Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Can offending pastors ever return to ordained ministry?

One of my readers wrote to me about his former pastor. After church leaders learned that he had sexually abused a female congregant, they immediately removed him from ministry. Apparently, the offender had been suffering from an untreated childhood trauma. In his letter of apology to the congregation, he assured them he was seeking appropriate treatment.

“Some of us are hoping the offender will return to ministry,” wrote my reader. “He has very good gifts for it. Apparently his therapists have all said he is a candidate for return to ministry, but he himself has refused. As a survivor yourself, I was wondering if you have an opinion on this matter.”

Wow. In fact, I do have an opinion on this matter, and a very strong one at that. But as I told this reader, “I don’t have the expertise to answer your question, and I don’t trust myself to be objective. I know the potential for harm too well.”

I don’t trust myself to answer the question objectively, but it’s too important to ignore. The stakes are too high. So I’ll ask it here. If an ordained minister takes sexual advantage of a congregant, can he or she ever be restored to ministry? 

The question must be a thorny one, because so few people have attempted to tackle it. Looking through nearly a hundred online search results, I only found two articles.

In “Restoring the Fallen (Ministry Today, October 26, 2011), Douglas Weiss says, “Sometimes.” But first, offenders must meet all of these criteria:
1. Voluntarily disclose their offenses to the church.
2. Focus not on their gifts or importance, but on their brokenness and the harm they have done to the victim.
3. Take full responsibility, blaming nothing or no one but themselves.
4. Accept all consequences. Willingly submit to direction from a board, bishop, or human resources department.
5. Embrace accountability. Seek out a group of peers who will help them stay on the right course.
6. Submit to competent, professional counseling. It may reveal that their choices were influenced by an addiction, depression, or psychological disorder, but they still take full responsibility for those choices.
7. If they are married, voluntarily work to improve their marriages.

In “Should Fallen Pastors Be Restored?” (adapted from The Master’s Plan for the Church, 1991), John MacArthur says, “Never.” MacArthur says that some offenses are so serious that they make it impossible for the offender ever again to lead by example. Trust forfeited can be impossible to regain. The church should indeed seek forgiveness and restoration — but only restoration to fellowship, not to ministry.

Readers, what do you think? Can an offender ever be restored to ministry?


Please note: both articles use language that can be damaging to victims. Both articles refer to clergy sexual misconduct as “sexual immorality,” “adultery,” or “affairs.” I once sat with a survivor in front of a judge who told her sternly, “You were a consenting adult.” No, she wasn’t! As survivors of CSM, none of us are “consenting adults.” We were outranked by title (e.g. Rev. vs plain old Ms. or Mr.), position in the community (who is the congregation more likely to believe?), gender (most offenders are male; most victims female), age (most offenders are older than their victims), and sometimes by disability, poverty, immigration status, or a history of traumatic experiences. Our powerlessness makes it hard for us to say “No,” especially when our offenders start with “innocent” requests. And if we can’t say “no,” there’s no way we can ever give a meaningful “yes.”

Honoring Dr. Diana Garland

We have lost a great leader in this fight. Last night, Diana Garland lost her battle with pancreatic cancer.

Among Dr. Garland’s many accomplishments:

* As the Dean of Baylor University’s School of Social Work, she led its growth from a two-professor department to one of the leading social work schools in the nation. In 2008, Garland led the landmark Baylor University study on clergy sexual misconduct

* She wrote When Wolves Wear Shepherds’ Clothing, one of the very best essays about the experience of CSM survivors.

* She was a powerful force behind the launch of Baylor’s upcoming study of church response to CSM. (The survey is now closed. I’ll share results of the study — led by Dr. David Pooler — as soon as they are published.)

I never met Diana Garland in person, but the few times we spoke I was struck with her warmth, intelligence, commitment, and generosity of spirit. She never made me feel like “just another survivor.” She made me feel like an important part of the effort. I grieve her death, but mostly I thank God for her life. My healing — and the healing of many survivors —  is more complete because of Diana Garland.

In April, Baylor University renamed the school of social work. It is now the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work.

You can read more about Dr. Garland’s work at Baylor here.

Please keep Diana Garland’s family and colleagues in prayer.

A few weeks ago, a survivor sent me this note: “Being at church is such a struggle for me lately. I keep wondering whether it’s even possible to heal successfully while remaining at the church where the offending behavior and aftermath occurred. Do you happen to know? Do women generally find they have to leave their churches, or do those that leave heal faster than those who don’t?”

