The problem that doesn’t get much air time
My closest friend throughout our adulthood was another pastor who left parish ministry early to get a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. After that, he turned back to the church, or rather to the churches, to serve as a screening psychologist for people seeking to enter ordained ministry. Building on that practice, he became a consultant for troubled parishes and pastors for a number of different denominations. All this took place over thirty years, a huge chunk of time that gave him great insight into the trials of parishes and churches. His name was Conrad (Bill) Weiser and in 1994 book he wrote about his psychological practice in Healers Harmed and Harmful. Title sort of says it all, doesn’t it?
Bill and I talked about his practice often – without breaking confidences – and I learned from him and others about the seamy stuff that doesn’t get much airtime. When I was a seminary professor previously, I was one of the faculty who led workshops on sexual harassment. I don’t mean to focus on sexual harassment, though that is a major part of the issue. Many manipulative behaviors are out there: psychological and spiritual abuse, cult-like exclusivity remember Jim Jones), and of course trials may come simply from being the wrong person for the right place or vice versa.
The issue is power. It’s not sex or religion or authority per se that’s the issue; it’s a power dynamic. When you are in any position of authority you may find yourself either on a pedestal or despised. Think lawyers and doctors, not only pastors. In ministry, you are likely to be put on the pedestal, which leads to problems. This idealization may be unnoticed; in former times, most people who entered ordained ministry were in their mid-twenties – some not yet mature enough to handle the position psychologically. The Immature do not recognize their power: the uneven nature of the pastor-layperson relationship is not evident to them.
Immaturity has brought great troubles to churches is the form of child sexual abuse. We cringe at such egregious behavior, but Bill had a reasoned take on it. In some churches, people were sheltered from “normal life” by religious training and sequestered so early that they never completed the task of maturing. Unleashed on congregations, they were and have been ticking bombs waiting to explode. In the case of celibate clergy, who did not have the chance to work through their teenage sexual identity issues, this bomb exploded into all sorts of sexual sins, for which the church continues to pay psychologically and economically. Then again, recall the famous television preachers who fell from grace through entering into covert liaisons with women or men, meanwhile preaching abstinence and sexual purity – and taking your money into the bargain. Charismatic personalities have historically been vulnerable to excesses of all kinds, and this has been evident in American pop Christianity. All this does great damage to people inside and outside churches, and it has made many cynical about the whole of Christianity.
The wrong approach is denial. When these issues arise, it is so much better to confront them head on rather than deny their existence, hide the guilty from view, or shift people like chessmen to another place, where – sad to say – the pattern may repeat itself, as we have seen it do so many times in recent decades. This is not the whole story of American Christianity, although many people see only this. We are much bigger than this but until these issues are faced cleanly, the mud on the face of American Christianity will remain.