Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from It Happens: True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry, edited by Will Penner.
by Sally Chambers
You don’t do it the way it’s always been done.
You don’t do it the way other churches do it.
You’re stealing the teenagers away from everyone else.
Our teenagers don’t come to services anymore.
You’re not a team player.
You’re resistant to authority.
You’re a liability to the church.
And you’re not churchy enough.
After 12 years of ministry, these things were communicated to me via letter from my rector prior to his departure on sabbatical. Come to find out several months later, several people were feeding this fire and vehemently seeking my termination. As more was unearthed, I discovered that much had been said behind closed doors and through email by our elected vestry.
Some of it had to do with issues that I thought had long been addressed and laid to rest. Some of it had to do with a summer of youth ministry trips and schedule conflicts. Some of it was true: our teenagers were bored and no
longer participating in worship services with their families. Some of it was based on an “HR” interview that was very strenuous and almost staged. Some of it was an issue of differing theology and older practices of ministry. But all this to say, after 12 years of full time service, I had become the “problem” on the staff and in the church.
What was particularly frustrating was that, as with most “witch hunts,” the list of grievances had been lifted out of context in order to build a case against me. Context is essential to understanding and assessment. Context here included a staff that hadn’t changed in six years, a rector who had been there more than 20 years, and me having served for more than 12 years. Why all the issues now? Why had no one come and asked me about any of these issues? Why were people so willing to accept them as truth? Why was I not trusted any more? The contextual questions seem endless.
In addition, no one ever sat down and directly asked me questions about context or clarification. The discussions were done behind closed doors and under the table. The first I heard of anyone being upset or having issues was the letter from my rector. And at that point it was a reprimand, not a conversation. I was shocked because I thought biblical conflict resolution would be normative in churches. When one person has an issue with another, he is to go directly to that person. If that doesn’t work, he should take one or two others with him. Only then is it appropriate to involve the whole fellowship. Yet here I sat with a letter and reprimand without any effort to understand, clarify, or converse about the accusations.
Over the years I have learned that when people start “picking” at what and how a person does things, usually there is something larger at play. The “picks” are the excuse to some end. I was in such shock over being reprimanded in this letter; however, that it took me several months to clue in that a trap was being laid to force my termination while the rector was on sabbatical.
Accusations are rarely helpful in the context of community and ministry. The Scriptures describe one being in particular as the Accuser, which makes me quite sure this is something I don’t want to emulate. As hard as it sounds and as often as we all may be guilty of it, accusations leave little room for relationship, communication, questions, or love. Also, the accused is placed in a posture of self-defense, which is not helpful in efforts to work through conflict. In this case, I had a letter with accusations and very little means with which to defend myself. At that time, I didn’t even know the names or faces of my accusers.
The Lone Wolf
As I processed what was contained in this letter, I began to ask the question, among others: how am I the only one responsible for whether our teenagers attend services with their families? I began to realize that I was left standing alone in things that were not (and should not have been) my sole responsibility. I had been allowed to work and minister for 12 years with very little but positive regard, at least outwardly. Now, I was becoming the scapegoat for an entire family of problems and issues.
Whether we like it or not, churches really are like families. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, in Acts For Everybody, Part I (page 43), says that part of God’s plan of salvation was to create a “new family” among followers of Jesus. Beauty and ugliness, joys and tears, kindness and cruelty, encouragement and gossip, health and sickness, passive mice and control freaks, busy bees and pew potatoes—they are all part of the mysterious family of faith called “the church.” What this means, though, is that, just like in a family, problems are most often systemic, not just rooted in one person. But all too often one person gets labeled the scapegoat for a system that is no longer working.
Just like the old Hebrew practice of atonement where the scapegoat is sent off into the wilderness “carrying the sins” of the community, one person is blamed and “sent off” for the sins (systemic problems) of the community. The dilemma here is that obviously it’s easier to get rid of one person than change a whole system. But the problem is that the un-health or dysfunction in the community continues after the scapegoat is long gone.
I remember clearly the moment it dawned on me, several months after this letter, sitting with the church leadership in the pastor’s office, that I was playing the same role here at the church as I did in my alcoholic family growing up. How had I ended up here again? And this meeting had little to do with me, but was actually about handling one of the original accusers, one who had since become a lose canon.
