The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

An ‘after-pastor’ moves on

Posted by Ron George on March 5, 2011

Glimmer of Hope 2, by Giovanni Rubatelli

Glimmer of Hope 2, by Giovanni Rubaltelli

She was moved to tears the first time she walked into the sanctuary. You might say it was love at first sight. She was visiting a parish that would call her to be its rector. She was as pleased with the congregation, which had sold itself well, as the search committee was with her. (In the words of one, “I’m in love!”)  She succeeded a popular rector who had been in office for 16 years. The parish had been served by an interim rector for more than two years. The new rector took office in February 2009.

She said she wanted to spend the next 10 years of her life in her new position, until she retired at age 72. She envisioned a capstone ministry full of hope and growth. She came with more than 30 years’ experience teaching and practicing contemplative prayer. She had once founded a retreat house in the Rockies. She was a perfect fit, and none but a few thought otherwise.

Then came disclosure of sexual misconduct by the former rector with a woman who was still a member of the church. The new rector, just two months in office, did her bounden duty. She persuaded the woman to report this abuse of pastoral office to the diocesan bishop, who in turn reported the misconduct to the former pastor’s new bishop in another state. The former rector renounced ordination and left the ministry. Eventually, other women reported to the bishop that the former rector had been sexually inappropriate with them. It seems to have been a long-standing pattern.

Neither the diocese nor the parish were prepared to handle this matter. The bishop made a hash of his first meeting with the parish on a Sunday morning following the disclosure, coming off as an arrogant popinjay. Many in the parish assumed a defensive crouch from the beginning and began gossiping about the “witch-hunt” that led to their beloved former rector’s fall from good-standing. They blamed the bishop and the new rector among themselves and, often viciously, to her face. One parishioner scolded her in her own home during one of her gracious Friday-night dinners.

Carousel: Blame and denial, blame and denial, blame and denial

Tears once again washed across her face as she sat in the sanctuary, this time in pain; and anger blazed through her soul at being unjustly attacked. There was no more talk of 10 years of hope and growth. She vowed to remain in office, though, at least until the parish was healed of its wounds. Some left the congregation. Predictably, there was a financial crisis.

A committee of laity led the congregation – at least those who chose to participate – through a kind of recovery process at the recommendation of the diocese. Amid the complexities, the rector found allies as well as enemies. Some stayed who had threatened to leave while others left who had promised to stay. (I was one who had promised to stay but left.) There were matters to be dealt with other than the former rector’s misconduct and its aftermath. Generally speaking, the parish soldiered on in the usual way with the rector doing her best and never pleasing everyone. Then she let herself be nominated for bishop in another diocese, which would have gotten her out of her dicey situation. That alienated even a few of her friends, but who could blame her? She wasn’t elected, but it was clear thereafter that she would leave if given the opportunity, and that further eroded her effectiveness as pastor to this troubled and troubling congregation.

Like it or not, she was an “after-pastor,” a term she detested but which now certainly applies. It refers to pastors in the unenviable position of cleaning up the mess after a previous pastor’s sexual misconduct. This was an atypical case, because the former rector had been gone more than two years when the misconduct was disclosed, but the resulting dynamics were typical, according to a significant and growing body of research. Some parishioners were angry and resentful. Some felt betrayed and hurt. Many were in denial and eager to blame the victim for being a seducer; to blame church authorities for enforcing the rules; and to let the perpetrator off the hook, because after all, it’s just her word against his, and we know he’d never stoop to such a thing. Most of the congregation was confused and disappointed but had no axe to grind against the new rector. In general, there was a desire to “move on,” which was but another form of denial that any harm had been done.

A form of betrayal: See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing

So-called after-pastors – boy, I hate that term, too – are short timers, usually about 18 months to three years. As though parish ministry were not stressful enough, especially when succeeding a popular, long-time predecessor, after-pastors are nailed even harder. Their health suffers. Their marriages suffer. Their vocations suffer. Their careers suffer. None of which may be true for the after-pastor in question, but it would be an exception to the rule.

The parish has suffered, too, and now has a reputation to overcome. It will be a courageous presbyter indeed who takes on this troubled parish. It will be a courageous search committee that picks the short list. If the bishop in this case has any spine whatsoever, he will keep this parish under close pastoral supervision. This is a make-or-break pick. The wrong rector may be the last rector this parish ever has. It wouldn’t be the first time a parish has reverted to mission status after a succession of poor pastoral oversight.

