Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
QUESTION: We have a pastor in our parish who is most un-Christian. Our flock is dwindling and our weekly contributions are down by the thousands. I, and most of my friends, have dropped out of ministries, and have pulled our children out of anything involving this person. I don't know how to explain to them how a man of God can be so cruel, spiteful and rude to others in public and on the altar. Our bishop has received hundreds if not thousands of letters asking to remove him ... but nothing. Even the other priests in the residence have asked to be removed -- and they were! So my choice seems to be to find a new parish, which I would hate to do since we have been parishioners for decades, or just go to Mass on Sundays when he is not scheduled and the deacons will be preaching so as to protect my children. But that would mean skipping Mass on some Sundays. I feel like God has forgotten all about us, and yet the only thing I can think to tell my children is just to keep on praying for this man. Is there anything else you can advise?
ANSWER: I have received several agonized questions such as yours in the past and they tear at my heart. Our religious institutions are intended to be places of hope and healing and it is the bond of love and trust between pulpit and pew that enables that healing and hope to thrive.
My advice in the past to alienated parishioners has been to first try everything in your power to arrange a meeting and open a dialogue about your grievances with your pastor directly. I know this may be difficult but he deserves to hear from you before you go behind his back and complain to his superiors. His position, if not his behavior, deserves that respect.
If he agrees, I would invite a professional therapist, marriage counselor or trusted elder in your church to attend and moderate it so that the meeting remains positive and constructive and also leads to follow-up meetings to discuss how changes are being implemented. If your pastor is open to such a meeting, you may be on your way to working through your issues. Try to limit your comments at the meeting to your feelings and to specific actions that may have hurt feelings all around. You must explain why you are spiritually frustrated with him and he must be allowed to explain why he is spiritually frustrated with you.
If such a meeting cannot be convened or if it ends in more acrimony, then you have no choice but to send a delegation to meet with the bishop and seek his advice and counsel. Explain that you do not want to hurt your pastor but that you cannot allow him to hurt you.
In the meantime I have an idea of how you might keep your ideals for your church intact while trying to remove the obstacles that make such ideals so hard to realize now. Organize within your church a prayer group made up of your friends and other parishioners that might include study, discussions and holiday gatherings. You would still take communion with the entire church membership, but your support group would help you to realize that there are many ways to God that do not depend upon your pastor being right there with you. In Judaism this is called a havurah, which means a group of friends. Many synagogues have within them many havurot that are formed not because the congregants do not like the rabbi but because they want a more intimate community of faith. I hope the idea makes sense to you. It would be tragic if your difficulties with your religious leader alienated you from your religion.
Finally, you must consider that if none of this works, you just have to move to another parish. I understand that you have deep roots where you are, but you also have deep pain where you are, and religion that brings pain is not religion.