Bullying and abusive conduct by ministers: what’s it look like?

Recent events have raised my interest in bullying and abusive conduct my ministers. What does it look like? How can we know the difference between ministerial grouchiness or a minister occasionally losing their temper, and outright bullying and abusive behavior?

First of all, we want to look for patterns of behavior. Every minister I’ve known has lost their temper at least once; ministers are human beings, and human beings lose their tempers. Of course it would be best if we ministers never lost our tempers, but losing your temper once in awhile is not the same as a pattern of abusive behavior. So we’re looking for a pattern of behavior that happens over time.

Second, we want to look at power differentials. If, for example, there were three ministers on the staff of a large congregation, the senior minister has power over the junior ministers, and it’s much easier for the senior minister to bully the junior ministers; similarly, most of the time (not all of the time) the minister has more power than a non-ordained congregant. Determining power differentials is not always easy, though, and we can’t just default to a position that says ministers always have more power than congregants. For example, other types of power differentials make it possible for a male congregant to bully a female minister, or for a white congregant to act abusively towards a non-white minister. Even white male cis-gender ministers can be bullied or treated abusively by congregants who are in an entrenched power position within their congregation; in fact, because the minister is an employee, the minister’s lay leader supervisors have the potential for bullying or abusive behavior towards the minister. So we want to look for power differentials, though in themselves they won’t be diagnostic.

Third, we want to look for certain kinds of behaviors. Warren Throckmorton, an evangelical Christian whistleblower, posted on his blog the charges against Mark Driscoll, an evangelical megachurch pastor who was forced out his position as senior pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle due to bullying and abusive behavior. These charges, which you can read here, catalogue a number of bullying and abusive behaviors Driscoll allegedly engaged in. I’ll quote from some of these formal charges to show you what bullying and abuse can look like:

“Pastor Mark exhibits anger and ungraceful ways of dealing with those with whom he disagrees and who disagree with him… by putting people down, caricaturing, and dismissing.
“Pastor Mark … has created a culture of fear instead of a culture of candor and safety….
“Pastor Mark is verbally abusive to people who challenge him, disagree with him, or question him.
“Pastor Mark uses words to demean, attack or disparage others.”

I’ll also quote from one piece of evidence used to support the charges, so you can get a sense of the specific sorts of alleged behavior that’s considered abusive or bullying:

“Mark’s response to that elder was bullying, with some elders present recalling language to the effect of: ‘I don’t give a shit what you think. I’m trying to be nice to you guys by asking your opinion. In reality, we don’t need your vote to make this decision. This is what we’re doing.'”

It’s fairly clear that this kind of behavior should be characterized as bullying and abusive. But it’s wise to remember that there will be a continuum of potentially bullying and abusive behavior, and there won’t necessarily be a bright shining line between acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior. In my historical researches of local congregations, I’ve uncovered a number of instances of behavior that aren’t easily categorized. In one example I researched, from the 1960s, a male minister was shouting at a female Director of Religious Education (DRE). There was a clear power differential here: male full-time supervisor and minister shouting at a part-time female DRE and employee. But while it may have a pattern of behavior, I couldn’t document that for sure. Obviously the minister should not have shouted at the DRE, but since I couldn’t document a pattern of behavior, I couldn’t be sure whether this was a momentary lapse on the part of the minister, or verbal abuse.

Which leads me to one final suggestion:

Fourth, we want to look at whether the congregation openly addresses momentary lapses of civility, or whether a lapse of civility remains hidden, secret, unaddressed. We are all human — ministers, too — and being human means we will make mistakes; we will do things like shout at people. Bullying and abuse in congregations — whether by ministers or by lay leaders, or by white people, or by whomever — is a pattern of behavior. If a congregation directly confronts lapses in behavior when they happen, I think it’s much less likely that the congregation is going to fall into a pattern of bullying or abusive behavior. But if people look away even once, I think that’s going to open up the possibility of establishing a pattern of behavior.

