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Updated: Mar 28

I have a question.

Just exactly how many scandals will it take to convince the church that clergy sexual misconduct is systemic? How long does the list of names have to get before we connect the dots!? I’m so tired of hearing about the latest church leader downfall and witnessing no meaningful response. This problem is not "somewhere out there" in some other church: the word "systemic" means this problem is likely already festering in your own church right now. I know this is true, not only because of the statistics, but because I've been a counselor in church and parachurch settings for fifteen years now and witnessed the problem firsthand. The only times I've had to call DCFS in my fifteen years were because of abusive situations in churches. As the person who often hears and holds their stories, I know victims/survivors of abuse are everywhere…in big churches and in small ones...and sadly, the response they're observing from us is far too little and far too late. But maybe that’s because we simply don’t know how to respond? So, with that possibility in mind, I’m writing on their behalf. We can do better.

First, we need to understand an important difference between pastors and therapists. Their jobs are similar in many ways: not only are they both helping professions, but they are the type of intense helping professions which come with a high risk of professional burnout. They also both work in intimate settings with people, and when surveyed, the majority of them admit to experiencing times of sexual attraction to those they serve. Not surprising, right? But when surveyed about sexual misconduct, the statistics start to get interesting: from the limited statistics we have, it seems that (male) pastors seem to offend at much higher rates than (male) counselors. In one shocking survey I read, 37% of Protestant pastors self-reported about engaging in sexual misconduct with their congregants, while male counselors seem to hover around a 9% rate and female counselors around a 2% rate (though more, better, and newer research is needed and the prevalence can certainly be difficult to diagnose: for more on that, see this article.) So yes, there are bad apples everywhere--we’ve seen them at every level of society, in every profession via #metoo--but there are also bad structures. And these statistics suggest that the church is guilty of bad structures, not bad apples. They also suggest that therapists have created a professional culture that is doing something right. So what are therapists doing differently? Here are the key disparities I see between these two professional cultures and the practical steps I hope the church will take in the right direction:

1) Let's talk about sex. As a therapist, I was specifically trained to talk about sex in a healthy, open, and positive manner—because creating safe space for my clients to discuss sexual issues is an important part of my job. Sexual attraction between counselors and clients is a widely normalized topic frequently discussed in supervision and continuing education classes. Unfortunately, the Church only rarely talks about sex or talks about it in unhelpful ways. Pastors/staff often default to the harmful methods of "purity culture" or the "Billy Graham rule" as fear-based, one-size-fits-all strategies. I suggest hiring licensed professionals who will train your church leaders in the area of sexuality and sexual ethics annually. In many places, including my state of Illinois, yearly training on sexual harassment is a bare minimum legal requirement. The question is, does your church leadership intentionally create space for learning about human sexuality? Not only do you need to be compliant with the law, but maybe get some book recommendations from licensed therapists on the subject and work through them as a team? Maybe invite the therapist to come speak with your group and facilitate discussion? Growing in competency can help the Church feel more confident to open up conversations about sexual issues which may seem taboo.

2) Make counseling non-negotiable. Require your leaders to work through their own stuff in counseling—their own trauma, shame, and misinformation about sex, yes, but the other stuff too: unhealed emotional wounds, marriage and family stress, mental health concerns, spiritual crises, ongoing addictions, or unique pressures of their job. Counselors are generally expected to seek their own counseling—I would not trust a counselor who had not been to counseling--and maybe we should create this norm for pastors/staff/elders too? We’re still fighting the stigma battle in the mental health world, but I’m here to tell you that HEALTHY PEOPLE GO TO COUNSELING. Therapy is an emotionally mature life decision. You go to the doctor for your physical health, you go to the dentist for your oral health, you have pastors or mentors for your spiritual health…who are the professionals caring for your emotional and mental health? And yes, access to counseling is a real problem, meaning counseling may not be available or affordable. Keep looking, don’t give up! There are free hotlines, online support groups, therapists who offer sliding scale fees, and widespread telehealth options now—perhaps your church will even put counseling in the budget? Finding the right counselor may take time and effort, just like finding the right doctor takes time and effort...but we do this because it's worth it.

