Avoiding Sexual Misconduct in Pastoral Leadership

[Photo By Per Ola Wiberg ~ Powi]

It seems as though the national media as well as my own denomination has been absent of any major “sex scandals” as of late. Sure, the cynical part of me knows that it’s only a matter of time before the next shocker, but the the ever-hopeful part of me believes that from generation to generation, those in religious positions of leadership do learn and can change for the better.

That said, I know of many people who have acted in ways that have done huge amounts of damage, not only to those closest to them, but to the larger church as well. I also believe that many of these folks have simply made poor choices in their interactions and relationships that could have been avoided. I am not talking about those who could be considered “predators,” “narcissists” or serial offenders, but about those who have made poor choice after poor choice only to find themselves in a situation that they never would have expected to be.

As you read this, please do not hear me offering some kind of justification for past actions or a plea that we should not hold accountable those who have betrayed the privilege and honor of church leadership. I offer this post only in the hopes that folks who are on the edge or are new to pastoral leadership might be able to engage in healthy self-reflection and avoid making choices that will forever change thier own life and/or the lives around them.

So with as little judgement as possible, I offer three obvious, but helpful “filters” that are always on for me as I engage in my own ministry and leadership in the church and beyond. Again, there may be other things going on in a person’s psyche that will preclude any of these things from working, but I think for a vast majority of people, these are helpful ways to make good choices in life and leadership.

Acknowledge attraction and yearning – One of the hardest things to do in ministry is to acknowledge when there is attraction – mutual or otherwise – between friends, colleagues and/or those one pastors. Attraction is a natural part of being human, but that does not mean that every attraction needs to be pursued or explored. This does not mean one should now pour out a confession of attraction on some unsuspecting colleague, only that internally, one should be aware of any building emotional or physical reactions. Unacknowledged attraction can insidiously lead one to create situations and circumstances that lead often lead to misconduct.

Recognize secrecy and deceit – From stalking on Facebook to justifying unnecessary contact with a person, one must be able to recognize those times when activity is either secretive or deceitful. Much like an addiction impacts the ways in which one lives, if one’s activities are cloaked in secrecy and driven by attraction that may a good sign that there may be something else going on.

Own your power and authority - This is the hardest one for pastor-types who so desperately want to avoid the idea that pastors are “better” than anyone else. While I do get where this comes from, to confuse the “priesthood of all believers” and God’s understanding of equality with the role that a pastor plays in the spiritual and physical life of a community is dangerous. Remember, pastors are not asked to lead just because he/she is a nice person. This might very well be true, but a pastor is called to guide a community’s spiritual well-being, granted permission to be present during most intimate times of a community’s life and been given power and authority that is present because of and in-spite of the person. One can pretend that being the Pastor will not impact relationships with individuals and think “power dynamic” talk is psycho-babble, but attraction combined with secrecy and fueled by unequal power dynamics is a recipe for disaster. To own power and authority does not have to always lead to arrogance and misconduct, in fact when owned in healthy ways, it more often will lead to humility and integrity.

I am sure there are other tips that folks can offer and I hope that if you are really struggling with issues of misconduct, sexual or emotional, you can just soak these in a bit before responding. If you do have other helpful resources and/or words of wisdom, please do leave a comment.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/breyeschow/ Bruce Reyes-Chow

    I think some – mine did – do deal with boundaries, which get at the Charisma thing, but I do not ever think it was talked about specifically.

  • keloomis

    I have wondered whether seminaries shouldn’t teach a class about the entertwining of a minister’s charisma, the  possible emotional/sexual attractions that charisma can lead to, and an ethic of dealing with this situation. Do seminaries explore charisma?

  • Gayle

    You can get your parish insurance company involved — they come to our district pastoral gatherings, work with individual congregations, etc.  Ours insists on being involved. 

    Some churches are naive, so a good start is recognizing it’s possible (if not probable).

    I like what one below said about boundaries — I grew up in a denom that left pastor’s doors ajar, didn’t meet one-on-one with opposite sex without someone present in the office, etc.   The minister of counseling (licensed) had an inside window in his office and was never alone in the office. 

    At the sem, simple bits of advice like, don’t remove tie (if you where one) or otherwise relax in your dress when meeting with opposite sex seemed odd but got you thinking about the message you’re sendig yourself and others.

    We used our pre-marriage counseling advice in ministry — if you must travel in a car with opposite sex, call spouse first.  And applied that in other ways as well.

  • Randy Branson

    Boundaries – you didn’t mention the importance of boundaries – physical, conversational, topic, intimacy boundaries.  Your first comment came close, but having good boundaries is essential for pastors, not only to avoid sexual misconduct, but to do effective ministry.  It disturbs me, for example, when pastors enter into counseling relationships with parishioners that go beyond genuine pastoral care.  We pastors have no business doing pyschotherapy unless we are licensed to do so and have clinical supervision with whom we share our cases.  Transference is necessary in effective psychotherapy, but it can be damaging to a pastor’s appropriate relationship with a church member.

    Bruce, thanks for speaking out on a subject we don’t address nearly enough.  Your comments were spot on, and Elizabeth Nordquist offered additional wise observations.  I hope mid-councils will explore ways to educate clergy about this critical subject, not only to a pastor’s career but to the credibility of the Church.   

  • Cat

    People misbehave when they think no one is watching. Pastors’ jobs are to tell their congregants that “Someone” is watching. Maybe they need to be reminded of the basic tenet of their job?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/breyeschow/ Bruce Reyes-Chow

    Thanks for these addition. I have found that accountable community piece so very important. If you have not already done so in the past, a post from you on the subject would be awesome.

  • Elizabeth Nordquist

    In my 25 years in active ministry, clergy misconduct occurred in 3 out of my 4 calls. What the participants  had in common was: 
                   -an unwillingness or inability to be self-reflective 
                   -a sense of entitlement, sometimes fed by an adoring community
                   -a separation of ministry task and spiritual practice
                   -isolation from any conversation that  demanded truth-telling
    And for the communities, there was collateral damage to faith and practice that rippled out for years to the participants, the families, the congregations, and the neighborhoods and communities beyond.

    It was a wound that shaped the arc of my own call. All that can be  said or done to demand fidelity in this context to those of us who take vows for any office is welcome and helpful and hopeful. 


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