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The Healing of an Afterpastor
by Janet L. Forbes, M.Div
If I can let you go as trees let go
their leaves, so casually, one by one;
if I can come to know what they do know,
that fall is the release, the consummation,
then fear of time and the uncertain fruit
would not distemper the great lucid skies
this strangest autumn, mellow and acute.
If I can take the dark with open eyes
and call it seasonal, not harsh and strange
(for love itself may need a time of sleep),
and treelike, stand unmoved before the change,
lose what I lose to keep what I can keep,
the strange root still alive under the snow,
love will endure-if I can let you go.
Autumn Sonata is my song of letting go of anger
toward mis-conducting leaders who have abused power,
stealing innocence and betraying the pastoral office.
Autumn Sonata is my song of letting go of pain
so that a congregation and a pastor might heal.
Autumn Sonata is my song of letting go of victimization.
Autumn Sonata is my song of letting go of the need to please,
allowing this vanilla season of ministry to awaken dormant love.
Autumn Sonata is my song of forgiveness.
THE MINISTRY SETTING
The request from the district superintendent in February 2004 came as a surprise. I was serving in my seventh year as the senior minister of 135-year-old First United Methodist Church in Cheyenne, Wyoming. We were launching a renovation project and capital campaign to accommodate growth. Even though United Methodist pastors serve one year at a time, I was leading with the assumption that I would have a decade for the work of change in Cheyenne.
The superintendent asked me to consider an appointment to 21-year-old St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, a rapidly-growing planned community in the suburbs south of Denver. The former minister left in May 2003. The interim minister was ready to leave. I would move as soon as possible.
I could not understand the reasoning. My husband and I have no children. We have never played a game-boy, listened to an MP3 player, or seen the movie, Napoleon Dynamite. I have served traditional, center-city churches. Why would I be a match for a young, suburban congregation with a checkered, new-church-development story?
The superintendent began to spin the appointment. St. Luke’s needed a seasoned large church pastor with worship, preaching, and administrative gifts who could build infrastructure and bring the congregation back into the United Methodist family. The 1,300 member congregation serviced a debt of 2.1 million dollars in its operating budget. They were no longer able to sustain both program and debt. In February 2005, St. Andrew United Methodist Church would be relocating five miles south of their current location to within one mile of St. Luke’s. St. Luke’s needed a leader who could minister cooperatively, not competitively. I bowed to the covenant and agreed to move.
Once among the people, further issues emerged. The congregation was mission-focused, yet embroiled in a $100,000 project in Cambodia that was conflicted and stalled. For at least a decade, St. Luke’s had been, in practice, a Unitarian, interfaith congregation. There had been a pattern of boundary violations, fiscal mismanagement, and sexual misconduct in the clergy and staff leadership over the twenty-one-year history of the church that never became public. The congregation was practiced at secret-keeping. In the highly mobile culture of Highlands Ranch, the short-term corporate memory made protection of misconduct easy.
To my surprise, I also discovered a highly energetic, creative, passionate, postmodern people who are theologically diverse, hospitable to the stranger, technologically savvy, talented in music and theater, religiously skeptical, and spiritually hungry.
By interviewing former pastors, staff, and superintendents, I uncovered a pattern of behavior among leadership that seems to be a symptom of the stress of new church development and a glimpse of the culture of risk among the upwardly-mobile. The founding pastor was removed for substance abuse. The next pastor left local church ministry after sexual misconduct with a student intern. The next was moved after an affair with the associate pastor (which resulted in the dissolution of both marriages) and computer pornography. In all of the incidents, the responsible parties protected the leaders and maintained secrecy. This pattern was repeated among Directors of Music and Directors of Youth Ministry.
When I questioned congregants about the patterns, I was stunned that many persons were sympathetic and stated that clergy are as fallible as anyone. Only after several years as senior pastor was I able to uncover the sense of betrayal and broken trust being masked by these statements of care and empathy. However, because of the culture of protection, the majority of the congregation still has no idea why these leaders were removed. They grieve the unresolved losses and are angry that someone moved their pastors/youth leaders/musicians to other churches.