Another kind of misconduct

I recently received one of those emails from Sarah Lammert, the Executive Director of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC), saying that a minister has been removed from fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). This email, sent to “Congregational Board Leaders and UU Religious Professionals,” informed us that Scott McNeill “was removed from UUA Fellowship by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee on April 11, 2021 for misconduct involving bullying/abusive behavior in the workplace.”

I can’t remember hearing about any other minister removed from fellowship for bullying and abusive behavior in the workplace. I’m not able to confirm that, because apparently the MFC doesn’t maintain a comprehensive, publicly available list of who’s been removed from fellowship. But in combing through old email, here’s what I came up with:

In 2020, the MFC removed Todd Eklof from fellowship “based on the Rev. Dr. Eklof’s refusal to engage with the fellowship review process.” In 2019, Jason Shelton resigned from fellowship “due to self-reported [sexual] misconduct” (and the MFC infamously sent out Shelton’s self-excusing explanation of his resignation). In 2018, David Morris was put “on a three-year probation” due to “a complaint of child abuse.” In 2017, Ron Robinson was suspended from fellowship following his arrest on child pornography charges, with the proviso that if he were found guilty, he would be removed from fellowship (I have no email stating he was removed from fellowship, though I found news stories stating that he pleaded guilty).

Prior to 2017, the MFC sent out these notifications via U.S. Postal Service. Thinking back, I don’t remember any other removal from fellowship due to bullying and abusive behavior in the workplace. Based on my research into UU history, I’m pretty sure workplace bullying by ministers is nothing new, but in the absence of a comprehensive listing of ministers removed from fellowship I can’t be sure how many ministers were actually removed from fellowship by the MFC for bullying and abusive behavior.

So the question for me remains: Is it a new development for the MFC to discipline a minister for bullying and abusive behavior?

In a subsequent post, I’ll write about what bullying and abusive behavior by ministers looks like.

Mind-numbing

The State of California has been updating its COVID regulations over the past three or four weeks. As a religious educator, I have to familiarize myself with three separate sets of regulations: “industry guidance” for “places of worship and cultural ceremonies,” “cohorts for children and youth in supervised settings,” and “daycamps and other supervised youth activities.”

Reading through these regulations is a mind-numbing experience. Many of the regulations start off saying “you have to do thus-and-so” but then refer you to another Web page or PDF which says “you have to do this-and-that,” where the two different sources don’t exactly contradict each other, but don’t seem to be in full agreement either.

And sometimes the rules are vague. In my favorite example, the state rules frequently say that “physical distancing” is required, but then they don’t tell you exactly what distance is required. Are we supposed to assume six feet? But a year ago, some of the physical distancing requirements were greater than six feet, as for example the distance required to be maintained between two stable cohorts of children. And now federal recommendations from the CDC are saying that three feet might be enough physical distancing; is the state trying to be deliberately vague about the amount of physical distancing, so they can decide later whether to adopt the CDC guidelines or not?

And I’m glad I don’t have to deal very much with the “industry guidance” for “places of worship and cultural ceremonies,” because those regulations contradict themselves. Due to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, California is not allowed to have regulations for places of worship that differ from the regulations for other large gatherings. And the first page you hit on for “industry guidance” for “places of worship and cultural ceremonies” basically says to see the guidance for large gatherings, which should make things easier, right? — but then there’s also a link to a PDF with rules from 2020 that are clearly not acceptable under the Supreme Court ruling, but because they’re linked to from the current “guidance” mean that still you’re supposed to follow them — I guess?

I understand that this must be an incredibly difficult time for state regulators and state employees. I’m sure they’re doing their best. But as it stands now, the regulations are so disorganized that I sometimes find it impossible to understand what I’m supposed to do. I sometimes feel like they wrote these regulations assuming we’re all big corporations who can hire full-time staffers to sort through this mass of material. The things is, if you’re a small nonprofit or a small business and trying to figure it out on your own, the staffer who’s trying to make sense out of the regulations doesn’t have hours and hours of spare time because we’re already working overtime trying to deal with everything else the pandemic is throwing at us.

