A ‘huge amount’ of staff relationship breakdown in churches that leads to unloving treatment says Uphold

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“It’s happening a lot. It’s happening way too often,” says Michael Doyle, a Sydney Anglican minister, when asked about staff relationships breaking down at churches and unloving responses by senior ministers. Doyle is speaking as chair of Uphold, a ministry that seeks better treatment of vulnerable church staff who are often denied the safeguards ordinary employees get.

Coincidentally Doyle’s church, Berala Anglican, is currently featured in a profile in the denominational magazine Southern Cross, which makes it clear that it is a growing church and a bright spot in the diocese (region). So Doyle is not speaking as a resentful pastor of a below-par church but out of genuine concern. He’s quite nervous at being given the task of talking to The Other Cheek.

“You hold up the bad example, and they think that you’re talking about everyone,” Doyle said, wanting to make that point strongly. “It’s not everyone. It’s a minority.”

What happens when things go wrong? The Other Cheek asked him. “And there is at the very least, a breakdown in relationship. And it is very hard in particular for the junior member to know what to do and who to speak to because of the dynamics at play.”

Junior ministers can be terminated in the Sydney Anglican Diocese for any reason by the senior minister, provided the Wardens agree. Doyle points out that this is made quite explicit in the ordinance (church law) governing those staff relationships. (Wardens in the Anglican system are lay members of a congregation appointed to look after the finances and administration of a local church.) All that needs to happen is for the minister and wardens to give the assistant minister a reasonable chance to argue their case. It is worth noting Uphold helps ministers well beyond Sydney across denominational and international boundaries. Many varieties of churches have rules that deny rights to junior staff and insist they are not employees, denying them the rights that come with that.

This reminds this writer of US-style “at-will employment” laws which allow people to be sacked without explanation. At this moment, sitting with Doyle just before a session of the Sydney Synod (church parliament), I am conscious of two things: I have a union card in my wallet, and some of the bad players in the system will be in the room with me shortly.

And then, we discuss a particularly bad example. “I’ve seen in our diocese a letter of termination that included that the assistant minister, for example, was not performing up to standard but wasn’t given a chance to improve his performance. One of the reasons given was [the assistant minister has] claimed that the workplace is unsafe.

“So that was the reason [given] to terminate them, which under fair work, you’re not allowed to terminate somebody for claiming that your workplace is unsafe. And bear in mind, in this situation, there’s the medical report by the treating psychiatrist who says that the workplace contributed to the psychiatric issue injury that this ministry worker had experienced.”

Poor leaders have had an effect on the gospel, according to Doyle: “You might’ve heard it, we had apparently a rector (senior minister) crisis or a rector shortage in our diocese. When I finished at Moore College – 2009 was my finishing year – I think we were the biggest year that Moore College had ever had. I think we were the biggest ordination group the diocese had ever had. We should have lots and lots – an excess of senior ministers. But so many of them – because of bad experiences in ministry workplaces –are no longer in ministry or have moved to do ministry in other diocese, in other organizations and things like that.”

Uphold accepts that sometimes people simply have to move on. “Perhaps it’s not the right role for them. Perhaps they shouldn’t be in ministry in the first place. Perhaps something has happened that has led to a breakdown of relationship to make it untenable. And so the once offs happen, it’s unrealistic to expect that it doesn’t. I think the question is are we transparent about it? Are we open about it? Are we willing to learn from it? Can we do it in a way that’s gracious rather than cruel?”

Transparency might be the first step. Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) mean that the extent of this problem is not even known to Bishops and other leaders in church networks. The pattern of repeat offenders is concealed. An NDA can isolate someone who has lost their job.

Referencing how some of the processes in the Sydney Anglican system are undermined by an NDA, Doyle points out some of their bad effects. “The Synod has set up complaints processes with the office of the Director of Safe Ministry or the Assistant Minister’s Ordinance (church rule). When we make people or pressure people to sign NDAs, we are no longer a learning organisation; we are stopping people from accessing the processes. But I actually think it’s crueller than that because it means that they … can’t raise the issue with the bishop. They can’t talk about it with the wardens, who I think needs to know about it. They can’t talk about it with their wife. If they’re getting help, psychological help or things like that, they can’t talk about it with them. It silences them.”

 NDAs are not a figment of Uphold’s imagination. “Absolutely. They are happening in our diocese. They’re happening. They’ve happened in the last year that I’m aware of. I’ve been in the room when it’s happened and the deed of release.
“There are two types of NDAs. There’s the non-disparagement clause, and then there’s the non-” non-disclosure agreement. The non-disparagement clause, I think, is particularly evil because you cannot say anything bad about the organisation or the person. So you can’t warn other staff members who might be coming in. You can’t even say, ‘I don’t like their toilets. They’re not great bathrooms.’ It actually completely suppresses the truth.

“Non-disclosure agreements where you don’t disclose certain things. I don’t like them, and I certainly don’t like the force of law being used to silence somebody. I just don’t think they have a place in a Christian organisation.”

Asked if church house – the diocesan HQ – has been involved in NDAs, Doyle says he knows of one instance in which “an employee of the SDS has passed on a deeded of release with a non-disparagement clause to an assistant minister, which at the very least is an encouragement to sign it.”

Doyle found that example shocking. “It was an assistant minister who had suffered a psychological injury at work. He was terminated partly because he said he had had the medical certificates and reports that also said he had. And the deed of release contained a clause that said he and his wife and children must leave church immediately, not attend any more events, not attend playgroup, women’s Bible study group, nothing on church grounds and no church event. I think that’s just cruel. As well as that he was told in writing that it was for his own good and that they weren’t open to winning negotiations. I don’t see how that’s loving or caring.”

After talking with Doyle, we both walked a block or so to the Synod meeting. The Synod was a generally positive place to be, but having heard this story, it was harder to join in the positive vibes.