the Hope of Survivors

Dating in the Parish—Attitudes, Ethics and Church Law—Darryl W. Stephens

(From the April 2013 edition of HopeSpeak)

Should pastors date parishioners?

In past generations, the answer was a resounding “yes!” What better place than the church for finding a suitable pastor’s wife? (And pastors were almost always men). Today, this question presents an ethical dilemma.

More than 34% of U.S. United Methodist clergy believe “it is morally OK for a single pastor to date one of his/her parishioners,” according to a survey of more than 1,200 clergy conducted by the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women during the past two years.

Since 1996, the denomination’s General Conference has identified the situation of a pastor engaging “in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with a congregant” as sexual abuse (“Sexual Misconduct within Ministerial Relationships,” The Book of Resolutions 2008, pp. 134-5).

Our understanding of appropriate boundaries in ministry has changed dramatically in the past 25 years. What was once considered an amorous relationship between two consenting adults is now understood to be an abuse of power.

Recently, the church’s nine-member “supreme court,” called the Judicial Council, affirmed this understanding in a concurring opinion to Decision 1228.

Dating, romantic or sexual relationships between clergy and their parishioners “are never appropriate because of imbalance of power,” Council members asserted.

Annual conference polices are not consistent on the issue. Some conferences ban clergy from dating within the parish under any circumstances. Other conferences discourage but allow the practice, with certain safeguards in place. Many conference sexual ethics policies are simply silent about clergy dating. See more on guidelines on writing sexual misconduct policies.

Clearly, a zero-tolerance policy does not reflect current attitudes of clergy and Cabinet members. In another survey of 200 U.S. district superintendents, GCSRW learned that 29% believe “it is morally OK for a single pastor to date one of his/her parishioners.” It is clear that the persons receiving, investigating and, in many cases, resolving sexual misconduct complaints are not of one mind on this issue.

The United Methodist Church must engage in a frank discussion about the morality of clergy dating within the parish. How is this behavior similar to or different from breaches of fiduciary duty by other professionals, such as lawyers, doctors, teachers and social workers? Who is put at risk when clergy date within the congregation?

Darryl W. Stephens is assistant general secretary for sexual ethics for General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW).

Reprinted with permission. Source:

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