PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Violations Of Trust

This is the third blog in a series highlighting my experiences with unchecked hierarchical power over my 34 years of ordained ministry. My hope in sharing my experience is to create a safe space for others to share their stories.

In my first post, I shared how I was raped near the end of my CPE semester and forced by my supervisor to process my trauma with five male cohorts just two days after it happened. In my second blog, I shared how my bishop in North Dakota sanctioned a secret meeting to terminate my position while I was at a funeral home with my sons, preparing to bury their father.

Both of those experiences preceded my last call in the ELCA that began with me moving from North Dakota to New England. I was called to serve an urban congregation in Connecticut with a large endowment. During the call process, the congregation’s leaders made it clear to me that their goal was to move their congregation from a charity approach to one more focused on justice. From the outset, I let them know that such a move was challenging and would require systemic change that might be controversial. Nonetheless, they assured me that they believed their ability to flourish in their urban core location required this paradigm shift and I was game for the challenge.

Unfortunately, rather than deal with their concerns in a forthright manner, some disenchanted members engaged with one of my bishop’s associates to complain about what was happening. They knew this associate well because she had been an intern at the congregation, and she was married to a son of the congregation. However, this behind-the-scenes relationship led to numerous boundary and professional violations that ultimately caused me to file a formal complaint against the associate with the bishop, after first confronting her directly. My specific concerns were as follows:

  • The bishop’s associate never informed me of her conversations with my members nor told me that she was engaged in guiding them, prior to her coming, unbeknownst to me, to a Church Council meeting.
  • As this associate, with the bishop’s assistance, guided the distribution of the Congregational Assessment Tool, I worried that the protocol was not consistent with the guidelines for the assessment. Although the survey was intended for active engaged members, they sent it to people who had long since moved or were not involved in our ministry. In addition, I was also concerned that the total number of profiles filled out was double our average in-person attendance at the time.
  • My concerns proved justified when I met with the bishop’s associate prior to the congregational meeting to review the results of the CAT. At my meeting with the bishop’s associate, she suggested that I resign before the congregational meeting based on the results of the clergy profile. Although she claimed that the clergy profile had radically shifted from the last time the congregation had done the CAT, I discovered they had only done the CAT once before — prior to my call process — and that the clergy profile was not produced at that time.
  • Finally, the bishop’s associate released a confidential document — the clergy profile — to my church council without my approval or signature as required by the company that distributes the CAT and without ever sharing the clergy profile with me.

Although I admitted to the bishop’s associate that I might in fact be serving as a “long-term interim” whose role was to help the congregation move from their past to where they needed to be in the 21st century, I reaffirmed my belief that the congregation needed to address these issues with me in place. I did not want to become the “identified agent” — in effect a scapegoat cited to excuse the congregation from dealing with their systemic issues by pinning blame on a single position or role. I acknowledged then, as I do now, that I am not perfect and I made mistakes, but I did not believe that my mistakes were so irredeemable that I needed to resign from my position so abruptly.

When I asked the bishop’s associate not to share her request that I resign with my congregation, she agreed. Despite her assurances, the next day, the person on the council with whom she had been working called me and said that she had suggested that I resign and that he concurred and pressed me to resign immediately. I refused this request to resign and at a subsequent council meeting, the council and I agreed to engage a consultant to help us explore the congregation’s concerns in a healthy manner.

However, as time went on, I became aware of more boundary violations from the bishop’s associate: Specifically, I learned that she had emailed the president of my congregation providing her cell phone number and a note saying that she would be available to debrief at any time, unbeknownst to me.

After becoming aware this bishop’s associate was working with my council behind my back, I contacted my conference dean, who had been there when I had asked the bishop’s associate not to interfere with my congregation several months earlier. Based on my communication, my dean contacted the bishop and the bishop asked that I put my concerns about his associate in writing. In response, I wrote a letter detailing my concerns and formally complaining about the associate’s boundary violations. I filed my complaint on a Friday afternoon, around 4 p.m.

The following Sunday — just two days later — a different associate to the bishop hosted an unconstitutional meeting with my Church Council on the Synod’s Zoom account. Although I had previously approved a meeting between my council and the consultant that we were planning to hire, I had expressly stated that the only topic to be covered was a specific personnel concern. I was never told that an associate to the bishop would be at the meeting or I would not have permitted it to occur without me being present, which is constitutionally required. 

At that meeting this other associate to the bishop led the council through a process that resulted in the majority voting to contact the bishop to remove me from my position for alleged “local difficulties.”  According to the ELCA Constituion, a pastor can only be removed from their call unilaterally under specific situations, however a Church Council can request that a bishop can come in if they believe that the pastor can no longer function effectively.

Because of this action, my complaint about his colleague, the bishop’s associate who had been working with my leaders, was never addressed and I was not given a chance to address any issues with my council. In fact, I had not met with them for dialogue or discussion since our decision to hire the consultant, over six weeks earlier. They had only been working with the associate to the bishop about whom I had filed the complaint.

The next week my bishop came to my office. And without any accusation of impropriety, he walked me out of my church for the last time. I was never given the opportunity for any conversation with members of the council or my congregation, let alone closure. My bishop’s actions were especially painful because he walked me out on the 32nd anniversary of my ordination.

After I was escorted out of my church, my bishop formed a committee of his choosing to listen to concerns and put together a report for my congregation regarding the alleged “local difficulties” cited in the council vote seeking to remove me from my call. His report was 15 pages long and contained just four words of my response to the “local concerns” issue. And those four words were taken out of context. He said that I had wanted to remain as pastor, but neglected to add that I recognized that it was likely time for me to move on. There was no mention of my desire for healthy closure for the congregation or my concerns of systemic racism and caste that were at the heart of the issues. In addition, my concerns about his associate’s boundary violations were never addressed. My well documented complaint was buried.

Just imagine having to go through this whole painful process with no representative of the bishop’s office to walk with you, care for you or even tell you what is going on. Instead, the bishop’s associate assigned to my congregation was working with select leaders behind my back.

Because I could see the writing on the wall, I went to the meeting where I received the bishop’s report with my resignation already in hand. But my heart was grieved for the sake of my congregation. I was frustrated that we had not gotten to discuss the issues that led to my departure, and I was furious that the associate with the bishop’s boundary issues were never addressed publicly and that she continued to work with my congregation during the transition. I’m still processing my feelings about this betrayal.

In my final blog, I will address how I responded to this action by the bishop as well as how I believe we should address concerns regarding the unilateral power of a bishop to bury concerns and complaints about the behavior of their synod staff.

One thought on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Violations Of Trust”

  • Kim June 4, 2024 at 10:26 am

    This just makes me so angry. There are rules – constitutions (and commandments for that matter) that I expect a church leader and staff to observe. I am ashamed of their behavior on behalf of the body of Christ.


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