“Affair”? “Adultery”? No! When Pastors Do It, It’s ABUSE.
Is clergy sexual misconduct primarily about sex? No — it’s primarily about power. CSM happens when a pastor exploits his or her power over a congregant. But most Christian leaders focus on sex, and assign equal or greater blame to the victim. Take the parachurch ministry Focus on the Family. FOTF recently re-aired an interview between their president, Jim Daly, and “affair recovery and prevention expert” Dave Carder. (You can listen here and here.)
Dave begins with a lurid story of his respected senior pastor “running off” with a woman from his congregation. Shaken to the core by this betrayal, Carder ended up charting a new career. For the past 30 years he has tried to understand what causes marital infidelity.
Unfortunately, he makes no distinction between a genuine affair (marital infidelity involving two people of equal power) and the exploitation of a vulnerable congregant by a pastor. When Carder surveyed 4000 ministers, he found that 21% had been “sexually indiscreet.” What a euphemism! The words make a dangerous abuse of power seem like a parlor game.
Thankfully, FOTF has sharp listeners like Professor Geraldine Stowman of Minnesota State University Moorhead. After hearing these programs, Stowman composed an Open Letter to FOTF President Jim Daly. She has allowed me to share her letter here. She says, “I think he needs to hear from survivors,” and I agree. If you feel moved to contact President Daly, you can reach him at Ofcpres@fotf.org.
Here is Geraldine Stowman’s letter.
An open letter to Jim Daly, President, Focus on the Family
If Focus on the Family were serious about helping clergy “guard against inappropriate intimacy,” you and your broadcast experts would stop putting pastors who make sexual contact with congregants in the same category as Christians who commit adultery with peers (FOTF broadcasts on April 14 and 15, 2015, “Friendship or Flirtation? Danger Signs for Couples.”)
While Dr. Dave Carder’s advice about “Friendship or Flirtation” could be helpful in peer friendships, it is harmful and misleading to characterize pastoral sexual contact with congregants as “affairs,” as Dr. Carder did in his lead anecdote about his former senior pastor “who ran off with another woman in my church.” The same characterization occurred when you, Dr. Daly, linked the discussion of “affairs” to the 21 percent of clergy surveyed that admitted being “sexually indiscreet.”
In at least 13 states and the District of Columbia, it is a felony for clergy to have sexual contact with anyone to whom they are offering “comfort, aid or spiritual advice in private.” In some states, this does not have to be a “formal” counseling relationship, and consent is not a defense. Clergy who meet regularly with congregants — perhaps before church or after choir practice — to privately discuss emotional or personal concerns are bound by the same laws as psychotherapists.
Why are states moving to criminalize clergy sexual contact with adult congregants? Because churches (and mega-ministries) are not holding pastors responsible for the damage they inflict on people under their care. Clergy are “helping professionals” similar to doctors and therapists. When they step out of their helping role to enter a sexual relationship with a congregant, they inflict psychological and spiritual harm, committing what Dr. Mark Laaser, a former clergy-offender, calls “authority rape.”
The harm to congregants can occur regardless of whether the pastor is a serial predator or a first-time offender who was “blindsided” by his attraction to someone under his care. Properly trained clergy know that emotions — positive and negative — often emerge in counseling relationships, and they have procedures in place to help them debrief. If they have not been trained to deal with those emotions, they should not be offering “comfort, aid or spiritual advice in private.” And if they’re one of the 37 percent of clergy surveyed by “Christianity Today” who describe Internet pornography as a “current struggle,” they should not offer private counsel to anyone.
As Christians, we have a biblical mandate to honor our elders, especially those who are preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). That mandate also heightens the influence preachers have over their congregations. Clergy must recognize that the honor bestowed on their role can push congregants to do things they would not otherwise do. Sadly, pastors who abandon their roles as spiritual leaders to have sexual contact with congregants are not just abusing the congregant. They are abusing Jesus Christ, his church, and every individual who has looked to him or her as a spiritual leader.
Scripture charges us to hold our teachers more accountable (James 3:1) and to publicly reprove them as a warning to others (1 Timothy 5:20). If a pastor sexually abuses a minor, does the church reprove him by saying he had “an affair”? If an elder rapes his daughter, does the church ask him to step down for “adultery”?
If Focus on the Family, Dr. Carder, and you are serious about wanting to save clergy from being “blindsided” by moral failure, you need to stop labeling these betrayals as “affairs.” Clergy have instant, intimate access to people in their congregations, particularly those going through crises, and they have a sacred duty to protect that trust—always!
After Dr. Diana Garland, Dean of Social Work at Baylor University, finished her national survey on clergy sexual misconduct in 2009, an interviewer from National Public Radio asked her, “What would stop this?”
Garland answered, “Education is the way, and I think this begins with (all) of us, to start using language that describes what’s happened. When a religious leader has a sexual relationship with a congregant, it’s not an affair. It’s abuse of power, power that we have all given a leader as a community. So changing our language would be an important way for us to begin to have these conversations, then, about how we can protect both our leaders and our congregants.”
Geraldine Stowman, Adjunct Faculty
School of Communication and Journalism
Minnesota State University Moorhead