I’m taking a little more of a serious tack today because this story needs to be told. The telling is from my perspective, experiences and knowledge, so please do not project onto anyone else. It’s about a man – imperfect, like all of us – and his struggle to be whole, the forces at work against him and the innocents trapped in the middle.
The man’s name is the Rev. Brian Suntken. Some of you may know him. He is currently the Rector of Christ Church Episcopal in Hudson, Ohio, my former employer, where he has served for 6 years. He is by far one of the most gifted and capable priests/minsters I have ever met or worked with, and that's saying something. I have had the privilege over the past 5 years to be a part of his ministry as he worked hard to pastor to his flock.
The sad part of the story is that Brian's priestly duties have been restricted by the Diocese of Ohio. Because of what I will call “The Process”, which refers to the Title IV Canons of The Episcopal Church, the life of Brian, his family and the parish of Christ Church Episcopal are being held hostage. (If you’re curious about the canons and you enjoy a little legal-lingo to read, click here – scintillating, I promise you). It would be unfair to blame The Process entirely: there are many parts of the canons that resemble American civil laws and procedures as we know them today. I stress the word “resemble”. The problem lies in the execution of the those canons, which in this particular case are being wielded with a medieval flavor that any historian would recognize and modern-day political flair and ineptitude that even the most battle-hardened Capitol Hill-er would wrinkle their brow in deference to.
I would love to share the entire story with you, with all its ridiculous details and twists. It would make a fantastic story for Oprah, and in truth, I don’t think anyone would really believe it. Unless you have at some point worked in The Church, and then you'll believe anything. But I can’t for several reasons. Firstly, because there is a bulk of this story that is not mine to tell – I hope one day Brian will have the courage and the ability to bring it to light. Secondly, because The Process demands a fair amount of confidentiality to protect all the parties involved – the accused and the accuser. Thirdly, because it is not my intention to call people out, cast aspersions, or bring hurt to anyone intentionally. I merely wish to bring attention to an injustice that is going largely unnoticed by a community that deserves to know.
So here is what I can tell you: Brian was placed on administrative leave for "leadership issues" in August of 2011. These "issues" stem in part from difficulties in the parish community that were, over a period of time, inappropriately brought to the Diocesan level by people with “connections”. I say inappropriately because in any community, faith-based or not, I believe the most honest way to deal with a perceived problem would be to compassionately approach all the involved parties in the hopes of solving any differences in a professional, collegial manner BEFORE going over their head. Basic business practice, if you ask me. Unfortunately, this is not how the situation was handled. Amidst secrecy and deceit, there was and still are attempts to undermine Brian’s ministry at the church and misrepresent him to the Diocese and to his parish. Things came to a head in March 2011 when Brian was accused of plagiarizing his article for the church newsletter. “The Process” began, although somewhat loosely. Brian was given a small list of options that were referred to as “disciplines”, and these were so dire and extreme that a few close friends in the parish suggested that he retain legal counsel to help guide him through the complicated Process. This very loose beginning dragged on until mid-August when the Diocesan leadership decided they could no longer trust Brian, and he was put on administrative leave.
The congregation was immediately plunged into turmoil, with the vast majority of the active membership strongly supporting their Rector. Part of the turmoil is due to the fact that once Brian was placed on leave, nearly 2 months passed before charges were actually filed, and because of The Process the charges cannot be made public. At this point, nearly 5 months had passed since the beginning of The Process. Naturally, rumors began to fly like crazy. The congregation was completely left in the dark and is still wondering what said "leadership issues" are. At the time, Christ Church was a vibrant, thriving congregation. Many people were attracted to Christ Church because of Brian’s engaging preaching and teaching, and they remained there because they felt as if they had found a spiritual home.
