Monday, April 11, 2011

Spiritual Malpractice

It's been one of the joys of working in Toronto to have spent time with people on the edges of the church's life. A common thread in their stories is that they used to go to church but then something happened. Usually that something had to do with a minister's behavior. Brow-beating, yelling, being pretentious - you know the lot. Eventually, a phrase surfaced for me to describe this constellation of bad behavior:

Spiritual malpractice.

Doctor's are often accused (and sued) for malpractice. We who acquire the professional degree for ministers, the Masters of Divinity, should also be on the look out for our own malpractice. Wikipedia's definition goes like this:

Malpractice is a type of negligence in which the misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance of a professional, under a duty to act, fails to follow generally accepted professional standards, and that breach of duty is the proximate cause of injury to a plaintiff who suffers damages.

Misfeasance is doing the right thing wrongly; malfeasance is doing the wrong thing; and nonfeasance is the failure to do the right thing. There are many areas in which clergy practice can veer into malpractice. Consider the minister who preaches nothing but sin and never quite gets to grace. (Both liberals and conservative do this far too often.) That's an example of both misfeasance (doing the right act wrongly by never moving from cross to resurrection) and nonfeasance (not doing the right thing of preaching resurrection). Or consider the minister who doesn't provide for the education of the congregation (nonfeasance) or the minister who abuses authority by absolutizing his or her own power (misfeasance). The examples abound.

Talking about spiritual malpractice under all three headings is important because there is very real and damaging spiritual malpractice propagated against parishioners that has nothing to do with sex or money (common examples of malfeasance). It is also important because it gives us a way to name someone's negative experience of the church as an anomaly. Using this language allows us to say that spiritual malpractice, while certainly common, is neither the norm nor the ideal of the Church's life.

The other thing that using this language does for us is remind us that ministers are professionals. We have duties and obligations placed upon us by our profession, just like doctors, lawyers, and business people do. The clerical vocation may be more than a professional one, but it is not less.

In other words, clergy need to be at the very least good functionaries.* We need to know our duties and to do them well. Again, we are more than mere functionaries, but we are not less. If we do not take our mundane responsibilities seriously, how can we be expected to treat our spiritual ones? To avoid spiritual malpractice, we have to start with the mundane, to learn to keep our promises, and to treat people with the respect and care they deserve.

*I have a feeling that both 'high-church' and 'low-church' ministers would react negatively to the language of 'functionaries' for the same reason: clericalism. Whether you believe that the priest is an ontological superhero ('these hands were made for chalices not for calluses') or that the minister has a 'spiritual' vocation that frees him or her from administrative responsibility, the case is the same. Ministers tend to think of themselves more highly than they ought.

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