Sex and the Church: Pastoral Sexual Misconduct

Pastoral sexual misconduct is not a new phenomenon and dates back to the Old Testament when God rejects the sons of Eli for their sexual misconduct.   Sexual misconduct is wide in scope and can range from passive sexual harassment of a co-worker or congregant to an extramarital affair as a “one time fall from grace” to maintaining multiple sexual relationships within the church community.  In extreme cases, abuse may be habitual patterns of conduct which may include voyeurism or victimization of a youth group student.

Sadly, incidences of church leadership sexual misconduct are higher than that of other helping professions.  At least one study suggests as much as 10% higher among male church leaders.  In the Roman Church, some estimates place the numbers of priests who have left the priesthood for sexual impropriety at as much as 25%. Contrary to popular opinion sexual misconduct is not just a Roman Catholic issue, it is in fact very much an issue across denominational lines.  According to the United Church of Canada, the incidences of sexual misconduct by clergy has reached “horrific proportions.”    They shockingly report from their research that women are more likely to experience sexual harassment in the church from a church leader than in the workplace, citing that clergy were twice as likely to exploit their parishioners than secular therapists.

A study of 300 pastors in the United States revealed 39% admitted to sexual contact and almost 13% to sexual intercourse with one of their church members.  In 1987, Christianity Today reported 23% of the clergy responding to a survey said that since entering the ministry they had engaged in some form of sexual misconduct they considered inappropriate.  Understand these and other surveys cover a wide range of Christian traditions including the “strong evangelical ones.”  The issue is a human issue and one which the church seems ill-equipped and in some case unwilling to deal with.

Perhaps the seeming proliferation is in no small part due to victims being more willing to speak out and our ability to communicate and share information like no time prior.  Regardless the issue is a real one and pastors need to be aware of their responsibility to steward the innate power they hold by the very nature of their office and gifting.

Power

It is unavoidable whether there is an “office” or someone who operates on the basis of their gifts, those who lead others, help others find themselves in a unique place.  This place is one of a position of power in a relationship.   This can be stewarded with great care to ensure boundaries are not crossed, but the first step is to understand those we serve are vulnerable.  They are vulnerable because of what we represent - God, and they trust that they are, in fact, safe.   This makes it even more tragic as this kind of violation occurs at the deepest of levels.  The key here is to be reverently aware of the unbalanced power in the relationship and because leaders hold the power they are predominantly responsible to conduct themselves responsibly with integrity.  Our call is to serve and live love, and we cannot abdicate the responsibility to steward that power to those we minister too.  We are responsible for guarding our boundaries.

Taboo

Sex is a "three letter - four-letter word" for many in Christian circles.  This in part comes from our rejection of the body as evil or debased, the natural urges and desires of our humanity - flesh and blood are often denied, buried under shame often suffering physical and emotional violence.  A kind of stoicism masquerading as piety has hijacked the beauty and wonder of healthy sexuality and perverted into something that is spoken in harsh terms as dirty.  Under the shadow of this twisted thinking manifests various kinds of sexual addictions including pornography.

Interestingly, purveyors of pornography are suffering due to a loss of profitability from their cash-cow business.  Why?  It has been explained that pornography has become more mainstream and socially acceptable.  You would think this would increase revenues, but the opposite is the reality.   The more socially acceptable pornography becomes, the less appealing it is - except in the Church.  Many folks don’t realize many of the pornographers target Christian men!

I am no way suggesting we accept pornography as it twists our concept of love, damages the lives of those in the business and twists those who consume it and their families.  Pornography is very much a violent mutation of love that is self-centred, isolating and rooted in the sense of unhealthy control and manipulation. I make the point to help us realize that sex needs to be brought out into the open and talked about in a healthy mature way.  By removing the stigma and shame associated with healthy sexuality, people can be free, to be honest about where they are at and be able to receive support as they embrace healthy sexuality.  Just as light dispels darkness!

Pastors - it is important that you have mature, safe relationships with people you can trust, who you can openly discuss among other things sex and your sexuality with.  Someone who can help you work through thoughts, wounds, and smudges on the lens of love and help you become more whole as a person.

