the Hope of Survivors

How Should the Church Respond?

When a pastor has violated his sacred trust by taking advantage of a congregant, the church often wonders what to do and how to respond. Unfortunately, all too often, the church does not respond in a manner that is helpful to either the victim or the pastor. Below are some suggested guidelines to be adopted in order to help facilitate healing for all.

1. Recognize that the pastor has violated his sacred authority and trust. This must be understood in order to prevent blaming the victim and re-victimizing her. Women who have been sexually abused by their pastors feel betrayed, not only by the pastor and the church, but by God. The pastor is the one she looked to for spiritual guidance and direction. If he led her in the wrong direction, claiming that it was God’s will for them to be together (or whatever else he may be trying to get her to do), she may have perceived it as God leading her in a wrong direction (or a direction she hitherto believed to be wrong) and become very confused. If she cannot trust God, what can she do?

2. Take responsibility for the situation. A pastor who has sinned in this regard has proven that he is no longer capable of performing the sacred duties pertaining to a minister of the Gospel. Adultery is a violation of the 7th Commandment. It must never be permitted in a pastor—a man who stands in the pulpit as a representative of Christ. It is shameful!

3. Talk to the victim and her family. Have compassion for her and her family. Listen to her; find out how to bring about spiritual, emotional and physical healing. What are her emotional and financial needs? Does she need counseling? Does her family need counseling? Setting up a once weekly counseling session for a period of one year (at no cost to her) should help the victim to see that her needs are being addressed. We mention financial needs as most victims, at some point during or after the abuse, incur financial loss and sometimes a total devastation. This type of abuse is so emotionally devastating that some women (and even their husbands) may be unable to perform in their jobs for quite some time during and after the abuse. The church has a responsibility to assist the victim in getting back on her feet financially, if this is the case.

4. One of the most important things to a victim is to be heard, understood, comforted and believed. She did not make this up.* She feels horrible about it and most likely feels she, alone, is to blame.

* On rare occasions, there are some women who lie in order to destroy a high-profile pastor. The key point here is that it is rare, very rare.

5. The church, as a whole, cannot afford to go into denial about this crisis. Covering it up, moving the pastor to another church, turning against the victim are all improper and detrimental ways to handle this situation. The church should not be concerned about avoiding liability and financial loss. This hurts everyone and only prolongs the healing process for all. Most victims would never think to file a suit against the church if they were treated with respect and dignity, listened to and comforted. Most women in these situations do not wish to bring harm to the church, their pastor, his family or anyone else. The main reason lawsuits are filed is because no one within the church hierarchy or congregation would listen or take appropriate action. Lawsuits are virtually always a victim’s last resort in order to be heard and helped to heal. As a church, as children of God, we are to be concerned about souls, not financial loss.

In some states, it is a criminal offense for a pastor to have a “relationship” with a congregant. It is ususally possible for a civil suit to be filed against the pastor and/or the church, even if a criminal suit is not an available option. (The Hope of Survivors does not give advice one way or another regarding legal issues because they can be far too complicated and very damaging at times to the victims. We are aware of several women at this time who are in civil suits with their former abusive pastors, and it has been very hard on them emotionally, physically, financially and spiritually. At the same time, we recognize and empathize with the individual’s need to see her pastor stop abusing herself and others. Whether a lawsuit is filed or not, it is always right for the pastor to be held accountable for his actions.)

6. Recognize the responsibility to the victim, the congregation, the pastor, the pastor’s wife (and family) and the community. (Responsibility to the victim has been addressed above.)

A. The church’s responsibility to the congregation:

i. Inform the congregation of what really happened. This can be done tactfully and without intimate details. Full disclosure is important. The congregation should be educated to the fact that this was NOT an “affair” or a “consensual relationship” but, rather, it was an abuse of power. The pastor is not “just a man.” The pastor is responsible in ALL cases for maintaining appropriate boundaries and behaviors toward a congregant/counselee.

ii. In the confusion of this “relationship,” the marriage vows (both of the pastor and the victim, if married) were violated and overlooked. The pastor took a solemn vow before God to be faithful to his wife, to God and to the church, and to help those in his flock to uphold their own marriage vows. As a shepherd of God’s flock, his responsibility to remain faithful in his commitments is much higher.

iii. Don’t just practice “damage control” and try to think of “the least we can get away with and move on.” This will never be helpful to anyone. Try to foster an environment of acceptance (not tolerance!), compassion, love and understanding.

B. The church’s responsibility to the pastor and his family:

i. The church has the responsibility to relieve the offending pastor of his sacred office immediately. If he is not repentant, steps should be taken to disfellowship him. Some may ask why the victim is allowed to remain in the church while the pastor is not. The answer is this: the church needs to understand that this is abuse; each member needs to recognize their responsibility and their accountability to God and to their spouse (10 Commandments, Phil 4:13); acknowledge that God requires fidelity to His commandments at all times; the victim was never in the position of authority, as was the pastor; the victim did not come to church thinking, “I’m going to destroy this pastor.” On the other hand, the pastor is the one who often speculates and fantasizes about different scenarios with different congregants.

ii. The church should make provision to assist the pastor and his family in getting proper counseling, and provide the opportunity for them to heal spiritually and emotionally. Does the wife have someone she can talk to regarding her husband’s behavior? If he is struggling with pornography or masturbation, he will most likely act out this sexual behavior eventually, given the right opportunity. At all times, the pastor and his family need to be addressed tactfully, in love and with compassion. Efforts should be made to restore an offending pastor to the church (not his position) when the genuine fruits of repentance are manifested in his life.

C. The church’s responsibility to the community:

i. If the actions were public or made public, it should be addressed publicly, with the church offering its regrets and informing the community of the steps it has taken to correct the problem. There are lessons we all could learn from the Tylenol story.

ii. If the situation is not known publicly (meaning outside of the church), then don’t “air the church’s dirty laundry” and bring shame and reproach on the cause of God. Handle the situation truthfully and tactfully within the proper organizational structure.

If someone within the church (local congregation, conference, any governing body) is aware of the pastor’s struggle with pornography or masturbation (or any other sexual sin), they should monitor his behavior very closely. Again, given the right circumstances, he will most likely act out sexually with another. If the pastor has a history of abuse and has been moved from church to church, the church (the governing body that was aware of the abuse) is responsible.

What the church members at large, or the community (if the community was already aware of the problem), do not know is left to speculation, rumors and gossip. This only creates division within the church and does further damage to the victim. Clarification kills gossip!

To summarize what Marie M. Fortune wrote in her book, Is Nothing Sacred?, the proper steps to take when implementing justice and mercy (based on Micah 6:8) include:

1. Truth-telling (breaking the silence of the abuse)

2. Acknowledging the violation (in hearing the truth, the church acknowledges the violation)

3. Compassion (means to “suffer with,” to be present, acknowledge and listen, even when you can’t solve the problem)

4. Protecting the vulnerable (prevent further harm)

5. Accountability (based on Luke 17:1-4, it begins with confrontation and should end in repentance)

6. Restitution (making payment for damages is a concrete means of renewing right-relation)

7. Vindication (for the victim, it most often means exoneration and justification)

The bottom line: TAKE RESPONSIBILITY–DON’T HIDE!

The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18