How do they get away with it? Part Five

The wardens are manipulated

Have you seen Crimson Tide? Remember the mutiny scene?  Gene Hackman, the sub’s captain and Denzel Washington, the XO, are arguing over whether to authorize the launch of missiles. Washington refuses to repeat the order to launch. Hackman is yelling at the COB (Chief of the Boat) played by George Dzundza to arrest Washington. The COB responds, “Captain, please, the XO is right. We can’t launch unless he concurs.” Washington ends up relieving the captain of command and orders the COB to have the captain removed from the bridge.

It’s good to have a parish warden who understands the rules and has the courage to do what’s right.


Grooming the wardens


Another way in which abusive rector’s get away with it is -- they groom wardens to cooperate with them. The result is that the wardens end up being abused themselves.  There is a mix of positive behavior, usually early in the relationship, and abusive behavior later. It’s gradual. It may be the rector sharing small things about other parishioners or staff. Maybe expressing a concern about the behavior of the parish deacon. Slightly inappropriate but not too much. Along with the “talking out of school, may come brief apologies, “Oh, I shouldn’t have mentioned that.” Or requests for confidentiality, “Would you keep that to yourself?”  The wardens may find themselves thinking they have a special relationship with the rector. “She’s being relaxed, “herself,” with me.”

The warden is unlikely to see much harm in what’s happening. It’s a slow process of desensitization and enmeshment. The wardens caught up in this may find themselves feeling ashamed and retreat into a guilty silence or defensive rationalization. They may find themselves badly confused once the truth of abuse emerges – angry with the rector and also the abused person, maintaining an inappropriate defense of the rector along with some guilt about what they’ve done.


Three things that seem normal but may not be

Supporting the rector: “I need your support on this”

 They manipulate the wardens. It may go like this – “I need your help to contain something that can get out of hand and damage the parish, will you help me?” Most wardens are going to assume that they just say “yes” to that.

A more experienced warden will say, “tell me what’s going on.” And will then consider it and think about getting more information. 

Confidentiality: “It’s important that we maintain confidentiality about this.”

The rector's a priest. He knows all about confidentiality.  If he says this needs to be held in confidence, he must be right about that. 

Rationalization: “There are good reasons why we need to do this.”

The rationalizations offer an excuse for why it’s acceptable for the rector to act in a manner that the warden might normally think abusive. The rector always has good reasons for what she’s doing. She’s usually “saddened” by the need to do it but it’s for the good of the parish.

The manipulation here is like a work of magic. Keep the wardens’ eyes on the excuses and reasons and thereby away from noticing the action being taken and the likely impact of that action. 


The Crimson Tide concludes with a formal hearing to investigate what happened on the USS Alabama.  The hearing’s primary concern was a breakdown in the system. Those involved had not resolved their differences and the mission of the ship and cohesion of the crew was threatened.

Wardens need help in their roles. One aspect of that is that they continue to see themselves as self-defining actors engaged in a collaborative enterprise not as part of the rector’s “team.

The parish needs a high level of harmony to properly carry out the church’s mission. For that to happen, the wardens need an adequate knowledge of the church’s standards and norms regarding the treatment of people and the management of conflict. They need to be willing to stand up to a rector abusing her power – “I’m sorry, I can’t support such action” and even, “I don’t want to go down this path but if you continue what you’re doing I will call the bishop and involve the whole vestry.”

And they need to understand that it’s often not enough to remove the captain from the bridge; though that may be all that’s possible at the moment. There needs to be a level of resolution that allows the parish to be restored to harmony and effectively engage the mission. Wardens may need to reach beyond the parish for help.

The push-pull of conflict isn’t resolved by sending someone to their room – in time the resentment will burst into flame. If the rector has damaged someone’s reputation, poured paint over them, it is not enough to stop pouring and apologize. The paint must be removed. The stain upon the person’s reputation must be washed away. If the rector has caused great emotional pain the priest may need to enter into years of therapy and possibly be suspended from office for a time to allow a focus on recovery. In the Crimson Tide the captain goes into early retirement and the XO is told he will be given his own command.

