Commentary

Congregations are truly victims of clergy sexual misconduct

It happened again this week. The sexual misconduct of a pastor appeared on the front page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. As usually happens, a tragic story of pain, betrayal, and inappropriate sexual activity followed.

In the current climate of public figures confessing affairs, it may seem to be no big deal. But it is different in the church. The aftermath of sexual misconduct and boundary violations is devastating and long lasting.

So, what are “boundary violations”? They are, quite literally, the violation of a congregant’s personal boundaries. It may be a hug that is too tight or too roaming, or that lasts a little too long. Who decides? The individual who receives the hug. Boundary violations can include showing up unannounced at members’ homes or being present at odd hours for inappropriate reasons. One of the best ways to measure whether or not a boundary is being overstepped is to ask this question: “Whose needs are being met?” Pastors are called to congregations to respond to the needs of members. Like everyone else, those of us in public ministry like to be loved and needed, and sometimes we confuse meeting our needs with responding to yours.

When this happens, pastors may forget and be distracted — we hope only momentarily — by how good it feels to be needed. But sometimes their need for care extends beyond their ability to be clear about their role. This is the “space” in which boundary violations tend to occur.

Rarely — thank God, not too often — boundary violations cross over into sexual misconduct. Sexual misconduct has many victims and leaves years of mistrust behind it.

The primary victim of misconduct is the individual with whom the pastor has been engaged sexually. Often it is the primary victim who reports misconduct to the judicatory head (whom I’ll call “bishop” for brevity). Others who sometimes make the initial report are the pastor’s spouse, the congregational president, or members of the staff who have seen witness of the activity.

The bishop begins an investigation. This may include additional conversation with others who know or suspect the relationship and conversation with the pastor him/herself. In the case of a vulnerable adult or a minor, the civil authorities must be notified, because sexual activity with them is a criminal matter.

Often, though not always, in the course of the investigation, bishops learn of additional victims. At this point, bishops will usually hear the stories of these victims and provide for pastoral care to begin or help continue healing processes.

Because a pastor has broken trust with victims, victims often find it difficult to have a relationship with the church or to continue in their faith. They deal with an inordinate amount of guilt and shame, and they are usually very anxious about whether people in their congregations will hate them. The bishop also provides for pastoral care to the pastor, the pastor’s spouse, and the pastor’s family.

During this time, the bishop will usually be communicating regularly with the congregation council or executive committee. Once the investigation is complete and the disposition of the pastor’s ministry has been determined, the bishop will go to the congregation.

Because it is clear that congregations deal better with information publicly known than with grapevine stories, most judicatories will do a “disclosure meeting” with the congregation. The bishop will discuss everything that is important and possible for the congregation to know. A plan for moving forward and beginning the healing of the congregation will be laid out. For, make no mistake about it, one of the most wounded groups is the congregation. Common responses to sexual misconduct include sadness, anger, betrayal, anxiety, and loyalty. Love for our pastors runs deep.

The question of forgiveness always arises. I assure you that God’s grace and forgiveness, as well as yours and ours, are available always. Forgiveness is not the question. Entrusting the public office of ministry to someone who has already betrayed it becomes the next question. It is a question of responsibility.

As church bodies, as leaders, as members of congregations, we all bear the responsibility to pray for pastors, to encourage them in their leadership, to urge them to take steps to remain emotionally and physically healthy so that they can carry out their calls to “lead by their own example . . . in faithful service and holy living” (from the ELCA “Rite of Installation of a Pastor”).

Glenndy Ose is a bishop’s associate in the Minneapolis Area Synod ELCA, and is a member at University Lutheran Church of Hope in Minneapolis