#MeToo; Busting Seven Myths about Clergy Sexual Misconduct

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I watch in horror and amazement as high-profile celebrities and politicians fall like the leaves of autumn; horror at the tsunami of sexual misconduct, and amazed at the Silence Breakers who no longer allow perverts to do harm with impunity.

Pastors are not immune from sexual misconduct and the clergy/member relationship presents unique opportunities for abuse. One case of sexual misconduct can erode the sacred trust that congregants have in all pastors, to say nothing of the irreparable harm to the victim. I served in a congregation where more than one of my predecessors had engaged in sexual misconduct and it took me years to regain the trust of the congregation, and some, never would trust a pastor again. Because of the far-reaching consequences of clergy sexual misconduct, I thought I would take this moment to share seven myths about clergy sexual misconduct that need busting as well as seven tips to avoid clergy sexual misconduct.  

Myth #1:  Clergy sexual misconduct is only when a pastor has sex with a minor.

Clergy sexual misconduct (CSM) is not limited to pedophilia.  CSM also includes adult sexual abuse and sexual harassment. It is CSM when any person in a ministerial role of leadership or pastoral counseling engages in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with a congregant, client, employee, student, staff, member (etc.) in a professional relationship. CSM can include rape or sexual assault, sexualized verbal comments or visuals, unwelcome touching and advances, use of sexualized materials including pornography, and stalking. 

Myth #2: Adventist clergy do not engage in CSM.

CSM is a widespread problem in congregations of all sizes and occurs across all denominations including Adventists. A Baylor University study found that 3.1 percent of adult women who attend religious services at least once a month have been victims of clergy sexual misconduct since turning 18. Between 1994 and 2013 Adventist Risk Management processed 75 claims of CSM  including child abuse, clergy malpractice and sexual harassment.

Myth #3: Pastors sometimes have ‘affairs’ with church members.

The word ‘affair’ implies ‘mutual consent’ between two adults. Because of the asymmetrical role of pastor and congregant, any sexualized relationship between a pastor and a congregant (except for the pastor's spouse) is clergy sexual misconduct and cannot be considered ‘mutual consent.’ Even if it is not physical coercion, the clergy is the one in a position of spiritual and emotional power and must be held responsible for the abuse of power.

Myth #4: Clergy sexual misconduct usually happens unintentionally.

In a landmark study, 46 victims of CSM from a wide range of religions, including Adventists, were asked to tell their stories of abuse. In most of the cases the clergy offenders, in a series of small acts, broke down the natural defenses of the offended, and took advantage of a position of spiritual power to eventually sexualize the relationship. Victims, families, and the congregation, did not seem to notice, or if so, refused to confront the clergy with inappropriate attention given to the victim. Other contributing factors of CSM included a lack of accountability for the clergy, intimate knowledge of the victim’s personal challenges and secrets, and almost all the stories included multiple counseling or spiritual direction sessions.

Myth #5: Spiritual pastors are above temptation.

Pastors have unique temptations. The role of pastor may attract a congregant to perceived power, fame, spirituality, caring and implied holiness any of which may fill a void in the congregant.  As the pastor ministers to the attracted congregant, the pastor’s need for validation in ministry is increasingly fulfilled. The mutual satisfaction of needs may be conflated with a personal attraction in both the minds of the pastor and the congregant. The mutual attraction can easily become sexualized.

Myth #6: Adventists have largely been silent about abuse.

Since 2008, Adventists have championed ending abuse with the End it Now campaign in which over 600,000 signatures were placed on a petition of solidarity with the United Nations campaign against violence toward women and girls. The campaign continues in the North American Division with a Summit on Abuse in 2011, 2014, and a streamed summit in 2017 where thousands of pastors attended virtually.

Myth #7: There is equal gender representation in decision making groups that oversee CSM policy and CSM allegations against pastors.

Most of the decision-making positions within the Seventh-day Adventist church are restricted to those with ordination credentials, which at this time, according to General Conference policy, can only be men.  It is possible to empower women now to address CSM whether they are in positions of leadership or not. This though, relies on responsible men to  intentionally include women's voices. 

Seven Tips to avoid CSM

Tip #1: Don’t engage in therapeutic counseling.

The formal training of pastors in the NAD does not equip them to engage in therapeutic counseling. Counseling should be limited to assessment and referral to professionals. Core Qualities suggest that pastors “build a network of mental health care providers and make appropriate referrals.”  Only those who have received specialized degrees in therapeutic counseling, and are licensed should engage in long term counseling.

Tip #2: Discuss relationship questions with mentors or colleagues outside of the congregation.

If you have any question about ambiguity in relationships or boundaries with individuals in your congregation, discuss the nature of the relationship with a trusted experienced colleague outside of your congregation.  Be honest about sharing your personal feelings with your support group/mentors about a relationship.  Naming temptation to others takes away its power over you and enables you to construct effective boundaries.

Tip #3: Avoid meeting alone with anyone.

Find places to meet people where you can be observed by others. Meet people in your office only if you leave your door open and someone is within eyesight. Meet at a public place. Make sure you choose the setting. Don’t go on frequent drives alone with someone else. Don’t go by yourself to a home visitation.

Tip #4: Keep messaging professional.

Email, text messaging, phone calls and other forms of personal communication can be channels of CSM. Avoid conversations of a personal nature by having more than one person in on the communication. 

Tip #5: Keep physical contact professional.

Avoid physical contact with individuals unless it is in a public setting. And even in a public setting keep physical contact short and appropriate.

Tip #6: Beware of giving and receiving personal gifts.

In some cultures, gifts can be misperceived. They may take on more meaning than you intended.

Tip #7: Keep current on the best practices to prevent abuse

Attend sexual harassment/abuse classes. Take the Sexual Abuse – Reclaiming Hope course from Adventist Learning Community. Become familiar with the resources available from  www.enditnownorthamerica.org.

 

No one is above temptation. If you say, ‘it is different for me’ or ‘the rules don’t apply to me’ then you are exposing yourself to false accusations, or even worse, engaging in CSM yourself. As pastors, let’s take the momentum of the #MeToo campaign to heart, and let this be a reminder that our role as pastors also makes us vulnerable to the temptation to hurt others. Let us take the steps necessary to guard our reputation and our congregants, and use our roles as pastors to end sexual abuse in our communities. 

[1] Special thanks to Carla Baker, David Fournier, Ernie Furness, Erica Jones, Esther Knott and Willie Oliver for their research for this essay.

The opinions in the essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the North American Division Ministerial Association. Here are some resources for further study: 

http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/sex-pastor-affair-abuse/ 

http://www.ashleyeaster.com/blog/pastors-dont-have-affairs

http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/resources/learn-the-basics/ce-faqs#What%20is%20it? 

http://thehopeofsurvivors.com