To top it all off, they keep updating the regulations. So I have to figure out if I should put in a lot of time now trying to figure out the regulations, or wait and see if they change things again next week.

My mind is numb.

How to increase church attendance

A recent academic study examined 20,000 United Methodist churches between 1990 and 2010. Most experienced declining attendance from 2000 on.

Except multi-racial churches: on average, their attendance increased. “There’s a rising demand for opportunities to interact in diverse settings,” said [lead author Prof. Kevin] Dougherty [of Baylor University]. And racially diverse churches in predominantly white neighborhoods had the best attendance.

I’m willing to bet this trend holds true for Unitarian Universalism. That would help explain why most UU congregations have been in decline since about 2005. I don’t have access to the full text of the study, so I don’t know the authors’ criteria for determining when a congregation is racially diverse, but I’m guessing we’re looking at 30-35% non-white attendance; there are very few UU congregations with that level of racial diversity.

Assuming your congregation is interested in reversing decline, how can we change our UU congregational cultures to become less white?

Crystal DesVignes is pastor of the United Methodist church “CityWell” in Durham, N.C., a congregation that’s 45% non-white. She points out that you have to embrace an increase in the level of conflict, which can enable people to “come out of our comfort zones” and “be honest and vulnerable with each other.” And then she says you have to be willing to learn: “It’s one thing to say, ‘Come in and be just like us’ [but] it’s another thing to say, ‘Come in and we’re willing and open to be changed by your very presence.’”

Link to the abstract of the study.

Unpleasant meditation-related experiences

A peer-reviewed paper published back in 2019 states that significant percentages of regular meditators may have negative meditation experiences:

“Surveying over one thousand regular meditators, this is the largest cross-sectional study to assess particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences to date. Approximately one quarter of participants reported that they had encountered particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences (e.g., anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world) in the past.” Schlosser M, Sparby T, Vörös S, Jones R, Marchant NL (2019) Unpleasant meditation-related experiences in regular meditators: Prevalence, predictors, and conceptual considerations. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0216643. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216643

I’m glad to see that this phenomenon is finally being studied. I meditated for years, but stopped because it became — well, unpleasant. As a minister, I’ve come across other people who don’t meditate for the same reason. Unfortunately, almost all of the recent scientific studies of meditation and mindfulness focus on the purported benefits of meditation and mindfulness; indeed, Schlosser et al. were only able to find two other studies that looked at the negative effects of meditating (both those studies also reported high percentages of people with unpleasant meditation-related experiences).

To my mind, there’s been a bias at work among scientists studying meditation and mindfulness, not unlike the biases in those scientific studies that purportedly prove the power of prayer. This bias is prevalent, not only among scientists engaged in studying “contemplative science,” but also among Unitarian Universalists. Unitarian Universalists tend to be skeptical of prayer, and have tended to be skeptical of studies proving the power of prayer. Yet Unitarian Universalists seem to abandon their skepticism when it comes to mindfulness and meditation.

But back to the study of unpleasant meditation-related experiences. The authors of this study make the important point that these unpleasant experiences need additional study:

“The high prevalence reported here and previously points to the importance of expanding the scientific conception of meditation beyond that of a (mental) health-promoting, stress-reducing, attention-enhancing, self-regulating technique.”

I would add an important ethical warning to anyone who teaches or recommends meditation. Those who teach or recommend meditation or mindfulness have an ethical duty to acknowledge to potential students that meditation can result in unpleasant side effects. Schlosser et al. cite a study which outlines some of the unpleasant effects meditators may experience: “fear, anxiety, hallucinations, social impairment, and changes in motivation, worldviews, self-world boundaries, sleep”; some of these are not trivial.

Those who teach meditation and mindfulness to children have a special ethical burden. Not only do they need to recognize that as many as a quarter of their students may have unpleasant experiences from meditation, they need also figure out how they’re going to support vulnerable children who have these experiences.

I’m not saying that we should not teach meditation and mindfulness. But if you do teach these practices, do it ethically.

