the Hope of Survivors

11 Reasons Why Pastors Should Never Date Their Parishioners—Erik Campano

Erik CampanoWhen, almost two years ago, I reported the pastor at my church to Episcopal authorities for sexual misconduct after a turbulent “relationship” which led to me attempting suicide, a lot of my friends and family didn’t understand what she had done wrong. I don’t blame them. Many people (including me, until last year) have never considered the question of whether it’s OK for a pastor to date a parishioner in his or her church. They sometimes think it’s a relationship between two consenting adults. It was even harder for the people around me to understand why my particular pastor’s behavior was improper, because the classic gender roles were reversed: I’m a man, and the minister is a woman. Nonetheless, she was trained in seminary not to make advances at parishioners, and denominational officials and various outside organizations all eventually said that she had violated the basic rules and ethics of ministry. So I’m writing this document to explain to my friends and family -- and the general public—why these rules are in place, and why, increasingly, observers of religion and sexual abuse awareness organizations say that pastor-parishioner relationships should be forbidden.

One more quick point: I’m not the kind of person who frequently tells people how they should behave in their sex lives. Unlike, perhaps, some of the readers of this article, I actively support full LGBTQ equality, and I do not believe that the only province of sexuality should be the marital relationship. Reasonable people disagree about these things. But you, and I, and everyone, universally agree that some classes of sexual behavior are simply not acceptable, like child molestation, or sexual assault. And pastors dating their parishioners—although seemingly more benign at first—actually fits into that category.

1. When you belong to a church, the ministers consult each other about what’s going on in your life—and this can create conflicts of interest if you’re dating one of them. In my case, when I grew increasingly frazzled by my relationship with my pastor, I couldn’t go to one of the other ministers and talk about it. They were either her bosses or her colleagues. This would be like dating your manager, and then going to the CEO of the company for relationship advice. So I couldn’t tell anyone in my church about the biggest problem in my life—and that’s what churches are there for, to help you with the biggest problems in your life.

2. Your emotions toward your church get mixed up with the emotions of your relationship. If you’re in crazy infatuation with your pastor, you might start feeling like your church is the greatest place in the world. If you fight with your pastor, you’re going to start hating your church. None of this is good for your spiritual life. If being part of a stable religious community is at all something that matters to you, then you don’t want to get on an emotional roller-coaster every time you walk down the aisle. This is particularly a problem if there’s only one church you can go to in your town—or, in my case, the was basically the only English-speaking Protestant congregation in Paris, and the theater of the misconduct.

3. No matter what you do, your pastor is going to have at least some charismatic power over you. It’s part of her or his job description. Ministers are, by definition, experts on God-related stuff. They get hired because they can capture the attention of their congregation. They do this by presenting themselves as having some kind of spiritual or supernatural sensitivity—they wear flowing robes, or bless the bread and wine, or explain Bible passages. If they didn’t do something like this, you wouldn’t be at their church. You could just go and pray with friends (which, by the way, is what Quakers do—they don’t have clergy, and their official name is “the Society of Friends). If you believe that someone has a special sensitivity about God, he or she is going to have power over you, because God is, by definition, all-powerful.

A lot of my non-religious friends particularly didn’t understand this point, so I’m going to put it another way. Think about titles: “Reverend” (from “revere”), “Monsignor” (“my lord”), or, in the Episcopal Church, “Father” or “Mother” (do I need to explain that one?). For a while I was dating someone whom convention would have me refer to as “Mother Strickland”.

Power differentials are never healthy in relationships—but we’ll get to that.

4. You’re going to be under huge amounts of pressure to keep the relationship secret. Pastors, like everyone else, don’t want to have their sex lives examined by their community. Especially if that community is paying their salary, and holds them up as a model of moral behavior. Everyone wants a little privacy. But when someone in a congregation finds out that a pastor and a parishioner are dating, the news is wildfire, and the questions never stop. It’s worse than being on the cover of the National Enquirer, because it’s your church that’s curious about your sex life, and they’re all spiritually invested in the pastor’s emotional stability. One of the few parishioners that found out about me and my pastor ended up giving me a 20-minute lecture on how I’d better treat her well, because she was currently an “integrated personality”, and we didn’t want that disturbed. (And because my pastor had told me not to tell anyone about the sexuality, I ended up having to discuss a “relationship” whose existence I was not allowed to acknowledge.) It stinks to keep secrets from the people you pray with, because then how on Earth can you pray in any meaningful way together, if you can’t talk about one of the most important things in your life?

