PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — A Broken Trust

This is the second in a series of three blogs highlighting Paula Mehmel’s experience of clergy abuse by hierarchical structures.

Although I had served my congregation faithfully for 20 years, as one of my very wise council members told me, “If you piss off 3 percent of the people a year, you are doing well. But if you stay for 20 years in the same place, that 3 percent can become a critical mass, or at the very least, a vocal one. And besides, after 20 years, you know too many secrets; and no matter how confidential you are, that knowledge scares people.”

Sadly, this wise leader had died two weeks earlier and was no longer present to balance the fervor of a church council president who was on a mission to remove me as pastor before her term ended and she moved out of town.

Just a week before my ex-husband died, at a meeting with my church council and bishop, I had agreed to begin looking for a new call. When I left that meeting, I thought we were all agreed that I would be given the time to move on with dignity, preferably within the next year. However, unbeknownst to me, the church council president was redoubling her efforts to force me to leave asap.

Because I was focused on caring for my ex-husband during his final days, I was unaware of the behind-the-scenes machinations of my council president and bishop. I was with my ex-husband when he died of cirrhosis. It was seven years after our divorce, but I felt privileged to journey with him during the last three months of his life and to be holding his hand when he breathed his last.

The next day, while I was meeting with my children and stepchildren to plan their father’s funeral, my council president, with the full knowledge and support of my bishop, sent out a text message inviting select individuals to a meeting about my future at that church. She deliberately scheduled the meeting at the time my sons were going to be saying goodbye to their father. I’m convinced that she believed that the distraction of dealing with my ex-husband’s death would allow the council to remove me before I could object.

I only found out about this secret meeting because the invitation was forwarded to me by an outraged friend in the congregation. When I learned of the meeting, I reached out to my bishop, to whom I had turned for support and guidance in the previous months. I had believed that my bishop was, at worst, a neutral agent standing by in my court.

However, when I asked him to intervene to stop what was clearly an illegal meeting, he insisted that there was nothing he could do to prevent it. (I later learned that, in fact, my bishop had not been a neutral agent. For over a year, he had been in conversation with one of my members who was determined to remove me, yet he had never informed me of his relationship or communications with her. She was a friend of his from high school and they had worked at the same church camp.)

The unilateral power that my bishop exercised in supporting my council president’s efforts to remove me left me kneecapped. I was powerless to protest his deception because I was fully reliant on him if I wished to pursue another call, either within the ELCA or in another denomination. Because I needed his endorsement, I just had to accept what had happened and move on.

Interestingly, the following year, this bishop was up for re-election. But after the nomination period, he suddenly sent out an email saying he had prayed about it and was going to remove his name from consideration. Based on anecdotal information, I learned that no conference had submitted his name for re-election, and no one was aware of any church or individual that had supported his re-election.

After my bishop left office, I found out that I was not alone in having been victimized by his lack of transparency. Following his departure, I heard story after story from other pastors whom he had betrayed. Despite our experiences, all these pastors had held their tongues because, as bishop, this man exercised unilateral power over our professional destinies. The only power we had was not to vote for him to be elected bishop again.

During the six years he served, my bishop had unchecked control and power over my life and career and over the lives and careers of my colleagues in ministry. I decided to share my story because I believe that such unchecked power is dangerous and disabling. I believe that rostered leaders need to have some sort of formal recourse when they have been treated unfairly by their bishops or by others who have the power to advance or derail their careers.

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