Battling sexual indiscretion

Is your sex drive under control? Why are ministers more vulnerable than most other people?

Robert J. Carbon, D.Min., is an ordained minister of the Mennonite Church and is the director of the outpatient clinic in Wichita, Kansas, for the Prairie View Psychiatric Hospital.

Bruce Larson tells of an old priest who was asked by a young man, "Father, when will I cease to be bothered by the sins of the flesh?"

"I wouldn't trust myself, my son, until I was dead three days," the priest replied.1

Should the priest's admonition be taken to heart by all pastors? Do clergy face particularly strong temptations of the flesh?

M. Scott Peck suggests that spiritual and sexual desires are so closely inter twined that you cannot arouse one without arousing the other. If he is right, then a part of the mystical effort to find God involves attempting to get in touch with that same well of yearning that exists in all of us and sometimes encourages us to sexual desire. That being the case, helping people with their spiritual growth and development may lead us into areas where longing to be involved with the other person is a natural part of the interaction.

Let us consider something about the nature of sexual desire. The myth that probably describes the nature of sexual desire most interestingly is one that has its origin in Greek mythology. Rather tragically, it depicts the gods separating the perfect being. Thereafter, each part—the two sexes—has this great yearning to be reunited with its other part in hopes of once again being a perfect, fulfilled being.

The story of sexual development in the Old Testament is somewhat different, but it also contains that "divided part" concept represented by the creation of woman out of Adam's rib. That helps me to understand the nature of sexual yearning and sexual desire. It is a yearning for completion, a desire to be united with another human being.

One of the most important things I have learned as an adult about sexual desire is that what turns me on sexually is as unique as my own fingerprint. It is special to me; probably an inherent part of my genetic predisposition, and yet added to, and conditioned by, early experiences in my life.

Second, I have learned how compelling the sex drive is. It exceeds rationality. As someone has said, "When will and fantasy compete, fantasy always wins." Erotic and romantic longings almost always win precedence over rational thought. Though we sometimes make fun of romantic literature that reminds us of how wonderful it is to be in love, there is still something that rings true in it. To feel the warmth of the sun and see the flowers of the spring, to begin to write poetry again, to hear the song of the bird! Lovers have a peculiar ear for the sensual part of our living.

Another thing I have learned about being in love is that it is time-limited. If and when we fall in love, we will get over it. The romantic, idealistic yearning that we call falling in love generally lasts no longer than six months to two years. Some who get married during the romantic love phase wonder what has happened to their relationship when the phase ends, and are tempted to abandon the marriage.

Falling in love is not an experience that happens only to young people who are contemplating marriage. It also happens to people who are already married, even if they have a strong, viable, significant relationship with another human being. Having a good marriage is a very important factor in maintaining appropriate behavior in one's professional relationships, but it does not inoculate one against being attracted to, or falling in love with, another person.

Why ministers are vulnerable

A number of factors make ministers especially vulnerable to sexual temptation. After examining 10 of these factors, I will suggest four strategies for coping.

1.  The private office. As clergy we frequently operate in privacy, isolated from other people. The church office is often in a building in which only one other person (or no one) may be present, so loneliness can become a problem. Being alone has certain psychological effects, but perhaps of greater significance here, it provides the occasion for a sense of privacy that can enable things to develop that wouldn't in a more public setting.

2. Close relationships. Though we are frequently alone, we often have several very important relationships that combine a maximum of acquaintance with a maximum of opportunity. Usually there is a children's department teacher, a secretary, an organist, a choir director, or a board chairperson whose work brings him or her into regular, close contact with us.

3. Intimate access. Clergy often have access to informal settings of an intimate, personal nature. We often make jokes about the clergyman's "bedside manner. " We do have access to the beds of parishioners in a fashion that very few other professionals have. And even when we are not in the bedroom or at the bedside, we encounter needy people in the living room, the parlor, or in other situations that can be conducive to less than professional conduct.

4. Stimulating conversation. Often we have access to sexual and erotic material as people talk about serious difficulties in their lives. Anyone who has much experience in counseling knows that frequently people need to talk with an understanding friend about their sexual insecurity, their struggles, their failures, their griefs, and their longings. It is precisely because people perceive clergy as "safe" that they risk this kind of sharing. It may be extremely valuable for the counselee to be able to share that which is intimately locked away in his or her heart, that which is closely related to sexual identity and development. The danger is that what the counselee shares may be experienced by the counselor in a very erotic and voyeuristic fashion. If that erotic material happens to trigger in us part of our unique turn-on pattern, we must face the task of dealing with the feelings that have been triggered.

