By the Way: Riverside Minister’s Abrupt Resignation Reveals the Perils of the Pulpit

Brad R. Braxton’s quick departure from the pulpit of Riverside Church, after only eight months on the job, and just a few short weeks following his formal installation, underscores the challenges facing clergy, especially in large congregations. Having recently completed a year as rector (senior minister) of an Episcopal parish, albeit on a part-time basis, I understand his frustration.

Not so very long ago in American history, a bright and promising young man, if he felt so called—and even a few women—viewed ordination as a path toward social status and cultural influence. Clergy held moral authority within the congregation and the community. When colleges and other institutions looked for leadership, they often tapped ministers to be their presidents and to serve on boards of directors.

Although some clergy still enjoy such authority and influence, at least within their congregations, public esteem has diminished at the same time, paradoxically, that clergy seek more and more to be viewed as professionals. (Fifty years ago the basic academic prerequisite for ordination was the Bachelor of Divinity degree; now Master of Divinity, generally a three-year, post-baccalaureate program, is considered the norm.) The televangelist scandals of the 1980s discredited ministers in the eyes of many, and the pedophilia crisis in the Roman Catholic Church has done little to instill confidence. Young people see other, surer paths to upward mobility—business, finance, law—avenues more financially promising and that appear to be comparatively less clogged with contentious personalities.

But for those who discern the call to preach the gospel, even for those of us who pursue ordination later in our careers, such concerns fade to insignificance. We approach our calling with energy, enthusiasm and idealism—and then run into the buzz saw of congregational infighting and politics.

Although the vast majority of churchgoers, in my experience, are decent and kind, parishioners less charitably disposed can find ingenious ways to make a minister’s life miserable: criticism of everything from comportment and grooming to sermons, salary and administrative style. If you’re decisive, you’re an autocrat; if you seek to build consensus, you’re a weak leader. Late in my father’s very successful ministerial career, the board of elders in a large and affluent congregation demanded that he personally reimburse the church for the photocopies he made for church business.

Some congregants, intent on disruption, can be more devious, striking by indirection. In my case (and, as I understand it, at Riverside), dissident members leveled criticisms at the minister’s wife and family. I’m inclined to follow the injunction of Jesus to “turn the other cheek” when criticisms are directed at me, especially when I’m confident that I’ve acted honorably. It’s a different matter, however, when the people I love come under attack.

Eventually, such sniping exacts a toll. I threw myself, heart and soul, into my parish, despite the fact that mine was carefully stipulated as a part-time appointment. No matter. The vestry (the governing body of the congregation) insisted on still more. Worse, by the actions of some in the congregation, I was asked, in effect, to choose between the parish and my marriage.

I requested that my contract not be renewed for a second year.

In the course of my professional career, which spans a quarter of a century, I’ve been a teacher, a journalist, an editor, an author, and a documentary filmmaker. For more than a decade I served as chair of my academic department, a challenge often compared with the task of herding cats. Nothing approached the difficulty of negotiating church politics and leading a congregation.

When Dr. Braxton of Riverside Church called last week to inform me that he intended to submit his resignation, I felt badly for him, for his family and for the many good people at Riverside who, I knew, would be devastated by his departure. Sadly, it’s the less vocal, salt-of-the-earth types who suffer most in situations like this.

I did not, however, urge him to reconsider. Having been through a similar experience myself, I understood.

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