21 Lessons Learned during the Lawsuit
The 21 items below represent some of the lessons I’ve earned over the past two years of legal turmoil; the fruit of failures, idiotic mistakes, and successes. It is written from a pastor’s perspective and it is intended to help pastors who face or who are preparing to face similar circumstances. It is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it’s a start. I think I probably learned more in the last two years about leadership in the church than I could have learned in ten years of peaceful service.
1. While in negotiations, before a lawsuit is filed, always be sure to document, in writing and in detail, the discussion and any decisions taken at every meeting with your bishop or members of the diocesan standing committee. Send copies to each of your allies present in the meeting. Have them print it out, date it, and sign it. Send a signed copy to the bishop and standing committee. These may or may not help you when and if the diocese sues, but they will almost always come in handy with the press.
2. Avoid meeting with the bishop or any diocesan representative(s) alone.
3. Never offer information about your financial stability, assets, or property.
4. Retain an attorney familiar with church property disputes now…today. Even if your negotiations end amicably, you will need an attorney to help you work out the details of any agreement. And if the diocese turns to litigation, you will not need to rush about looking for a lawyer. You can focus all of your energy on leading.
5. When/if a suit is filed, tell your people early and often that the lawsuit may very well end in defeat. Your task is to prepare everyone mentally, spiritually, and practically to lose all of the assets and the church buildings.
6. Tell your people that every check written today will, if you lose, end up in diocesan coffers tomorrow. They need to know this so that they will be able to make free and informed choices with their money.
7. Tell your people that any bequests or memorials or donated items (if given to the church or bought by the church with money parishioners have given) will, if you lose, belong to the diocese.
8. Should you have a “spirit filled” person on the vestry who argues that strategic planning for various eventualities, including defeat, is faithless; that Christians should trust God and expect and plan only for victory, do not listen. You will be very sorry if you do. Trust God to provide everything that you need every step of the way and recognize that his grace often operates in and through the careful deliberation and planning of the leaders he has appointed.
9. Be careful for spies in your congregation. If you have a parishioner who is angry and disgruntled and yet for some inexplicable reason continues to attend services and meetings—especially if said parishioner suddenly stops complaining—beware. Do not say anything in public that you do not want the diocese to know.
10. If you suspect a diocesan spy on your vestry, say nothing you do not want the diocese to know. Be nice. Make no accusations. Do some careful investigating. If the evidence shows your suspicions to be correct, decide whether it is best to expose him/her publicly or turn the situation to your advantage. Spies can be very helpful if given the right kind of information. If you choose to expose the spy, be sure you have the evidence nailed down. Say nothing until you do.
11. If you are a blogger or writer and your lawyer lets you, keep blogging and writing. This will expose the diocesan actions to the light of public scrutiny. Be sure to pass everything you publish through your attorney beforehand.
12. Blogging also inevitably opens the door for much needed spiritual and material support from sympathetic readers locally and around the world. Let your congregation know about any kind of support you receive. You will be surprised at the boost in morale such news produces.
13. Make friends with the religion reporter or whoever your local paper assigns to follow the story. Always answer the phone. Always call back. Always have something to say both on the record and off. Always speak well of your opponents. Never say “no comment”. Never refuse to answer your phone. Never let them hear you whine, complain or attack the diocese. Let the diocesan press stooge play the role of the offended, entitled, bitter, angry, and intolerant authority figure. And trust me, he/she will.
14. If you do not have an email list including all of your parishioners, establish one and use it at least weekly to send parish news and updates. The updates should include a small section or a paragraph about the lawsuit—letting people know of any new developments—but the overwhelming bulk of the update should be taken up with parish news. A weekly line of communication will be vital in maintaining a sense of community continuity and cohesion should you lose your property.
15. When there is good or bad news to pass on, be honest. Do not candy-coat losses or play down victories. Blast the news of wins to the sky. Stalwartly acknowledge and mourn losses.
16. Never express bitterness or resentment toward the judge, the diocese, the bishop or anyone else to the congregation. Resentment spreads like gangrene and the last thing you need when everything is all over, is a bitter, angry congregation. That’s the quickest way to die. Here’s the attitude I wanted my people to have: “God has entrusted us with this time of struggle and sacrifice. We must glorify him by forgiving and loving those who persecute us. This is not a tragedy it is an honor and a privilege to be called to lose everything so that we may walk with Jesus in his way.” I preached that, taught it, and counselled it. Resentment, while present, has not been a major problem.
17. Aside from the lawsuit news paragraph you set aside in your weekly updates and announcements, select trusted, mature, experienced, faithful lay leaders to handle most of the communication about the lawsuit.
18. Be the pastor. Your people will want to know that you are focused on being their pastor not obsessed by a legal fight. If you are freaking out, do so in private. Pray, talk to your wife, talk to your bishop, do what you need to do to be okay, but don’t pass your anxiety on to your people. Do your job. Preach, teach, lead bible studies, do your visits, make your calls. Don’t check out.
19. Expect internal disputes. Your congregation is going to go through a great deal of anxiety driven by the fear of an unknown future, the compulsion to cling to what is, and a kind of anticipatory mourning for the loss that could come. This anxiety will come to the surface in various forms of 1. anger 2. recrimination 3. gossip 4. denial 5. discouragement 6. attempts to create factions. The anger and recrimination will most often be directed toward you and the vestry. That’s just naturally what some people do when they are afraid or anxious. Consider the criticism soberly but don’t take it personally. Even if you were to make all the right decisions, which you won’t, the emotional state of the congregation would be the same. Recognize the underlying anxiety and don’t be afraid to name it publicly.
20. Don’t be timid. Once you leave the Episcopal Church, you take your future in your hands. There is no more safety net. If your congregation folds, you will be out of a job with little or no prospect for future church employment. With that reality looming over your head, you could be tempted to shrink back in the face of your people—to remain quiet about corporate sin, to pander, to refuse to confront, to close your eyes to thing that in normal circumstances you would call out. Don’t do that. Your congregation is not your master. God is. Your future is in God’s hands and you must not forget that God has called you to be his representative to your people and that call stands. Fear God not the congregation or anyone in it.
21. Meet defeat or victory with grace. If you lose, express gratitude for the judge and the judicial system, gratitude for your attorneys, gratitude for the opportunity to lose everything for the sake of the gospel. If you win, express the very same sentiments.
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