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.”

Comments on: "Can Offenders Return to Ministry?" (7)

  1. I don’t believe they can return to ministry. If a teacher has sex with a student (even an 18 year old senior) are they ever allowed to teach again? No they’re stripped of their teaching abilities. So why do we allow pastors to return when they’re not only teachers but often have a much strong relationship with their victims? They’ve shown they can’t be trusted in that position working with vulnerable populations.

  2. Mary Ramsay said:

    I am still wounded by a Counceling “relationship” with my Episcopal priest. At the time I was barely working poor, abandoned by my husband with two children under the age of 5. I was in crisis and everyone said “talk to Rev S.”
    I was not yet educated and assumed he knew something about “Counseling”.
    The harm and damage that sexual “relationship” did me was indescribable.
    NO, no minister should be allowed back into that role by any church.

  3. I don’t feel an offending pastor can ever fully execute his duties as a pastor, therefore no. Counseling and comfort are primary roles in most ministries and I believe any congregant needing these services would be like sheep sent to slaughter.

  4. John MacArthur’s article resonates as the most Christ-honoring. I noticed in one of the comments on his post that a woman rightly stated,

    “Excellent article, but I agree, we need to stop calling what these men do as an affair. It is an abuse of power and should be referred to as sexual misconduct. It is a professional and ethical violation, not an affair.
    The goal of restoration should be to restore these men back to Christ, not back to the pulpit. I was sexually abused at age 16 by a ‘”restored pastor”. I was not his first victim nor his last. These men deserve all the love and grace God gives to all of us, but that love and grace should be extended to them sitting in the 3rd pew of the church , not standing in the pulpit. They have used their position and trust given to them to prey upon one of the flock in God’s sheep. I have forgiven my abuser but the church should never return him to ministry. It is by their own actions they have lost that privilege. Sadly my abuser remains in the ministry.”

    She summed up very well what the issue is. Man’s so-called “restorative measures” are just that … they are man-made ideals. Why can’t we just humbly honor the Scriptures and realize that sexual sins by leadership are just that, SINS … not affairs or what some have called “playing out their fantasies.”
    If those in leadership know that each time they sin all they will have to do is attend a couple of sessions of “restoration therapy” …. well, that’s not much of a detriment from them sinning again and again and …
    What is very dangerous to the sinning individuals is it proves that they DO NOT have a healthy “fear of the Lord”. Church is not suppose to be “an old boys club” which has usually had derogatory connotations.
    Whew … I apologize for being so long-winded.

  5. Wow! I appreciate your humility and insight, Catherine, in recognizing your own potential for bias. There is so much hard-earned wisdom in everyone’s comments. I think here are two considerations. I like what healinginhim said about brief “restoration therapy,” especially when it is conducted by the clergy person’s supervisor. That, in and of itself, is an impossible dual relationship. The supervisor cannot be an effective counselor, even with a degree in counseling; a counselor cannot both counsel and supervise. If this is the “solution” it shows that those who came up with this plan don’t even see the parallel of dual relationships in themselves.

    More clearly, it is never “just an affair” between clergy person and congregant. It can never be restorative or therapy for a clergy person’s supervisor to provide a few sessions of counseling. It’s the wrong role in each case. How ironic that the same error is repeated.

    There may, however, be the occasional very rare event. The ONLY example I can imagine might be when a young, unmarried clergy person begins to date a congregant and does not recognize this as a power imbalance. The only safe and healthy way to manage this is to put the relationship on hold until the clergy person moves to another church. Notice I did not say congregant; the congregant should not be pushed out of his or her own church. That in and of itself is a power move, forcing the victim into “church exile” and isolation. The pastor should report the developing relationship to his or her supervisor and the situation should be closely monitored by a supervisor to the pastor, an accountability partner/peer, and a counselor. All three distinct roles played by three different skilled and experienced people are necessary. Even then, several years in a non-pastoral role (e.g. working for church administrative offices or programmatic areas) and a gradual, monitored return to church ministry may be wise.

    If this was a one-time event, and we have to be VERY SURE about this, it MAY be possible to for the abuser to return to ministry. All of the conditions (counseling, accepting responsibility, prolonged supervision, etc.) would have to come into play.

    This situation is not even recognized as a power imbalance, so I doubt it would ever occur.

    More likely, if such a situation between unmarried congregant and clergy is not handled well (see above), or it involves violation of marriage vows of either party, or if the clergy person overtly uses the pastoral role, my answer would be probably never. I think it is important to look for behavior patterns that suggest testing the limits and pushing boundaries, even if they do not result in overt abuse. Just because a potential victim’s boundaries held firm does not mean that the perpetrator was guiltless. A potential robbery thwarted by a locked door and a security system does not mean there was no thief hiding in the bushes.

    If this is a pattern, then the offending clergy person would better be called a serial perpetrator. In this case, I would say he or she could return to ministry after hell freezes over. NEVER. The urge to offend is too deep and the potential harm is too great. And of course, if it moves into criminal behavior (rape, sex with minors, etc.), the perpetrator should be, as my daughter said about her own father/clergy person/perpetrator “Put UNDER the prison.”

    Since the church can’t seem to respond appropriately, I think the next step is to hold clergy to the same standards as teachers, doctors, counselors, and every other helping profession. I don’t mean just within their professional organizations’ code of ethics; I mean secular law. Such behavior is illegal in my state for all these professions, but not for the clergy. Laws won’t stop the perpetrators, but it will make the organizational church take notice and act to stop this to prevent potential financial damage and embarrassment.

    Real accountability for the organizational church could help restore it.

  6. Catholic priests, moms and nuns, or those of any faith whose religious promise celibacy may be even more dangerous to victims. Even a so-called dating relationship requires a deeper level of concern. I imagine an adult victim’s shock at an advance from a supposedly celibate person must be as unimaginable as that as a child who receives an advance from an adult. It should not even be in the realm of possibility; no wonder they are doubly caught off guard. Also, even if all involved are unmarried adults, a vow just as serious as that of marriage has been broken by the priest, monk, or nun, and a priest or monk or nun needs to consider whether he or she might need to leave this role. Any thoughts on this?

    I use gender neutral language because male authority figures can target men as well as women, and although less common, female authority figures can target either gender. Since it’s about power, not sex, it can be towards anyone. Women are just more often perceived to be vulnerable.

  7. Wow. I just found this blog. Your last sentence “And if we can’t say ‘no,’ there’s no way we can ever give a meaningful ‘yes'” has done a lot to reinforce the ideas I’ve learned in therapy for many years. Thank you for your openness, courage, and commitment to the truth. I am grateful for your strength. Be well!

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