3) Time for a systems check. Regardless of the size of your congregation, you need a system for reporting abuse. Some simple questions to discuss with your leaders: if someone was abused and needed help in your church, where would they turn? If the problem was with leadership, where would this person go? Would they be listened to? What obstacles might they encounter? How can we reduce or remove those obstacles? We know that the vast majority of sexual misconduct cases go unreported, so we desperately and immediately need to take action on behalf of the vulnerable. When the report on widespread sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches came out in 2019, they estimated the number of victims was 700; but from what we know about how rarely women report (about 5-15% of events are reported), the true number of victims is considerably larger. Women do not feel safe reporting for a variety of reasons: get to know those reasons and then start removing those obstacles in your context. We may not be able to totally prevent abuse, but how can we make reporting feel safer? Take a hard look at your operations. How are elders and other leaders chosen? How does an older minister transition out, making way for a new minister? Who disciplines the people at the top--who holds them accountable--is it a group of their best friends? How do we guard against the human tendency towards nepotism (when those with power/influence favor relatives or friends, often by giving them positions of power)? Who mentors who? Who evaluates who? What are the term lengths for our leaders--when do they get a break? How are the people at the bottom of the hierarchy heard--how can we intentionally listen better? There are many ways to decentralize power. We are talking about power because power and sexual abuse are inseparable topics: the church has a massive sexual abuse problem precisely because the church has a hierarchy problem. For the sake of the vulnerable, we cannot keep leaving people alone at the top and ignoring the voices at the bottom!

4) Refocus on ethics. Therapists have developed a “high ethics” culture. In all my years, I’ve yet to attend a single “Continuing Education” course that lacked a lengthy ethics discussion. Almost every single supervision meeting I attended included readings and discussion from the ACA or APA codes of ethics. If the church wants to build a more ethical culture, then the church must devote more time and space to ethics! Here's some ideas off the top of my head. Have your leadership jointly draft an ethics document that includes expectations for behavior/accountability from staff...and whatever your expectations are, they must go beyond the common intervention of the pastor having an outside “accountability partner” whom he may or may not use to check in with an ongoing pornography struggle. This is a great step, but we must do more. Create an “ethics minute” at your staff or elder meetings to review your document so that it becomes a constant part of the conversation. You could also take turns bringing a hypothetical "sticky situation" ethical case to the table to discuss, just as most counselors participate in routine case consultation for difficult cases. And if you’re struggling with an ethical problem, you don't need to have all the answers, you can always invite outside church consulting groups or ethical professionals to give you an objective take--do you have these contacts on hand for emergencies?

5) Increase ordination accountability. Therapists not only abide by a high standard of ethics, but we legally enforce our standards. Our license numbers are out in the public—our licensing boards and professional organizations all have a complaint process—and if you are found guilty of sexual misconduct as a counselor, then you risk your LICENSE BEING REMOVED. As in, you not only lose your job and relationships…but you lose your entire ability to practice. There are similar processes for most other State-licensed professionals. It is one thing to talk about boundaries, but it’s another thing to actually enforce them. So what happens if a pastor is found guilty of “moral failure” as churches like to put it? Yes, they can be removed from their church and sometimes they are—but more times than not, they just hop right back into ministry! I personally know a minister who abused several congregants, lost his marriage, wreaked emotional havoc on his church, and was IMMEDIATELY HIRED BY ANOTHER CHURCH RIGHT DOWN THE ROAD. I can't count how many times ministers who have offended end up with book deals later! I could never imagine this happening in the therapy world--where a therapist slept with a client and lost their license...and then got a book deal to talk about it! That would be the height of ridiculousness. And yet it seems to happen regularly in the church world. Ordination is one area we can explore to help enforce ethical standards. How does a person become ordained in your church? Is there a process? Are their requirements? Is one of those requirements training in sexual ethics? And how does discipline work? Can a previously ordained person have their ordination revoked--if so, how does that happen? Or is it possible that the offending pastor be fully restored to ministry instead of “canceled”—if so, what does that process look like? And how many churches actually keep in touch with their ordained pastors…or do they simply issue the certificates and wave goodbye? I don’t have easy answers for some of these questions, but I’m raising them hoping you'll get out a whiteboard and brainstorm something better than the status quo.

6) Value your women. The counseling profession understands the value of women in leadership roles. But women in evangelical churches who pastor, preach/teach, or fill roles as elders or board members are very few and far between. They are the exception, not the rule. I’m not writing a theological treatise here, but I've spent my life studying the Bible, including several years in seminary, and it's easy to see God-ordained women leading at the highest levels possible throughout all of scripture: where there are Gideons, there are Deborahs; where there are Solomons, there are Esthers; where there is the prophet Simeon, there is the prophetess Anna; where there is the apostle Paul, there is the apostle Junia. Additionally, Jesus clearly valued women as leaders in many ways, even when the culture and religious leaders did not, and it is miraculous their stories are even told considering the patriarchy of the time: Jesus chose the Samaritan woman as his first preacher of the gospel message, the women at the tomb as his first preachers of the resurrection, though at the time the testimonies of women were not even accepted in a court of law. So whether you are complementarian, egalitarian, or somewhere in between...are you still on the lookout for the women whom God has clearly gifted for leadership? And what are you doing about it? Moreover, not only do women offend much less than men when it comes to sexual misconduct—so you are likely creating a safer space by simply including their physical presence in the room—but when women participate in leadership, marginalized voices likely gain a hearing they would not have otherwise, not necessarily because women are automatically so nurturing as the stereotype goes, but because women are often victims/survivors of sexual misconduct, abuse, and violence at much higher rates than men. If you want a more compassionate and balanced response, even if you disagree theologically, you should still be striving to create more space for the voices and gifts of women.