Karen McClintock writes about the consequences of silence in congregational systems:
After years of silence on sexual issues, a congregation can sometimes become stuck in a place of shame. When sexual boundaries are crossed in a congregation, the feelings of shame associated with this problem can linger for years in what we could call the personality of the congregation. Congregations, like our families of origin, may become mired in sexual shame, and they too can develop low self-esteem, depression, and emotional diseases. When congregations hide and cover up sexual issues or secrets, they tend to acquire rigid thinking patterns and vacillate between blame and shame (the two polar ends of the same affect). They often become fearful and controlling. The whole congregational system uses up vital energy to protect the secret, to monitor what is said about the secret, and to keep potential ‘whistle blowers’ silent. When a new pastor or new members come into such a congregation, they are encouraged to join in the conspiracies of silence under the guise of protecting individuals and keeping the image of the congregation as a whole from being tarnished.
The history of secret-keeping and high member turnover created a chronically-anxious congregational system which ministers out of a kind of frenetic energy.
BIBLICAL AND THEOLOGICAL IMAGES
As I began the appointment at St. Luke’s, I claimed God’s promise to Jeremiah in the experience of exile. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11) I wanted to trust this time of suffering as the furnace forging a new future.
The theological framework grew from engaging Tim Wright’s image of a “prodigal-hugging church” as a metaphor for the mission of St. Luke’s.
Guided by the Spirit of God, St. Luke’s is an inclusive community of faith, seeking to meet people where they are, growing together toward full humanity, through living the teachings of Jesus: love, acceptance, justice and hope.
St. Luke’s is a church of prodigals that brings the broken culture of the world into the sanctuary every week. Most of the time that culture is received, embraced, made to feel a part of the family. In the biblical story, the father scandalized himself for the sake of his prodigal son. Jesus scandalized himself for our sake and the sake of all the prodigals like us. Every day, he lifts his robes and runs to us that we might experience his embrace. He invites us to join him in the daring adventure of building a congregation that runs to culture and embraces, welcomes, and serves it so that our community might discover the life-transforming love of Christ.
RESPONDING TO THE LEADERSHIP CHALLENGE
In order to survive the first three years, I had to be unflinchingly confident in the discernment of the bishop that my gifts matched this appointment. I reclaimed my call to ministry in the face of anger, gender bias, projections, resistance, and death threats at its worst and awkward silence at its best. In the midst of extreme theological diversity, I tried to articulate a flexible, theological center and set the table of grace among a polarized people. The fourteen persons on the staff team had survived the crises by building departmental silos. I cast the vision of team as a formational spiritual community, not a functional business hierarchy, and asked for their partnership in healing. We studied with a pastoral counseling specialist in sexual misconduct and made a covenant for full disclosure about the history of the church.
I began a Doctor of Ministry program to explore leadership in the postmodern era seeking to understand generational and worldview differences in this young congregation. I studied organizational systems and focused on leading with a non-anxious presence, trying to self-differentiate while staying connected in order to manage the anxiety around me.
An organization is more than the sum of the individuals who belong to it. It is a living system of relationships in which everyone is connected to everyone else.
Anxiety is an instinctive response to a real or perceived threat to survival. In animals this instinct leads reliably to an effective response to the threat. Because the threats faced by human organizations are more varied and subtle, it takes rational thought to determine the most effective response. People tend not to think well when they are overly anxious.
Their automatic response to threat is, therefore, quite often counter-productive. Organizational anxiety arises from three main sources: external threats, internal threats, and the miscellaneous anxieties of its individual members. Regardless of the source of the threat, anxiety is felt collectively. If one member is anxious, then everyone gets anxious.
In seeking to relieve their own anxiety, individuals usually pass it on to someone else. Thus, anxiety tends to travel in cycles that have no clear starting point while the underlying cause of the anxiety goes unaddressed.
Because an organization is a system in which all members are connected, an individual can change the entire system by changing his or her own behavior.
Since the leaders had decided that more harm would be heaped upon the congregation if there were public disclosures, my leadership challenge is to change the system, creating a space for healing, by managing my own behavior.
EMBRACING THE ROLE OF AFTERPASTOR
After three years of ministry at St. Luke’s, I learned about afterpastors. On Thursday, August 23, 2007, in a workshop for persons serving post-betrayal congregations, I met Deborah Pope-Lance. In the book, When a Congregation Is Betrayed, she created the term, afterpastor, in response to consultations with clergy who serve a congregation after a predecessor’s misconduct.
