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Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Toxic Church Edition

Dear Askie,

I am currently serving in a church that is best described as toxic. The staff is dysfunctional, the personnel committee seems to be disinterested in creating a work environment that is nurturing, anytime I bring up any concern I’m automatically shut down, and I am fed up. I have been searching for jobs for many months now but am having a difficult time. I am starting to realize I may be stuck here for a while. What can I do in the meantime to survive my toxic work environment? Or should I just run for the hills?

Sincerely,

Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

toxicYou are not the only one. Unfortunately, all too many young clergy women are trying to serve Christ and his church in the midst of dysfunctional work environments. While we shouldn’t regard such situations as normal or acceptable, Askie fears that toxic congregations will probably be part of the lives of some pastors until kingdom come.

You’re wise to search for a new call, and Askie urges any YCW in a toxic setting to keep an updated resumé, Ministerial Profile, PIF, or whatever your denominational equivalent might be. Even if you feel called to stick it out (or are compelled to do so by your familial or financial circumstances), toxic churches have been known to turn unexpectedly on their pastors. So even if you’re not ready to pack your bags just yet, be prepared.
All that said, here are a few strategies for surviving until you’re able to move on:

  • Build (and use) a strong support network: This is important for all of us, but especially so in an environment like yours, where you can’t expect support from colleagues and lay leadership. You may want to work with a spiritual director, a therapist, a life coach, a mentor, or all of the above! Be intentional about nurturing friendships both with clergy colleagues in other settings and with non-clergy friends. Online community (like the TYCWP Facebook group) can be a great source of support as well, although it shouldn’t replace the personal, incarnational support we all need.
  • Be attentive to your spiritual life: When God is your job and your job is awful, your spiritual life sometimes takes a hit. Don’t let them do that to you, sister. Make sure to intentionally care for your soul in this season of your ministry. Could you find an evening or weekday worship service that you can attend from time to time? Carve out more time for prayer? Read books that nourish your soul?
  • Do your homework: If you haven’t studied family systems theory, now would be the time to start! Understanding how systems work can help you figure out how to survive in yours. You might gain some insight about how the system is working, a strategy about how to change the system and your role in it (hint: probably non-anxious presence), or a reminder that interactions that feel very hurtful often have little or nothing to do with you personally. Friedman’s Generation to Generation is a classic starting point, but there are plenty of great resources out there. You may want to look for a course or conference to help you dig deeper, as well.
  • Feed the function: Thankfully, even the most dysfunctional church usually has a few bright spots. See if you can identify the parts of your church that are healthy and put lots of your energy there. Affirming and supporting the healthiest areas of your church’s life helps them to grow… and not only is it good ministry, it’s also life-giving for you!
  • Put on your own oxygen mask first: There are people whom you will never be able to make happy, even if you work twenty-four hours a day and cater to their every whim. So do what it takes to keep yourself healthy physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Get outdoors, take a yoga class, enjoy good chocolate or coffee or wine. Binge-watch some fluffy television from time to time. Spend time with family or friends. Take all of your vacation, and your days off. Sabbath is a commandment, not a suggestion, so don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about it!
  • Find some distance: When Askie is at the absolute end of her rope with some bit of petty church drama, she imagines what a great chapter it will make in her memoir someday. That’s my trick, but you’re welcome to use it, or find one that works for you… something that helps you to step back, to disengage emotionally a bit, and to remember that in a few months or years, this will all be over. When it is, I hope you will find yourself with some hard-won new skills, some outrageous stories, and your integrity. Keep the faith, sister.

Wishing you deep peace and a speedy exit,
Askie

My Doula

Several hours into hard labor, no drugs, with my second child, I had to pee.  I made the decision that it was too much work to walk to the bathroom. “I’m gonna pee!” I announced. And as the urine hit the hospital bed, my first thought was, “Well, this certainly moves my relationship with Martha from pastor-parishoner to something entirely different.”

I am chief among those who extoll the importance of boundaries between pastors and their congregations. (I’m the child of a minister and a clinical social worker: I was raised speaking family-systems.) Urinating on a bed in front of the church people is definitely not a part of my understanding of appropriate boundaries.

