Means of Grace, Hope of Glory


Abuse of Power: Recent thoughts

The book

We know that some of you are wondering when the abuse of power book will be available. Here’s a story – long ago, around 1995, Ascension Press asked me to write a book on the four core frameworks used in CDI (now Diocesan CDI). They even gave me an advance. In 2001 or so, I returned the advance. I just wasn’t ready. It finally got published in 2008 as Fill All Things: The Dynamics of Spirituality in the Parish Church.

In the MBTI system Michelle Heyne and I are both INFPs. We tend to work in spurts and seek “the perfect.” Makes for slow writing (except for when it doesn’t).

All of which is to say, we are working on four books at the moment. The abuse of power book isn’t at the top of the list. So, maybe 2019; or 2029. As we’ve gotten into it, we’ve realized that we need to do more interviews at all levels of the church system. That will take some time. If that goes on too long we may restore the abuse of power blog.

Note: the picture is John Macquarrie

In the meantime – a few recent thoughts.


I have the right! 

When I was a very new consultant, maybe around 1975, the bishop sent me to do conflict management work with a suburban parish. I was very green. Ordained a priest only 4 years earlier, I was many years the junior of the rector of that parish.

I walked into the room where we were to meet. There was a large table in the center of the room.  Most people were hugging the walls, talking in small groups. Around the table were three members of the vestry. At the head of the table was the rector. His hands rested on a book. As I moved closer to introduce myself, he stood; that’s when I saw the book. It was a copy of the Constitution and Canons. My heart dropped. “Not a good sign” I thought. 

I’ve only had a handful of situations where the rector or vicar tried to address a conflict by asserting his or her rights. In most, things ended poorly for the priest’s position. I hope things were better for the priest’s soul.

When you’re justifying your actions based on the rights of positional authority instead of what’s right to do – you’re probably in trouble.


The seeking of power

From time to time I return to John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology. Sometimes it’s interesting to see what I underlined, and see the notes placed in the margins. A few weeks ago, I rediscovered the margin note, “abuse of authority.” (quotes on page 430) 

“What the New Testament – with Christ himself – undoubtable does condemn is the seeking of power and preeminence among Christians, and the exercise of authority in a self regarding way.  It might be confessed that there has been plenty of this in the church, and that the experience of it has kindled in some the distrust of what they call “prelacy.”  The Church, after all, is only on its way to holiness, and so sin remains, and even the offices of the church can be used (or rather, abused) By careerists in search of notoriety and power.  Spiritual authority gets confounded with worldly position, and as a result the whole conception of spiritual authority and the offices to which it attaches are brought into disrepute.”


The sin of pride -- universal

Macquarie notes both the universal reality of the sin of pride and how there’s “plenty” of power seeking in the church. True! We have many careerists. Too many clergy who find it difficult to use their authority properly – on behalf of Christ instead of in self-regard. Most are intelligent enough to do a bit of proof texting and rationalization as they excuse their behavior. Very hard to get them to actually have a listen-respond type conversation.

 “But once again, Abusus non tollit usum. The sin of pride which leads to these perversions of the ministerial offices is so universal that in any case the abolition of the offices will not prevent this sin from making its inroads. Even in Christian groups which abhor “prelacy” and pride themselves on the “parity” of their ministers, there is no lack of power politics. Indeed, the game is played even more dangerously, because it depends on invisible pressures, the cult of personalities, and many other hidden factors through which power and authority can be exercised behind the scenes; if there always is the risk of power, surely it is better that it be openly attached to public offices. But the true Christian authority is not this kind of power at all, nor does it feed anyone’s ego. It is an authority that is conferred by Christ. It is not “earned” by the holder of the office nor can it be to him a cause of pride. It is a responsibility laid upon him to be an “ambassador” of Christ and to speak “on behalf of Christ.”(2 Cor. 5:20) The authority belongs to the office, to the church, ultimately to Christ from whom the office has come.”


Checks & Balances

Two news items today caught my attention. Both were related to the increase in autocratic behavior on the part of those in positions of power. We see it on both the left and the right. It’s there in government, industry, education and the church.

Both articles were about people in power attempting to silence and remove difficult people.  Autocrats work at trying to reduce the role and visibility of people who make them uncomfortable.

