‘Betrayed by the Church’

Two weeks before Christmas 2010, two Church workers contacted me on the same day to tell me that their respective bosses had just fired them. These two live a thousand miles apart; they do not know each other. Neither had received a verbal or written warning previously. At the time of the firings, one person received not a single word of explanation. The other received an explanation spoken in what the person perceived as half-truths.

Perhaps legitimate reasons exist for the bosses’ decisions; a review of “he said/she said” or evaluation of the legitimacy of various firings is not the purpose of this article. Rather, the purpose is to present the reaction of mission-motivated Church workers who have been fired and who feel “betrayed by the Church.”

What do these fired workers say? I listened to the two individuals who had contacted me, and then I sought out another half-dozen Church employees whom I personally know had been fired. They have varied terms of employment: six months to 22 years. Also, I sent the draft of this article to half a dozen good Catholics who knew of other fired Church workers.

I heard these expressions of feelings: “I feel betrayed.” “I gave my blood, sweat and tears.” “I went above and beyond what was required in my job description.” “I’ve lost my trust in the clergy. They are so used to being coddled and seeking their own comfort that they have no idea how the real world lives and operates. They view disagreement as disrespect.” “Most priests are not business people and have not learned to be in leadership or management roles. Often they believe that their not telling someone things that could help them is more charitable than saying what needs to be said to help that person.”

A consultant for and former director of human resources writes: “I could write a book on ‘the big silent push out’ after having listened to such stories for over 25 years from many former employees who worked in religious hospitals and higher education.” Others commented: “Some priests are spineless men who can’t deal with competent, confident strong women.” “I feel abused, misused, mistreated. I’m leaving the parish. I’m becoming one of those people who claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious’; I love Jesus but not the institutional Church.” “Priests mistreat women and then wonder why mothers don’t encourage vocations to priesthood.” “Accountability, respect, servant leaders: the clergy should reflect on what it truly means to be ‘called.’” “I believe God leads the Church, so when the Church mistreated me, I blamed God.” “I’ve left the Church for years, and now I want to forgive and come back to the Church, but my prayers to forgive result in a renewed sense of the injustice the Church did to me.”

Not the Sum and Substance

My observation, in part, is this: pastors, religious sisters, and lay leaders of ecclesiastical institutions aren’t the sum and substance of the Church, but the “medium is the message.” People fired by representative leaders of Church institutions feel wronged by the Church. The fired workers easily transfer anger at their bosses to anger at God and the Catholic Church. And since emotions are contagious, family members and friends oftentimes experience the same feelings.

Why do fired Church workers hurt so deeply? Working for the Church generally does not pay as well as comparable positions in the secular world. Everybody knows and expects that. Church workers choose to work for the Church as an expression of their faith, and a sharing of their talents in a meaningful mission-minded way. Church staff members are usually emotionally and spiritually involved in their work. Their work is not just a job; it is also a ministry. Given choices, Church workers want to make a difference in the world. So when a public representative of an ecclesiastical institution, a priest or a sister, fires an employee, not only is the fired worker’s heart broken, but also the worker’s soul is wounded. That person’s spirit of faith in the Church dissipates rapidly, like air rushing out of a punctured balloon. Be alert, a new anticlericalism is percolating in the pews and rectory offices. Squint your eyes and look down the road, you might see a Church Workers Union on the horizon.

‘Curate Eaters’ of Old

A few decades ago, a popular phrase in Church parlance used to describe unreasonable pastors was “curate eaters.” Today, we almost never hear that phrase: there are no longer any curates! Instead, the Church has laity serving in administrative positions that used to be filled by priests and religious sisters. Now, the laity suffer the abuses that previously too many curates endured. The way some priests, sisters and lay leaders treat their employees appears to be a reincarnation of the infamous “curate eaters.”

How do fired Church workers respond to their perceived mistreatment? I’ve asked many victims: “What has worked for you?” The responses include these. “I walked away and never looked back.” “I harbor no grudges. I pray for the priest/pastor/church representative who hurt me so deeply.” “I pray that the pastor might grow up and learn to live in the real world.”

How do coworkers react to an on-the-spot firing? With shock! The abruptness of the misdeed sends reverberations throughout the workplace. Other employees begin to recognize with trepidation that “anybody can be fired at anytime.” People begin to walk around as if on eggshells; they tiptoe in order not to disturb the czar. An air of mistrust pervades the atmosphere. How sad, since trust grounds relationships in every society: religious and non-religious. The Kingdom of God on earth suffers a giant setback. What had been an enterprise of religious dedication becomes reduced to just another job.

