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?


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,

You Shall Love… Yourself

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22:39b

I remember the first time someone pointed out that Matthew 22:39 assumes that you love yourself. It’s a simple nuance to the second most important commandment, but it impacted me profoundly.

“You shall love… yourself.”Fog City You Shall Love Yourself June 2013

It is in our nature as clergy to desire to reflect God’s love into the life of others. We provide pastoral care, support the disenfranchised, and walk beside people in their grief. Generally those who feel called to ministry get to that place because on some level they like people. My pastoral care classes in seminary provided vocabulary, resources, and framework for this work, but the desire to help others and inclination to listen were already there.

Self-care is another matter entirely. If you’ve been to seminary you’ve likely heard professor after professor advocating for proper boundary setting and self-care. You’ll hear adages such as “you must fill your own cup before you can fill others,” and “you must be the people of God, in order to do the work of the people of God.” But taking that time and space is counter-intuitive to most pastor types. We feel selfish spending time on ourselves and scripture reading can easily become just another work related task. Even when we seek out Sabbath time it can be nearly impossible to set aside the concerns of the parish. We don’t get to walk away from work at the end of the day. We are always on call. Even when we make special effort to be on vacation we will still be contacted in the case of a congregational death or tragedy. We never stop being a pastor, which at sometimes is great, and at others can be suffocating.

As a pastor in my first call I thought I was doing okay self-care wise. I was eating relatively healthfully, got a massage about once a month, met with a spiritual director once a month, went on regular walks with my dog, spent great effort and was able to find non-church friends in my area, and had even recently become engaged! On Facebook I looked like not only did I have it all together, but I was genuinely happy and living a joy-filled life. Behind those pictures of me with my handsome fiancé, sweet dog, and smiling friends, however,  was a much darker shadow. As the television show Portlandia all too accurately said, I was “cropping out the sadness.”

In ministry we learn to be adept at small talk, to reveal just enough about our personal lives to make a connection, but not too much as to be inappropriately vulnerable or make our congregation feel like they need to take care of us. When we’re used to doing this work of protecting our vulnerabilities, presenting our personal life in a professional way on Facebook is second nature. The trouble with this, however, is that we take so much time crafting the mask, we ourselves can forget what is underneath it.

Depression filtered into my life like a slowly rolling fog. If I squinted my eyes just right I didn’t even notice it was around me. And once I realized it was there it was nearly too late. I was crying at committee meetings and crying myself to sleep. When I tried to support the church council’s ideas for establishing financial accountability, members would angrily oppose the simple filling out of vouchers. While I knew these actions were motivated by their own fear of new things and their desire for control (in a part of their life that would lend that to them) — it eventually became impossible not to take things personally.

I never felt like I was doing anything right, and so many church members would confirm my perceived inadequacies and add their own criticisms to the list. When consulting with the church leadership on a technological update that the secretary had requested, a member e-mailed back saying that more technology in the church would just be an excuse for me to spend more time with technology and less time with people. While this particular technology wasn’t anything I was going to be interacting with, the idea that technology was more comfortable to me than some of the personal interactions cut me deeply. As a constant outsider in the community it was frequently difficult to connect with the members of the church in the ways they connected to one another. It was easier for me to work on the technological aspects of ministry because it was where I did have confidence in my gifts.

Finally my regional denominational leader approached me after he had received a call from a parishioner of mine complaining that I was not pulling my weight. He asked what was going on and all of my attempts at professionalism failed. I told him that I couldn’t even articulate the helplessness that I was feeling. While I pleaded for some sort of a break, he said, not very gently, that a medical leave for depression would have serious repercussions for me professionally. He wouldn’t give me an easy way out, but he did point me in the direction of the hard working way forward. He insisted that I go and see a doctor and find a way out of the fog.

If someone with my story came to me, I know what I would say. I would read them John 10:10 and tell them of Christ’s promise to provide abundant life. Perhaps I’d read Jeremiah 29:11-13 and remind them of God’s plan for them. I would pray for healing, peace, and comfort. But when it came to my own life, I was not so assured.

Three medication changes, 12 therapy appointments, and 20 gained pounds later, I’ve begun the climb out of the mire. I discerned that it was very necessary to move on from this place that has been so toxic to me. I have now accepted a position with a new congregation; one that will be on a multi-pastor staff rather than the solo pastorate I am leaving.

Part of me wishes I could’ve stuck it out here, but the other part of me is just so grateful to have a chance at a new beginning. As I begin saying painful goodbyes and packing boxes, I feel like a survivor. On the surface level, I’ve survived the congregation’s cruelty and anger. On a deeper level, I continue to survive depression’s fog. I pray that I may listen to the advice I would give to another, and that the stories of God’s love and care and redemption will once again permeate my heart. Most of all, I pray that I relearn to love myself as God has called each of us to do. May it be so.

The author has survived ministry for several years with the help and support of her dog, fiancé, and friends. She is looking forward to new life in her new congregation.

Photo Credit:  “Fog City” by David Yu. Accessed June 18, 2014.  Used under Creative Commons License.