Public service announcement

Unitarian Universalist congregations are receiving guidance from the denominational headquarters and regional staff to stay away from their buildings tomorrow, Sunday, January 17. The guidance says that right wing extremists are expected to be targeting state capitols with violent protests, and there’s a very small but non-zero chance that violence might spill over on to other targets. Regional staff says:

“If you have staff in your buildings over the weekend — perhaps to record your worship service — you may want to consider staying away for the weekend.”

Similar guidance has been offered for Wednesday, January 20, Inauguration Day. So if you were going to go down and sit in your congregation’s garden, or walk your congregation’s labyrinth — consider doing it on another day. Chances are really slim that your congregation’s building or campus will be targeted, but why take chances.

And probably best to not editorialize about this on your favorite social media outlets. The guidance we’re getting is — don’t engage in any way with the extremists. For that reason, I’ll disable comments for this post.

What’s in store for UUs in 2021?

My crystal ball is cloudy, so once again I’m unable to predict the future with any accuracy, but I have some guesses about what the new year has in store for Unitarian Universalist congregations.

(1) The pandemic will continue to affect Unitarian Universalist congregations through summer, 2021. Dr. Fauci says we’ll see widespread roll-out of the vaccine by May, but not only will there still be plenty of unvaccinated people in June, most Unitarian Universalist congregations will be heading in to their summer slow-down. And I’m expecting a big slow-down this summer for many congregations. Making the transition back to in-person worship and programs is not going to be easy, as staff and volunteers have to be mobilized in different ways. Key volunteers and staff are also likely to feel a little burned out, and will want some down time in the summer. I’m betting most Unitarian Universalist congregations don’t make a full transition back to in-person worship and programs until September.

And when congregations do return to in-person worship and programs, how many people will come back? On the one hand, people will be eager to see their old friends again face to face. On the other hand, we’ve all slipped in to now routines and habit; how many people will take the time to get up, get dressed, and drive to their congregation, when for the past year and a half all they had to do to attend worship was roll out of bed and turn on the computer?

So I predict we’re never going back to the way things were before the pandemic, but I’m not willing to guess what the future holds.

(2) Money will be tight. Financially, I’m expecting the majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations will be in worse shape after the pandemic than they were before the pandemic. Many congregations that own buildings depend on rental income to some extent, and a year and a half with reduced rental income will wreak havoc with budgets. All congregations will doubtless experience some reduction in income due to the depressed economy. For congregations with staff, I’m expecting staff cuts, layoffs, and/or salary reductions.

For staff, this has the potential to get ugly. Some hypothetical scenarios: Instead of seeing their position get slashed to part time, parish ministers will convince congregations to cut religious educators and administrators instead; good potential for inter-staff conflict here. Employees will watch their benefits erode; potential for conflict between staff and lay leaders here. Custodial staff will get laid off, and contracted cleaning services brought in to partially replace them; the loss of hands-on services provided by dedicated custodians could prompt conflict between lay leaders and members of the congregation.

So I predict we’ll see cuts in programs and services, along with an associated increase in the number of congregations in conflict.

(3) Generational conflict looms. Baby Boomers (my generation) have been running most Unitarian Universalist congregations for the past decade or two, after they took over power from the G.I. Generation. It’s been a good run for the Baby Boomers, but increasingly I’m seeing the Millennials questioning the way things get done in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Here are two obvious ways to question the Baby Boomer way of doing things: We all have a growing awareness of just how white our congregations are, and the old familiar answer we Baby Boomers gave for years — “There are so few people of color who live near our church” — just doesn’t seem adequate any more. We Baby Boomers have been dragging their feet about livestreaming worship services and other programs, and now that we’re all livestreaming it’s become obvious just how backwards we were.

Here’s a less obvious way we should all be questioning the Baby Boomer way of running our congregations: We Baby Boomers watched as second-wave feminism reshaped big chunks of American society. Unitarian Universalism got radically reshaped by second-wave feminism — with the seven principles and the flaming chalice and two new hymnals — and we Boomers were right in the thick of that reshaping. But now we’re all beginning to realize that second-wave feminism, while admirable in many ways, was also an elitist movement driven by a myth of hyper-individualism and a racist movement that left out women of color. We’re also beginning to realize that second-wave feminism sometimes has transphobic tendencies.

