Vulnerability

The vows of ordination present a cleric with a life of vulnerability. Clerics and other experts interviewed for this website say vulnerability comes from both personal and external stresses inherent to the vocation. Managing personal vulnerability and maintaining constant vigilance and boundaries is necessary to prevent Title IV-level incidents and claims.

The Rev. Canon Michael Hunn explains that clerics must constantly promote the safety of the entire church by “keeping ourselves safe, by knowing when we're in a particularly risky situation and trying to mitigate those risks but also being aware that like firefighters or police officers (it is) part of the job.” 

Canon Michael Buerkel Hunn, Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Ministry Within the Episcopal Church

The Rev. Dr. Molly James echoes Canon Hunn’s comments. She says clergy persons are recipients of the most intimate details in people’s lives. The clerics must call upon their skills and training to know how to handle those details. Virtually all pastoral matters will be one-sided relationships with the cleric holding the power. The confidence placed in clerics also contributes to vulnerability and stress. The ordained must not only take care of the people they minister to, but they must take care of themselves to help alleviate the enormous pressures of ministry.

The Rev. Dr. Molly James, Dean of Formation for the Diocese of Connecticut

 

Vulnerability is lonely. Noted theologian Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett identifies the responsibility to listen in a Christ-like manner as a cost of discipleship. As a seminary professor and dean, she watched and mentored thousands of future clerics as they entered that discipleship. She says it must be painful to confidentially listen to others who are also in pain. A cleric is bound to know many of those whom he or she will guide and yet the boundary must be maintained between the member of the clergy and the person who comes in need.

Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett, Author, Theologian, Former Academic Dean

 

Often vulnerability is hard to define in determining boundaries. Longtime cleric and church official, the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, says the clergy need to assess their roles as teachers and counselors in each case of pastoral care. The clergy must constantly remember that they are “servants of God” in delivering their expertise and direction to others. Canon Barlowe says the criterion is to recognize that the servant is giving the gift and not being the one to receive. That is a reality check for vulnerability.

The Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, Executive Officer of the General Convention

 

The vulnerability manifests itself in both intended and unintended actions. While there are times when allegations are justified, there are also times that the mere sighting of a collar leads to spurious allegations. Canon Michael Hunn says it is the nature of the calling.

The Rev. Canon Michael Buerkel Hunn, Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Ministry Within the Episcopal Church

The vulnerability, for priests especially, reaches almost unbelievable levels. Canon Hunn goes on to explain that people can easily misjudge appearances when it comes to clerics. For example, he recounts how people look at him, when they see a frequent-flying priest upgraded to first class on an airplane.

The Rev. Canon Michael Buerkel Hunn, Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Ministry Within the Episcopal Church

The discussion to this point has been generally about vulnerability as it is inherent to the nature of the vocation. The toll on the body and mind increases as clerics further the Jesus Movement into new frontiers. The reality of the modern church model, where congregations often only have a lone priest, can increase vulnerability because of isolation. Modern ministries reach an increasingly hurting world full of vulnerability in both urban and rural areas. Furthermore, clerics are now reaching out into cultures that were perhaps foreign to The Episcopal Church fifty years ago. One who has watched the church evolve is the past Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori.

The Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Assisting Bishop of the Diocese of San Diego, 26th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church  


One notable  example of how dynamic the change can be in the mission of the urban church and its clergy is the history of Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Hartford, Connecticut. The church dates back to 1762 as a colonial church. The current spectacular cathedral building is nearly 200 years old and was built to honor the Lord in one of America’s most prosperous cities of the era. Census data gave Hartford the reputation as America’s richest city in the mid 1800s. Today, a third of the city’s population lives in poverty. The Very Rev. Miguelina Howell is the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral and oversees a ministry that serves 40,000 meals a year to impoverished neighbors. As a Dominican Republic native, she also represents a diverse and multicultural change in both membership and clergy. She shares her expertise in experiencing a vulnerability in the new urban ministry.

The Very Rev. Miguelina Howell, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Hartford, CT.

At the other end of scale is Whitefish-Columbia Falls, Montana, where there are 18 people per square mile spread over snowy roads in the winter and mountain trails in the summer. The Rev. Canon Bradley Wirth is Rector of All Saints Church which is nestled in a thick pine forest near Glacier National Park. Canon Wirth has spent a decade working with General Convention committees on Title IV and says the vulnerable nature of church work reaches into the isolated ministries of rural America as it does the urban settings.

The Rev. Canon Bradley Wirth Rector, All Saints Episcopal Church, Columbia Falls-Whitefish, Montana

The same clerics and experts all agree the cleric’s ability to seek training, recognize vulnerability, to be diligent in personal care, and to implement best practices are key to preventing Title IV incidents. Specific recommendations for best practices are found in the Priests and Deacons, Best Practices.

The Rev. Dr. Molly James, Dean of Formation for the Diocese of Connecticut

 

 

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