Clergy Power Dynamics and Risk Assessment

Hello, struggling colleagues. Hey, I know that not one of us likes having to lead worship from our living rooms (you do? Well, BLESS YOUR HEART!). It’s weird. It’s not church in the real sense of the word. But I have been watching a lot of different worship services and have determined that good worship has much more to do with the ability of the worship leader to connect through the camera than with where they are leading from. And to be honest, a lot of worship services filmed in empty sanctuaries with the clergy robed and alone have bad audio and are sad and awkward. Since I am not a member of those congregations I do not have the memory of being in that space, which I do realize is an important element for many.

But we must continue to prioritize safety, at least in regions of the country that are still seeing consistent or increasing numbers of COVID cases. Producing worship services from people’s homes or outdoor locations is far safer and more ethical in those regions than gathering in the sanctuary with a multi-person worship team.

What I want to emphasize is that this is not a time to be unconscious of clergy power, authority and unintentional coercion: if one of us says, “I’d like to sing a duet with you while we’re well apart on the chancel, but you can say ‘no,'” are we sure that person really feels they can refuse? You’re their pastor. In many traditions, respect for clergy authority is so strong, and trust in their judgment so high, this leaves folks emotionally and spiritually vulnerable. They may suppress their own misgivings in order to support the minister who represents God to them, and to show up in church for the church they love and have faithfully served for years.

There is a power differential between clergy and the laity, and there is an even clearer power differential between clergy and church staff. These are people who may rightfully feel that if they refuse to meet or work in the building, their jobs are at stake. We have a moral obligation to carefully work out protocols and plans in consultation with trustees and their appointed safety task forces that can assess the congregation’s needs in conjunction with state and local Board of Health, CDC and Department of Health recommendations. Your desire to be in the building is not the determining factor in decision-making.

(Of course I also want to recognize that there are ministers who feel in danger of being dismissed because of their leaders’ desire to get back into the building and their own hesitation to do so for health and safety reasons. I know that there are clergy losing their jobs over this issue and I am incredibly sorry. My broken heart goes out to you that you were not respected and that your life was not deemed valuable enough by your leaders to protect. I am also devastated by the stories of pile-on complaints coming to clergy who are busting their asses trying to cope with the transitions to online church. There has been a lot of revelation of spiritual and emotional immaturity, cruelty and entitlement in our religious communities. I have heard about it from you. Some of you are leaving the ministry. This is a conversation I hope to have separately from this one about our own uses of authority. But please keep writing to me, I care very much and I am here.)

There are churches holding rites of passage and relying on God, magical thinking and collective denial to render things such as singing by a few unmasked choir members up front safe. It is not. It is a horrifying abuse of trust to those who have already taken the risk of showing up for a group indoor service to then subject them to the ego of a priest who has unilaterally decided that singers can sing and he can preside unmasked “because the bishop said so” or because he mistakenly believes he is keeping adequate distance between himself and the few worship leaders at all times (he’s not, and he’s spraying when he speaks).

Six feet of distance between people is not a magic number but a best guess. Your ordained breath singing a hymn while standing six feet behind a couple of other singers is not holy breath, and you could be spewing dangerous aerosols over these people (and they on each other). If you’re all sharing a mic, you’re engaging in, and modeling, hazardous behavior. Stop it immediately, educate yourselves on safe practices and adopt them.

By what ridiculous ego trip are clergy making these decisions? Grandiosity, denial, recklessness disguised as “commitment,” and a need to maintain their mystique as the robed Holy Person in the sacred space. An unwillingness to recognize what a destructive example they are setting by doing the bare minimum to keep people safe. Immaturity, impatience, heedlessness, and sometimes, pressure from church members and leaders.

Dearly beloved, we aim to survive this. We are six months into it in the U.S. and now is a perfect time to recommit to vigilance and care, to shore up our resolve not to get laissez-faire or fatalist about things.

Plan slowly, carefully, and taking much counsel from a wide swath of your people and science-based resources.
Examine your own authority and power in your ministry setting. Use it to protect, not to endanger.

Peace. Bang.

4 Replies to “Clergy Power Dynamics and Risk Assessment”

  1. Also, “quite cranky” is bizarrely minimizing of a situation where lives are at stake. It frankly worries me for your judgment.

  2. These are extremely difficult times. I’m increasingly glad I work in two small Churches where there is minimal and wonderful lay leadership. We brought out tape measures and made sure there was six feet between the piano bench and the pew where the soloist is sitting. We made sure that the microphone stand is within her safe radius. It’s not rocket science, yet it IS life or death. And every week we reassess, if we feel safe to worship as three in our worship space or if its better to worship from home. AND it seems to be working. We have not had a single case in our Parish and very few in our community. Why? Vigilance, people. Vigilance.

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