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Why is There Such an Epidemic of Incivility Toward Ministers?

Charles H. Chandler, D. Min., Executive Director

A participant at a Healthy Transitions Wellness Retreat for Ministers and Spouses had just heard the heart breaking stories of the other participants who had been forced from their ministry positions. He noticed similar dynamics surfacing in each story - secret meetings, blindsiding, threatening the minister by stating that if they talked to parishioners there would be no severance money, and often forcing them out of the parsonage when they had no place to go. He uttered in disappointment, "Why is there such an epidemic of incivility towards ministers?"

That's a good question. After all, as much consideration should be given to leaving a position as to accepting a position. Otherwise, the Lord's leadership has little opportunity to guide the process. A minister does not owe the self-appointed "faction" an on-the-spot answer. Time for prayer and processing with confidants or mentors is vital. And when answers are demanded while being held "hostage" by a "gang" of three or four, the process does not meet the standard of healthy decision-making.

Dr. G. Lloyd Rediger, author of Clergy Killers1 when asked about the epidemic of incivility and abuse in the church, responded with four reasons:

One, the church now mirrors rather than leads society. This means that with so much incivility and violence in society, it is bound to spill over into the church.

Two, there's an enormous shift in American attitudes from rugged individualism to entitlement thinking. America was once viewed as a "land of opportunity." Now, however, there is a growing tendency to think of it as a place for comfort and security on demand, with "others" responsible to produce it. With the church now reflecting society, parishioners feel unhappy and even vengeful when they are not comfortable in church.

Three, another reason lies in the business model for church operation. Most congregations and denominations are now run as a business rather than as a mission, causing a radical change in expectations. The pastor, though not trained for such a role, must now function as a manager, responsible for keeping the customers and stockholders happy. Without a sacrificial sense of mission, parishioners know only whether or not they arc happy. If they are not happy, they hold the pastor accountable.

Four, the loss of respect for the role of the minister. When the minister is expected to please people rather than be their spiritual leader, respect for God's called servants, the church's mission, and for the spiritual dimension of life is lost in unrealistic expectations of comfort. This kind of spiritual sickness is contagious and requires radical healing methods. Rediger points out that it is taking longer than it should.

Dr. Ross Campbell, psychiatrist from Chattanooga, Tennessee, suggests another possibility concerning why ministers are the target of so much hostility.2 He points out that in the 1960s and 1970s, parenting trends in the United States, especially within Christian circles, began to focus on structures and relationships which did not permit children to develop in handling their anger in a mature way. That trend continues today. As children enter the adolescent stage when passive-aggressive behavior is normal, their anger is blocked by their parents, preventing them from developing beyond that stage. As a result, society has produced a generation characterized by passive-aggressive behavior. Passive-aggressive behavior targets authority figures, and ministers in general are seen as authority figures. There are also some other professions that are similarly targeted, superintendents of education and police chiefs being two high profile examples.

Not only does the incivility damage ministers and their families, churches suffer in the process. Many experts believe that it takes an average of 10-15 years for a church to heal following the forced termination of the pastor. The spirit of the gospel is dampened and the Christian message suffers.

Maybe it's time to reconsider Paul's admonition to the church at Corinth, "Now I will show you the most excellent way" (I Corinthians 12:31).

1 This information was gleaned by a reporter from an interview with Dr. Rediger following one of his presentations. The original source is not available, but the essence of this material can also be found in Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).

2 Ross Campbell, MD, is a member of the MTM board of Trustees and has assisted with numerous Healthy Transitions Wellness Retreats for Ministers and Spouses sponsored by MTM. For more information on this subject, see his book. Kids in Danger: Disarming the Destructive Power of Anger In Your Child (Cook Communications Ministries International, 1999).