August 22, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
“I am writing you on behalf of several members of the congregation in a Presbyterian church located near Sacramento. There is a problem with our minister and we hope that you will be able to provide some guidance. In a nutshell, he can’t stop talking and this is leading to a serious loss of members,” Kelley’s e-mail began.
“His sermons go on forever — often for two hours. Now, people aren’t quietly walking out during the middle of one of his endless sermons. They grab their kids, and slam the door on the way out. It is really embarrassing. Several of us on the management committee have nicely approached him, diplomatically suggesting that perhaps a shorter sermon would be better. His answer is that we all can give two hours out of our busy week to listen to his sermons, and to God.
“Things reached a low point last Saturday during a formal wedding ceremony — complete with a 30-voice choir. It was a typical hot summer day, and even though the church has A/C it was still warm inside. With the couple — in their late 50s to mid 60s — standing on the stage, under hot, bright lights, even before actually marrying them, our minister lectured on and on about marriage, with tons of Biblical citations, for more than 45 minutes!
“Suddenly, the groom passed out! The poor guy fainted in front of 300 guests. About 15 minutes later, he recovered, and the wedding ceremony continued. The minister could have shortened it, but did not. It lasted a half an hour more. The poor groom was as white as a sheet, obviously weak, and the bride was visibly shaken, as were we all. Everyone was hoping the wedding would not turn into a funeral!
“This is what we are dealing with. What do you suggest we do? He has three years remaining on a four-year contract. Is this something that could actually get us all in a lawsuit if he were fired? That’s the last thing we want, but unless things change quickly, I am afraid for the future of our church,” Kelley’s e-mail concluded.
For an answer to my reader’s question — both from a religious and legal perspective — I turned to attorney and Episcopal priest, the Reverend Robert D. Woods of Kernville.
I’ve know Reverend Woods professionally for many years, as he served as chief deputy in the Kern County Counsel’s Office for over 20 years. He is also a mediator active in Church related matters, and has “been involved with several cases, almost identical to what your readers are describing.”
“If not resolved soon, these are the kinds of problems which can tear a church apart, it’s that serious,” he cautioned.
Reverend Woods also pointed out something which “most people might not think of,” and that’s the fact “in almost all religious disputes, the courts take a hands-off view. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — separation of church and state — requires judges to steer clear of these kinds of issues almost 100 percent of the time.”
“However, what will predictably toss this into court is where the congregation does not follow their by-laws or personnel procedures.”
“When I was a seminary student, we had strict rules about sermons; If it was shorter than 10 minutes or longer than 15 minutes, points would be deducted. That’s plenty of time to make two or three good points,” he noted.
“In what we call an Orthodox Christian service, the high point — the focus — is the Eucharist or Communion. In Protestant churches, there is often a much greater emphasis on preaching, and it’s not unusual to have longer sermons. Twenty minutes to a half an hour is common. Beyond that, you will lose the congregation. They cannot absorb the message, and will likely tune-out.
“At a wedding, instead of a sermon, a Homily is preferable, which is comprised of brief uplifting comments. The focus is on the exchange of vows and the couple’s first Communion.
“In a Protestant church the focus can often be on instructing the couple, telling them how to be good husbands and wives, using Biblical citations. But again, no more than 10 to 15 minutes.”
Absolute fairness is critical
“All churches have bylaws, a constitution, etc. Courts will become involved when it is alleged that the church itself did not follow its own rules. It is usually along the lines of a failure to provide notice — nothing to do with theology, but, rather, with application of basic principles of fairness, notice, and due process.
“The same duties that you find in any employer-employee relationship apply here. If a procedure does exist in the written contract which covers this situation, it must be followed. However, based upon what you are describing, this minister is at peril for being terminated under a typical clergy employment agreement.
“So, we have to look at who has the power? Begin there. Go to the church structure, read the documents. Talk with your local governing organization. If the local hiring committee does not want to dismiss the minister, you might have recourse to a regional or national structure,” Reverend Woods suggests.
“A minister has a professional relationship to the church members. One group might love him, the others less so. Being a minister can be highly political — it shouldn’t be that way, but often is.
“In a number of churches, a senior clergy person may be assigned to mediate between the concerned parties. Now, if someone comes to a good pastor or priest, and says, ‘we’ve got issues here,’ there should be an immediate acknowledgment, such as, ‘I hear you. How can I help?’ This requires the kind of approachability and lack of ego which I think is going to be a problem in your reader’s situation.
“In the case of a minister who at least acknowledges a problem, then some type of a intervention should be conducted. Often, as it is difficult to sit in the same room with the person you want to fire, these session are conducted via shuttle diplomacy,” he observes.
“Some churches have a retained psychologist or psychiatrist whose function is to handle these kinds of situations, and to screen applicants for the ministry.
“Modernly, a lot of mainstream churches require psychological evaluations for candidates for both seminary and the ministry. The reason for ongoing contact with psychologists and psychiatrists is that a lot of people are attracted to the church because they are psychologically damaged. They see the church as a magical healing source. Mainstream churches feel that it is important to have psychologically sound clergy to counsel their membership.
“Essentially, members of this congregation need to do their homework, and above all else, not to act rashly. There must be planning for an interim minister. Without farsighted planning, the church itself can be destroyed,” Reverend Woods concluded.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.