PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Truth Leads To Reconciliation

This is the final blog in a series of posts regarding my personal experience of the abuse of power that can result from one person having hierarchical control of the career of a rostered minister.

In previous blogs, I shared my experience with a clinical pastoral experience supervisor that forced me to process my rape soon after it happened and with a bishop who sanctioned a secret meeting with my council while I was helping my children plan their dad’s funeral. In my third blog I described how my most recent bishop and his associates used the “local concerns” portion of the ELCA Constitution to help remove me from my congregation after I filed a complaint about boundary violations by one of his associates. As a result of these ethical violations, I ended up being forced to retire from the ELCA and am now happily serving a United Church of Christ church.

Although I had hoped to remain an active pastor in the ELCA, I recognized that my bishop firmly believed that any pastor over the age of 60 or with 30-plus years of service who leaves a congregation without a call should retire. At the time my last ELCA call ended, in his 11 years of leadership, my bishop had refused to recommend any pastor for on leave from call status if they were eligible for retirement based on years of service or age. When I was forced out of my call, the unilateral power of my bishop left me with no option to challenge his position. My ability to get a letter of good standing to allow me to pursue calls in other denominations was dependent on not rocking the boat.

After my forced retirement from the ELCA, I ended up moving to the UCC, where I am serving an amazing congregation. I am happier than I have ever been. In the end, everything worked out well for me. But my abrupt departure was devastating to many members of my former congregation who felt confused and betrayed. I am sadly aware of many former congregation members who simply left the ELCA or who left organized religion completely after my departure. This side effect of what transpired at my last ELCA congregation is the thing I most regret.

Although no longer serving an ELCA congregation, I remain convinced of the grace-centered Gospel that ELCA churches proclaim. Theologically, I will always be Lutheran. Despite these strengths, I was exhausted by the toxic hierarchy of the synod structure and the ability for some bishops and their staff to destroy opportunities for ministry for anyone who dares to question their boundaries or ethics. In my experience, rostered leaders are often forced to accept injustices because, if they protest, they won’t be able to find a new call. If your bishop blocks you, your career is essentially over.

If the church is to remain healthy and strong, there needs to be an avenue to address unjust treatment by a bishop or their staff members. I’m convinced that unilateral power provides the opportunity for injustice and abuse. I believe there needs to be an avenue where one can appeal a synodical bishop’s control in the call process if they refuse to endorse you as a candidate in another synod or for other career opportunities. Even without any accusation of impropriety, the lack of support or endorsement can leave a rostered leader dangling on an ever fraying career thread.

I believe that the only way to address the toxic nature of the hierarchical church is to find voices to share their experiences. But sharing one’s stories of abuse is hugely risky because retribution can be swift, and the consequences can be devastating for both rostered leaders and congregations. Speaking out requires being vulnerable, admitting failure, and opening oneself to attack. Not everyone is able to take that risk.

I have shared my stories because I know that I am not alone and that many pastors and rostered leaders are afraid to talk about how the church has failed them. If we can create an avenue for people in the church to say #MeToo when it comes to abuse of power, perhaps we can begin to address the systemic problems at the root of an unhealthy hierarchical system and provide avenues for appeal and dialogue.

Truth leads to reconciliation, and I believe that the truth can set the church free from what has become, I fear, an all too frequent occurrence. I love the church and I am hopeful that now might be a Kairos moment for its pastors and leaders to speak out.

One thought on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Truth Leads To Reconciliation”

  • Kim May 31, 2024 at 7:42 am

    Thank you Paula
    The only way to fix this foundational flaw is to first acknowledge it – thank you for sharing your painful experience.

    So proud of you for persevering
    May these words prevent future abuse to others by the bishop and staff that wronged you.


Leave a Reply