The first was the story of CNNs Jim Acosta’s struggle with the President over his White House press pass. The second was about Vladimir Putin’s efforts to silence Aleksei Navalny, an opposition politician. Federal judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee, issued a restraining order forcing the White House to restore the press pass. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Russian government has abused its powers.

All that brought to mind one of the weaknesses in the church’s system to manage abuse. We have no truly independent court system. And we certainly have no reliable way to quickly restrain a leader’s abuse. We lack checks and balances.

How can we reform the system so that truth and justice might be asserted in a timely manner? A wise and independent voice that can call a leader from self-regard and power-seeking to humility and Christ. 



The conversations

Tree of Life, Pittsburgh

I grew up in Philadelphia. Until the row houses were built along Summerville Ave, I could see Har Nebo Cemetery from the front of my house. It was one of the places the kids on my street would play. Not too often because cemeteries were scary. It was a Jewish Cemetery. It was from Mount Nebo that Moses was granted a view of the Holy Land. There’s a tradition that Moses is buried on the mount.

Temple Sholom was a conservative Jewish congregation that was across the street from my childhood parish, the Church of the Messiah. The synagogue was built in 1947.

By law public schools had to read at least ten verses from the Bible, each day, in the classroom. When you got into the upper grades at Carnell the students would select and do the reading. I never once heard a New Testament reading. We gentiles would not be so rude as to impose that upon our Jewish classmates. Psalms 10 and 24 were favorites.

My best friend in Jr. High School was Arnie. We ate lunch together, talked, played in the school yard. Arnie was Jewish, as were most of the kids in the school. 

The man who owned the candy store (cigarettes, candy, ice cream, pin ball machines) on the corner at the end of our street had numbers tattooed on his arm. As did one of my math teachers.

You get the idea.

There is no conversation to be had between anti-Semites and the rest of us. Well, there is a call to repentance and a willingness to help a person turn toward holiness and righteousness.

There is a conversation to be had with people who aren’t anti-Semites themselves but create a climate in which anti-Semitism festers. It’s hard to have the conversation because they can’t see how they are helping shape that climate. The President has a daughter and son-in-law who are Jewish. I’m sure he loves them. In recent years many Episcopalians have supported acts and groups that the overwhelming majority of American Jews see as anti-Semitic. We seem to do that while being quite outraged over some readings from John.

The parish conversation: How might we accept responsibility for the real-life impact of our actions? If we feel called to join calls for Palestinian justice how might we do that in a way that doesn’t end up colluding with Hamas and contribute to an anti-Semitic climate?

Here are a few resources from the Anti-Defamation League 

A definition 

An Index of Global anti-Semitic attitudes  

News article: Comments of Jonathan Greenblatt, Director of the ADL


From PBS - American Anti-Semitism 


Guns in America

What happened in Pittsburgh has rekindled the tribal debate over guns. If you want to help parishioners have a conversation about gun policy in the nation, or their city, you might make use of this week’s issue of Time magazine.

The writer's set out to see if there was any common ground. 

"The gun debate stands frozen in stalemate, advocates unable to agree even on the meaning of words. When one side appeals for “common­sense gun controls,” the other hears only “control.” When some say “law-abiding gun owners,” others only hear “gun.” "

"Even though they may disagree on guns, their opinions are grounded in lived experience and expressed with a sincerity and respect often missing in the national debate."

Articles introducing the project

The project “brought together 245 people from every imaginable vantage point: veterans and teachers, hunters and doctors, people afraid that guns may kill their children and people afraid they won’t have guns to protect their children. They include Lezley McSpadden, whose son Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Mo., which helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement; members of the trauma team that treated victims of the horrific 2016 sniper attack on Dallas police; House majority whip Steve Scalise, a gun-rights supporter who was critically injured in a shooting at a congressional baseball practice; and former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.”

Listen to the video on this page

More background

The Guns in America Project web site

A good place to begin is with the “Hear featured stories” at the bottom of the page. It offers reflective and respectful voices of people whose opinions are grounded in experience.




A stubborn mind 2

Here’s another thought about what can help us clergy with our stubborn minds.                       Part one is here

Allow yourself to start with the assumption that you are to be obedient. And the starting place for that is to do the daily office for 20 years.