Alternately, you can not keep things secret, but then...

5. Other parishioners are going to think that you’re getting special treatment from the pastor (and so might you). Jesus loves everyone equally, and so should a pastor. Ideally. But in fact, in my case, my pastor’s nickname for me was “Belovedest”. Now, our “relationship” was kept mostly a secret except from a sort of inner circle of clergy and lay leadership. (By the way, I keep on putting “relationship” in quotes because I don’t consider professional exploitation a relationship like we usually think of them. “Dating” doesn’t describe it perfectly, either.) But I’ve heard of a number of cases in which parishioners got madly jealous and sometimes overtly hostile toward the one who was dating the minister.

6. The pastor has a professional fiduciary duty toward you—like your doctor, psychologist, or teacher. So dating him or her is actually illegal in many places. Fiduciary isn’t a term that everyone knows, so let me explain: it comes from the Latin fide and means trust. Certain professionals are given trust with no questions asked. They, in turn, have heightened responsibilities toward their clients (students, parishioners). You automatically confide in these people with sensitive information for specific purposes, and in return, they do not use it for another goal—such as trying to develop sexual intimacy. The entire United States recognizes a legal fiduciary duty between doctors and patients and teachers and students, and 17 states (give or take a few, depending on how you count) now recognize a legal fiduciary duty in the pastor-parishioner relationship. Which makes dating your pastor breaking the law.

7. The pastor can learn about your deepest values and fears and dreams at an alarmingly fast rate—and it’s nearly impossible for him or her not to use that for manipulative ends if the two of you get sexually involved. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Pastors very frequently begin their interactions with new parishioners by sitting down, maybe over dinner, or in their office, or in my case over email, and letting the parishioner talk about their deepest secrets. That gives the minister power. In my situation, from the beginning I told my pastor about my fears about death, family problems, and troubles with my studies. And she would put all these secrets in a Biblical and theological perspective, and then pray for me, because that’s what pastors do, right? I wouldn’t have that conversation so quickly with just anyone. But I figured it was OK, because she was a minister.

But pastors can turn all that knowledge around very quickly to get you to feel as if you’re falling in love. They show compassion, worming their way deep into your inner life. If they combine that intimacy with sexual language and touching, it can seem as if you’ve met the person you’re going to marry. From the outside, I know, such a scenario might seem creepy, but when you’re on the inside, if the pastor grooms you slowly and subtly enough, you don’t necessarily notice the coercion. In my case, three months after these emails started, my pastor started sharing all kinds of stuff about her own personal life, as well as the complex political struggles behind the scenes at the church. We went for a boat ride, and by the time we docked, I think I knew everything there was to know about her family and career trajectory and why one of the other ministers was about to get fired (which I wasn’t allowed to repeat). I figured wow, we really click!, not realizing that my pastor was just equalizing the level of knowledge that she’d gained from me for free because of her profession. That’s extremely manipulative.

Mutual Consent8. Because of the power differential, you can’t give meaningful consent. And if you don’t give meaningful consent, well, that’s sexual assault. I know that’s a strong word, and I use it with a caveat. Some people argue that all pastor-parishioner relationships would constitute full sexual assault. I’m not quite sure that I would go that far; we may want to use the word assault to describe only physically forced violence. Nonetheless, these people make a good case. “Violence” comes from the word “violate”. You can violate a person’s physical integrity (you hit them over the head), and you can violate a person’s mental integrity (you engage in identity-theft). Irresponsible pastors start by violating the parishioner’s mental integrity—by using personal information to gain psychological power. The parishioner don’t necessarily know that it’s happening. That power is then used to gain sexual access. And getting sexual access through force—whether physical or psychological force—is a violation of physical integrity, and hence is a form of assault. That’s the argument for calling pastor-parishioner relationships sexual assault. Again, I’m not sure I fully buy it, but it’s worth stating. I also mention it because in my case, there was a physical incident which may have come dangerously close to sexual assault (or perhaps, indeed, was), under French law.

And in my case, my consent was also not meaningful because it wasn’t informed. My pastor never told me that a sexual misconduct policy even existed, or that there were inherent dangers in pastor-parishioner sexuality. How was I supposed to know that? I grew up Roman Catholic, where priests are officially celibate, and never thought about dating any of them. This American church in Paris was the first Protestant congregation I’d ever joined.

