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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Oh please do come in, Mr. Wolf!

We live in a time in history when most church attendance and membership is in steep decline. This has produced an atmosphere of insecurity, a desperation for growth, even leading to---gasp--marketing/branding strategies to invite, include, draw the digitally-jaded, over-worked, alienated, and media-distracted secular public into the fold.

Half the damned  articles in my news-feed come down, basically, to how to buck this general decline.
  • "Is your church too Inward?"
  • "Does your church have a clear mission?" 
  • "8 signs of a dying church"
  • "15 ways to strategize to strategize your outreach."
  • "Refresh your welcome"
  • "10 things Millennials are looking for in church"  
I have read them. All of them.

I've sorted and archived them, and shared them with key people. Policies around welcome, media, and the physical building itself have been changed because of the dissemination of them. If I were to print these digital articles, I'd be knee-deep in dead trees and eco-guilt.

But I have lately become aware that the general push to get EVERYONE POSSIBLE into your church is developing a huge blind spot in our thinking, and puts at risk those in our charge. Inviting newcomers and seekers is a theology of inclusion, common in many churches, and certainly one of our core UU values. But the general, panicked push for the fullest possible church inclusion can usher wolves into the paddock along with new sheep.

It is well to remind ourselves that Ministers are supposed to be both the vigilant SHEPHERDS who protect the vulnerable flock, as well as the sort of earnest rubes who chase after the odd lost sheep. How to gate-keep the paddock without appearing to exclude for the sake of exclusion (as it was in the days of the bad old church)?

The stone cold fact is that there are those who look at a congregation that is (think about it):
  • a ready-made community 
  • of open-hearted people
  • seeking meaningful connection
and see only--Supply. Opportunity. Resources. Fresh meat. Here are some examples of wolves masquerading as sheep that I have encountered first-hand:

Wolf #1--I am a lonely older person looking for love (or a lay...the two can get so muddled up)

In general, these are male, although recently-divorced females prowl the territory too. This can be pastorally tricky, since we are called to build intentional communities that push back against the epidemic of loneliness created by our broken socio-economic system. And of course, you can't and shouldn't try to stop relationships forming between consenting adults. But churches are supposed to be rather more than free hook-up spots for lonely superannuants and divorcees-of-a-certain-age.

Social skills (or lack of them) might be an indicator of whether pastoral intervention is called for. Is the person in question hitting on most everyone in their age range? Do they stare for prolonged periods at more youthful members of the opposite sex? Do they corner them in conversation, or otherwise make them feel uncomfortable? Discretion is called for here, and pastors would need to set aside extra time to engage the wolfish member in constructive conversations about what they have really come to church for.

(And a caveat: A vibrant church with a good range of ages is awash in unseen sexual energy, and since ministers are usually focal in live worship, they have the potential to become animus or anima figures for sexually frustrated/repressed members of the congregation, regardless of age or gender. It is impossible to overstate here the importance of a minister's personal boundaries. You are not their friend, you are not their son/daughter, you are not available to them outside a professional context. Period.)

Wolf #2: I'm building my own guru brand and would rather not start from scratch, so I'll just gather some of the sheep in the ready-made community around me and be off. Cheers.

Or, "I'm really interested in counselling/reflexology/Feldenkrais/Lucid dreaming/Ayurveda...whatever. Do you think I could use the church/hall/whatever? Do you think any of our members would be interested in something like that?"

Our emphasis on pluralism, diversity, and individual experience of the sacred makes us fare game for just about any fringe spiritual chancer. Basically, such wolves want to minister in their own special way to their own little congregation of the like-minded. Obviously, this is another wolf working out a deeply felt personal need for connection and usually some control issues as well, and thus is an opportunity for pastoral engagement about these issues. My experience, though, is this: discussion of their spiritual needs usually acts a wolf-repellent, and they're usually gone like the morning mist soon after.

Or, the more skillful learn to evade or deflect your pastoral concern. They stay and form a silo of people they've befriended or charmed. Then, they'll be off, thanks, with a chunk of your congregation, whose spiritual needs are being met by whatever it is they offer. Maybe that's not a bad thing. But it won't look good for you, Mr. Shepherd. The best way I've found to deal with any silo-group (wolf-led or not) is to keep insisting they share what they're doing with the community as a whole. That way, whatever good they're offering will be folded into the general practices of the church, and their brand loses its 'specialness'. Also, the minister positions themselves as the default arbiter of the church's spiritual offerings, which is what they are, in part, paid to do.

