Maine church taking important steps toward healing, crisis expert says

Mourners embrace as they leave East Orrington Congregational Church after the memorial service for Rev. Robert Carlson.
Mourners embrace as they leave East Orrington Congregational Church after the memorial service for Rev. Robert Carlson.
Posted Nov. 27, 2011, at 6:16 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 28, 2011, at 10:29 a.m.
The Rev. Carl Schreiber of East Orrington Congregational Church talks with the Bangor Daily News, reflecting on the life of the Rev. Robert Carlson who died Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011. Rev. Schreiber officiated at the church's memorial service for the Rev. Carlson on Friday, Nov. 18, 2011.
The Rev. Carl Schreiber of East Orrington Congregational Church talks with the Bangor Daily News, reflecting on the life of the Rev. Robert Carlson who died Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011. Rev. Schreiber officiated at the church's memorial service for the Rev. Carlson on Friday, Nov. 18, 2011. Buy Photo
The Rev. Bob Carlson in June 2010.
The Rev. Bob Carlson in June 2010.

ORRINGTON, Maine — Linda Sylvia knows what the members of East Orrington Congregational Church are going through.

In June 2008, her priest, the Rev. James Robichaud, took his own life a day after being told he was suspended from the ministry pending an investigation into an allegation that he sexually abused a minor in the late 1970s.

The Rev. Robert “Bob” T. Carlson, pastor emeritus of the East Orrington Congregational Church, drowned Nov. 12 in the Penobscot River after jumping from the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. He left the pastorship in 2002 to work as a chaplain at Husson College and, later, as president of Penobscot Community Health Care.

The day after the well-known minister’s death, the Maine State Police announced they were investigating an allegation that Carlson had molested an 11-year-old boy in the 1970s.

Sylvia of Guilford said in a telephone interview Sunday that the only advice she could offer Carlson’s former congregants was to “pray.”

“You make peace with it, but you never forget,” Sylvia, who is a Eucharistic minister in Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Dexter, Milo and Dover-Foxcroft, said. “It’s something that happened to your family and you live through it.”

Nancy Myer Hopkins, an expert in helping congregations deal with a major clergy crisis, including sexual misconduct, said Saturday that prayer is important, but other steps need to be taken if a congregation is to survive. Those steps are outlined in “Restoring the Soul of a Church,” which Hopkins of Scarborough co-edited.

They include holding congregational meetings that include the following components: truth telling, sharing and validation of feelings, education, spiritual reflection and asking the question, “Where do we go from here?”

The Rev. Carl Schreiber Jr., who has been pastor of the East Orrington church since 2008, said last week that his congregation held a similar series of meetings during the week following Carlson’s death. He also said the meetings would continue.

“We have been coming together as a [church] family,” he said. “People have talked as individuals about where they are and what they are feeling in the safety of that family.”

Schreiber said he also had called on other professionals, including counselors and local experts in crisis intervention. They have attended some sessions and been available for consultation, the pastor said.

“They’ve gotten a good start,” Hopkins said of the steps taken so far. “Not all congregations even go that far. The next steps, in part, would depend on what happens next. It’s difficult to say what they should do when they don’t know what they’re dealing with.”

Although Carlson’s funeral was held Nov. 17 at the church, the police investigation continues. Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine State Police, has said that once it has been concluded, he expected the results of the probe would be made public.

Hopkins also advised that members of the congregation and community members affected by Carlson’s suicide and the allegations give themselves time to grieve.

“It takes a fair amount of time and a lot of work to recover well,” she said.

“This is a journey that you’re on. You have to look at it as a long-range project.”

Hopkins said that often it is helpful for a congregation to search its own history to help members through a crisis.

“They can go back to the beginning, to their founding story, to their own Genesis story,” she said. “They can look at their timeline and ask, ‘Where did we show courage and where were we afraid? How did we overcome that fear?’

“It’s a good way to put what has happened into a framework that people can respond to,” Hopkins continued. “That will help them get a clear understanding of ways they’ve been hurt or hurt or harmed each other and also the ways they’ve survived. They also will find times when they’ve done well and been a faithful congregation.”

Because he was so well-known and active in the civic life of Greater Bangor for so long, Carlson’s death and reports of the police investigation have affected the broader community, Schreiber acknowledged.

“It probably would be nice if somebody could offer something for the larger community,” Hopkins said. “Any organization related to him must be feeling a loss and possibly be upset that he is not who they thought he was. They could do this for themselves by just sitting around for an hour or two and talking about how this is impacting them.”

Schreiber said that no one outside the church had approached him about a community meeting similar to the ones held at the church.

The minister and Hopkins both echoed Sylvia’s advice — prayer and spiritual reflection are an essential part of the healing process for those who called Bob Carlson pastor.

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