She said that clergy in after-betrayal ministries experience unique challenges: unwarranted distrust or suspicion; being misheard or silenced; inexplicable emotional reactions; manipulations, coercion, sabotage, triangulation; undue reverence or dependence. Common organizational patterns in after-betrayal congregations include irresolvable conflicts, ambivalent decision-making, secret-keeping, distraction, denial and disorder, over-functioning, controlling leadership, closed, ineffective communications, and passive membership. Because of these unique challenges, after-betrayal ministries can be difficult and stressful. How comforting to hear someone describe my reality! How liberating to discover a framework to make sense of my story!
I learned that serving, loving, and healing St. Luke’s will require the exercise of patience over the long haul and integrity in every encounter. In the future, I should focus on four essential tasks: providing solid, basic ministry, causing no further harm, healing the office of ministry, and surviving well, personally and professionally.
In order to do my best work, I need to pursue opportunities for individual support and coaching, pay regular attention to stress management and wellness, and seek education in ministerial ethics, conflict resolution, family of origin and organizational systems theory, and interpersonal abuse and violence. I should resist the tall-steeple image of preachers. Mis-conducting congregations mistrust leaders with big egos. I need to let go of my own need to be needed and provide stable, mature, experienced, competent ministry.
A SURPRISING MEMORY EMERGES
As the workshop progressed, I noticed the pull of intense, conflicted feelings. On the one hand, I was grateful for clarity and transparency, understanding that my ministry would need to be vanilla in flavor with the primary agenda of restoring trust in the pastoral office. I was sad that the depth of betrayal would require years of intent toward healing and would frustrate healthy relating. I was glad to be liberated from the guilt that the dysfunction was my fault.
On the other hand, I was livid with my predecessors. Given my core commitment to grace, I was surprised at the ferocity of my anger, sensing its hypocrisy and false piety. At the morning coffee break, several colleagues lamented that we are all broken by some failure and need to exercise the grace of accountability with forgiveness. Even as I was appalled at the suggestion, I recognized my over-reaction. Why was I possessed by this depth of anger?
Late in the morning as case studies were being discussed, a memory slipped into my consciousness. I was several minutes into the memory before the shock of the disclosure exploded in my mind. I remembered an incident from 1974. I was twenty-three years old and serving as a volunteer youth leader at Central United Methodist Church in Concord, North Carolina. After youth group one Sunday evening, I was pinned against the basement wall by the associate pastor. That experience led to an extra-marital affair. I never told anyone.
I remembered my sense of shame, thinking that I had invited the behavior. The breaking of my marriage vows was condemning; yet, I could not understand the strangely compelling nature of the relationship. Several months into the relationship, the minister and his family were moved to a new congregation. I was relieved, but shaken by the indiscretion. I felt dirty and ashamed.
No wonder I could not forgive my predecessors at St. Luke’s! I had been angry at myself and this perpetrator for thirty-three years. I had blocked the memory in order to survive.
At lunch, the St. Luke’s staff members who were attending the workshop with me began complaining about the presenter’s attention to issues of self-care. I jumped into the conversation. “You don’t understand the guilt and shame. I now know why I am so blasted angry! I was a victim of a mis-conducting pastor when I was 23 year old! And I’ve never admitted it to another living soul!”
Together, we wondered what stimulus released the memory at this moment. I recalled a statement from Patrick Miller that we share in our care training. “Forgiveness blossoms at a certain moment in time, when you are ripe and ready to release some of the dead past. It is the intent to forgive that actually speeds up time, collapsing old schedules of suffering and brings unimagined possibilities inestimably nearer.”
THE THERAPEUTIC CONVERSATION
Armed with the knowledge that the key to my congregation’s recovery is my own self care, I contacted the pastoral counselor who had been so helpful in healing our staff in 2006. I went into the therapeutic relationship with an agenda. I understood that I was the victim of a mis-conducting pastor. Because of the power differential, it was his responsibility to deal with my affection and to refrain from acting on the feelings. In therapy, I wanted to explore the reasons for the pattern of crushes on pastoral leaders in my twenties. I needed to delve into the shame, understanding why I felt trapped by the behavior. I needed to recover the lost memory and watch its effect on the years of silence. I wanted to release the hold of the anger and guilt and forgive myself, the associate pastor, my predecessors, and my congregation.