OR, in some extreme cases, when the minister's contract is up for renewal, they'll mount a putsch. There will be some conflict and tears and hand-wringing. But in such situations the peace-mongers always prevail and propose some sort of compromise that effectively means that ministerial authority is fatally undermined. If that happens, you should quit as gracefully as you can without a moment's hesitation, and at least you'll be outside the paddock when the wolf starts to eat and the screaming starts.

Wolf #3: I'm Baron Munchhausen: come to my caring embrace, my ailing little proxies.

"It's really simple, this, so here's the deal: I need you to be spiritually/emotionally/socially needy. I will make a great show of caring, supporting, befriending you. But do not get better. If you get better, I will lose my reason for being. So I will need to keep you broken. Your brokenness is my meat and drink, because it obliterates my own brokenness. So....poor you. Poor, poor you!" 

It is astonishing how well this dysfunction blends into what we think church community is supposed to be--caring for each other, making each other whole and strong through mutual loving kindness. Maybe Jesus was a Munchhausen's Syndrome by Proxy sufferer. I'd like to think not...

The best way to test this is by outcome: does the person the wolf has latched onto ever gain any personal autonomy through their caring efforts? No? Why is that? Not caring enough? Or too much?

The worst cases of this happen with congregants at the end-of-life. A positively ghoulish hovering near the dying. As if the dying haven't enough to contend with, they've got to take care of the wolf's feelings too. And of course, the risk of elder abuse is very great is such cases, leading to the entry of the most sinister wolf of all....

Wolf #4: Wolf, the Legacy Hunter

Once upon a time in Hyde, Greater Manchester, there lived a kindly doctor-wolf who sidled among the eldest sheep in the paddock and went to great lengths to look after their pain management, health care, and end-of-life planning. The sheep were so grateful for his kindness in their time of greatest need, that many included them in their wills. Right before they suddenly died.

Yes, children, it's the story of Dr. Shipman, who gobbled up the assets of scores of elderly, not-quite-all-there patients before he was exposed as the serial killer he was. Most of these elderly sheep are now in the graveyard of the Unitarian church where they worshipped, or that of the nearby Methodist church. Both paddocks offered an ample supply of ready-made, credulous, dependent sheep.

Imagine that. A nice, caring, church-going doctor using his professional standing to prey on elderly fellow-members! Well, here's a shock--doctors are not the only people in church communities to use their professional standing to further their own material ends. Legacy-hunting is not unknown among Ministers too. Look for the signs: excessive, almost exlcusive, attention to the oldest and sickest; special arrangements with funeral directors; personal attention to wills; a fat retirement.

Oh yes, Ministry can be a very handy guise for any of the wolves I've listed above. Sexual and financial predation, narcissistic cult-formation, and a need to keep people needing them.

Enter the unreliable narrator. Maybe I'm a wolf too.

The folk wisdom is that people go into the professions that offer what they themselves need or desire: many doctors are hypochondriacs, many psychiatrists are nuts, many cops have thuggish inclinations, and many ministers need to be ministered to. The bar for who gets to lead a ready-made community of vulnerable people seeking meaningful connection, cannot be set too high. Someone needs to be vigilant and that vigilance needs to be trust-worthy--and trusted.

There is a UU trend lately to do away with the notion of professional ministry, citing our commitments to democracy and equality, and with the Information Age  doing away with the minister-as-in-house-scholar.  After all, if you really want to know anything about religion or spirituality, or anything, you only have to Google it. And since as a church we do not insist on the existence of God, still less on a priestly-class of ontologically higher beings, why spend all those precious church resources on a minister at all? You're not the boss of me, man!

Models that ‘dethrone’ the ministerial role are perhaps a bit disingenuous. Or worse. Without someone to gate-keep, rightly or wrongly, we leave our communities open to exploitation in a world full of people so broken that they do exploit. We shouldn't let our insecurity about decline blind us to keeping safe those in our charge.

And just maybe, casting the widest possible net to top up our ever-dwindling memberships doesn't preclude discernment about who we actually haul in, and who we should throw back into the sea.