Thursday, September 10, 2009

Clergy Sexual Misconduct

Yesterday's release of a study from Baylor University delves into an area of some discomfort for most Christians: the issue of Clergy Sexual Misconduct. According to the study, one out of every 33 women attending a congregation has, at some point in their adult lives, experienced sexual advances from a religious leader. Some folks are resisting these numbers, reflexively assailing the results as anti-church, but from my experience, it sounds about right. It's a real issue.

I do, however, struggle a bit with the definition of Clergy Sexual Misconduct used by the study. It's a familiar one, one that I heard recounted in my pastoral counseling classes. As the study leader puts it:
"Many people -- including the victims themselves -- often label incidences of Clergy Sexual Misconduct with adults as 'affairs'. In reality, they are an abuse of spiritual power by the religious leader."
The prevailing thesis presented in seminary was that any sexually charged contact or romantic entanglement between a pastor and a congregant was automatically an abuse of power by the pastor. While I understand the intent behind this mindset, I think it overstates the case. Every instance of clergy sexual misconduct is not an abuse of spiritual power, and every romantic entanglement between a pastor and a congregant is not clergy sexual misconduct. While recognizing that discernment is necessary for every instance, I tend to parse the issue in three ways.

If a pastor has actively used his or her spiritual authority to coerce a congregant into sexual relation, it's not just an abuse of their authority. It's tantamount to rape. Vulnerable individuals are often identified by predatory individuals, who are willing to use the perception of their spiritual authority to manipulate and control those individuals sexually. These predators are a threat to the integrity of the church, and should be removed from any position of leadership...and, frankly, from the church itself. The dark compulsion that drives them is the enemy of the Way.

But all pastors who canoodle are not predators or abusers. Some are just human beings who screw up. The stressed-out overscheduled pastor who ends up having an affair with a married member of her choir is not a monster, nor is she manipulating that choir member with the power of her position. Pastors can, amazingly enough, be lonely and isolated. When they connect to another human being on a personal level, sometimes that desire for human connection drives some questionable actions. Stressed human beings make crappy decisions. Is such a thing predation or abuse? No. Is it Clergy Sexual Misconduct? Yes. A pastor must be held to high standards of integrity, and one of those standards is a deep respect for the sacred covenantal union between partners in a marital relationship. That standard needs to define their behavior, both within their own marriage and as they approach other covenant unions. If they breach that standard, they need to be subject to the discipline of the church. That should probably involve removal from the pastoral position, and a period of counseling. What they've done, though, isn't predation or abuse. The other individual involved is not a victim. It's just an affair, just ol' fashioned adultery.

Then there are consensual romantic relationships between unmarried pastors and unmarried congregants. These are deep into a grey area. On the one hand, it's nearly impossible to still be "the pastor" in that situation. It is also possible that when such a relationship ends, it can be disruptive to the life of a church. Heck, if it becomes a source of church gossip, it can be disruptive when it's going on. But presuming that pastors cannot actually fall in love with members of their churches assumes that we are no longer human beings. Those relationships need to be approached carefully, openly, faithfully, and with Christian integrity...but they are not inherently wrong.

Though I feel this isn't something that should be described using broad-brush generalizations, it is a real issue...and one that the church needs to take seriously.


  1. A grew up as a Child in a Christian Fundamentalist Church, where the Pastor abused his power, not only making sexual advances towards Women, but would try to control the lives of people, almost like a accult leader of sorts.

    Sexual advances and abuse is a real issue in the Church, whether people accept it or not. Almost everyday there is 2 or 3 stories in the news on incidents like these. Ignoring a problem or making excuses for it, does not make it go away.

  2. "... subject to the discipline of the church."

    I think a key to alot of the Church's problems stem from a lack of serious discipline. It's not punative, it's an integral way of discipling one another. We need more of it, that's for sure, instead of letting things simply go 'unnoticed'.

  3. @Jonathon:

    I think you are right...we seem to have moved away as a church and as a society from disciplining each other in love. Instead we seem to have contented ourselves with hurling invective at those we both don't know and don't currently "love unto death" (to steal a phrase from Ephraim Radner).

    If we actually stand a chance of running into folks on a regular basis we tend to keep discipline under strict quarentine. And that includes self-discipline.

    I know that it might be ironic at best to cite John Howard Yoder in this context but I found his chapter on Loosing and Binding in "Body Politics" to have a lot to say about this issue and it's importance for both the church and the world for which the church is to be a light. Then again, perhaps it is his own experiences of failure in this regard and his experience of church discipline that makes his thoughts so on point.

    Jesus certainly didn't approve of prostitution or tax collection for military occupiers but he didn't express his dissaproval by screaming at prostitutes and tax collectors via 1st century media sources. He shared his life, his love and his example around a common table and a common meal. He challenged/challenges us to accept the empowerment of the Spirit and go and sin no more.

    Your brother in Christ,