The hardest part lay in the decision: fight or flight? Do I stand up for myself, owning what I needed to own and rejecting the rest? Or do I sit down and receive the slap on the hand in the name of peace? Do I face conflict head on and work for change (within myself and within the system), or do I walk away and quit? Do I bury my head in the sand, hide in my office, and not disrupt the status quo? Do I turn the other cheek, or do I pick up a sword? But let’s not forget the hardest part of the hardest part: I have no control over what others will choose to do with this conflict.
One last dilemma I want to mention is that of shame. It’s still hard for me to admit, but I was shamed by the letter, by the meetings and arguments about me behind closed doors, and by the reprimand. Forget about the letter on church stationary; I felt like I had been branded with a scarlet letter. I’ll never forget having to walk into the first post-letter church board meeting, my face the shade of a scarlet letter. I literally stood outside the door taking some deep breaths and repeating to myself: Hold your head high, and walk with integrity.
The thing is that the shame was completely my issue. Shame was my response to the given circumstances. Shame was my insecurity and self-doubt. This meant, if for no other reason, I had my own work to do in moving through this.
The first thing I did was walk through the letter bit by bit with my pastor, making sure I understood what was being said and responding as necessary. I engaged in a conversation surrounding the issues, conflict, and “witch hunt.”
I then took all of it, including my tears, to my spiritual director and other “older and wiser” folks. Together we tried to sort through truth from fiction. What did I need to pay attention to, and what I did not? And how should I respond?
I chose to not walk away, and I could not pretend like it hadn’t happened. I chose to face the conflict and the pain (internal and external) in the hope of resurrection—the life that comes through the pain of the cross.
Since I was not being given an audience with my “accusers” or the church board, I responded with a letter. In the letter, I again attempted to engage in conversation surrounding each of the items on the list, bringing context and explanation into the mix while inviting participation in further conversation to seek answers to systemic issues. I asked further questions in the hopes of being able to work through the conflict. I received no response. In fact nothing was ever mentioned of it again…to my face.
I made intentional choices to engage in direct communication with everybody I could and began practicing courage instead of fear in the face of everyday conflict with others. I began practicing specific breath prayers in an effort to slow my reactions and transform my responses to others (since I was still a little on the defense).
And I continued to ask others to not walk away and not bury their heads in the sand, and to work through the systemic issues that had presented themselves.
I have thought long and hard about what I might have done differently. Truth is, I’m not sure it’s clear what would have helped or what could have been different. The bottom line when it comes to conflict (and witch hunts are ultimately about a conflict that underlies everything on the list) is that both parties have to be willing to work through it. I chose to stay and try for healing and resurrection.
Ironically just over a year later, my pastor told me it was time for me to leave. So I no longer work there any more. Even after being branded as scapegoat and sent away, I still believe that choosing to stay and face the conflict in hope of redemption, resurrection, and healing was the best choice for the community and for myself. Having to face my own issues that led to shame was also a good and healing thing for me, and for any future ministry in which I will participate. And as painful as it was, accepting the limits and the choices of others was and is, a good and necessary thing.
Have I (whether intentionally or unintentionally) ever been a part of a “witch hunt” toward someone else? If so, what were some of my underlying motivations, and how could I have handled them differently? If not, can I imagine otherwise good, godly people participating in such a thing?
The fight or flight options may seem to be two extreme responses to this kind of scenario, but what are some nuances of staying to “fight” through the dysfunctions that are important for a Christian minister? What are ways to leave (“flight”) honorably and well?
Though we often feel witch hunts come out of the blue, most often tension has been brewing under the surface for quite some time. While we can never completely predict others’ behaviors, what are some safeguards we can build into our atmospheres and structures that will provide multiple opportunities for issues to surface before they reach boiling point?
Sally Chambers has been practicing youth ministry as part of her life with God and people for 20 years. By trade, she is a counselor, spiritual director, and aunty extraordinaire, as well. She lives in Nashville, Tenn., where she is on staff with Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. She is co-author of the leader’s guide to The Way of Pilgrimage and the creator of “The Pilgrim’s Way,” an approach to leading pilgrimage with teenagers and adults through formative, monastic, and creative means.
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