I wish I knew the answer. I wish I could point and say, “If you go this way, you will definitely heal faster.” But healing from clergy sexual abuse is a long and painful journey, no matter how we do it. I have some preliminary data from the current Baylor study, which reveals that most women abandon church altogether after an experience of clergy sexual abuse, and that only a small minority of women stay in the same church. But I don’t have data on how these women have fared. Did their choice — old church, new church, or no church at all — affect their healing?

Some of us have no choice but to leave. Even while my church was investigating my complaint, a high-ranking priest on the bishop’s staff told me that my offender would likely be staying. “You might want to find a new parish,” she said. Heartbroken, but needing to belong somewhere, I chose a different church in the same diocese. There, I thought I’d be safe from the vicious gossip. Then one Sunday, a retired priest — with whom I’d had a friendly connection — blatantly shunned me during the passing of the peace. After this, I left the denomination altogether. It took several months to feel at home in my new church, which has a very different style of worship, and it took me several years to feel fully welcomed and safe. But at my new church, I have healed. If I’d tried to stay at my old church, the ongoing trauma might have done me in.

Fellow survivors, what is your experience? Did you stay in the same church? Was your offender gone, or was he/she still there? Did the congregation know your role, or did you keep your identity hidden? Did you move to a different church? Did you leave church altogether? Do you feel you made the right decision? Is there anything you regret? Do you have any wisdom for survivors who are now facing this choice?

Thank you for anything you can share. Your story may offer a key to healing for a fellow survivor.

Plenty of churches get it wrong when it comes to clergy sexual misconduct. Who’s getting it right?

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is blazing a trail that other churches would do well to follow. They just wrapped up their 54th annual General Assembly, “Building a New Way.” In a move that may be unprecedented in any faith tradition, the UUA GA program included not one but three workshops on clergy sexual misconduct, as well as a plenary address by UUA trustee Susan Weaver on the church’s new initiatives.

These were the workshops:
* In Sexually Safer Congregations: Building a New Commitment, the Rev. Debra Haffner, co-founder of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, shared the UUA’s new process, goals, and model policies, and urged UU congregations to renew their commitment to preventing misconduct and abuse. UU World senior editor Michelle Bates Deakin had written in 2013 about early steps in this effort.
* In Building Restorative Justice in Cases of Clergy Sexual Misconduct, the leaders of the UU Safety Net described the steps they are taking to improve the church’s process for dealing with clergy sexual misconduct. UU World senior editor Elaine McArdle summed up this workshop here.
* In Clergy Sexual Misconduct: Breaking the Silence, clergy and lay leaders shared the Sacred Listening Process that leaders in Nashville are developing along the lines of the StoryCorps model.

The UUA’s 2015 program reflects decades of dedicated hard work. The church in the 1970s “could feel like a carnival or a Roman Bacchanal” in the words of UU minister Deborah J. Pope-Lance. By the 1990s, things were beginning to change. Individual UU ministers were beginning to write about the need for appropriate boundaries and standards of sexual ethics, as Pope-Lance did here, and as the Rev. Sam Trumbore did here. At the 2000 General Assembly, then-Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery offered a public apology to victims and survivors of sexual misconduct by UU clergy. Over the next two decades the UUA moved forward in many areas.

But according to survivors, only in the past decade has the UUA made real progress. In this effort, no survivor has been more influential than Anna Belle Leiserson of Nashville. In 1993, disappointed with the UUA’s response to her complaint, she asked church leaders for changes in the process. She stayed with the church and became a leader, speaking at General Assemblies and serving on panels. Eventually, the quiet resistance of church leaders wore her down. In 2006, she writes, “I gave up. Or so I thought.” But a few months later, she suddenly realized that her congregation — First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, or FUUN — had “a powerhouse of potential activists.” In 2007, Leiserson led this team to create the UU Safety Net. After a slow start, which Leiserson writes about here, the Nashville effort has become a model for the national church.

One of Leiserson’s partners in this effort was FUUN’s minister, the Rev. Gail Seavey. She had served as an after-pastor in several settings early in her career, and had inexplicably thrived. She talks about her surprising success here, and about the lessons she learned from the challenging role of after-pastor. Another Safety Net leader, Dr. Doug Pasto-Crosby, has written about why the church tends to ignore and discredit the voices of survivors. He also writes about the traumatic impact on congregations after an instance of clergy sexual misconduct. Pasto-Crosby insists that the congregation can only heal when they help the survivor to heal. “Restoring the connection between survivors and their church community is the most important work a congregation needs to do after ministerial misconduct.”