Maybe this time, everyone will be up front with what ails the parish instead of being preoccupied with selling points. Had the parish and the bishop been upfront, the departing after-pastor might never have accepted the call in the first place, or at least she wouldn’t have been blindsided just two months after she took office. You see, the interim pastor had specific knowledge of the former pastor’s misconduct but was not able to persuade the victim to disclose. She said nothing to her successor. The bishop knew there was a misconduct problem, even though he didn’t know the victim, and said nothing to the candidate, who was from out of state and whose coming to his diocese he had to approve. Perhaps the most egregious secret-keepers, though, were members of the parish – members of the search committee – perhaps dozens of others, including office staff, who had specific knowledge of the misconduct and said nothing to the candidate about this inevitable pastoral pitfall. This institutional secret-keeping led directly to the undermining of what might have been – what would have been – pastoral ministry full of hope and growth.

The after-pastor has been rescued by a friend in California, a rector by the sea who needs an associate. All I can say is, thank God for that and thank God for the departing after-pastor, for though she’s leaving at an inopportune time – Lent, for crying out loud, which was the bishop’s doing – she’s leaving in relatively good health, at least according to her farewell letter to the parish last week. She may have made some mistakes along the way, but who hasn’t? She has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, given the hand she was dealt. I admire her courage and strength to have stayed as long as she did. She had every right to head for the exit the first time – and not the only time – a prominent parishioner bawled her out in her church office.

Only time will tell whether the parish has been left in good health; time, an honest self-study and full disclosure to candidates about the parish’s recent history. No one wants to see the sexual misconduct of this parish’s former rector disrupt or derail another ministry full of hope and growth.

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6 Responses to “An ‘after-pastor’ moves on”

  1. Patsy Durham said

    As usual, excellent and strikingly beautiful art!!

    As one who participated in the study materials and listening sessions recommended, my sorrow and fear is that not enough people read the book or participated in the sessions (either through anger, denial, or whatever). Thus, many of my “family” do not even understand the concept of an “after pastor”, which dooms our family to go through yet another “after pastor” until we all get in the boat. We believe we are “healed”, and we have come a long way. But in my opinion, we are not yet healed and healing will not occur during a search process.

  2. Jim Abbott said

    In the Spring of 2003 I accepted a call to serve 2 congregations that had been “yoked” for over 40 years. As an after pastor, I lasted just over 7 years in the one parish, and am still at the one that was the other half of the call. Perhaps it was the pastoral misconduct that was the underlying cause of one of the congregations deciding in the fall of 2010 to leave the ELCA. Perhaps it was the decision at the Churchwide assembly in August 1999 to permit the ordination of gays and lesbians, perhaps it was the changes in the whole cultural landscape finally crossing some imaginary line in central Texas. I don’t think I’ll ever know.

    I do know that our bishop at the time handled this poorly as well – he is retired now and his successor has done a much better job with the 2 similar cases that have come up so far in his tenure.

    I was only told about my predecessor’s misconduct informally by a fellow pastor, when I mentioned that I was about to accept the call. The call committee did not bring it up until I had accepted the call (verbally) and leaders of the congregations were negotiating the pay and benefits package. Neither I nor the bishop’s office did anything to deal with the events. My predecessor stayed in town, stayed married to his spouse, though the infidelity broke the marriage of his partner.

    In my first two years I buried his sister in law. He showed up for the funeral. She was a very popular teacher and had fought cancer for many years. Her funeral is still the largest worship event i have ever presided at. And I married his nephew, now without a mother. And my predecessor was there as well. I still do not know what I should have done, but doing nothing was doubtless not wise either.

    My goal now is to leave the remaining congregation (where I continue to serve) healthy when I retire – Easter Sunday, 2017. I hope I make it.

  3. Dolores Rice said

    Well written Ron. I do hope the Bishop will keep close tabs on the Parish
    and I pray with God’s help, a very special Rector will come into the life of the Parish that is so dear to Ken and I…we never know what is in store for us… to test our judgement? faith? healing? We as humans, have these lil’ crators in our hearts.Sometimes they errupt….
    Of course Faith in knowing that ALL Will be Well in HIS time. Healing will be in the uppermost concern of All that have been left with this bad taste..Stuff happens,life gets in the way..Blessings to my former parish and I hope you will release your continued anger with the clergy ..in your time of healing.. Blessings Brother We love you… Stay Close

  4. George H. said

    Gee, Ron, I had no idea all this was going on. After the Bishop made his announcement and the identity of the other perp was revealed, I thought that was it. Our new rector took us under her wing and all was supposed to be right with the world.
    This now explains why the last 2 years felt a little rocky, although on the surface, there was no basis for such feeling.
    Thank you for enlightening us.

  5. Jean Willard said

    Ron, I appreciate your thoughts and concern about the situation at All Saints. I was shocked that Sandy is leaving. I thought she was doing an excellent job and told her so.
    I have a new computer and am just now getting your message.

  6. Jan said

    Ron, this is an excellent recap of the past two years. You have pointed the strengths and weaknesses of all concerned. I hope somehow your recommendations are put into effect. I also hope that you will return to our parish; you are missed.

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