Where do things lie now? I can only tell you what I know as of the end of January when I left Christ Church and what has been told to me – the pledge campaign for 2012 came in roughly $150K under budget; Christian Formation (what most call Sunday School) for children boasts less than 10 in attendance per week; the staff that had been present before this began has dwindled down to one person, with the clergy being supplied on loan from the Diocese; the choir has dropped from 18 members to around 6; attendance at the main worship service, which in a “normal” year should be around 190, was counted at 66 persons last week including clergy, choir, assisting ministers, etc.; families with young children have stopped attending; long time members have left, stating that they feel that the church has abandoned them. In the midst of this and all of the emotional and spiritual suffering that accompanies it, the only words from the Diocese is that there is nothing that can be done to move The Process along, that The Process is “in charge”, and that Brian himself is holding up any progress.
I ask you: How can the accused in any legal process have the power to delay such iron-clad proceedings? Is it possible that a pre-determined outcome has been chosen and the accuser refuses to seek other avenues of reconciliation? Why would a man prolong such a Process that is destroying the spiritual, emotional, physical and financial well-being of his family and the health of the parish he loves? Even if it is believed that this man could be so selfish, is it not the prime responsibility of the leaders of The Church to seek reconciliation at all costs? Does not the Book of Common Prayer state that the mission of the church is to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ”? Does it not also state that the leaders of The Church are to “act in Christ’s name for the reconciliation of the world”? Or is the institution more important than the people within it?
There are so many questions that need to be asked and answered. If we cannot ask these questions and expect open and honest discussion, how can we trust any process put before us? Furthermore, if we do not require the leaders of The Church to follow the example of forgiveness and reconciliation set forth in scripture, The Church will collapse in on itself because of its failure to be true to the teaching of Jesus and live up to its calling. Should wrongdoing be brought to light? Absolutely – not as a pathway to punishment but a pathway to and an example of reconciliation and forgiveness. I use the word “forgiveness” not because I believe Brian to be guilty of any of the charges, but because by the tone of The Process it appears that guilt has already been assumed, even though the canons clearly state that a person is presumed innocent until proven otherwise. It would seem that hearts will not be softened in any other direction. However, if a person who is supposedly in the wrong is a willing participant in reconciliation, then The Church is required by scripture to forgive. Once reconciliation is made, The Church is required by scripture to begin a new life and leave the past in the past. Or shall we take the dead body of the thief who hung next to Jesus on the cross and crucify him again?
Prayer is indeed a powerful thing, and in this case it is the only recourse for the parish, as they are stuck in the middle like children whose parents are in the midst of a heated divorce. I know that prayers, including my own, are being offered to heaven for the restoration of Brian’s rectorship and also for justice, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation and the softening of hearts. There will never be healing if these things are not present, not matter what the outcome.
I encourage you to visit the following website: www.projectgracehudson.org – this is not as a plea for support, but in order for you to see the birth of a community that formed out of love and compassion. Visit the “Members” page and see the names of individuals and families – more than 130 total – who have pledged their emotional and spiritual support to a man who dedicates his life to helping others lead more faithful lives. To me, this group is a true example of The Church at work.
Why am I telling you all these things? Perhaps you’re saying, “This is depressing, Nicole, go back to your happier blogging!” Well I could, but we can only ignore the ugly truths in our lives for so long until they come back to bite us in the butt. And sometimes we see an injustice we know we cannot change, and the only we can be sure that it does not happen again is to raise awareness. In light of that I ask, who are we to be as Christians – as human beings, even – if we are unchangeable and immovable in the depths of our compassion? What type of example does that show to the rest world? And perhaps more importantly, what type of example does that set for those already in our community? What am I to expect if I am accused of wrong? What if you found out that I had done something questionable – or even illegal – 20 years ago? 5 years ago? Would you push to have me fired, even if you knew me to be a good and faithful person now? I would hope that people would see me for who I am today and not punish me for anything I had done in the past.
I support Brian, and I will continue to support him and his family while there is still breath in my body. Not just because he is my friend and colleague, but because in the end we are fighting for the mission of The Church – the body of Christ. That Body is more important than bishops, priests, liturgies, or anything else created by human hands to help us define what we think The Church truly is. Even though the Body cannot be touched by human hands, it can be destroyed by human hearts. I hope we can all agree to pray together that this particular future will not come to pass.