Getting Help

Fella’s,  let's face it,  if you have a problem you probably know it and chances are others suspect it.  If you find yourself rationalizing certain behaviors and thoughts, it is definitely worth getting some help.  I understand this can be difficult and humbling for the man of God to admit he may have a problem.  Especially with sex.  Truth be told, to do the hard work of getting with a trained, healthy professional who can help you sort out your sexuality and sexual desires will, in the long run, help you be a better husband and better minister of the gospel.  As the statistics above point out - you are not alone - a lot of other men in your position struggle.  It is nothing to be ashamed of, and you don’t need to live with the guilt and shame.  Step out in faith and get some help!

Churches Take Responsibility!

Churches, Board Members, leaders, congregants its time to take sex out of the shadows and have open healthy dialogue.   By doing so we can provide meaningful counsel and insight for a world who has seemingly lost its way sexually.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if we as the people of God could model (figuratively) and advocate for healthy sexuality as a part of a monogamous, committed relationship that is rooted in real life, in real lives?

Until such time,  we as churches need to ensure we have comprehensive policies and procedures in place to help create and maintain healthy pastoral boundaries for the protection of the pastors / leaders, those we serve and our church community.  These policies should also include an accessible, safe and respectful process of bringing concerns and accusations to the fore and the process for investigation, reporting and providing meaningful support and counseling for all concerned.

Great Stuff but too late - We have a problem now!

Own it as a community and be open and honest in the way that you proceed.  These situations are difficult and painful.  This kind of betrayal of trust wreaks havoc and intense wounds.  Expect it.   These actions will have consequences for your church community. This in unavoidable.  The key is how do you proceed in a way that honors God.  God is honored by love, so how can the victims(s) be heard, protected and provided with means towards healing and at the same time support the pastor's wife /  family with counseling. All this while holding the pastor accountable, help them to recognize their brokenness, the damage they have caused others and provide professional, credible, long-term help to deal with issues that led to the sexual impropriety.  This may also include support and soul care during any legal consequences.

Sparing pastor, the consequences of their actions, is not merciful and is contrary to love.  Without professional, credible, long-term help, they will offend again, and authentic love is slandered when we simply sweep it all under the rug.  Yes, it will be embarrassing and very painful for everyone involved.   You can expect you will lose numbers and finances, but love demands we stand for the weak, the powerless, the voiceless and protect them from those who will hurt them - even if it is from within.  The integrity in which you deal with this issue will far overshadow the shame of the incident and provide a much healthier witness to those around you.

Two People who fall through the Cracks

When these situations come to light, a great deal of the attention is focused on the “beloved pastor” and protecting the church institution.  It is, for this reason, two specific people are often neglected.

The victim while receiving some consolation often disappears.  They often feel estranged from the church community and simply stop coming.  One would expect it to be uncomfortable for the obvious reason, but the not so obvious reason is insidious.   Often as congregations go through the grieving process associated with pastoral sexual misconduct, they can turn the strong emotions toward the victim and blame her for tempting their poor pastor to sin.   Ridiculous for sure but sadly it happens.

Along the same lines is the pastor's wife.  The pastor's wife will be dealing with a unique betrayal and often when the pastor-husband falls; the wife loses her community and the support through relationships she has cultivated in the church community.  She experiences strong pressure to forgive and support her husband as the faithful wife, and this is often a very bitter, painful pill to swallow.  To make matters worse, the pastor's wife is often the target of blame for pastor's failure because “if she was taking care of business at home...”.

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There is so much more which can be said to address this issue and for that, I recommend the book “Betrayal of Trust. Confronting and Preventing Clergy Sexual Misconduct” by Stanley Grenz and Roy Bell.  IamSignificant.ca also provides support to Pastors and congregations towards healthy faith and during crisis towards healing.  Regardless taking a few deliberate actions can help reduce the risk of ever having to deal with pastor / leader sexual misconduct and can lead to maturing whole faith communities.

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