Friday, April 24, 2009


Reverend X walked up and greeted me yesterday at the Healthy Boundary Training for Clergy event. Though attendance at the event was compulsory, our being cordial to one another was not. I had not seen Reverend X since January 27, 2008 in Portland, Oregon. I'm not sure when she last saw me.

I was in Portland on that Sunday evening to preach the sermon at a service of installation for a pastor that had served one of our churches in Seattle. The invitation had been extended to me the previous September, months before my decision to leave my position with the Pacific Northwest Conference. As it turned out, my resignation took effect just before my trip to Portland.

Though clergy who have left a position are strongly urged to end all involvement with their church or organization for a year following their departure, I didn't feel that preaching a sermon in another Conference was a violation. I also made clear in the sermon itself that I had left my position, so no one would think I was speaking for my former employer.

Given my state of mind on these questions, I was taken aback by the actions of Reverend X and Reverend Y, two ministers from Seattle who also made the trip to Portland for the service of installation. Though I knew both of them quite well, and had offered support and counsel to them and their respective churches during my brief tenure with the Conference, neither of them acknowledged my presence in Portland that January evening. Gathered in the pastor's office for a prayer before the service that I was asked to offer, Reverend X looked right past me. Both Reverend X and Reverend Y avoided greeting me in the office before the service, in the Narthex afterward, or in the reception that followed.

For the next few hours I struggled with my feelings about what occurred in that Portland church, finally coming to the realization that I had been shunned. For those who may not be familiar with the term in the religious context, here's some help from Wikipedia:

Shunning is the act of deliberately avoiding association with, and habitually keeping away from an individual or group. It is a sanction against association often associated with religious groups and other tightly-knit organizations and communities. Targets of shunning can include, but are not limited to apostateswhistleblowers,dissidents, people classified as "sinners" or "traitors" and other people who defy or who fail to comply with the standards established by the shunning group(s). Shunning has a long history as a means of organizational influence and control.

I was not completely unfamiliar with shunning, as my mother resorted to a version of it whenever she wished to display her displeasure with me or other family members. I always figured she had picked up the practice from her family or her days as a conservative Baptist. I certainly did not associate the practice of shunning with my beloved church, the oft "open and affirming" United Church of Christ. At least, not until that night in Portland.

At our compulsory Healthy Boundary Training for Clergy event, we were reminded that members of the clergy represent much more than themselves... that we become a representation of the divine. Therefore we must be very careful about the actions we take and the image we project, as the harm we can do extends far beyond our own human scope.

I have a feeling that Reverend X and Reverend Y thought that they were following the rules and maintaining healthy professional boundaries in avoiding contact with me. What I experienced, however, was the projection of a small, narrow, and petty god, not unlike the one who compels Sharia law in Pakistan, or who brings people to the point of carrying hateful banners to the funerals of people with whom they disagree.

I greeted Reverend X cordially yesterday. I imagine I'll run into Reverend Y at the meeting sometime today. Perhaps my shunning is over, now that more than a year has passed since I left the Conference. The shunning may be over, but the chill down my spine remains as I consider how little distance there is between those of us who claim to practice "progressive" religion, and those like the Taliban, whose practices we deplore. 

When I encounter Reverend X and Reverend Y in the future, I'll continue to be cordial, but will keep some emotional distance between us. I'm not sure if  that represents healthy boundaries for clergy, or something simpler, like, once bitten, twice shy.


  1. Palmer's Law, Hollis:
    If you want to go to a place where crazy things happen, go to a meeting of mental health workers. If you want to go to a place where really dumb things get said, go to a meeting of educators. And, if you want to go to a place where some really unloving things frequently are done or said, go to a church.

    Although I offer this with a bit of tongue in cheek, verifications keep arising.

    Thanks for your sharing.

  2. I am often intimidated and spiritual confounded by the compulsory nature of these training events. I find myself feeling the time of my participation in the ministry is also subsidizing an industry of fear based or at least, reactionary realities. Do I wish to practice good ethics—yes? Do I believe in having training for high standards—yes! But I believe the nature of this training (my fourth workshop in 11 years) generates anxieties that are easily experienced as shunningthough are probably not intentionally practiced as per the definition. Somehow our collective confidence in the Spirit might be missing in this training. I believe I am amidst the most educated and conscientious of Americans I have ever been associated with in these workshops, yet we leave with an even heavier burden to be carefully cautious.