7) De-rockstar your church. Manage the spotlight. I believe the pastoral profession should be more about the pastoring and less about the time on the stage (or on the podcast etc.). The counseling profession has very few pedestals. For those counselors who reach the highest point of their licensing path, eventually achieving the level of a supervisor or educator…they don’t become rockstars, they become replaced. The ethical expectation in our field is that we supervisors turn around and train our replacements, just as we were trained. In our group meetings, everyone has a voice, anyone can contribute. We've created a power-sharing culture. So if we are truly a “priesthood of believers” then perhaps pastors who are gifted teachers and preachers could focus more time on equipping others to teach/preach, rather than dominating the conversation? I will be honest and confess I hate this idea because of how much I love to hear my pastor preach on Sundays—but sometimes growth hurts! I love that our pastors will get to step off the pedestal and have a needed break; I recognize that others with speaking gifts will be equipped to develop them; and I realize that the church body will be better edified by hearing a diversity of voices. Win win win. (And please, if you decide to take action on this point, then consider pushing beyond a basic rotation of elders to include voices from the margins.) Just one word of caution: don’t swing the pendulum too hard the other way—the weight of pastoring and equipping cannot be carried by one person either (the basic idea is that whatever the load or the spotlight looks like, we are always finding ways to share it).

8) Listen to dissenters. The foundation of the counseling profession is good listening. Don’t dismiss your dissenters; value them highly and listen to them. And remember that listening doesn’t automatically mean hearing—check your understanding to ensure you heard them correctly! In many of these organizations, prior to scandals being publicized, we can often see well-meaning efforts were already in place towards increasing accountability, empowering marginalized voices, etc. But hindsight is 20/20: when we look back on how these things develop, we typically see dissenters. These dissenters were/are the blessed signposts we should have been paying attention to, but usually there are attempts to silence, label, or ignore them instead. Often times these people get called "divisive"--they are told they create conflict, they ask too many questions, or that they have “heart issues” or “immaturity" or "cynicism" or "an angry, critical spirit." But instead of villainizing them, we need to value them. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” according to Proverbs. Again, we know sexual misconduct cases are vastly underreported, and as a counselor who hears the details of these unreported cases often, I beg you to PLEASE LISTEN when people are brave enough to go against the flow of your culture and speak up. If you find your dissenter untrustworthy for some reason, then don’t ignore or label them, but simply obtain help from a true outside party to investigate, consult, and provide you with a more objective take.

9) Change your language. This is a simple one. Instead of saying, "He had an affair..." or "We all have moral failures..." or "They were sleeping together..." or any of the other ways we use words to soften the situation, just call it what it is: it is a serious abuse of power. Sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, or sexual assault all have slightly different nuances, but at the very least, let's use clear, direct language to describe the problem. And please understand, when sexual misconduct is happening in a context of authority or power, even if the victim/survivor says it was consensual, it is still considered sexual abuse. 10) Step down, speak out, or share. There are so many amazing pastors out there! But if you are someone in a position of power who is abusing people, please consider stepping down from leadership and seeking help for your problem. You are harming everyone, including yourself, and you will need some time and professional support to deal with the consequences. Your soul is more important than your job. "What good is it if you gain the whole world, but forfeit your soul?" Additionally, if you are someone who knows about sexual abuse happening somewhere in your ministry context, this is your invitation to courageously speak up and speak out. If neither of these situations apply to you, then consider sharing this article (with friends in ministry, with your church elders, or just to your social media page) so you can be part of proactive change, rather than reactive change.

If you’re a church leader who is feeling threatened right now, please remember I’m writing as your sister in Christ, and I want to see your ministry survive and thrive for the long haul. Writing this was a labor of love. Therapists are not better than pastors, therapists have plenty of problems too...but when it comes to sexual misconduct, therapists are the beneficiaries of a very different professional culture, one the church is welcome to learn from for the sake of the vulnerable. There are probably more suggestions here than you can reasonably implement in a short period of time, but the situation is desperate, and I encourage you to turn this article into a “to do list” and don’t stop until you’ve checked off every number. At this point, the only thing that counts is action.

Thanks for your time and consideration!


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