It is likely that a large majority of clergy who serve congregations are hired, re-hired or terminated by the vote of the individual congregation. However, this article can apply as well to those congregations where the cleric is appointed by a denominational body. We will deal with suggestions that will try to help avert some of the difficult disputes that arise when congregations make decisions that ultimately determine the status of the spiritual head of the congregation i.e. terms of employment and continued employment with the congregation.
Good clergy-congregation relations must begin at the time of the hiring of the spiritual leader (hereafter designated as SL). The congregation needs to clearly articulate its expectations. These conditions need not be in a contract, but they should be in a written document that is discussed with the SL. What duties must the SL assume? If yearly evaluations of the SL will take place, when and how will this be done? What is the process for contract review? In short, the entire relationship between SL and congregation must be based on a thorough sharing of ideas and mutual feedback. Provisions should be made for application of ADR (Alternate Dispute Resolution) remedies where challenges to the relationship may arise. Possible pitfalls must be avoided wherever feasible.
In my own career as a clergyman, I served a congregation which had a “clergy committee”. The goal of this committee was to allow free discussion of needs, concerns, etc. from the vantage point of the congregation or its SL. The meetings were called by a congregation member appointed to head this committee. Discussions were to be kept confidential and meeting were initiated at the request of the SL or members of the congregation. This committee operated in a most respectful and constructive way. I would recommend such a committee, dedicated to problem-solving, for congregational settings.
It is a good idea for the SL to be invited to all Board meetings. This reinforces the idea that the congregation and SL are working as true partners for the common good. The only exception to such an arrangement would be in cases where the decision about the SL tenure in the congregation is to be discussed.
If there is one secret ‘ingredient’ to the success of the SL-congregation relationship it is this; it must be based on the quality of candor. Ms. Peggy Noonan, noted speechwriter and journalist, defines candor in this way, “Candor is a compliment; it implies equality. It’s how true friends talk.” Candor necessitates a respectful exchange of ideas and proposals. Its goals must be constructive and result-oriented. The congregational setting is not a place to play “gotcha”. Such behavior is demeaning to congregation and SL, and it erodes religious sentiment and fervor; the raison d’etre of the religious institution.
When a vote on a clerical contract is due, the vote should follow a pre-ordained process. Ideally, the representative(s) of the congregation and its religious leader should meet in advance of the congregational or Board vote. The two sides should exchange comments that encompass both positive review as well as any causes for concern. The parties should talk freely. The parties need to come to listen as well as to air out their concerns. If the SL wishes to address a particular concern raised by the congregation, s/he should be permitted to put a proper response in writing, to be shared at the upcoming meeting. Clearly, the guidelines for the upcoming vote, and how it will proceed, should be clearly determined. The SL should be able to attend this meeting until such time as the congregation needs to conduct its final deliberation.
When the congregational vote has been concluded, it is proper to have a representative of the congregation convey the final decision to the SL. If the SL has received an adverse decision, it would be appropriate to discuss the terms of how the ‘parting of the ways’ will be conducted. Where appropriate, there should be a discussion regarding the transition period, final payment of salary and benefits, etc. The length of the SL’s service should be greatly determinative of the outcome of such a negotiation.
In summation, the relationship between congregation and SL must be respectful, equitable, and undergirded by candor. This process must be based on the workings of both the ‘mind’ and the ‘heart’. ADR does not guarantee that this process will lead to a ‘happy ending’ at all times. That is simply unrealistic thinking. What ADR will ensue, however, is that decisions will be made with due consideration of the needs and rights of all parties.
It may seem that the above discussion is limited to those who are part of a faith community. This need not be the case at all. A mediator need not belong to a particular house of worship to be of assistance in the scenario outlined above. Certainly, a mediator who is part of a congregation may wish to put forward his willingness to serve the congregation in a professional capacity. In point of fact, a congregation would do well to retain a mediator or ADR professional for matters involving hiring and retaining of SL’s. For those who do not participate in congregational life, there are opportunities to assist by e.g. offering to give programs on dispute resolution to interested members of the laity. Where mediators can serve, it would be quite a loss if they do not choose to come forward. The harmonious functioning of our houses of worship is a boon to the entire community. This is truly an example of the extension of the Win-Win principle to our civic and communal life.
Martin Rosenfeld is a mediator and family law attorney in Fair Lawn, NJ. He has written and lectured on mediation topics. His field of specialization is Divorce Mediation. Martin is on the NJ Roster of approved mediators. In his spare time, Martin is a substitute teacher for the Bergen County (NJ) Special Services Program, for special needs children and adults.