Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Heaven help us! We have to stop doing this!
This is what bothers me. Read on, I'll get to it. A small group of people, a powerful minority, took exception to my leadership at the congregation I served in Littleton. They voted against my initial Call, and stood apart from the beginning. They had another candidate, one who, incidentally, had left his previous call after allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. They opposed me on every level, in every venue, about everything. Everything. I was assured they would come around eventually and I confess to spending an inordinate amount of time seeking to know them and to help them know me right from the start. It was not out of my need to be liked or popular but because every leader knows how important it is to have broad understanding and, if possible, support. Whether or not they liked everything I did, every initiative, I believed it was important to be transparent and forthcoming about reasons, background, and expected outcomes. Again, simply what all good leaders do. In a congregation that numbered roughly a thousand souls, these folks got more than their fair share of my time and energy. But it was never enough. You know what I'm talking about. It happens to all of us, in any setting. As the old saying goes, "you can't please all of the people all of the time." So it goes. You've been there. Somebody suggested once that I walk on water. But then, of course, the complaint would be that I couldn't swim. Sadly, though, there were a small number of folks whom I could never please, not any of the time, no matter what I did. Because, finally, it was not about that. It was not about anything visible. It was about something secret. I was not a perfect leader, not there, not anywhere. But, if I can quote a number of colleagues who were on top of the situation from start to finish, I was "damn good," "as good as they're going to get." And most definitely, "good enough." But it wasn't good for them, not in their view. Because I knew. Official sources had broken our confidentiality agreement and disclosed to these church members that I knew the unknowable, the taboo. They were anxious enough when I arrived, what with my background and expertise as the churchwide director of the ELCA Strategy for Responding to Clergy Sexual Misconduct. But when it was confirmed to them that my knowledge was not simply theoretical, topical, and that I was aware of their history, the anxious behavior flew off the charts. Unfortunately, I did not know my trust had been broken. That is, I didn't know they knew I knew. At that point,I was not sure what to do yet, wanting to be careful and considerate of the painful array of experiences within the congregation, wanting to be, first and most of all, compassionate and kind toward any who were victimized. But during this time of prayerful consideration, these members of the congregation received information that could not but make them extremely anxious. They also received untruthful information (which is to say, they were lied to)about my intentions as to what needed to be done with respect to that dangerous knowledge. So of course they were scared. Can you blame them? I proved to be impervious to run of the mill tactics, tactics that had been successful for them in the past, to intimidate and run pastors off, they ratcheted up the stakes. I enlisted two well-known national experts in congregational conflict, health,and organizational dynamics as guides and resources. Speed Leas has been a giant in the field for decades. Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center is widely utilized and respected for his useful applications of a variety of methodologies, including that of Rabbi Friedman and other systemmic approaches to congregational conflicts. They spent hours advising me, behind the scenes, along with friends who were former bishops in my church and leaders of other denominations. Unfortunately, my bishop was not helpful, inasmuch as I soon discovered that I was not receiving honest information and reports from him. That betrayal was devastating to me. To a person, these advisors made this observation about life in our times. We begin with the stance that if you disagre with someone, you tell them. You express your views. Then, if you disagree or don't like someone, you express your view to them and seek equal respect for your point of view. You want to be heard, considered. Next, one works to impress upon them the rightness of your perspective. From that it escalates to one's needing to persist and prevail. Mutual tolerance is not enough. One has to win. Then, the need to dominate. Then the need to exclude. To humiliate. To ruin. Then the need to destroy. These experts suggested to me that our society has become less tolerant of difference and that this need to win, to prevail, to dominate that has always been with us, has become increasingly a need to ruin, to destroy. Whether or not its new, its true. As time went on, the hostility against me escalated to these alarming proportions. Even though only a small minority of members of this congregation had these fears and intentions, their behaviors disrupted the mission and daily routine ministry to the point that it became a consuming reality that surrounded and pervaded my daily life and that of the entire community. The harassment, hostility, stalking, threats, and sabotage I experienced pulled my energies away from healthy positive activity. Because I could not count anymore on getting honest information, I was constantly off-balance. On the second September 11, in 2002, one year after the most horrific and dramatic death I had ever encountered as a pastor, the bishop's office issued a "report," by which the bishop sought to evaluate the conflict and advise the congregation and me of steps we might take toward a healthy future. I forwarded a copy of that report to Mr. Leas and Mr. Blackburn and several other leaders around the church. Again, to a person, their response was, "he put a target on your back, Jan." "He did everything but kill you himself." "Jan, it's open season. He's given the greenlight for anybody to do anything to you." "You are the sacrifice, the scapegoat for all that has gone wrong in this congregation in the last thirty years." "He took every complaint these folks had and wrote it down. And calls that a report." The report made no mention at all, gave no acknowledgement whatsoever that the majority of those who expressed their views to the bishops' office took exception to the behavior and the perspectives of this minority. From that evening on, after I distributed the report to the congregation, sure enough. The hostility escalated. I was warned to not be at the church building alone. I was advised to be careful, to watch my back when driving. I confess, as much as I continued to be prayerful, to be mindful and to meditate, I was scared, more and more as the days and weeks went on. No, that's not quite true. I was terrified. It was a green-light to violence. I was hanging out there on my own. "Go and get her," the report was interpreted to have said. At some point, I dissociated and became a high-functioning zombie. Now, back to what bothers me. Certainly I'm bothered by what happened to me, to this congregation, by the abuse I encountered. But what is bothering me today is the disturbing pattern that has been building over the past several months, of demonizing President Obama. It is an old axiom in the anti-war and non-violence movements that "any attempt to dehumanize my neighbor is a step toward war," toward violence. The current discussions about racism expose the ugly under-belly of this country. Of course, we are still racist. Some of us less than others. The steam-roller of hatred that continues to gather force is disturbing on so many levels. President Obama has back-up that I never had, not officially, not when it counted. He has protection that we can only imagine how desparately is needed. That grieves me. It grieves me that his focus can be distracted, that he should have to be fearful, that his family is fearful. I see the looks on Michelle's face sometimes, as he moves into a crowd, and I cringe. I can only imagine what she feels. We need a President who is free to give his full energies to the challenges that lie before us. We need a President who is criticized but not demonized. Even if it is only a small minority who are spurred on by this belittling and demonizing rhetoric and activity, even if it's only 50 out of a 1000, it's enough to do terrible damage. To impose a grave danger. I hear the likes of Rush and Glenn and Sean with painful sensitivity. Their extreme and ill-considered words, the exaggerations and lies, the demonizing is an invitation to violence. I know. And that is why I share my story. During the days from mid-September until the attack that finally levelled me in late October of 2002, I lived in fear, unable to focus. There was already enough cortisol flooding my system to fill a reservoir. I lived on high alert. The experience of facing hate and hostility on a daily basis was exhausting. I had no idea.