Martha was a member of my congregation, part of the committee that had called me as pastor for children and youth five years earlier. After a few years, I had identified her as one of the “safe” people, people who got it that pastors are human (she’s a PK, which is no coincidence). But when my husband and I had trouble getting pregnant again, I found myself telling Martha about it. She was a natural birthing instructor, and I admired her combination of granola-crunchy sensibility tempered with a healthy respect for the wonders of modern medicine.

That was the beginning of a journey toward the peeing. A year later, after some medical assistance, I was pregnant. My first child, who had been shockingly easy to conceive, had blessed us with a dicey pregnancy and then was an absolute nightmare to get out, culminating with an exhausting emergency c-section after several hours of pushing. My plan for not having another one of those involved an attempt at an unmedicated birth this time around. And so my husband and I found ourselves enrolled in Martha’s birthing class, sitting on the floor of her living room with four other couples every week for three months, discussing the utmost of private details, emotions, anatomy, and fears.

And then we decided to ask her to be our doula, too. (A doula is a professional who supports a woman before, during, and immediately after labor. Recognize the word, Greek scholars?) I wavered on that decision for weeks. Was this maybe too personal? Wouldn’t the boundaries get too blurry? But we knew her and we trusted her and, boundaries aside, it made sense.

The day Abram was born was a Sunday: our head pastor was able to announce in church that I was in labor, and the whole congregation was able to pray together for me. I was a couple miles away from church, in a room with my husband; my Mom; (my Dad, popping in and out while reading the Sunday New York Times in the waiting room); a fabulous hospital staff, and my OB; and Martha, too. She was there through the whole messy and wonderful thing. (If you love birth stories, here’s my take and here’s Martha’s.)

My church, boundaries and all, is my spiritual family. And they were there with me, body and soul, that day. I am grateful for their presence, because it wasn’t an easy birth (though the outcome was exactly what we had hoped for).

Giving birth was the most embodied experience of my life. Birth is embodied from the down and dirty minutia of muscle and blood and fluid and excretions, to the pain and sensation, to the rhythm of breathing and contracting and pushing, heartbeat and blood pressure, right on to the big moment of a new little person coming out of your body and being placed on your chest. If the experience of birthing is not about bodies, I don’t know what is.

I have a hard time with idea of birth as a spiritual experience: that rubs me the wrong was theologically. God made us as beings with bodies. We are embodied creatures. We are meant to experience God not just in “spirit” but also in the embodied creation around us: the real life, physical, touchable world.

Birthing-Abram-The-Detailserikanderica-1.org_

I believe in embodied ministry, too. It matters that we are able to talk and touch and hug our congregations. It matters that we are with them, body and soul. Living and experiencing God through the body is a key part of the Christian understanding of who God is and how God relates to us. Don’t forget: we believe that in order to carry out salvation, God became flesh (incarnation), embodied. We live this out as pastors.

I still believe in boundaries. But there are always a few people in each call who play multiple roles in our lives and blur the boundaries. We take those relationships with us when we leave a church. Last week, Martha and her family had a four hour layover at the airport in our new town. We got a few precious hours with them.
My oldest child, now almost seven, said, as we drove to pick them up, “Martha’s really like family, isn’t she?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

Erica Schemper is a Presbyterian pastor who lives on the San Francisco Peninsula with her husband and two kids. While she waits for the next ministry thing, she enjoys hiking and running and driving on Highway 1 and chasing her kids…and day dreams about the next full time ministry call if only because it will allow her to once again afford childcare and house cleaning. She blogs at “Don’t Flay the Sheep“.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

  • The Amicable Break-Up: The two dating partners agree that one or both of them have outgrown the relationship, and they leave the door open to friendship.
  • The Claw-My-Eyes-Out Break-Up: You are miserable in the relationship and decide to bail.
  • The Ambush Break-Up: You are unceremoniously dumped, or your dating partner makes life unbearable to force you to throw in the towel.

For young clergywomen these personal kinds of break-ups may have eerie parallels in the professional world. We are, after all, still discovering our pastoral gifts and searching for the environments that will allow our ministries to flourish. It is likely that we will have to break up with a congregation at some point early in our careers.

While we all hope for amicable splits with the churches we serve with faith and verve, we don’t always have a choice about the type of break-up. We do always have the option to make a graceful exit. (Even if you’re told to take your purse and go immediately, you can go for the cool, collected perp-walk rather than the ranting, yanking-things-off-the-wall dash for the door.) To leave a call well, it might be helpful to consider the following: Read more