Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A working definition of abuse in parish ministry

I appreciated the care and with which Lebacqz and Driskill approached the topic of spiritual abuse. They took time in critiquing various theories/theologies about what constitutes abuse by clergy. I also appreciated that they took the time to differentiate between what constitutes actual abuse and incorporated intention, judgment, and skill into their model of professional ethics. In light of what the guest clergy presenter shared with us in class, I am not certain the word ‘abuse’ would in fact apply to all the examples that were shared. In the first example, the use of the creation story where Eve is portrayed as the cause and source of the fall of humanity cannot be construed as abusive in and of itself according to the authors’ definition of abuse. The text is certainly misogynistic and I understand why a woman would feel that its reading in church was oppressive, especially if there was no sermon on the text to explicate its meaning and relevance in a post-modern context. Based on what we heard, there was no intention to harm on the part of the pastor. The guest presenter struck me as someone who has been trained in feminist theology and has gained heightened sensitivity about how the biblical text can be interpreted offensively and also impressed me someone who seemed like a caring and sensitive pastor. Further, the guest presenter has ongoing contact with this parishioner even after she left the church. This tells me there was a healthy relationship to the extent the parishioner must not have felt harmed by the pastor, but the scriptural passage brought up something in the parishioner’s psyche. Certainly, a sermon on this text addressing the problematic nature of text might have in fact been liberative for this parishioner. The guest presenter certainly demonstrated ‘regret’ just by labeling this incident as ‘abusive.’ This in my estimation was an oversight, an error in judgment that any male (or female untrained in feminist biblical interpretation) pastor could have made. He did indeed have the benefit of this training, which I suspect must have come out in some way for this parishioner to feel comfortable to have an ongoing conversation and still be in right relationship. I also say this as someone who has received quality and sensitive pastoral care from white, male, heterosexual clergy about the damage I sustained growing up Roman Catholic, around gender identity. This incident just reinforces for me the ongoing need and awareness to be intentional in all aspects of ministry, including liturgy. I’m curious if he had given a sermon on the text if a woman of an older generation and of a more conservative social location might have been offended by a feminist reading? How would that reaction be handled, certainly it is difficult to explain injustice and misogynistic nature of the biblical text if they do not understand institutionalized sexism and patriarchy? But this also seeks to reinforce that we cannot anticipate how people are going to respond. Just that we use care, express concern and exercise sensitivity when parishioners show discomfort, reflect on the situation and grow from it. I very much appreciated the sensitivity and concern the guest clergy presenter showed around the well being of his parishioners. How we define spiritual abuse incorporates many dimensions, especially the work of the Linns family systems and a process of shaming that can give rise to abuse. Lebacqz and Driskill cite that shaming can in fact be constitutive of abuse, but the situation is highly contextual as they indicated shame can be a positive corrective if done in a healthy, corrective way. The example cited by Lebacqz and Driskill was the need to confront (I do not use that term in a negative sense) a parishioner who came in seeking guidance about an extramarital affair. If the pastor did not sense regret on the part of the parishioner and a desire for continued involvement in the affair, the clergy providing gentle correction would not constitute abuse. But what if the standard were polyamory? I personally see marriage defined by values of monogamy and hold this as an important value. I do not discount that polyamorous relationships can be loving and nurturing—an ethic of friends, but I do not understand the desire for multiple partnerships. As the clergy presenter pointed out, he ran into counseling situations where he had to address a situation of couple who wanted to enter into a polyamorous relationship. He said that he did not understand it, but he had to preserve the dignity of the people who came to him for advice. He also could not project his value – monogamy—into the discussion lest they come away feeling less than loved. I think a discussion of monogamy and what commitment means is also appropriate. How does the church understand it? I mean did the parishioners who came to him take marriage vows that required monogamy, were these vows made in a church? Certainly, people who are in a marriage should have the right to recast their vows and I’m not sure how the community would view this. If the other party did not view a third party in the relationship as being unfaithful, how might God view the relationship? Is this then sinful or holy? Certainly, for someone to walk away feeling personally judged or shamed is inappropriate. But I’m not sure walking away thinking the clergy has fully blessed their relationship is fully appropriate either. But Lebacqz and Driskill rightly suggest to the people receive assurance their always loved by God. These are really good situations to talk about in a case study mode since it forces you to be intentional in developing a theological and ethical framework.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your reflections on the guest clergy's presentation. He was certainly aware of "intent/impact" when he mentioned the case of reading the Genesis story. I appreciate your approaching it from the other side--what is it is a pastor who uses feminist interpretation and the people find this offensive. I suspect there are many Christians like this. I also think that ethical issues about relationships require much more serious conversations and a case study mode will be helpful.