Response to "If Our Secret Lives Define Us,” by Gail Seavey
Rev. David Pyle
22 June 2016
Sometimes a response to the Berry Street Essay is framed as an affirmation of the prophetic message of the Essay. I am certainly doing that, in part because my own experiences in ministry, both before I joined the UUA Staff and since, are echoed in the message that Rev. Seavey brings, not merely because we have both served congregations affected by clergy who violated the professional role of the minister, but we have each personally struggled with post-traumatic stress in our lives. Sometimes a response to the Berry Street Essay seeks to expand the message, and I hope to do a little of that. And sometimes a response seeks to present a counterpoint to the message. I will not be doing that. Our religious movement has had enough of people who look like me arguing a counterpoint to the message of the prophetic voices amongst us calling us to first acknowledge the fact and the harm of clergy professional misconduct and then to transform how we practice ministry together.
And yet, what has been on my heart since I first read an early draft of Gail’s address several months ago is that we do not need a “response” from me. What we need to do is respond. Not me. All of us. We need to accept the message, even if it makes us uncomfortable, even if we wish it were not so, even if we don’t personally fully agree with everything that Gail shared… it is time, past time, for us to accept the fact that Clergy Professional Misconduct has damaged our congregations, our Association, and our religious mission in the world. And we need to respond to that message by changing our practice.
As a soon to be former District Executive, and as a current and continuing member of the Central East Regional Staff, I regularly have conversations with ministerial colleagues and lay congregational leaders about why so many of our congregations have such a challenging relationship with ministerial authority, or with any form of authority or leadership. It is true that there is a distrust of institutions and authority rooted in the psyche of our times. And yet, when I look into the history of the congregations where such patterns of distrust of leadership exist, I will almost always find that there has been professional misconduct within the congregation. Or I will find that the patterns of distrust of authority were imported into the system when members joined the congregation, having left another congregation where misconduct occurred. It is not just a fact of post-modern culture… many of our congregations have good reason for their distrust of ministerial authority within their own experience.
In her address, Gail quoted the number that perhaps 50 percent of our congregations have experienced clergy and professional staff misconduct or clergy who violated the professional role of the minster, and I would bet that number is low, and secrets have yet to be told. When you add in the ways these patterns of distrust have affected ministers as they move from congregation to congregation, as well as the members who move from one congregation to another or bring with them patterns of religious trauma from other traditions, then I believe that every congregation in our movement has been affected by clergy misconduct and the violation of the professional role of the minister. The reality is we are all Afterpastors, just some more intentionally than others.
I am using two terms, and I want to define them for a second, because I am speaking a little more broadly than Gail did. I am speaking first of Clergy Professional Misconduct, and second of the Violation of the Professional Role of the Minister. I would hold up much of what Gail discussed as misconduct. There are also unethical financial practices and abusive emotional practices that constitute misconduct, beyond the forms of sexual misconduct that are so often the focus. We have systems in place for engaging misconduct when it is reported, and I believe that it is more and more likely to be reported. It is clear that our UUA Staff, be they at the District or Associational level, have not always handled such reports of misconduct by ministers appropriately, and have at times been a part of the unhealthy secret keeping that Gail speaks of so powerfully, and have wounded and re-wounded those who have sought to report. I can only say that, having been on the UUA Staff now for the last two years, I have seen an understanding of our failures and a commitment to transform how we support those who have been affected and victimized by clergy professional misconduct. I was also heartened when senior UUA Staff and Leaders chose to allow me to speak my truth in this response, without any prior vetting, editing or approval.
But to expect the transformation we need can come only from those of us who serve on the UUA Staff is to misunderstand where we are. Perhaps, if what we were dealing with was a few isolated cases of clear clergy misconduct, then perhaps a set of structural responses would be all that we needed. But we are so far beyond that, the affect upon our congregations and our movement so profound that to expect better UUA Practices and Standards around reporting, victim advocacy, and accountability to heal our movement is to turn this deep adaptive challenge into a mere technical problem. We have a culture that has blurred so many lines and boundaries that it will take all of us transforming our practice of ministry and concept of shared accountability.
The second term I have been using is Violation of the Professional Role of the Minister. When a minister discovers that they are serving a congregation with previous clergy misconduct, or what we call an Afterpastor, the first piece of advice I give them is that they have to be the most ethical, boundaried, and self-differentiated minister they can be. In my experience congregational healing does not begin with telling the stories of broken ministerial trust, nor does it begin with understanding all the ways the congregation has been affected by the violation of the professional role of the minister. No, the healing begins with the congregation finally coming to believe they can really trust a minister. Not trust in ministry, not yet, but trust a minister. I believe that it takes at least three sequential experiences of being able to trust a minister for a congregation to begin trusting in the ministry again.
It is easy to violate the Professional Role of the Minister, because the expectations of ministry are so high. I have learned in my practice of ministry that my goal-oriented nature is the most likely place that I am to violate the professional role of the minister… that I place such an importance on achieving a goal or a task that I will at times engage in behavior that is felt as emotionally manipulative. My intent is to achieve a goal, but the affect has at times been to achieve that goal at the cost of damaging a congregation’s trust in ministry. I was lucky to have several colleagues help me to see this early in my ordained ministry, and who help me to watch for it within myself and my ministerial practice.
And in a congregation that has been traumatized by clergy professional misconduct, each Violation of the Professional Role of the Minister reinforces the trauma, even when the role violation does not itself rise to the level of misconduct.
The transformation I think we need… what I think Gail’s message calls us to, is what those dear colleagues did for me. We have to accept that what happens in my relationship with a congregation affects all of our relationships with congregations. We need to accept, almost at a visceral level, that we are, each and every one of us, accountable to each other for the ministry we practice within this faith tradition. Not through the UUA Staff, or the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, or even the UUMA Exec. But with each other. The response I believe we all need to make to the prophetic message that our dear colleague has brought to us today is to accept that it is not my ministry, or your ministry, or their ministry… it is our ministry. Our shared ministry to this faith tradition we so lovingly and awkwardly call Unitarian Universalism. We have to change our culture so that it is expected that I am accountable to you for my practice of ministry and you are accountable to me for your practice of ministry, because it is a shared ministry. A shared ministry that is bound to grow larger than just those who are fellowshipped. We have to build the relationships that require us to call each other in, and sometimes call each other out… because this ministry, this faith tradition, and the nature of the human relationship to the divine and sacred depends on us waking in this practice of ministry together.
Thank you Gail for your prophetic message, for trusting me to articulate this response, and my gratitude to all of those who have shared this message with us before. I pray that this time, we can hear it, and respond.