When I named this blog “Survivors Awaken the Church,” I imagined it as a future event. Together, we survivors will awaken the church. But the awakening has already begun. Thanks to the brave and persistent Anna Belle Leiserson, the Unitarian Universalist Church has opened its eyes.

Did you know that August is Clergy Sexual Abuse Awareness Month? The Hope of Survivors is leading the effort nationwide (actually, worldwide) to get congregations thinking and talking about this issue.

I am blessed to belong to a church whose pastor understands this issue. He gave me the green light to do an “awareness moment” during announcements at the Sunday service. Here’s what I’m going to say:

Good morning! I’m Catherine Thiemann, and I’m here to share two minutes of awareness on a subject we rarely talk about in church: clergy sexual abuse. 

When you hear those words, you may think of the Catholic Church and the child abuse scandals. But in fact, in most cases of clergy sexual abuse, the offender is not Catholic, and the victim is not a child. Within our Protestant tradition, most victims are adult women or teenaged girls. While there’s no doubt of the devastating impact to child victims, it also wreaks havoc in the lives of adult victims, their families, and the congregations in which it happens.

Sadly, it’s likely that several people in our church have had this experience. A 2009 study by Baylor University revealed that: 
* 3% of churchgoing women have experienced an unwanted sexual advance from a minister at some point in their lives,
* 92% of these advances were made in secret, and
* 67% of the offending ministers were married at the time. 

In an average-sized congregation, there are likely at least half a dozen women — or men — who’ve had this experience at some church in the past. Whether the offense includes physical violation or “only” words, it can be devastating. Victims rarely speak up because they fear they’ll be blamed or disbelieved. Sadly, they are often right.

I’m sharing this moment of awareness for two reasons. One, because we have to be willing to talk about it. Our silence can create a fertile ground for this abuse. Two — the more important reason — is because some of you may have experienced this, or you may know someone who has. I want to offer hope and resources for healing. If you need to talk with someone, our pastor would be a good person to start. There are also wonderful online resources like the FaithTrust Institute(.org) and The Hope of Survivors (.com), where you can connect with confidential counselors.

Why not ask your pastor if you can do this too? Feel free to use this message, and to make any changes you need for your church.


“In the spring of the year, when kings go out to battle…” began the liturgist at worship last Sunday. My ears perked up: I know this story well. We studied it in healthy boundaries and sexual ethics classes at my former and current churches. In the season when kings go out to battle, David stayed home. With no real work to do, he entertained himself by sexually violating and impregnating one of his subjects. To cover the pregnancy, the king ordered Bathsheba’s husband home from battle, but Uriah refused to sleep with his wife. So David staged his murder and claimed Bathsheba as his own.

I know this story well. Preachers often use it to show that even when we mess up, God still loves us. But Pastor Scott’s sermon – I now saw in the worship bulletin – was called “Silenced and Marginalized.” Was he really going to preach the truth? Not only about David’s sin, but about Bathsheba’s wound? Would Pastor Scott acknowledge how women suffered then and now, even in the church, because leaders abuse their power? I dared not let myself hope. I prepared myself to hear the usual script.

Then Pastor Scott got up to preach. Normally he launches right into his text, but this time he began with prayer. I could hear the trepidation in his voice as he asked for God’s guidance. He seemed to feel he was setting a risky course. I began to realize that this might be the moment I never thought would come: when a pastor openly called out the church’s abuse of power not only against individual victims of sexual offenses but against all women, simply because of our gender. Would he name the way that leaders abuse their power against – predominantly – women? Would he call out the church’s complicity in silencing the victims of abuse? Most important, would he acknowledge the bleeding wound in our hearts and souls?

Pastor Scott began by praising two women — both seminarians — who had preached during his two-week absence. “The Christian Church has not looked kindly upon women beyond Sunday School teaching, baking cookies for memorial receptions, and heading out to mission fields,” he admitted. “Too often women have been given a resounding ‘NO’ when it comes to preaching or serving on the altar. Or worse still, they have been used — or abused, marginalized and objectified by the more powerful men who for too long have controlled the ecclesiastical structure for their own benefit. I include myself in that oft-forgotten privilege.”

