Preventing and Addressing Clergy Sexual Misconduct: Advice for Churches and Parachurch Organizations

Several weeks ago, a pastor here in the Fort Worth area was relieved of his duties because he had viewed “inappropriate images” on his office computer. This kind of thing happens a lot. Those of us who have been around church-work for a while remember high-profile cases like Jimmy Swaggart, but for every one that makes the news, there are many more that do not.

When a member of the clergy engages in sexual behavior that is outside the boundaries established in Scripture and elaborated in Christian theology for example visiting to watch a porn movie, it can devastate the health of a congregation or other religious organization. It divides congregations because some will be unable to believe that their beloved leader could have done something so dreadful, while others will feel betrayed by the leader’s obvious lack of integrity. Moreover, it leaves members of the community wondering whether the gospel has any real power to change lives. After all, if the pastor (or other prominent leader) cannot live up to the requirements articulated by the church, then who can?

For these reasons, churches and parachurch organizations need to be prepared to handle indiscretions on the part of their ordained (and lay) leaders. Denominational entities, academic institutions, and advocacy groups provide training that can help religious organizations prevent and address incidents of sexually inappropriate behavior. Your organization should find and use such training, but, in the meantime, there are some steps you can take right now to help your organization become a more sexually healthy place to work and serve.

Make Your Expectations Clear

The most important thing that a church or parachurch organization can do to help its leaders maintain their sexual integrity is to develop a clear standard for acceptable behavior and communicate that standard on a regular basis. Easily understood, clearly communicated standards do not guarantee that people will do the right thing; some folks are going to get into trouble regardless of what you do to keep them out of it. Nevertheless, people (me included) generally do better when they know what is expected of them.

If you want to enhance the effectiveness of the standards that you implement, there are a couple of things that you can do. First, give your staff a meaningful role in developing the standards that all of you are required to uphold. When you bring people in each year to review your policy manual (you do review your policies each year, right?), ask them what they think of the policies that have been written. Are there ways in which they can be clearer, and are there issues that have been overlooked? If you take their input seriously and make changes where they are needed, it will give people a sense of ownership over the policies that govern their work.

Second, policies tend to be cold and impersonal. When those policies are accompanied by warm and affirming relationships, however, they come to life as reliable guides for personal conduct. I work here at Carroll with two people who have invested a lot of time, energy, and care to make me the person, the scholar, and the minister that I am. The thought of having to tell them that I have fallen short of the standards established in Scripture and elaborated by this institution is frightening. It motivates me to pursue holiness, not just for the sake of my career but for the sake of these relationships. And, frankly, relationships are a far more powerful motivator than money.

Don’t Be Naive

As Natallia noted last week, church members and others who work with religious organizations want to believe that their leaders are somehow “better” than the average person. Indeed, most of us strive to be better each day than we were the day before. But this does not mean that we are untouched by sexual dysfunction. If anything, the Enemy is more determined than ever to defeat the person who commits her or his life to vocational Christian service, and if he can do that in the area of sex, you can bet your last dollar that he will do it.

So, churches and parachurch organizations need to avoid naivete without becoming paranoid. But what exactly does that look like? How exactly should an awareness of the possibility of sexual misconduct affect an organization’s actions? I can think of two ways, but you might come up with others.

First, churches and parachurch organizations need to make a specific plan for how they will address incidents of sexually inappropriate behavior, and they need to stick to their plan. The plan needs to address questions like these:

  • What kind of training will employees and volunteers receive about avoiding sexually inappropriate behavior?
  • What policies, procedures, and initiatives will the church or parachurch organization institute to shield leaders and other staff members from circumstances that might make them vulnerable to temptation?
  • What technological resources will be deployed to protect the organization’s computers from pornographic and other inappropriate material? How will these resources be used without violating the rights of employees and other workers?
  • To whom, and in what form, should allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior be made? How will employees be informed of these procedures, and who will ensure that they are being followed consistently and equitably?
  • If allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior are made, how will these allegations be investigated? How will the accused be informed of the allegations, and what will be his or her status during the investigation? When and how will the accused be given an opportunity to respond to the allegations?
  • What sanctions will be associated with particular kinds of inappropriate behavior? Under what circumstances will denominational entities be informed about an employee’s misconduct? (PLEASE NOTE: If the alleged behavior violates state or federal law, the church or parachurch organization is required to inform law enforcement officials and/or child welfare officials immediately upon receiving notice of the allegations. Certain individuals—including ministers, mental health professionals, medical professionals, and teachers—are also required to notify law enforcement and/or child welfare authorities if they are notified about illegal behavior of this type, and the organization must not do anything that impedes these people from fulfilling their legal requirements or that impedes the investigative work of relevant authorities.)

A second area where churches and parachurch organizations can and should avoid naivete is in their employee recruitment practices. Whenever you interview a candidate, you need to have an open, honest conversation about that candidate’s sexual health (understood in a spiritual and psychological, not a medical, sense). You want to be clear about your organization’s policies and procedures (see above), but you also want to acknowledge that this is an area where a lot of people have trouble. And you want to create an atmosphere where a candidate feels safe sharing with you both his or her strengths and weaknesses in this area.

Here is a really practical example. I recently heard about a church that, instead of asking its potential employees whether they have ever looked at pornography, asked when was the last time they looked at pornography. This way of framing the question makes it easier for potential employees to be honest about past indiscretions, and, if they have no past indiscretions of this sort, they still have the option of saying so.

One final point needs to be made about organizational naivete. So far, I have not seen a documented stance of a female minister engaging in sexually inappropriate behavior. Still, as more women move into positions of ecclesiastical leadership, we can be sure that it will happen someday (if it hasn’t already). For this reason, women should not be exempted from your screening processes and training programs simply because of their gender.

Realize That the Problem Is More Complex Than You Think

Your church or parachurch organization cannot afford to be naive, but neither can it afford to underestimate the complexity of the problem faced by leaders who have engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior. The problem is not just the behavior itself; it is the underlying desires that motivated the behavior. I cannot speak for women, but we men tend to channel our desires for personal approval, social status, and power through our sexuality. If these dysfunctions are not dealt with, they will re-emerge—possibly in an even more destructive form.

Focus on the Real Problem

Following the advice of denominational officials and other evangelical leaders, many churches will give a minister who has engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior a chance to regain his or her position if he or she completes a remediation program. These programs can be quite useful, for they offer the individual the opportunity to heal spiritually and emotionally and because they offer the organization the opportunity to live out the forgiveness to which Christ calls all of us.

As we have already noted, however, it is absolutely vital that these programs deal with the real issues and not just with their external manifestations (the offending behaviors). This is no time for allergic reactions to psychology; churches and parachurch organizations who want to redeem fallen staff members have to do whatever it takes to get to the root cause of their indiscretions. Sure, there needs to be a lot of prayer, Bible reading, and soul-searching on the part of the minister who sinned, but, in many cases, there also needs to be a lot of counseling led by a mental health professional (perhaps even a sex therapist).

If the minister (or other leader) is married, counseling and other supportive services will have to be offered to his or her spouse in order to give the rehabilitation process the best chance of succeeding. And the church or parachurch organization needs to figure out what it will do if that spouse decides that the marriage cannot be saved. Jesus is clear that a spouse who has been victimized by infidelity cannot be forced to stay in the marriage (Matthew 5:31-32), and if he or she choose not to do so, the church will have to figure out how that decision impacts the minister’s restoration plan. A divorce will undoubtedly complicate the recovery process, and there are obviously some biblical complications to retaining a divorced minister (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-7).


Published: Feb 21, 2017


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