What suggestions might I make to bosses (priests, religious sisters or laity) in the Church environment? Personally, as a pastor for many years and a university administrator for many more years, I admit that I’ve made more than my share of mistakes in this area. Please God, we religious and lay Church leaders would learn collectively and institutionally from our past shortcomings.

First, do you know yourself and your staff: your and their strengths and weaknesses? Do you know your own “hot buttons”? Have you identified yourself on the self-knowledge paradigms of the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator and/or the Holland Work Types? Do you appreciate that your employees have to put up with your foibles? Must you always be liked, be right, be controlling, have the final word, manifest your personal and professional insecurity by being not legitimately authoritative but authoritarian? Jesus was perfect, but none of us is. Do you truly know your staff members: each of their strengths and weaknesses? Are you sensitive to their good days and bad days? Do you talk informally and kid humorously with your employees from time to time to build up a trusting and pleasant atmosphere in the workplace? How do you show your personal and not just monetary appreciation to your employees? Relationships matter. Are you comfortable in your own skin? Do you apply “justice” and “charity” administratively, or are these simply abstract homily topics?

Second, do you have a stated policy and set procedures for letting go of an employee? Virtually every institution has hiring policies; do they have also firing policies? For example, does each employee receive an initial and updated job description, and an annual written review? If an employee’s performance is found wanting, does a system exist for the administrator to discuss concerns with the employee, and to give one, two, and three warnings?

Fired on the Spot

Virtually all of the fired Church workers with whom I spoke had not received one warning; they were fired on the spot. Many secular for-profit corporations give employees a series of written warnings before terminating them, yes? Not only is that sound human relations policy, but more importantly for Church institutions, is it not the fundamentally human and Christian thing to do? What system of evaluation is in place for evaluating you? To whom do you report for an annual performance review?

Third, might the structure and spirit of your workplace differ in some Christian way from that of the neighboring public school, hospital or business? Do you pray as a staff or celebrate Mass together on certain occasions? What words describe the work atmosphere: good communication, happy cooperation, mutual respect, humility, honesty, Christian joy? We all have said and done things that we later wish we could re-call and cancel out. What lessons have each of us learned from the difficult and sometimes bad decisions that each of us has made over the years?

Fourth, to those who bear responsibility for the ongoing formation of the clergy, what programs exist for annual training and review of the clergy? Who reviews the reviewers? Who bosses the local boss? Most professions in the Western world require periodic updating and renewal of licenses. Besides mandated compliance with the Child Protection Law, are your priests required to undergo annual updating in the areas of theology, liturgy, preaching, pastoral practice and human resources? If not, why not?

Priests’ updating often seems to be left to the individual priest. The lack of required professional updating for clergy is outdated; a lacuna exists in the ecclesiastical world. Priests with less and less experience are being asked to take on more and more responsibility. It is not fair to the recently ordained who are given pastorates. Recently ordained priests need more mentoring than they currently receive. This would go a long way toward developing a harmonious parish ministry.

Fifth, for newly arrived leaders (pastors, principals and presidents), it takes time to learn whom to trust, who makes good first impressions and who performs well over the long haul. Please don’t act precipitously. If an employee has served previous administrators well, what might it say about you as the new administrator if you cannot work well with a time-tested employee?

Not all Church leaders are “cut out” for administration. It behooves good leaders to communicate with their predecessors. A fine lay professional with over a quarter century of experience in Church institutions pleads this point: “I have found that turnover of leadership lacks continuity. It’s as if the new leaders have been told not to utilize the knowledge and experience of the previous leader. I have seen this a few times, and it especially played out in my wife’s case [when she was fired].” And the beat goes on!

Ironically, the closing hymn for today’s weekday Mass was: “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Many times, we hit the mark; and many times, we miss the mark. And too many times, fired Church workers feel “betrayed by the Church.”

FATHER O’MALLEY, C.M., former director of St. Lazare Retreat House in Spring Lake, Mich., currently serves as University Chaplain at Niagara University, New York. Ordained in 1973, he has written five books on the saints and various articles on pastoral topics. He has been an instructor and administrator at NU. He serves on the Board of Trustees for Mt. St. Mary’s University at Emmitsburg, Maryland.