular law allows a great deal to be swept under the carpet.

In my current doctoral research on Protestant female clergy attrition, thirty female clergy from six different Protestant denominations were interviewed from across the United States, each sharing their reasons for leaving active ministry.  Among those surveyed, the central factors for exiting pastoral leadership are unsafe work environment and sexual discrimination on the part of a handful of congregants.  While a few research participants found relief in moving to more healthy congregations, the majority of clergy surveyed have chosen to leave parish ministry altogether when faced with a lack of denominational advocacy and secular legal protection.

As female clergy leave active ministry, Protestant churches are in need of addressing systemic issues within congregational life and church governance.

A common experience that was shared involves female clergy being hired by churches following a male pastor’s departure due to sexual misconduct.  But with insidious non-disclosure agreements and secrecy surrounding such abuses, incoming female pastors often find themselves unaware of the level of dysfunctionality and complacency within local church governance, who in many cases enabled the previous pastor’s abusive behaviors.  

A second theme involves severance negotiation, whereby church governing bodies often pressure female clergy to voluntarily resign amid concerns over parishioners’ boundary crossing behaviors, asserting that the pastor will be better received by a future congregation if she leaves quietly.  This practice allows churches to offer minimal severance under the guise of “irreconcilable differences” and also enables churches to protect their own reputation by not publicly disclosing the details of a pastor’s resignation.

The practice of non-disclosure agreements has had a particularly negative impact on female clergy, as their reasons for resigning are often fraught with issues of sexual discrimination and harassment by both male and female parishioners, which in secular employment settings would warrant legal proceedings and/or police involvement.  Instead, the lack of legal protection and the inability of church governing boards to adequately serve as professional employers puts female clergy at immense risk of congregational abuse. 

My own experience echoes these testimonies, having left the ministry last fall due to a disturbing professional defamation campaign wielded by a congregant with a history of police arrest, harassment against a local school board superintendent and previous unlawful grand jury disclosure.  I met with a lawyer specializing in New York State discrimination and employment law, only to find out that as a pastor I had no legal protection and would have to rely on the procedures of my local Presbytery, which were woefully inadequate and driven by personalities rather than professionals trained in employment contract negotiation. 

Church-state separation should not mean that churches as employers are exempt from laws that address workplace safety, sexual discrimination and harassment of clergy. Nor should churches be able to avoid child protection laws and mandatory reporting of child abuse.  By hiding behind church-state separation, ecclesial bodies are able to maintain their own governance and disciplinary measures, which range from ineffective volunteer HR committees within Protestant church governance to large-scale protection of criminal priests within the Catholic church.

With the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, it is clear that separation of church and state is not uniformly practiced in our country.  On the one hand, the highest court has allowed the infiltration of religion into law and public policy, eroding the most vital aspects of safe and accessible reproductive healthcare.   On the other hand, the separation of law and religion has been upheld in order to protect pedophilic priests and also deny female clergy secular legal recourse for abuse by congregants. 

What is the solution? The separation of church and state continues to be needed and is deeply valued within our communities.  But certain areas of church governance should involve secular legal oversight, especially in areas of child abuse, labor law and employment contracts.  In addition, church governing bodies should be required to have some minimum of professional training, so that politics and personalities do not control important decisions regarding clergy and congregational accountability.  Lastly, all who practice their faith within religious institutions should be extremely vigilant of the potential for abuses against both parishioners and pastors, and actively participate in efforts to resist the silencing of these abuses.   

Rev. Lynn Horan is an ordained Presbyterian minister and leadership consultant specializing in women's leadership development in both secular and religious contexts.  A graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, she is currently a doctoral fellow through Antioch University's PhD Program in Leadership and Change. Her current research focuses on boundary work and psychological safety and its impact on female clergy attrition, which was awarded Christian Feminism Today’s 2020 leadership scholarship as well as the Synod of the Northeast’s Innovation Grant.  Lynn is a former health policy analyst for the New York State Senate and family counselor, having worked in homeless ministry and domestic violence prevention in communities in upstate New York and Central Peru.  A life-long dancer and yoga practitioner, Lynn believes strongly in the restorative capacity of movement and embodied expression as a means of establishing healing, wholeness and reconciliation in individuals and communities.

Image by: Lynn Horan
Used with permission
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