5. Pastor as sex object. Occasion ally we must work with someone who, by the nature of his own neurotic patterns, is sexually eager and willing. Tony Campolo warns that "in a very real sense, the nature of being a church leader is to become a sex object. It is very naive to assume that the only thing that turns people on is good looks. The truth is that power, influence, and prestige have tremendous capacity to stimulate sexual excitement. Church leaders often find themselves unwittingly eliciting powerful sexual responses." 2

I remember hearing a well-known conference speaker entertain pastors by the hour with stories of women who had seduced clergymen. The focus was on how clergymen could protect themselves from women's wiles. I wish the speaker would have given more attention to how the encounters he described were encouraged by the men's needs and what clergy can do to keep from letting their need for fulfillment cause them to lead members of the opposite sex along.

6. Eagerness to please. Generally, by the nature of the social contact in which we function, we have a great need to please. As clergy most of us perceive the congregation as one large corporate boss. And most of us have set about to please a God who cares about us or an authority that may have been represented by our parents. We work hard not to upset people. We work hard to have people like us. It is that very need to please that puts us at particular risk with people who come talking of their lack of fulfillment, their longing, and their hurt. We want so much to be able to fill that void in the life of the other person. It is tempting for us to demonstrate that in a very concrete way.

7. Susceptibility to criticism. Our vulnerability is also enhanced because we are often subjected to criticism. We frequently present ourselves and our ideals and our persons in front of a congregation who may be quite critical. Consequently, we often suffer significant blows to our self-esteem. When that is combined with the temptation to grandiosity that many of us also experience, an additional vulnerability is set up. As someone told me once about how he got involved in sexual liaison outside of marriage, "I was so needy." And I still hear those words echoing through the years, knowing how often those of us in ministry really do feel terribly needy. For such a needy person to have someone else respond with love and affection is a very great temptation.

8. The myth of invulnerability. I think we often live with a kind of myth of invulnerability in spite of our neediness. There is a paradox here that's not uncommon to psychological conditions. In spite of our great neediness, we also sometimes have the idea that we are above strictures and expectations that apply to other people — "somehow we will get by." We allow the strong, erotic desire to overcome our sense of reality, and convince ourselves that "we'll never be caught"; "no one will find out"; "it'll be OK. " Our feelings of inadequacy lead us to rationalizations of grandiosity.

9. Weakened relationships. Because of the great time demands placed upon us, and because we feel the need to please so many people, we too easily sacrifice the most important relationship in our lives — our own marriages. Too many clergy seem unable to say no to anyone except their own spouses. That being the case, it's not uncommon for us to have troubled marriages that increase the temptation to risk inappropriate extra marital behavior.

10. Inadequate training. Many pastors have had little training in relational and counseling skills. Usually we are trained in preaching, proclamation, declaration, and exposition of Scripture. But most seminaries give little training in listening, understanding human problems, and relating effectively to people. Therefore some of us are ill-equipped to deal with the kind of circumstances that develop in counseling. Some are inclined to be open with counselees or parishioners about the positive feelings they have toward these persons, perhaps even sharing the sensual and erotic feelings they have.

One pastor who was having positive, erotic feelings toward a parishioner suggested it might be useful for the parishioner to meet with him for a series of six sessions to talk about their feelings toward each other. The result was that the parishioner developed a new problem. The pastor developed a new problem too—the need to find another occupation.

Many clergy are quite naive about the powerful dynamics of transference and countertransference that can either complicate or energize significant change in a good counseling relationship. Lack of awareness of that dynamic can cause difficulty for counselors who have had some training but have no resources for maintaining an objective perspective in the counseling relationship.

What can you do to manage sensual temptations?

1. Know thyself. Self-awareness—being aware of your own feelings and your own sensations in the counseling relationship—is very important. Know why it is difficult to keep your mind on the subject matter. Know when you are preoccupied by the counselee's clothes, posture, physical presence, or erotic signals. If you find these continually distracting you, it is a very important clue, sometimes regarding the counselee, but more often than not, regarding the counselor.