Grounded in years of study of systems, anxiety, and pastoral ethics, I found that the therapeutic sessions were incredibly fruitful. I experienced an immediate sense of release and relief as if the broken dam drained the lake of anger. Since the marriage of my betrayal ended in divorce in 1978, I told my current husband of seventeen years the story of the memory and its grip. The more friends I trust with the discovery, I learn that forgiveness is recognizing and admitting that people are always bigger than their faults. The process of forgiveness allows all offenders to start over again, even after thirty-three years.
The most surprising therapeutic connection related to gender issues in the southern religious milieu. Early in my twenties, when I began to experience a call to religious vocation, the only advice I got from my parents, my husband, and the leaders of my church was to become a Christian educator or marry a minister. No one had ever seen a women serving in the ordained ministry. So, throughout my twenties, I expressed my desire to follow a call to ministry with crushes on pastoral leaders. The affair with the associate minister was a complex mixture of vocational envy, broken trust, betrayal of innocence, and cultural rejection. When I moved out west in my early thirties, I saw ordained women for the first time. As soon as I began to pursue the call, the emotional projections dissolved.
In my current role, I have the pastoral authority to reject cultural tapes and create safe sanctuary by encouraging young people to explore their callings, by teaching professional ethics and power dynamics to my staff and congregation, by leading with transparency and defining the consequences for breaking covenant. I heal that young woman and others affected by misconduct by living with integrity from my pastoral identity.
Forgiveness sends a healing message much further than you might believe. As you develop a forgiven demeanor you become an automatic transmitter within the network of human consciousness – changing minds less by your words than by your example, saving souls less by your program than by your presence. 
A RITUAL OF HEALING
The clergy retreat in early October was entitled, Seasons of the Soul. The theme was drawn from Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Using the metaphor of autumn, we were invited to build circles of trust to create safe settings for us to listen to our inner teacher, seeking to rejoin soul and role. In the midst of a circle with six colleagues, I was able to tell this story and listen to my own soul comfort. I was able to encourage and forgive the Janets of twenty-three and fifty-six years.
The worship services gave me the opportunity to ritualize forgiveness. Prayer stations invited the anointing with oil and prayers for healing. I asked for prayers of forgiveness for myself and for the perpetrators of my past and present. I remember the sweet release of quiet tears on my cheeks. At the close of the service, we were invited to find future sanctuary spaces to do the soul work that keeps one undivided. I have joined an afterpastor support group that will meet monthly to coach self-care.
As I sing my song, Autumn Sonata, I am reminded to have patience. Forgiveness induces healing which follows its own order and timing. Whether I think I have accomplished anything thus far is less important than the fact that I have attempted a radical act that will call forth change likely to exceed my expectations. I will go about my ministry focused on the primary task of an afterpastor: the restoration of trust in the pastoral office. I will also stay alert to unexpected shifts in my thinking, feeling, and relating. I do not know the healing potential in “the strange root still alive under the snow”. Love, indeed, may endure, if I can let go.
Gaede, Beth Ann, ed. When a Congregation Is Betrayed: Responding to Clergy
Misconduct. Herndon, Virginia: The Alban Institute, 2006.
Miller, D. Patrick. A Little Book of Forgiveness. Berkeley: Fearless Books, 2004.
Miller, Jeffrey. The Anxious Organization: Why Smart Companies Do Dumb Things.
Canada: Facts on Demand Press, 2002.
Wright, Tim. The Prodigal Hugging Church: A Scandalous Approach to Mission for the
21st Century. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001.
__________. The 2004 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. Nashville:
The United Methodist Publishing House, 2004.
McClintock, Karen A. Preventing Sexual Abuse in Congregations: A Resource for
Leaders. Herndon, Virginia: The Alban Institute, 2004.
Rev. Janet Forbes is the Senior Pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, a planned community south of Denver, Colorado, and a Doctoral Candidate at Drew University's Theological School.
Continuing Education Credit = 1.0 contact hours