Monday, June 21, 2010

Fishing Off the Company Pier

As part of our continuing Presbyterian effort to stomp all over any potential sexual malfeasance in our congregations, my local governing body recently revised its guidelines to help congregations deal with inappropriate sexual behavior in the church. Though human beings are sexual creatures, churches are not places where that aspect of our nature should be overtly expressed.

Not that we can't talk about it, or be honest about it. That's fine. It's more that church is not the place to be sidlin' up to that deacon during the Passing of the Peace to let them that we so hawny and we love them longtime. Using church to skeeve on people is verboten. Period. One of the things I like about my denomination is how aggressively it has dealt with this issue, and how willing it is to respond with vigor to censure or remove pastors and leaders who use their congregations as a place to hit on/harass others. The new policy in my Presbytery spells out, as clear as a bell, the sorts of behaviors that we won't tolerate. It's a good thing.

Only...there's a section of it that I read, understand, but still struggle with. That section has to do with pastors having relationships with parishioners. According to the policy we have in place, unmarried pastors are not to have any romantic relationships with members of the congregation they serve. Not "married pastor hitting on the attractive choir member." But "single pastor dating other single person."

The argument behind this, which I've heard both in seminary and in seminars on this sorta thing, is pretty straightforward. If you're a pastor, you viewed as being in a position of authority. That authority creates a power imbalance between a power imbalance between a pastor and an individual in your congregation, and therefore makes such relationships an abuse of authority. I can see the truth in that, and know how certain predators have used their spiritual authority to fulfill their carnal hungers.

However, that is far from being the case in all instances. I think the freshly minted young pastor who finds herself out in the sticks serving a congregation where all real church authority rests with a steely-eyed blue haired matriarch has rather less "power" than one might assume.

I can also see the potential for disruption in the life of a church if the pastor "dates around" in his or her church, or the potential harm to a congregant and/or a pastor if a relationship goes sour. But pastors are human beings, human beings who often spend every waking moment around their congregation and doing the business of the church. Unless they are married before they enter the process, or marry another pastor, it's real easy for them to fall into a life of unintentional celibacy. Their network of relationships doesn't give them an opening to develop that type of connection.

Ultimately, my presbytery seems to have wisely left open the possibility of grace in this area. As long as the congregant is able to find pastoral support and care and guidance outside of that relationship, things are copacetic. That defuses the power dynamic. It also insures that the lay person in the relationship still has a pastor to whom they can turn.

Heck, if pastors couldn't ever date church members, my grandfather and grandmother would never have met.