No. 8 is probably the hardest of the 10 reasons to grasp, because if you haven’t been gone through the process of being exploited by a professional (minister, or otherwise), it’s really hard to understand tangibly what being violated feels like, or how hellish it really is. Suffice it to say, a large percentage of us end up with clinical issues afterwards—everything from depression to PTSD to substance abuse to body image disorders. For me, it was depression and post-traumatic stress. The emotional responses to clergy sexual misconduct tend to be way disproportionate to a normal romantic “break-up”, and I think that intensity justifies ultimately calling all pastor-parishioner sexual relationships abuse—although that word is usually reserved for domestic violence and sexual activity with children. These latter two phenomena are absolutely horrible—but so is adult exploitation.

9. You should report the rule breach if you can—and church officials aren’t going to like you for it. Religious leaders are notorious for covering up sexual misconduct. I’ve never come across a denomination that handles it correctly. They pay off victims to keep silent or threaten her or him with lawsuits, they shuffle the pastor to another parish, they lie about what happened. Go ahead and google “church sexual exploitation cover-up”—the stories are astounding. In my case, first the bishops ignored me, then they re-ordained her a priest, then they strung us both along a kangaroo court of a disciplinary process, which didn’t end until I took the story public in the New York Post. And then they had their lawyer bully the Post into misreporting the story. Then they de facto kicked me out of the diocese. It was crazy. And the pastor never apologized or even said anything, ever, publicly or to me about the case, despite the fact that denominational officials themselves called it sexual misconduct. For all I know, she may be trying to date other parishioners.

10. If you report it, lots and lots of people will probably blame you. Like nearly everyone who reports sexual assault, rape, abuse, harassment, exploitation, and so forth, people will start asking you what you did to bring it about. You know: “Were you dressing provocatively?” “Didn’t you have relationship issues in the past?” “Isn’t this just revenge?” I can no longer count how many conversations I had in which people close to me tried to dissect what was wrong in my life, such that I ended up attempting suicide after a relationship with a smart and pretty pastor.

I could go on about this, but victim-blaming is a well-known phenomenon. It can do even worse damage than the original misconduct. Thankfully, there are organizations that come to the aid of sexual misconduct victims; they were my only line of support at some moments.

By the way, if you don’t report it, which is understandable, given how people react, they’ll wonder why you’ve become profoundly depressed/anxious/angry/whatever, and you won’t be able to explain why, which is itself a profoundly alienating experience.

11. Your spiritual life is at risk of being destroyed. If your “relationship” sours—and it probably will—so might your ability to practice your faith tradition. All the horrible emotions that accompany assault and victim-blaming may very well get attached to the religious context in which they occurred. And you may end up getting nauseous every time you see a church, or hear a hymn, or even just think about God.

This is pretty similar to reason 2, but it’s really the worst consequence, and bears repeating. If you’re a religious person, nothing induces greater despair than suddenly being unable to feel the love that comes with a healthy spiritual life. For a year, it seemed like God was torturing me. I finally was able to go back to church, and was recovering spiritually, until a bishop pulled me into his office, prayed, scolded me, and banned me from diocesan events because I’d gone public with my story. That was January 18, 2013, and I haven’t prayed since. My year-long suicidal depression has since lifted, and I’m happy again, but I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy the pain I went through after I started dating my pastor.

A few last points.

  • The definition of parishioner is sometimes tough. If you go to a church just once, are you a parishioner? Once a month? Every Sunday? In my case, I was there multiple times a week, so it was clear. I don’t have a final definition for you of parishioner, but the best advice is to err on the side of caution. The grooming process can start really quickly. So if you think of a person as a pastor in any meaningful way, then don’t date them.

  • I’ve clearly written this article from a Christian point of view. But the dynamics really apply to other faith traditions as well. Any kind of religious leader—rabbi, imam, Buddhist monk, guru, even a seemingly non-religious New Age spiritual figure—can develop an unhealthy sexual relationship with a follower.

  • Society has evolving standards of decency on this whole issue. In the old days, in Protestant churches, male pastors would “pluck” a woman (or sometimes girl) from their congregation to marry. It was even considered an honor to be that woman. Some people think that it’s still OK, and it is indeed true that some pastor-parishioner marriages work out. But it’s a very risky business. Researchers are becoming more and more aware of the incredible frequency of sexual abuse within churches, and the trauma it induces in victims. So if you’re a clergy member who feels that you a) must be dating someone and b) will only date someone from your denomination, then don’t take a job in a town in which your specific church is the only one to choose from. Or better yet: date another pastor.
The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18