Self-awareness is, of course, the first step. Self-disclosure may not be the most appropriate way to deal with self-awareness.

Many counselors could benefit from therapy to help them deal with their own needs and unfulfilled yearnings. It is important to come to terms with yourself, to discover how present temptations are deeply rooted in your early developmental history. A good therapist will help you work through that history and keep it from fogging up the present.

2. Be professional. Maintain a professional structure in the relationship. If you sense that a relationship is becoming so informal that it may lead to romantic attraction, transfer the context of the conversation to a more formal setting, such as an office. There the subtleties of the arrangement—a desk, a chair, certificates on the wall, appointments that are limited in their time—help establish proper expectations.

Rassieur says, "A husband can also reassure his wife by the way he handles phone calls. Excessively long conversations occurring at unsociable hours may easily give a wife the impression that he is not in charge of the situation, and the wife probably is right in her judgment." 3 I'm sure the same thing is true if the wife is the pastor and the husband is the observer.

3. Be responsible. Exercise your power to choose your own behavior. We are all responsible for the decisions we make and for the behavior we choose. There is a common myth flowing through erotic literature that is sometimes expressed in the cliche "This is bigger than both of us." In that erotic moment when rationality seems to fly out of the window, people sometimes are tempted to excuse behavior by suggesting that the power to choose was beyond them. Power is not beyond you; you can make choices and you are responsible to choose your behavior. The continual reaffirmation of that fact is an important part of managing sensual temptation.

4. Be accountable. Arrange regular consultation either with a peer group or with a professional counseling consultant. Regularly tell this person or group what's going on in your counseling relationships. While you can choose to tell only part of your story to the consultant, when you get away from the romantic attachment of the moment it's easier for the more rational part of your psyche to take over. Knowing that you will have to tell someone else about your actions can provide powerful motivation for keeping them honorable.

Passion and compassion

When we talk about sensual temptation, we're talking a lot about passion. Passion is a powerful force and an exciting part of living, and I don't want to talk about it as if it were all negative.

But I also want to say something about compassion. Any of us who are involved in counseling meet people who have been tragically hurt. But when counselors, whether they are pastors, teachers, or other helpers, have gotten sexually involved with those counselees, it is a tragedy of major proportions. Frequently it involves males taking advantage of women's vulnerability. For this reason it is a kind of continuing exercise in the practice of sexism. The struggling, searching woman who suddenly dissolves in tears may foster the ego of the male counselor, who puts his arms around her and holds her tight. But this is inappropriate. I know that it happens the other way around too, that female counselors embrace male clients in their vulnerability, but far too often the exercise of this particular indiscretion is with male helpers and needy females, and the whole game perpetuates sexist assumptions.

Masters and Johnson recommend that counselors who have sex with their counselees should be prosecuted for rape, regardless of how willing the counselee participant was. They know how vulnerable people in the counseling relationship are to the power, authority, dignity, and presumed emotional maturity of the people who sit on the other side of the desk, representing themselves as helpers. That's why they suggest that such people should be tried for rape.

It is tragic for a counselor to take advantage of a counselee in any way. If you are doing so, cut it out! Get help. Get your counselee to see another counselor and therapist while you work through what is going on in your own life and begin to rebuild your own self-esteem in some fashion other than at someone else's expense.

Those of us who have not fallen to sexual temptation must not take a holier-than-thou attitude. When dealing with the fallen, we must remember, "There but for the grace of God go I." Anybody who is in the helping business, who has a sense of empathy, and who is aware of his or her own hormonal flow must know how close, how incredibly close, he or she has been at some moments to the line of indiscretion. And we all know that if our minds were read, we'd be revealed as having often, in our fantasy at least, crossed over that line into inappropriate behavior. None of us is without sin. We ought to find ways, therefore, to confront, to comfort, and to build up one another, when we know we are caught in temptation.

1 Bruce Larson and Tony Campolo, "What Is
Most Dangerous About Sexual Temptation for the
Church Leader?" Innovations 1, No. 4 (1985).

2 Ibid.

3 Charles Rassieur, The Problem Clergymen Don't
Talk About (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,
1976), p. 136.

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Robert J. Carbon, D.Min., is an ordained minister of the Mennonite Church and is the director of the outpatient clinic in Wichita, Kansas, for the Prairie View Psychiatric Hospital.

January 1987

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