What Should You Do?
You get a call from your denominational superiors. What should you do?
The historical situation faced in most denominations is a growing shortage of pastors. If a complaint comes up, some denominations are trying now to preserve their talent pools. BUT DON’T COUNT ON IT!
Pastors Have Rights Too!
As a pastor, you may find yourself facing a complaint brought by a lay person, another pastor, or by a “superior in office.” If you get a call from the bishop, district president, pulpit committee chairperson or a district superintendent and you are directed to meet him/her, we suggest the following:
* If the purpose of the call is not made clear, be ready to ask if it is about a complaint against you. If so, say you will call back in a few minutes. Calm down and find this article. Call back and ask for a copy of the complaint and any supporting materials for it. Ask for time to get a friend and to study the complaint. Ask if the complaint could end up in civil or criminal court so that you will know whether or not you will need a lawyer. Ask who else will be coming to the meeting. Ask for twenty days minimum (or whatever your church constitution or synod or conference allows in its complaint process) to prepare for the meeting.
* Start immediately to document: write down what was said during the phone call; start a log of all that happens (times, places, people involved, letters, memos, phone calls, etc.) related to any allegations revealed in the call; and begin to gather your materials for response. Do not wait until after you get the complaint. The complaint will help you focus on what to gather but you may never see it!
* You will probably not get the twenty days but as soon as possible, seek out someone you trust, someone who is as high in the denomination’s pecking order as you can find or is a former “superior” or is retired, to be your “friend” for the interview to discuss the complaint and possibly be your advocate or counsel in later hearings. With your friend (and advocate and lawyer), go over everything you are sent and what has happened.
Take the complaint very seriously no matter how frivolous or minor it seems to you. Go over your side of the story in detail because your defense team will not want any surprises. Consider all the options your denomination’s rules provide, such as disability, leave of absence, sabbatical, retirement et al as well as how to fight for your career within your denomination.
* Also go over your family’s job, housing, and health insurance situation. Set up a support system of trusted friends and family who will stick by you during the months to come. Be ready to look into alternative housing, jobs, and medical insurance.
* Find out all you can about mediators in the area, third-party neutral professionals.
* Consider your strategy for the initial complaint interview (See below). You need to know your rights. Having the right to see the complaint and any supporting documents may be arbitrarily withheld at the discretion of the “superior” dealing with you initially. The presumption of innocence is not likely to be enacted during the interview.
Sometimes superiors have felt free to put as much pressure on you as they choose, including
promises, intimidation, innumerable future meetings as “supervisory” until you crack, or any other tactic they think will work.
Depending on your denomination’s laws:
* the superior may be able to suspend you with or without salary and parsonage, without a prior hearing to verify the complaints;
* the nature of the complaint may be shared with the Pulpit Committee and the congregation before any formal hearings on it; and
* superiors may take it to the your denominational ministry board without your having a right to send your own documentation or even be represented prior to their recommendation about you.
Hopefully, upon studying your denomination’s complaint process, you will
identify which if any of the above could happen to you. Despite what rights you may have, superiors are sorely tempted by righteous indignation to ignore whatever rights you have. Some will respect your knowing your rights. Some will NOT!
The resolution usually asked for at the initial meeting is the pastor’s withdrawal from ministry, retirement, or leave of absence. Description of the actual process to be followed and the rights of the pastor are not very often given more than cursory attention in the initial meeting. BEWARE!
You should be allowed to take along a friend who may speak. Mediation should be a possible route for developing a resolution. But “superiors” do not usually welcome the presence of a lawyer to be there on your behalf because that “interferes with the collegial relationship among pastors. In most denominations, there will be no record taken of the meeting, except for the notes taken by the superior(s) or your own notes, if you are allowed to take any.
Since this first meeting is crucial to all that is to happen in the coming months, we strongly recommend the following:
1. Listen quietly. Do not respond to the complaints or other comments made by the “superiors”. Do not become defensive. Do not make excuses. Do not challenge their right to confront you this way. Do not give them any information about the alleged events noted in the complaint. BE ABSOLUTELY QUIET NO MATTER WHAT THEY DO! You will NOT be able to talk your way out of this. ANYTHING you say will be used against
2. Ask for anything they have in writing. Denominational rules should allow you the right to have that material.
3. DO NOT SIGN ANY AGREEMENT OR STATEMENT. You will be tempted to acknowledge some guilt for something, maybe even the whole complaint! Or you will be so upset that you will do anything to get this behind you or to bail out of a Church that treats its pastors this way. Hold your cool.
Another time you may not feel that way nor may what the superiors ask be appropriate to the level of behavior you may have exhibited. DO NOT SIGN ANY AGREEMENT OR STATEMENT until you have had a chance to review it and the complaint with your defense team and family. You probably retain the right to withdraw from ministry at any time in the future. Realize that if you withdraw that you will lose all rights but pension and possibly disability, both of which are protected under federal law.
4. Have your accompanying friend ask any questions about the process and your rights under the circumstances. Do not ask them yourself. You won’t be able to think straight! Try to get what the next step in the process is in writing before you leave.
5. Thank the “superiors” for their time and for the information. Remain civil. Do not give
them any excuse to add to the complaint! Get out as quickly as possible.
6. As soon as possible after the meeting, write down everything you can remember about the
meeting, date it, and sign it. Ask those accompanying you to do the same.
7. KEEP THE FAITH. This isn’t God’s fault!
8. Contact Associates in Advocacy or any group in your denomination that knows church law for further steps and assistance and support for your defense team and you.
9. Keep in touch with your friends and colleagues. Do not be surprised if word slips out about the complaints and you are shunned. There are still some pastors in your conference who will be willing to be some help because they know of other cases where pastors have been harmed and/or because they are for justice and want all to be treated fairly. Those latter folks may become a support group to deal with your current depression and your future political tasks before your denomination.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS. Be sure to read the complaint procedures of your denomination.
Rev. Jerry Eckert