July 12, 2012
Years ago a magazine featured a slump-shouldered cleric standing in front of his predecessors' portraits. Each one looked haggard and beaten. The plaques beneath their names indicated that none of them had served the parish for more than a year or two. The caption read: "It occurred to Father Brown that maybe God didn't really call him to St. Swithens."
Nothing batters clergy like mean sheep, because . . .
•clergy love to be loved and nothing hurts like abuse from those you love;
•clergy care, caring involves exposure and vulnerability, and nothing hurts like having your trust betrayed;
•clergy invest not just their professional energy, but their personal and spiritual energy in the work that they do;
•it is not just their professional world that's at risk, but the well being of their families that is often at risk as well;
•clergy tend to have high, if not unrealistic expectations of what it will be like to be engaged in the church's ministry;
•they can't always hope for help from their denominational superiors; and
•they can't always hope to be defended by the people who benefit from their ministry.
As common as the experience can be, nothing prepares you for being mauled or mistreated by mean sheep. (Note: None of this is to suggest that there is no such thing as a mean shepherd. That just isn't the topic for this column.)
There are a few passing conversations about it in seminary—most of which focus on family systems theory. Almost all of that instruction is devoted to teaching clergy to manage mean sheep and it is rarely if ever devoted to teaching clergy how to protect themselves....