Reflections on the UUA After-Pastor Conference

November 18, 2014

Denver, CO 11/7-9/2014
By Doug Pasto-Crosby, M.D., Safety Net Member

WOW. I would never have believed that I would ever use the words Ministerial Misconduct, excitement and positive energy in the same sentence. Yet that is how I felt after the conference. In attendance were 4 members of the UUA staff, several district /regional personnel and members and clergy from several congregations who were coping with recovery from ministerial misconduct. Of the congregations there, mine, First UU of Nashville (FUUN) was the farthest along on the road to recovery.

“After-pastor” is the name for the minister who follows after the misconducting minister.

On the first night, each of us shared how we had become aware of ministerial misconduct (MM). It was deeply moving. I shared my story of how I was initially uncertain that my minister had engaged in MM. One of the survivors asked to come to my home and tell her story. I will never forget her courage and faith in me. I was moved. To this day, her story inspires me to do this work.

I also broke down that first night at the conference. Rev Debra Pope-Lance, the presenter, showed me an issue of the UU World from 1993 that had a cover and several articles devoted to MM. I realized that at the time of my church’s struggles with MM, the people at the UUA had the knowledge to help us and others on this issue, and to improve the way that the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) dealt with MM, but had failed to act on it. I felt re-traumatized. Fortunately, the staff had anticipated that some of us would need pastoral care, and a chaplain was there for me to speak with about my reaction.

Saturday morning was the most difficult for me emotionally. We were asked to review what had happened in our congregations after the MM was revealed.

We spoke of LOSS — loss of trust, loss of faith, loss of friends, loss of my minister, loss of faith in human nature, loss of the members who left to form their own church (and, for them, their loss of their beloved minister and building), loss of pledges that placed the church in near financial ruin, etc. (One of the losses I had that I didn’t realize at the time, was that I had lost was my denomination. I’ll come back to that later.)

We spoke of TRAUMA — symptoms that resemble Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — anger, anxiety, sleep disturbance, compulsive behaviors, distorted sensations, distorted thinking, denial, trauma from a perceived lack of adequate response, trauma from the anger of those in denial, re-traumatization with new disclosures, etc.

We spoke of SYSTEMS THINKING — applying family systems theory to congregations. We discussed patterns of relating to each other at church. Secrecy, power concentrated in the minister and a few of his well-chosen special friends in the congregation, poor boundaries, reluctance to turn over leadership to new people, etc.

We spoke of the IMPACT ON THE INTEGRITY OF THE MINISTRY. Misconduct is not a single event. It is pattern of behavior that results in misconduct. By the time the misconduct occurs, the distorted ministerial relational patterns already exist. What happens after the disclosure, is determined by the preexisting patterns. The existence of a secret known only to the minister and his/her small, selected, powerful friends in the congregation, distorts the ministry. Often in the congregations that have MM, the power is concentrated in the minister. Everything revolves around the minister and his/her needs and wants. I remembered reviewing the Board of Directors meeting minutes from the misconducting minister’s time at my church. Every discussion ended with the minister’s opinion. If the minister agreed, the proposal passed. If the minister disagreed, either the proposal failed, or the minister stated that he would look into it and report to the Board next month, and it never appeared on the agenda again. So the power of the minster was distorted. When the disclosure occurs, faith and trust in the integrity of the ministry are shredded.

By the end of the morning, I was in pain. Re-living my losses, grief and traumas was making me feel nauseated, and in pain again. Again the chaplain helped, and some self –care including exercise and ½ hour with an escapist fantasy novel helped a great deal.

Saturday afternoon was about using our losses to heal. The response to the disclosure of MM is like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous description of the 5 stages of grief. First denial, then anger, then bargaining (he/she may have made a bad choice but can’t we work out a way for them to stay), fourth, depression and finally, acceptance.

This is when the positive energy started flowing. We spoke of treating the trauma of the disclosure as one would treat PTSD.

  1. acknowledge the trauma
  2. mourn
  3. restore trust.

All of the congregations attending the conference, had acknowledged their trauma and were in mourning. We discussed that restoring trust involves establishing clear ethical expectations of behavior, establishing policies and procedures that the whole congregation participates in creating.

Because the MM was a consequence of a pattern of behaviors, we have to anticipate that the old patterns of behavior will often re-emerge years later during a seemingly different set of circumstances. Fear of conflict, a return to small groups making important decisions in secrecy, crossing boundaries, etc. That is certainly our experience at FUUN. As FUUN was further down the road from the other congregations, we shared that lay leaders need to be on the lookout for these behaviors and have zero tolerance for them. (I was reminded of Mad-Eye Moody’s advice to Harry Potter—“constant vigilance!”) When some of the congregations groaned at the thought that the recovery process lasts years, I explained that the work is joyous now, not stressful. When the behaviors are named and discussed now, it is no longer traumatic, but therapeutic.