Will we Boomers be able to address the deep flaws of second-wave feminism? Given how defensive we are as a generation, I have my doubts. I’m looking to an alliance between Gen X and the Millennials to find creative, productive ways to move forward. But given how we Boomers cling to power (e.g., every U.S. president since 1992 has been a Boomer), I’m not expecting that the creative solutions proposed by the Millennials and the Gen Xers will suffer from either passive or active resistance by us Boomers.

No prediction here; in my view, this is a long-term trend to keep an eye on.

(4) The number of children and youth will continue to drop in most Unitarian Universalist congregations. The number of UU kids has been dropping steadily since 2005; and denominational and district/regional staffing and support for children’s programming has been dropping over the same time period. As children and youth programs shrink, congregations feel justified in cutting funding, leading to a nice strong feedback loop. Pandemic-induced budget cuts will only accelerate this trend.

There’s a bigger problem here. Families today want more options for their kids. Because of this, one-size-fits all programs are a non-starter. Yet that’s what Unitarian Universalist congregations mostly offer: one-size-fits-all programs for kids. The “conservative” congregations offer Sunday school, the “progressive” congregations offer intergenerational worship; but really both these approaches are hopelessly conservative, because they’re both the kind of one-size-fits all program that worked in the 1990s, but won’t work today. If we don’t offer choice in programming, fewer families will bother to show up.

So I predict the number of Unitarian Universalist children and youth will decline even more steeply over the next couple of years.

(5) Livestreaming worship services will continue. This is my only positive prediction this year: most congregations are going to keep livestreaming once the pandemic is over, and that has the potential for extending the reach of Unitarian Universalist in some really interesting ways.

I predict that congregations that devote some serious effort to continuing and improving livestreaming of worship and programs are going to reap major — but unpredictable- benefits.

Great virtual meetings

Harvard Business Review (HBR) has a couple of articles on virtual meetings. Back on March 5, they published an article by Bob Frisch and Cary Greene titled “What It Takes To Run a Great Virtual Meeting.” If you’re experienced at running online meetings, most of this will seem like good common sense, but you should read it anyway. Some of HBR’s suggestions should be obvious, like “test the technology ahead of time.” Others may be less obvious, but are still critically important, like “make sure faces are visible.” HBR suggests having a facilitator for meetings, someone who can take the pulse of the group; and one of their more innovative ideas is that the facilitator can use a parallel phone-based survey tool like “Phone Everywhere” to get that feedback.

An earlier article, published in 2015, by Keith Ferrazi was titled “How To Run a Great Virtual Meeting.” This covers much of the same ground, though with different emphases. Ferrazi spent a couple of years researching virtual meetings, and his article summarizes his research findings. One of my favorite points from this article: ban multitasking, because it doesn’t work and it slows down the team. I’ve been guilty of multitasking at virtual meetings, and it’s true: when I start checking email, I lose track of what’s going on in the meeting. That’s one reasons why Ferrazi says to leave video on: so you can see when someone is trying to multitask. (This, by the way, is a big drawback of Google Meet: depending on how you set up the meeting, you can only see 4 people at a time.)

An article by John Wimberly of Congregational Consulting Group got me started reading up on the topic. Wimberley titles his article “Will There Ever Be A Non-Virtual Meeting Again?” Wimberley says that once the COVID crisis ends, many urban congregations will keep doing virtual meetings because of the time it saves commuting to and from meetings. Actually, it’s not just urban congregations: congregations in suburban areas also have traffic problems; plus virtual meeting can include those who can’t travel at night (elders and people with young children); and for those of us in regional congregations, drawing from a big geographical area, virtual meetings allow our more far-flung members to participate. Before COVID-19 hit, our Palo Alto congregation was already doing hybrid meetings — some people in person, some people online — and I expect after COVID-19, there will be more committee and Board members who opt for the virtual option.