Three thoughts for your reflection


Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny-to work out our own identity in God, which the Bible calls 'working out salvation " is a labor which requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears. Thomas Merton

Stability – Obedience - Conversion of Life

For stability means that I must not run away from where my battles are being fought, that I have to stand still where the real issues have to be faced. Obedience compels me to reenact in my own life that submission of Christ himself, even though it may lead to suffering and death, and conversatio, openness, means that I must be ready to pick myself up, and start .all over again in a pattern of growth which will not end until the day of my final dying. And all the time the journey is based on that Gospel paradox of losing life and finding it. goal is Christ. Esther deWaal 


Any authentic priesthood must derive from an inner core of silence, a life hid with Christ in God ...Only those who are at home with silence and darkness will be able to survive in, and minister to, the perplexity and confusion of the modern world. Let us seek that dark silence out of which an authentic ministry and a renewed theology can grow and flourish. Kenneth Leech during the 1988 retreat of the Order of the Ascension


To be continued

For an overview of this project.


Michelle Heyne       Bob Gallagher


* The wardens are a common target for manipulation. But it could be other influential members and other priests in the parish.


How do they get away with it? Part Four

They don’t realize they’re abusive. They think it's their right, their duty

It’s self-deception and rationalization. The more serious offenders just don’t see themselves as abusing anyone. Those making occasional outbursts, on the other hand, seem more likely to recognize that they have crossed a line.  They apologize, make restitution, and move on.

The others avoid seeing. Two examples.


It’s my right

When Bob was a relatively new consultant, meaning he didn’t know what he was doing, the bishop asked him to work with a rector and vestry in conflict. It was a suburban parish outside Philadelphia.  They were fighting over liturgical changes the priest had made.

He found his way to the meeting room. The room was crowded. In addition to the vestry there were a number of other parishioners. He could feel the agitation in the air. The vestry was gathered around a long table. The rector sat at the head of the table.

There was a book in front of the rector – “The Constitution and Canons.”  Even that young, inexperienced consultant knew that the rector was in deep trouble. The rector was under the illusion that because the canons gave him “full authority and responsibility for the conduct of worship” he didn’t have to “take counsel” with the laity of the parish.  He was a partial Benedictine. The rector liked the Saint’s instruction to not grumble; the "take counsel" part wasn’t as clear to him. That polarity – “Take Counsel – Stop Grumbling” – is in practice difficult to get right.

A hard stance about your rights is one way to avoid seeing your abusiveness.

Donald Trump may have the "right" to remove Robert Mueller as special counsel but it would not be "right" to do it. In fact, it could turn out to be obstruction of justice. Leaders, including rectors, obsessed by what they have a right to do are in danger of losing their moral footing. The rights of the office are given for a higher purpose and are to be exercised in terms of that purpose. 


It’s my duty

Some inexperienced clergy, and those who don’t learn easily, think they have a personal responsibility to “fix” people. They are disturbed about the members who are immature and tentative in their faith and practice. They may see moral issues through the lens of their political tribe and feel a need to be dismissive or argumentative with parishioners. Some vicars get hooked by one or two people in the congregation. They find themselves returning again and again to an internal agitation about those members.

Some rectors have a mental model of their oversight role that takes them down an abusive pathway. One saw his primary purpose in the parish being to hold the spiritual center for the community as a whole. It’s a good example of grandiosity and an inclination to over-function. A set up for abusive behavior. Very different from what we see in the work of Martin Thornton or Robert Gallagher, where the priest is patiently and humbly, nurturing a parish with an apostolic center and a catholic inclusiveness. The center is held not by the priest but by the proficient.


A hard stance

These hard stances of “it’s my right” and “it’s my duty” are problematic because they are just that – hard stances. The priest has made the stance an important part of her identity. It’s at the forefront of her thinking. It's something they feel a need to express. And it will distort the priest’s actions and relationships.

When it’s not a hard stance, but a loosely held notion, it’s something the priest can more easily let go of. The lack perspective and balance may take a bit of training and coaching. Sometimes a few words from a more experienced priest or wise warden will do it. Often there’s an inadequate pastoral theology involved.

There may be a desperation underlying the stance that has to do with the rector’s self-image – I’m a good person, I’m a competent person, I’m an important person.

In some case we’re dealing with a personality disorder. In other cases, it’s about poor emotional intelligence and inadequate conflict management skills. The first is serious and requires professional assessment and treatment. The second, can be addressed by training and coaching around pastoral oversight, self-awareness and methods for managing conflict.