Our minds are nudged, reshaped, challenged by that pattern of prayer in which we join with the whole church, the quick and the dead, in the adoration of God. We say the psalms until the phrases of righteousness, justice, care for the poor and God’s acceptance of our human limitations and sin, become our own. We hear the scriptures again and again until we have inwardly digested God’s ways. And we pray the Lord’s Prayer and the collects, so they might orient us to Reality – forgive us as we forgive, justice and truth, keep watch, your immeasurable love, awareness of your mercies.

Managing conflict

I’m focusing on conflict for two reasons. First, our stubborn minds are likely to bring on conflict. Our stubbornness generates resentment. It causes us to lose the opportunity to deal with matters when they are relatively simple irritants.

Second, conflict is a part of life toward which most of us take an unproductive stance. We avoid, or we get our-back-up too quickly. The scriptures and tradition may offer more details about what we need to do in conflict than about dealing with poverty and justice or celebrating the Eucharist. Yet we have become very good at side-stepping those norms.

I’ve seen too many rectors behave in one of these ways when faced with conflict. 

  • They place the canons on the table in front of them.
  • They announce that they have spoken with the Bishop (who agrees with them).
  • When asked by their adversaries to meet, they refuse or put it off.
  • They send an email explaining how they had a right to do it and how what they did was the right thing to do.
  • They obsess about something the adversary said or did. Something that shows how confused or bad the adversary is.
  • Add your own.

Stubborn minds. 

Four phases 

I see four phases for managing conflict in the Scripture. The same elements appear in the early church fathers, writers on the spiritual life, and the behavioral science approaches to conflict management.

Timely and quickly

      "Come to terms quickly with your accuser" and "do not let the sun go down on your anger"

Face-to-face and one-on-one

       “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

Involve others

      “take one or two others along with you"


     “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”


Don't be a literalist with all this. It all needs to be part of your inner life; accessible in the time of need. And, in that time, you will need to adapt, navigate, reflect, consult and decide.

You can learn the phases and norms by reading a bit or going to a conflict workshop. If you’ve done the daily office for twenty years, you’ll have had the wisdom come at you again and again. Frequently, that will happen during a time when you’re busy avoiding or putting on your armor.

Combine that prayer life with workshops that help you understand both a few conflict management models and your own emotional reaction when in conflict. That adds the needed “Reason” element to Scripture and Tradition.

        Use the Search element above to find articles on "conflict" on this web site


One more thing

One more thing. You have to decide to take a stance that orients you to act in obedience. Being the rector of a parish, and doing parish development, isn’t a university discussion group or you offering a few pieces of wisdom. Our mulish and willful minds are to give way to receptivity, humility and responsiveness.

It will come more easily if we decide now to be obedient – timely, face-to-face, witnesses, and kindness.



A stubborn mind

Real parish development isn’t possible when you are of a stubborn mind.

Parish development efforts require leaders who are adaptable while at the same time holding firm to the parish’s identity and integrity. They need to understand what parishioners’ value about the parish as it has been over time. They need to learn about and appreciate what the parish has done at its best over the years. They need to understand the ethos of Anglicanism and nurture that in the parish’s culture. They need to love the parish and its people; to see it as a microcosm of the Body of Christ – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. 

At Morning Prayer

I got onto this during Morning Prayer today. The Office had a reading from Ecclesiasticus. – “stubborn mind” was mentioned twice.

A stubborn mind will fare badly at the end … A stubborn mind will be burdened by troubles (3:26-27)


It went nicely with the second reading from Acts 28

You will indeed listen, but never understand,
   and you will indeed look, but never perceive. 
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
   and their ears are hard of hearing,
     and they have shut their eyes;
     so that they might not look with their eyes,
   and listen with their ears,


Letting go

I’m seventy-four this week. At times I think I’m the same 12 year-old growing up on Augusta Street in Philadelphia -- glad to have friends; playing handball against the factory wall; looking forward to Friday evening with the family, TV and Breyers ice cream. Also, scared, wanting to belong, bored with church, willing to try things and afraid I’d fail, beginning to long for something larger and more significant in life but not knowing what that was. A kid – confused and absolutely certain, timidity with grit.