The bottom line: since virtual meetings are here to stay, we should learn how to run great virtual meetings.

Thank you, UUA

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) posted a notice today recommending that Unitarian Universalist congregations should consider NOT opening in-person meetings before May, 2021. You can read the recommendations here.

I’m glad the UUA has issued these recommendations. I had already come to most of the conclusions outlined in their recommendations. I’ve been trying to figure out how to gently break it to lay leaders and congregants who are already feeling weary of being stuck at home, already getting tired of Zoom meetings, that we really won’t be able to meet in person until there’s an effective vaccine and/or an almost universally effective treatment with incredibly robust contact tracing in place. Which means most likely no in-person meetings for at least another year — maybe longer in some areas.

The only thing I’d quibble about in the UUA recommendations is this statement: “It is the UUA’s strong recommendation that congregations plan for ongoing virtual gathering and operations through May 2021.” I would have added the phrase “at least” before “through May, 2021.” I don’t think there’s any guarantee that we will be able to resume in-person meetings by the end of May 2021; human beings are really good at false hope, and I wouldn’t want to encourage that human tendency.

That minor quibble aside, the recommendations are quite well done, especially in how they recognize that different congregations in different locales will face different sets of problems.

Best of all, now I don’t have to go through the trouble of summarizing all the research I’ve been doing. All I have to do is point to the UUA recommendations, and say, “This generally agrees with the research I’ve been doing.”

And then we can all say together, “OK, let’s plan for a year of online programming. How can we unleash our creativity, serve the needs of our members and friends, and make Unitarian Universalism in Silicon Valley serve the goodness of humanity?”

“Bad theology has consequences”

Religion New Service has reports on an important consideration before your church reopens:

You’ll want to talk with your insurer first.

Insurance companies, as you’d expect, are remaining “neutral on whether churches should reinstitute physical gatherings when restrictions are lifted.” Yet because they’re concerned with safety in general, insurance companies are offering concrete suggestions on how churches might one day safely reopen. According to Religion New Service:

“Guy Russ, Church Mutual’s expert on risk control, said his company’s recommendations include maintaining 6-foot distance from other parishioners in all directions, sterilizing all surfaces, using hard-cover seating options instead of fabric-covered pews to expedite cleaning, removing physical holy books or hymnals from use, and posting signage or projected messages to clearly indicate expectations for worship attendees.”

For our church in Palo Alto, that means reducing the seating capacity from 150 seats to about 50. Then since most of our chairs have fabric covers, we’d have to dig up 50 chairs with hard surfaces.

“Russ also stressed the need for religious groups to train staff and volunteers not only on cleanliness and social distancing practices, but also on how to address individuals who fail or refuse to comply with posted guidelines. In addition, he suggested houses of worship consider instituting some form of ‘contact tracing,’ whereby faith leaders either retain the contact information of people who attend events or use smartphone applications to help local authorities to trace the spread of the coronavirus if members of the congregation get sick.”

This means training a lot of volunteers. This also means taking attendance, including names and contact information, for all in-person services.

“‘If everybody has followed everything that you ask them to do and somebody who has attended an event at your facility becomes ill, what is your protocol going to be?’ he said. ‘We are recommending that each organization thinks through that question.'”

This means yet another safety policy for the Board of Trustees to vote on BEFORE reopening.

Plus there are other considerations. For instance, our music director tells us that we probably shouldn’t have any group singing, nor any group speaking, until there’s an effective vaccine — so no hymns. Beyond that, no choirs and no wind instruments either. From my perspective as an educator, I see major difficulties enforcing social distancing with younger children, so maybe there would have to be a lower age limit.

It begins to look like it will be a major challenge to hold in-person services before there’s an effective vaccine.

Which leads me to ask: What about those states that are allowing churches to reopen soon? Have they thought all these issues through?

More to the point, what about those churches that decide to reopen because they are sure God will protect them? Rev. Stephen Fearing of Beaumont Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, has the best answer to that one:

“Bad theology has consequences.”