Being able to share my congregation’s experiences and what we had learned with others, was healing for me. Knowing that what I had learned from our pain and trauma, might help to decrease the pain and trauma of others, is gratifying. Taking my congregations’s experiences to others gives new meaning to what happened and turns a horrible experience into something positive. Going through hell and coming out healthier on the other side has made me want to do this work of helping others with the issue of MM. As I said at the conference, “I can’t not do this work.”

Saturday night we had a couple of options. I chose to attend two sessions. One was on the proposed system of advocates for the survivors. Currently, the accused minister gets assigned a Good Offices person to assist the minister through the adjudication process. The survivor (victim) does not have anyone. The proposal is to assign a trained advocate to the survivor also. We discussed who might qualify as a survivor of MM. Is it only the complainant, or could it be other survivors, could it be the congregation (known in trauma speak as secondary victims or second circle victims)? The advocate program sounds wonderful. Funding, however, may be a problem. However, the UUA is working on this.

The second session was on a proposed change in the adjudication process for MM. Currently, only the minister and his/her Good Offices person appears in person before the MFC ( Ministerial Fellowship Committee). The MFC never interacts directly with the survivor/victim. The proposal is to allow the survivor and their advocate to appear before the MFC, as well as the accused minister. This would go a long way to balancing the input the MFC receives. In the past, only the minister had the right to present to the MFC what they were about to lose, if they lost their fellowship. When this rule change passes, the MFC will get a chance to witness what the survivor has lost (what was taken from them) by the MM.

Sunday, after brief worship, we discussed the importance of care for the “secondary” or second circle of survivors, that is, the congregation members not directly the subject of MM but none-the-less traumatized by it. We discussed the importance of recognizing that there are no bystanders. If a person stays on the sidelines and doesn’t get involved, they are in fact aiding the misconducting minister.

Restoring the connections between survivors and their church community is THE MOST IMPORTANT WORK a congregation needs to do after MM. Lay Leaders in the congregation must stand up, support the survivor and use their own voices to “turn up the volume” of the survivors’ voices.

Lastly, we returned to our individual congregational groups and named three things each congregation thought was critical to their continued healing. Make a plan on how to address the three issues. Then, name the leaders in their congregation who need to be empowered to do this work. [Editor’s note: for FUUN’s plan, see Susan Johnston’s report.]

We Will Succeed

I left the conference with optimism that we, as individual congregations, and collectively as a denomination, not only have an opportunity to make a difference in the struggle to cope with MM, but that we will succeed in our work. It was brought to my attention that never before had clergy, lay leaders and UUA staff met together to discuss these issues.

Personally, I was re-energized. Part of my healing, is knowing that sharing my pain and knowledge with others struggling with MM, helps them to heal also.

There was one last thing I learned from the conference, that I didn’t realize until after returning home. The next day, I realized a loss I had never named—the loss of my denomination. My perceived lack of guidance from the UUA 20 years ago at the time of the disclosure in my congregation and my impatience at the lack of progress by the UUA and MFC in improving the way they deal with MM in the following decades, had caused me to lose faith in my denomination. When budgets were tight, I was quick to propose cutting our fair share donation to the UUA. (I suspect that many congregations with MM in their history react this way.)

I realized that as a result of the progress I could see, and the conference, I had re-gained my denomination. It is with tears of joy that I write this. Deep thanks to all who have helped me on this journey.

Today, I can put Ministerial Misconduct, positive energy and excitement in the same sentence. WOW!

Bless this work and all who do it.



2 Responses

  1. Doug and Susan — Your words give me so much hope, when hope (as they say) is hard to find. To me, you as lay leaders represent the key to success — the missing piece in this work. The UUA Board has been hearing from a few survivors and many ministers (especially after-pastors including Gail), but not lay leaders. Jim Key has been telling me this will succeed, and while I trust him absolutely on a personal level, I wasn’t buying it. I’ve heard UU leaders say the “right thing” too often when things haven’t changed. But with your energy and your saying it will succeed? Maybe it really will. Certainly it’s worth continuing to try.

  2. Harriet Vardiman Smith says:

    I am a UU in Texas, who came to UUism after surviving ministerial misconduct in a United Methodist Church, the denomination in which I was raised and in which my father and sister are both ministers. I say that I “survived” the misconduct, but my relationship with the church of my childhood did not. After encountering the writings of Marie Fortune, I reported the misconduct through appropriate channels because of my deep commitment to the UM church and my concern that other women could be victimized, but I was then fired from my job in the church as a result.

    Despite that, I hoped to remain a member – but fell into the gap of legal-settlement-mandated silence and lack of support for survivors at any level — congregation, district, conference or denomination. 21 years later, I can talk about it without a meltdown, but my healing has been in spite of, not because of, how my church responded to me.

    Long story short, if at some point in the future I can assist in your ministry to survivors of MM in UU congregations, please let me know. My daughter Valerie Martin is a member at FUUN, BTW.

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