Tears began to flow. This was real. I pulled out my handkerchief, but I wasn’t about to leave. Nothing could have pulled me away from this message. Here’s the sermon that rocked my world.

No, this is not going to be one of those “feel good” sermons where you leave church feeling so much better than when you arrived. Sometimes reality is not that polite. Even a casual reading of the lesson from 2 Samuel will not allow it. This is one of those dark passages in the Bible that we rarely read and frankly ought to be ashamed of. There is no good news here. Any attempt to twist the message to make “Good King David” look – well, good – is a mistake. But if we really name what is going on here, we just might learn something about David, about ourselves, and about how not to live.

It’s hard to miss what is going on here. Like many charismatic leaders, David became a victim of his own success. He was riding a very powerful wave. Following the miserable two-year tenure of King Saul, David had begun to unite the people by centralizing his power – which he felt came directly from God – in Jerusalem. The people believed in him completely. They put their trust in him. He was seen as the king who could do no wrong. He was God’s representative. And David began to believe his own press. He actually believed that he was doing God’s will in every decision and in every act.

The problem was, despite his being divinely appointed and inspired by God, he was human. And the funny thing about us humans: we are rarely satisfied with what we have. We always want more.

And so that fateful night. David’s men were away fighting foreign threats to “God’s kingdom” (where he himself should have been, but he elected to stay home) when he spied a beautiful woman — Bathsheba — bathing nearby. He inquired about her and learned that she was the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Now David already had seven wives, but evidently that wasn’t enough. He wanted more. He wanted this “delight to his eyes,” Bathsheba, despite the fact that she was married to one of his officers who was out in the field fighting on his behalf. 

So he sent guards to “take” her. They brought her to him.

And David raped her.

Now, the scriptures do not say that specifically, and scholars have long debated whether this was rape. But if it’s not rape, what do we call it? It was certainly not a consensual relationship. It could never be. The guards did not have the power to say “no” to the king. Bathsheba certainly did not have the power to say “no.” David had all the power, and he abused it to get what he wanted. So I think it’s high time we name it what it is.

But the story gets even darker. When Bathsheba informs David with the only words she is given in this passage, “I am pregnant,” he summons Uriah home expecting that he will sleep with his wife and the child will be mistaken as his. But Uriah makes David look even worse when he will not sleep with his wife while engaged in battle despite David’s attempt to get him drunk.

So David sends Uriah back to the front lines carrying his death orders in his own hands! Astonishing – what one will do when one has the power to do whatever one wants.

It’s difficult for us to look at stories like this because, I know, for many of us in this room, we know all too well the plight of Bathsheba. And the memories are painful: the inability to speak; the shame involved; the fear that “no one would ever believe me if I did speak my truth”; and the false notion that many have erroneously adopted that “it was all my fault.”

At this point Pastor Scott stopped and looked out at the congregation. “Many in this congregation, mostly women, have suffered this fate. I know this story may be painful to hear, and all I can say is, I’m sorry.” These compassionate words opened a dam. My tears began to flow faster.

Pastor Scott continued:

This is not just an occurrence that happened several thousand years ago. This is happening every day, and it is critical for the church to name it and be willing to help those who fall victim to such atrocities as they begin to reclaim their voice and seek the healing they so desperately need.

It’s no wonder Bathsheba says next to nothing in this story. Think, for a moment, of the position she is in. Who would believe her? She was a throwaway in King David’s harem and he had deployed the perfect cover-up. No one would ever know or believe he could do such a thing…

This story, if it is ever addressed, is almost always told from the perspective of David, but I want us to come at it today from that of Bathsheba. Doing so requires going beyond the text to some degree because it is not much interested in Bathsheba’s feelings, does not identify the rape as a crime or sin against her and shows no word from God directly to her or through any intermediary.

Professor Wil Gafney of the Brite Divinity School states, “In the aftermath of the rape, the text says that Bathsheba purified herself after her ‘uncleanness.’ Many translations render this as ‘after her period,’ which is a possibility accounting for the ease of conception as she would be fertile then. But any vaginal discharge, [including] the act of intercourse, also required the bathing ritual before which a woman was ‘taboo,’ a better translation than the traditional ‘unclean.’ Read in this light, Bathsheba does what many rape victims do; she washes as much of the rape off of herself as she can. Both text and culture support this.”

