Ministers Guilty of Sexual Sin: This Month’s Christian Chronicle

crying-preacher.jpgThis month’s Christian Chronicle has a fascinating article about how to deal with a minister caught in sexual sin. Now, until you’ve had to deal with this, you likely don’t appreciate how truly terrible these situations are. And while there are no statistics, I can say with some confidence the rate at which ministers get trapped by sexual sin is astonishingly high.

The article is based on interviews with Thomas Jackson and David Lane, authors of Low Motives in High Places: A Survivor’s Strategy for Wounded Healers. The article (available only to subscribers at the time of this posting at http://www.christianchronicle.org/pdf_archive/2009-06.pdf, pages 3 and 16) states,

The authors — who say they’ve done therapy with numerous individuals and congregations facing this issue — have discovered most churches are not at all prepared to deal with a minister’s affair. Often, the members’ pain and grief drive them to fire the man immediately. They prefer to give him a letter of recommendation — which helps to protect the church’s reputation in the community and allows him to be hired somewhere else — rather than try to restore him. “That kind of behavior is supposed to help people get past those hurt emotions and start healing,” Jackson said. “But it’s dysfunctional, and it doesn’t work. Churches need to heal holistically — the leader, the family, the victim and the church need to heal.”

In my experience, when ministers get caught in sexual sin, they are fired. However, in my experience, there’s no letter of recommendation, even if the minister offers an abject apology and declares profound repentance.

In their book, the authors say pushing a fallen leader along to the next church is no way to handle the problem. Healing for a fallen leader and restoring him to ministry must begin by requiring him to be accountable, thus recognizing and facing his sin. The church needs to help him experience guilt, shame, remorse, repentance and confession.

The authors suggest that the minister must enter into an accountability covenant with a five-person panel for three years. The panel consists of two peers, two senior ministers and a trained therapist. At the end of three years, the panel then issues a clearance letter to his congregation, acknowledging that he has participated in the counseling process and to the best of their knowledge repented and been cleared of any further accusations during that time. The clearance letter becomes the instrument he uses for future job interviews.

Now, this is interesting. I know it sounds more formalistic than the usual Church of Christ style. But there are obvious advantages —

* When the preacher’s sin is discovered, the word normally gets out. We are bad to gossip. Our ministers are bad to gossip about other ministers. (“I heard X was caught in adultery. Tell me all about it so I’ll know how best to pray for him.”)

* How does he get his reputation back?

* How does he overcome whatever problems led to the sin in the first place? Do we send him to a professional counselor and leave it at that? Do we feel confident the counselor understands the temptations of ministry?

* His marriage will be in serious trouble. How does he work through that? If he’s been fired and shamed, will his former elders be available to support him? If he leaves town or changes congregations, will the new church know how to help him and his family through the trauma?

* Who helps the congregation heal? They’ll be wounded by his betrayal of their trust. Worse yet, some in the church may refuse to accept the elders’ finding that the minister sinned sexually. Some will object to the firing, especially if the preacher denies that he committed adultery.

* At what point does the minister become available for hire again? How can a new church know that he’s overcome the sin?

* Who deals with the hurt to the other family — the one that the minister sinned against? It’s likely too much for an eldership to deal with the minister, the hiring of a new man, and helping the sinned against family. Even in a very large church, this will be overwhelming.

I’m not posting this to offer a complete set of answers. I’m not trained in counseling or therapy. I agree with the authors that the worst thing a church can do is sweep the problem under the rug, dumping the man on the next church. But is the suggestion quoted above a good one? I honestly don’t know.

Rather, I just want to introduce the problem, the proposed solution, and ask for input. (And, no, my church is not facing such a problem. But it could happen anywhere, any time.)

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5 Responses

  1. Sexual sin has tended to be the unforgivable sin in our brotherhood. I know a man who sinned 25 years ago, yet is still referred to by some as a man “with issues.” I still have hopes that we can grow in that respect.

    By the way, I think the Chronicle website merely requires registration, not a subscription. But I could be wrong.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. The sad truth is that many of those who condemn the loudest where sexual sin is concerned are just as guilty, they just didn’t get caught.

    In my view, sending the offending minister on with a letter of recommendation is just as sinful as the sexual misconduct. I hope none of those elders who have done such a thing have condemned the Catholic church for protecting child molesting priests.

    The truth is, ALL of us are sinful to one degree or another and unconditional love, forgiveness, and attempts to restore and heal are the way of Jesus. Not one of us has the right to pick up the first stone.

