the Hope of Survivors

Moral vs. Professional Violation—Sandy Kirkham

Pastor & BibleSociety universally accepts that when a doctor or therapist has any kind of sexual relationship with a patient, it is a misuse of his or her power and position. It is understood the doctor has taken advantage of their position to exploit someone under their care. The result of breaking this trust is removal from his or her profession and, when appropriate, criminal action is taken. By their own actions, they have lost privilege and trust.

Sadly, this same standard, more often than not, is not applied to a pastor committing sexual misconduct. Removal for a period of time and returning to ministry is far too often the case, if he is removed at all. Church leadership, failing to see the professional violation, focuses only on the moral failing of the pastor. When a pastor engages in sexual misconduct with a member of his congregation, it is a moral failing, but when that relationship occurs within the pastor/congregant relationship, it becomes a professional violation as well. 

Often the church responds to the offending pastor by relying on the teachings of the scripture of forgiveness; judge not lest ye be judged; we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; he who is without sin let him cast the first stone; and repentance. A repentant pastor may be forgiven by the church, but forgiveness is not a pass to ignore the ethical and professional violation committed. The goal of restoration and forgiveness should be to restore that pastor to Christ, but not to his job. The church treasurer found guilty of stealing from the church funds may be forgiven, but it is highly unlikely he will be returned to his position.

The very heart of Christianity is based on forgiveness. Christ died so that we may be forgiven for our sins. A pastor who has committed sexual abuse and misconduct and who has demonstrated repentance can be forgiven. He deserves all the love and grace God gives to all of us, but that love and grace should be provided as he sits in the 3rd pew of the church, not as he stands in the pulpit.

Anytime one assumes the role of helping another individual, whether it is a counselor, teacher, doctor, social worker or pastor, he or she takes an oath to abide by a code of standards and code of ethics. We hold a professional to a higher standard because of the power and influence they have over the lives of those under their care. We require these higher standards because the pain and devastation are greater when exploited by a trusted professional. James 3:1 makes this clear, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgement.” When that trust is broken by an act of sexual misconduct, removal from the profession is not only required, but is appropriate and biblical. Removal is not just about punishment. Removal from the profession is to protect and maintain the integrity and confidence we place in those we trust to have our best interests at heart.

“Errant clergy are, of course, recipients of God’s love, redemption and forgiveness. Removing pastors who exhibit bad behavior and offering redeeming love and pastoral support are not mutually exclusive.” M. Garlinda Burton from When Pastors Prey, Valli Boobal Batchelor, Editor

Sandy Phillips Kirkham is a long-term volunteer with THOS. She has just written a book about her own experience with clergy abuse. You can learn more about her on her Facebook page, Sandy Phillips Kirkham-author.

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