Bathsheba is forced to live in the house of David, to lie repeatedly with her rapist and to eventually have more children with him. The one she bore as a result of this rape dies. But later, one is born named Solomon. Bathsheba and [the prophet] Nathan work together to get Solomon on the throne. In Bathsheba’s last appearance in the scriptures, Solomon installs her on a throne at his right-hand side, gets up off of his throne and bows down before her.

Saying these words, Pastor Scott stepped down from the chancel, turned toward an imaginary Bathsheba on the chancel steps, and – as if he were Solomon – bent low to honor this woman who had suffered so much. He stepped back into the pulpit and continued.

This text is an important supplement to Bathsheba’s rape narrative in 2 Samuel 11 because she survives the rape of David and thrives in spite of what it — and he — has done to her. Not all women are so lucky. And neither does this in any way make up for the emotional and psychological damage she incurred.

So our story is a powerful challenge: perhaps a painful reminder to many, but, I hope, a wake-up call to most. We cannot turn our backs on those who can so easily be objectified in our culture — those who have been marginalized, those who have lost their voice at the hands of the powerful, the privileged, the ones who appear to be in control.

But we also must be aware of how easy it is to justify our own wrong-doing, how easy it is to rationalize our use and, at times, abuse of power based on our privileged position in society. It begins with honest personal reflection and recognition and confession of our complicity in such a system of dominance by the privileged. It’s important to sit with the passage and really name it for what it is, and to recognize it as a piece of our Judeo-Christian history and a part of our story today.

So I invite you to let these words from Samuel stir in your soul this week. Listen to what God wants and needs to reveal in you as we seek to be faithful in our following as people of integrity, justice, compassion and peace.


This sermon was preached on Sunday, July 26, 2015 by the Rev. Dr. Scott Landis at Mission Hills United Church of Christ, San Diego. As soon as the link is available, I’ll be listening to it again. I’ll share the link here.

Last month I shared an open letter from Geraldine Stowman to Jim Daly, president of para-church mega-ministry Focus on the Family. Professor Stowman objected to a recent FOTF broadcast that minimized the harm of clergy sexual abuse by casting it as mere “marital infidelity.” In nearly 40 years of operation, FOTF has never identified CSA as a problem on its own. When they mention it at all, they call it “adultery,” “an affair,” or “sexual indiscretion.”

Inspired by Professor Stowman, I sent my own letter to Jim Daly:

Please insist on a strong distinction between “affairs/adultery” and clergy sexual abuse. An affair, or sexual consent, can only happen between two people of equal power. This is never the case between a minister and a congregant or church staffer. We hold our ministers in such high respect that there’s no possibility of meaningful consent to a sexual relationship. A minister cannot have an “affair” with a congregant. If he allows the relationship to become sexualized, he is guilty of a harmful abuse of power. Many victims lose their marriages, their health, their faith, or even their lives in the wake of a pastor’s abuse.

Two weeks later, FOTF’s Jeremy Hill responded on Daly’s behalf:

We appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts regarding our recent broadcast featuring Dave Carder… We could tell from what you wrote that you speak to the problem of clergy sexual abuse from personal experience, and we want to assure you that we would never wish to diminish the significance of this issue. At the same time, we feel we should explain that this broadcast wasn’t intended to explore the topic of abuse. Instead, Mr. Carder offered the story that opened this program simply as background in explaining what drives his encouragements for married couples to guard themselves against sexual infidelity. Furthermore, this radio show was excerpted from a presentation given by Mr. Carder to a broad Christian audience; it was not directed at members of a specific demographic.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Plenty. With help from the insightful Professor Stowman, I offer this translation. Here’s what Focus on the Family is really saying.

Thanks for writing, little lady! Since your perspective is jaundiced by your experience as a survivor, let me help you understand our work more objectively. We aren’t trying to diminish the importance of this issue. Instead, by consistently refusing offers from ministries like The Hope of Survivors, Tamar’s Voice, Advocate Web, and the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute to appear on the show, we flat-out deny that the problem exists at all.

It goes without saying that this broadcast wasn’t intended to explore the topic of clergy sexual abuse, because NONE of our broadcasts have ever explored this topic. We are confident that our “broad Christian audience” wouldn’t be interested. When we say we want to help couples guard against sexual infidelity, we aren’t talking about the couples whose marriages are threatened by predatory ministers, nor are we interested in helping inexperienced ministers understand the risk of transference and counter-transference in their counseling.

In short: don’t waste your breath trying to tell us anything. We don’t care, and we’re not listening.

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