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Navigating the Complexities of Clergy Travel

Ministers and their families must balance the demands of work with family life. This often means that travel for ministry must also accommodate the needs of spouses and children.

Generally, when a church pays for or reimburses a minister’s spouse or other family members to attend a conference or seminar, the trip must have a legitimate business purpose.

Canonical Issues

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During the late Middle Ages, clerics could petition to change or relax canonical rules in a number of ways. Many petitions were designed to commute vows, absolve sins or allow prohibited actions, but the majority addressed clerical impediments of a spiritual and professional nature. These might include questions of age (defectus aetatis), legitimacy (defectus natalium) or bodily or mental defects (defectus corporis or mentis).

The legal framework that emerged in this period distinguished between moral and physical defects, the latter of which resulted in prohibition from clerical office. In practice, however, the chancery had considerable leeway in interpreting these rules. For example, a community like the Augustinian monastery of Saint-Saturnin found itself in a quandary over an impaired cleric and appealed to the highest levels of the pontifical hierarchy, Pope John XXII.

The fact that John lent papal weight to the community’s position suggests that he understood that impairment was inherently contested. Rather than being a moral or religious problem, disability was a socially constructed concept. Its legitimacy was shaped by the power that legislated it, and it was determined in a complex and varied manner.

The case of the disabled clerics at Saint-Saturnin illustrates how the church’s pedagogy of disability was influenced by the power structures and cultural context in which it was produced. These factors, along with the clerics’ own practical responses to the church’s demands, helped to shape the nature of this contestation. It is worth noting, however, that the supplicants were not merely fighting for their own sakes; they also had a clear ecclesiastical duty to obey legitimately constituted public authority. It was this duty that ultimately swayed John’s response to their requests.

Sexual Abuse Scandals

As a result of the sexual abuse scandals that rocked Catholic dioceses in the United States, many clerics found themselves on the move. In some cases, they were dismissed from their duties; in others, they were transferred to different parishes or congregations. In some cases, they were even sent to other countries.

The underlying issue in these cases was sexual abuse, and a lack of transparency by church officials and law enforcement agencies. The Church’s stipulation of papal secrecy for complaints, procedures and internal church decisions about sexual abuse by priests meant that no one could publicly reveal any details about these incidents, which were mostly kept under wraps until the late 1990s.

Once the cloak of secrecy lifted, some of these cases went to court, and the names of accused clerics were made public. In addition, some of the dioceses that handled these cases set up offices to help victims. Still, some victims felt that these initiatives were not enough.

Survivors of sexual abuse by priests often experienced complex trauma, a combination of physical and emotional abuse as well as shame, loss of self-esteem and difficulty discussing their experiences with family and friends. For some survivors, the only way to heal was to seek therapy. They also may have had religious dimensions to their interpretation of what happened, and they used that framework when interpreting the actions of their perpetrators.

As a consequence, some of the abused women and men did not consider giving up their lives as nuns or priests. Instead, they continued in their vocations in order to comfort Jesus against whom they believed the outrage was principally directed; in some cases, they held on to the belief that their vocations came from God and that such an outrage could not spoil God’s plan for them.

Some of these former clerics retreated into private life; other took jobs in the secular workplace as teachers, social workers or nurses. Still others opted for careers in government roles like victim advocates or public health planners. One, former Catholic priest Marcial Maciel, founded the Legion of Christ, a Roman Catholic order of priests that operates worldwide.

Aging Congregations

people taking group picture - Navigating the Complexities of Clergy Travel

The church is getting older. In fact, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, a 2015 study, by 2023 it’s expected that the average church congregation will be 50 percent older than it was in 2020. The graying trend is especially pronounced in synagogues and mainline churches, though the percentage of younger attendees varies widely by denomination.

Many congregations struggle to attract younger members, while others face the reality that their numbers simply aren’t growing enough. The largest congregations have advantages that make it easier to attract new members — they often have larger buildings, more financial resources and a variety of programs. They also tend to have younger clergy, as travels often take clergy to different locations, exposing them to new ideas and approaches to ministry.

But there are ways to rethink how a congregation is organized, and how it attracts younger families. Congregations can focus on being age-friendly, which means that they “recognize, celebrate and affirm the centrality of older adults in their mission and ministry,” says a report by a coalition of church leaders including Beth Long-Higgins, executive director of United Church Homes’ Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging; Rev. Jan Aerie, a gerontologist and community health planner; RoMa Johnson, a hospice community chaplain; and Rev. Virginia Army, rector of St. Andrew’s in Little Compton, Rhode Island.

The report advocates creating multigenerational programs and offering opportunities for people of all ages to participate together in worship, education and fellowship. It also calls for churches to provide support services to help older adults and their families navigate health care needs, including coping with depression and dealing with loss.

Churches can rethink their facilities and consider options for multipurpose space, such as having a large room with a stage that can be used for community events. They can also create opportunities for young adults to become involved in leadership and programming, and provide mentoring relationships that can support the next generation of religious leaders.

The complexities of clericate travel can be daunting, but it’s important to remember that the Holy Spirit is still drawing people to spiritual transformation and tools for living in this broken world. When a church loses its ability to do those things, it has lost its raison detre.