I think I’ve grown to be less stubborn and more persevering. Slowly, bit-by-bit, measured by decades. I used to say the Creed and want to revise it. Because I knew it didn’t make sense. Now I assume there’s a lot I don’t know and don’t understand. I’m amazed at how much the Church got right. I used to know how to solve the problems of society. Now I accept that sin will not go away and, even so, I’m to fight under His banner. The older I get the more I appreciate Aunt E’s insistence that I be baptized.

I know some of the moments when the shift was in process -- from stubbornness to perseverance. When I wanted a leave-of-absence from seminary (no one did that back then). I wanted to do community organizing. Dean Harris said, ‘You can have the leave. And I want you to know that there’s as much sin in this place as there is out there.”  And a few years later when the field education director stood with me and other seminarians looking out the Refectory windows, and said, “I know that Mr. Gallagher has grown over these years. He’s quieter.”

As the very young vicar of Saint Elisabeth’s, I was proud that we stopped the decline and began to increase in membership; that we became known for serving the neighborhood; and that bishop no longer wanted to close us. What made it possible for me to play a role in all that were the routine of the parish’s daily office and the early moments of humiliation and humility – having parishioners push back on a decision I made about how we would celebrate Easter and crying in front of lay parish leaders, and asking their forgiveness, when I made a serious mistake in how I fired an employee.

In both those examples, being pushed on and the tears, I had to let go of being “right” (it wasn’t easy, and it had to be in that moment, not later after "consideration"), and allow myself to be “one” with these people I hardly knew. I was able to go into my second year with them knowing that we trusted one another, that we were in this together, and what we were “in” was God.

In both cases we worked out a way forward that accomplished what I had sought. In both cases the parishioners ended up affirming what I wanted to do. Those things could happen because they insisted on being heard, and I was willing to listen to them, be responsive to their concerns, and let go of being “right.”

More recently

Cancer helped. 2010 was a year of humiliation, humility and perseverance. A time of Grace. Being stubborn had no place to be.

Benedict wants us to meditate on death. As I age, I find that the opportunities for such meditation comes easily and frequently. Less a discipline, more an awareness.

What else has been helpful for me? I think the part of my temperament drawn to harmony and curiosity has, at times joined with my decision to take a stance of forgiveness – and that causes the stubbornness to ease. Over fifty years of the daily office has helped me return to the awareness of the presence of God, the angels, and the whole company of heaven. For me, it’s a way in which I have been oriented toward God’s perspective and company. Human relations and organization development training gave me concrete skills for listening and shaping listening parishes.

There are parts of your temperament that are gifts of God; there are stances, decisions about attitude, that we can each make such as forgiveness and listening; and there are practices we can learn and engage – that will place us in the pathways of grace. What are the gifts, decisions and practices you need to accept and learn? 

For what it’s worth

I still find myself with a stubborn mind at times, many times. Maybe less than some years ago.

I don’t think I get to abolish the stubborn mind. I do think that God nudges me to be gentle and humble and kind. And, more now than before, I’m a bit more likely to understand and perceive. But just to remind me of how Reality works, God allows my stubborn mind to come forward at times.

For what it’s worth, here is what I learned. I’m not going to get it right all the time. I frequently find myself initially in a stubborn place. What I can trust in, is the One-that-stands-alongside me, the Gentle One, the Humble One -- God will nudge and guide me toward holy perseverance.

Real parish development isn’t possible when you are of a stubborn mind.


A stubborn mind will fare badly at the end. A persevering mind will find joy and true life.




Not listening: I have the power; get reconciled to it

Rectors make decisions all the time that don’t satisfy everyone.  And healthy priests and healthy parishes don’t spend excessive energy re-visiting those decisions or trying to get consensus. This is one more area where there’s not a simple answer.

One of the most critical insights for people first learning about the Shape of the Parish model is that they need to stop fussing around the outer edges and nurture the inner rings—the Sacramental and especially the Apostolic.  The idea is to ground parish strategy in the center, where those of mature and progressing faith can be fed.  Part of that involves not permitting the immature and the tentative to set the climate. 

This doesn’t mean that it’s OK to demean or systematically disenfranchise the tentative or immature.  Methods of listening must be employed regularly and effectively.  We need parish-wide meetings where members are able to reflect on their common lives using theologically-appropriate models, such as the Benedictine Promise, or the In Your Holy Spirit Model.  If the starting place is how we’re doing with our prayer life, the conversation is quite different than if we start anywhere else. 