The first, need to learn how to see the abuse they do. The second, already know when they’ve mistreated someone; so, in addition to saying “sorry” they need a wider range of pastoral models and behavioral options to draw upon.

To be continued

For an overview of this project.


Michelle Heyne       Bob Gallagher


How do they get away with it? Part Three

The abused cooperate

For years they tried to understand the rector. That was partly out of empathy and concern for him. It was also driven by a desire to protect themselves.

“Maybe if we understood what was motivating the rector’s behavior we could do something to calm him. We seemed to think that if we could understand him and do what he wanted – we’d get a normal relationship. We found ourselves walking on eggshells and adjusting our behavior to not set him off while trying to maintain our own sense of integrity.”

They would change their behavior in the hope that the rector would stop the harassment.

Two things to note. First there’s an imbalance of power. There's the power of rector, of the culture that the rector has shaped, and there’s the parishioners and staff that conform to that culture.  That power is overwhelming in comparison to the influence the individual brings to the situation.  Second, any chronically abusive person in the system, and their enablers, have a variety of methods for maintaining control. One of those is to point to the mote in your eye and try to make it equivalent to the beam in their eye. The abused person finds themselves wondering what they did to cause this.

And through it all the abused would keep trying to get it right. If only they could understand enough, if only they could comprehend what set off the abuse, if only they could behave in a manner the rector found more acceptable – maybe it would stop.

There’s a cycle

Growing agitation – The rector’s stress and agitation increases. There’s low level conflict. Levels 1 to 3 in Speed Leas’ model – a problem to solve, disagreement, contest. Or in Gallagher’s Relationship Cycle there are a series of relatively small rubs. The rector avoids engaging the appropriate conflict management strategy. The rector may be increasingly uncomfortable and see the victim as a threat. Or, the rector may be frustrated and feel unappreciated. In the rector’s mind the feelings justify her agitation and increased aggressive behavior.

Active abuse – There’s some abusive act or acts. Over time the acts will become more and more severe. The rector finds that the abusive acts aren’t producing the result sought. So, next time she tries another approach, often something more aggressive and hurtful.

Remorse – The rector feels bad about what she’s done or she fears that her position will be threatened if things become more public or the bishop gets involved. She relents a bit. But just a bit. There may be an apology and assurances of love and caring. But it will be very partial. There’s no deep insight taking place. The victim may regain a sense of hope. It may take several times through the cycle before the abused person sees what’s happening and takes more effective action.


What we’ve descripted above is a rather serious form of abuse. This isn’t the rector who on rare occasions gets overwhelmed and says something angry and offensive. It’s not simply the occasional expression of poor emotional intelligence in regard to self-awareness and conflict management. It’s abuse that inflicts serious damage on others. It’s abuse that is rooted in some type of personality disorder or other form of mental illness requiring professional diagnosis and treatment.

To be continued

For an overview of this project.


Michelle Heyne       Bob Gallagher


How do they get away with it? Part Two

Isolate/shun the victim

In a recent column David Brooks told the story of Sarah Hemminger. It began this way –

Sarah Hemminger grew up in Indiana understanding the debilitating power of social isolation. When she was a girl, her father discovered that their pastor was dipping into church funds and reported it to the congregation. Instead of doing something about the pastor, the community shunned her family. Sarah would sit at parties and neighborhood events and nobody would talk with them. She spent eight years of her childhood ostracized. 

Shunning, in some form, is probably the most common form of isolating that goes on. In Episcopal churches it rarely takes the form experienced by Sarah Hemminger. What is more likely is a mix of actions, e.g., involving wardens and other clergy in a “pastoral” conversation about how Mary is difficult, disparaging Mary in a few one-on-one conversations with other members, removing Mary’s name from parish lists, telling parish staff to exclude or not invite Mary to certain events, removing Mary from a ministry she had done for years, the vicar “forgets” to send Mary the notice for a meeting.

The direct action isn’t actually the worse thing happening. It’s the spin off effect. The “word” gets passed around informally about Mary. When she attends the Wednesday Eucharist, as she has for several years, there is now a tentativeness between her and people she has been friendly with; there is something going on that no one knows how to talk about. And if the Vicar is the presider – it is painfully uncomfortable.

The shunned person gets cut off from the normal social exchanges. A strange silence creeps in.