    Royce

  3. In cases like this, there are several different people or groups who need shepherding: the minister, the other party in the sin, the minister’s wife and family, and the congregation.

    To meet the minister’s spiritual needs, it makes no sense to send him off to find another congregation. Those who already know him best need to meet his needs.

    Likewise, those who know is family best need to meet their needs. They need love, acceptance, assurance, and guidance. Forgiveness and econciliation can be difficult for them. They may need professional counseling as much as the sinning minister does.

    Communicating to the church is a delicate issue. The sin may or may not already be publicly known, and that can affect what should be communicated. The sin may have been a single instance, or a short period of time, or it may have been habitual over a long period. That also can affect what is communicated to the church.

    In the most extreme cases (sexual preditor / child molestor etc) the safety of the church and its children may force elders to remove the sinning minister from the flock. Law enforcement and the news media can become involved. A good Christian lawyer may be needed.

    In all likelihood, the minister will have lost his moral authority in the church. For the sake of the church as well as that of the minister, he will probably need to step aside from his leadership duties while he rebuilds his own faith and works to regain trust. That creates a dilemma since the average congregation cannot simply add another minister’s salary on such short notice. In many cases it will be necessary for someone(s) not on paid staff to take on the minister’s responsibilities for a period of time.

    Aside from the church leadership question, meeting the minister’s spiritual needs requires essentially the same measures as meeting any other member’s spiritual needs. That means counseling and personal accountability over an extended period of time. There may be addictive behaviors, requiring significant intervention and accountability to overcome.

    It’s much better if that kind of situation can be avoided in the first place. Ministers and their wives cannot be permitted to become loners. They must be in close spiritual relationships where they know and are known, where they can safely share about any marital struggles they are experiencing. They must be willing to be held accountable for how and where they spend their time. They have a solemn responsibility for leading the church, and that comes with some additional accountability.

  4. Royce,
    What you say is very true. Back in the 60’s, a local minister tried to seduce my girlfriend when she went to counseling. He put his hand up her skirt. She was shocked, and told her dad, who was an elder in that same church.

    One night her dad called me on the phone and invited me over to have a discussion. I wondered what this was all about, as she and I had been chaste young lovers-nothing out of line. She certainly was a pure young woman. I got to the house, and the dad presented the problem. My girlfriend verified what had happened. The minister accused her of lying, and the minister’s wife asked why she looked so good! I then asked the minister is he wanted to leave through the door or the window (I was an immature young believer). I was then attacked for being her boyfriend. Then another man, who was a church deacon said that he had gone to visit my girlfriends mom at the hospital after she had surgery. The deacon then described the supposed offer of the mother (just after surgery!) to climb in bed with her. That was the last straw. The father of my girlfriend asked them to leave. All left except the wife of the minister, who said she would sleep on the couch until my girlfriend retracted her story. She stayed several weeks and only left after my girlfriend and her parents placed membership at another church. He resigned the eldership rather than face this pervert. That whole thing was a travesty. Then when I went to ACC, a friend of mine told me he had been propositioned by a popular preacher in Abilene, Texas. He then said he went to the head of the Bible Dept to discuss this, and the man told him that they knew about this, and it had happened several times. I did not believe my friend, so I went to the head of the Bible Dept and asked about my friend and the minister. The head of the Bible dept. verified everything my friend had said.
    Then just a few years ago, I made an aquaintance, who was a COC missionary in Yugoslavia years ago, and he said he is now an atheist. Part of the reason why is that when he was a missionary in Yugoslavia, one of the missionaries was into molesting young boys at Bible camps they led. My friend tried to do something about this, but nothing happened. No questions, no investigations. Later my friend and some others moved to Russia when they left the team. The missionary was still working in Eastern Europe and continued to molest boys.

    So the COC, like all denominations, has its share of perverts. That should be dealt with. In spite of the church autonomy, there should be a sexual offender list, like many states have, for the COC. Any minister convicted or confessed should be on this list. Elders should not pass along problems to other churches. Look at the Catholic church and the billions of dollars in damages they have to pay victims. I am surprised that no victim of COC clergy abuse has come forward yet to sue. Maybe they have, and it was quietly settled.
    Anyway, I do not think it is fair to have a thread like this and have a photo of Jimmy Swaggart at the top. He is not a member of the COC, and I genuinely hope and pray he has repented. He used to be a good preacher. If Jay wants to put a photo up, I am sure there is some COC fallen preacher he can do that with-but then he might get sued.

  5. Isn’t sending the offender on to another church what the Catholic Church was guilty of? It didn’t solve their problem or the priest’s problem. Gotta be a better way.

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