We need to gather concerns from the community—what they like, what concerns them, what they hope for (Likes – Concerns - Wishes). And we need to take the critical step of prioritizing those concerns so we learn where the real weight is in the congregation. 

Ineffective (and sometimes intentionally manipulative) listening processes use brainstorming without prioritizing.  That allows any random comment to be used by leaders as indicative of “what we’re hearing.” 

At parish retreats where we use these methods, there are often a number of tense moments as issues of disagreement arise.  The overwhelming response, though, is almost always that it’s a relief to talk about these things together and to understand what matters to people. 

Often we learn that the issues identified through parking lot conversations or other one-on-one communications are not as serious as those hearing about them assumed.  Where there are persistent concerns that affect a few people—particularly related to the rector’s perceived lack of caring, or related to the rector’s lack of skill with change—it’s really important to follow up with those who are hurt or angry and see if the relationship can be healed. 

Note that if a conflict is coming from those at the center (especially the Apostolic core, but also the institutional center – attention is necessary both for those that ground the parish in faithfulness and those who exercise institutional power), the priest needs to pay particular attention to that because the issue is likely to be a serious one. 

To focus for a moment on the Apostolic --  they are more likely to respect the rector’s authority and to avoid behavior that smacks of “troublemaking,” so, if the rector is not herself engaging the norms of the Church, the very maturity displayed by the Apostolic will be targeted for suppression and abuse. 

These conflicts may involve very few people in numbers, but they may also have deep impact on the community.  


1. What are the issues and do they involve matters that affect parish health and practice?  If you’re not listening to matters that are fundamental to parish life, spiritual practice, or Christian community, that’s a problem.

2. Is there a misunderstanding about role?

A common problem is that vestries will come from a false mental model, assuming that they are a board and the rector works for them.  Conflicts can become contentious quickly when there are poorly-defined expectations or unworkable models for role and responsibility. 

Another false mental model is that the vestry and wardens exist to back up the rector, regardless of what the rector is doing. Instead of understanding that they are to bring their own best judgment and Christian conscience to the role, it can be easy to see the job as rubber-stamping.  Wardens will often find themselves saying, “I’m sure he’s well-intentioned. He wouldn’t do anything to harm you.”  Or, “I really can’t talk about confidential matters,” even though the matter is only confidential because the rector doesn’t want it discussed. 

Of course, failure to address roles and expectations early through education, both in an ongoing way and ideally before people get on the vestry, exacerbates the problem.  Parties become more entrenched.  But even if the mental model is wrong, priests need to listen for the underlying concerns. Too often, the priest will correct the misconception, often in a heavy-handed or legalistic way, but not seek more information about what is beneath that.  Is the rector seeking counsel inadequately?  Does the priest not know how to implement change well?  Is the priest over-controlling?  Does he tend to hurt people unnecessarily due to unmanaged personality traits such as introversion leading to a failure to share feelings and thoughts or inquire into those of others?  Or a tendency to focus on impersonal cost-benefit analysis to the exclusion of consideration for how people are affected? Conflict always involve at least two people.  And when the priest is consistently cutting off exploration or ignoring her own contribution, that’s an indication that the priest’s approach may lead to abuse. 

3. If the issues are mostly about the inter-personal relationship, the priest needs to hear those concerns respectfully, directly from those with the concerns.  It can be useful to ask what behavioral change might be helpful from the other person’s perspective. It can also be useful to be curious and humble about what the person experiences in the priest’s behavior that is troubling. Instead of assuming that the person is simply mis-guided, assume you have something to learn.

4. What are you being asked to do?  If the request is about listening to the person’s concerns, if it’s about engaging practices of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, that’s very different than being told you must make a liturgical change or the parishioner will reduce their pledge. Note that the latter requires saying something like, “I’m very sorry you feel that way and I hope that we can talk at some point about why this is so upsetting to you. This must be very serious to you if you feel you need to reduce your pledge, and I understand you need to follow your conscience. If you’d like to get together and talk with me and (some trustworthy person known to both of us), I really want to make that happen.”        

 Michelle Heyne, OA