                      Silence like a cancer grows.  Simon and Garfunkel

The silence may be a form of intentional exclusion. More likely it’s an attempt by others to maintain a veneer of harmony.

Shunning is persistently avoiding, ignoring, or rejecting a person because of dislike or caution. When the vicar has engaged in behaviors that cause others to shy away, keep their distance, ignore, avoid speaking with Mary – she’s being shunned.

Abusers work at isolating their victims. They want to stay in control of the situation. They are “the Rector.” They hang their identity on being a pastor and priest. Even if they’re abusing you they will use language such as – “as your priest I do care about you.” They will assure others that they pray for you, have no personal enmity toward you, and will provide you with the appropriate pastoral care. It’s somewhat like having a person come up to you, hit you three times with a club, and then ask if you'd like a hug.

If they have done something to isolate you by restricting your role in the parish they may at some point attempt to appear gracious. They may arrange a special coffee hour thanking you for your past work and offer a prayer for whatever you will do next. Or they may offer a slight opening – having removed you from the altar guild you get asked if you’d fill in on occasion. All this helps them reinforce their own self-image of compassion and graciousness. At the same moment it is an action expressing their total control – they dole out pieces of life to you.

Isolating and shunning destroys a person. Robs them of human dignity. It’s bullying without visible wounds. Belonging is a basic human need. Even brief periods of exclusion and ostracism can set off painful response in people. If experienced over a long period the person can become resigned to it and withdraw into alienation and depression. Some become aggressive in their attempt to regain some measure of control over their life.

We'll say something about resisting abuse in a future article. That will include ways of addressing it through formal church processes. For now, we'll note a few things that can be done to off set the abuse.


  • Engage your lightness of spirit. Allow space for your sense of humor.
  • Ask others to sit with you during the Eucharist or Office.
  • Continue in the prayers
  • Pray for perseverance, courage and humility.


To be continued

For an overview of this project.


Michelle Heyne       Bob Gallagher


How do they get away with it? 

Our concern is about the kind of behaviors, on the part of the clergy-in-charge that do serious damage to individuals and help shape a destructive, sub-Christian parish culture.

About this project -- We are more concerned with naming, understanding, and looking for effective ways to manage (non-sexual and non-physical) leader behaviors that are harsh, cruel, and brutal; that violate fundamental understandings of Christian community; or that may represent a pattern of behaviors less serious in isolation but that extend over long periods of time; a stance toward the congregation, or selected people, that is contemptuous and communicates that they are beneath consideration or worthless; a pattern of having scapegoats; forms of psychological or emotional abuse in which the clergy-in-charge subject a person to behavior that may bring on some form of trauma.


Here are two ways in which they get away with it.

Parishioners didn’t sign up for fighting

People have little patience for conflict and tension in their parish. Some are fine with hearing sermons about addressing the sin and injustices of the world – the stuff out there. But they long for a parish that is at peace. They want a parish the feeds their soul with good liturgy and music, occasional programs of formation and education, and a sense of community.

What we’ve observed is that when conflict breaks out in a parish most people have a very limited capacity for perseverance, courage, and humility. If it goes on too long some will withdraw by attending less frequently or avoiding coffee hour. Others will begin to attend a different parish.

The rector engaged in abusive behavior can often just wait it out.


The rector is seen as a nice person

Rectors that abuse their power in significant ways will usually focus the abuse on one or two people at a time.  The actions aren’t visible to the larger congregation.

Even if people sense that something is “off” they are likely to rationalize it away – “The rector’s a good priest he must know what he’s doing”; “I don’t want to be intrusive, there must be a good reason for his coming less often.”

If the rector is a bully – as long as it’s contained and doesn’t disrupt the larger congregation – lay leaders will not address it.

The “psychological contract” for most people in the parish isn’t around the rector. Their connection is more likely to be around the liturgy and prayer life, music and friendships. And for those who are driven by needs around the rector – most are inclined to settle for the rector being “nice.”

Things can become system wide in cases where the rector makes the mistake of, underestimating the willingness and ability of the abused to resist, or acts abusively toward too many people in a short time frame.  

Even in those situations, when the matter becomes public, what may happen is that there will be enough parishioners taking the side of the rector that the priest holds onto the position.

Sometimes these clergy suffer from a form of personality disorder. We’ll offer an article on that topic in a later posting.

To be continued


For an overview of this project.


Michelle Heyne       Bob Gallagher