Pastors beware

The risks of the minister's vocation.

Martin Weber is an associate editor of Ministry.

What do you do when you sense that a parishioner is inappropriately attracted to you? Worse yet, what about when something inside you responds to that person's attention?

Every vocation has its risks. Politicians are in danger of getting voted out of office. Construction workers are in danger of falling off buildings. And pas tors are in danger of falling from their moral integrity. Specifically, I'm refer ring to unwise friendships with members of the opposite sex.

Whether we like it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, pastors carry with them an aura of attraction. I hate to call it sexual attraction, but that is exactly what it amounts to for many members of your church. Let's take a frank look at the problem and how to deal with it. I'm approaching it from a man's perspective—the way women relate to male clergy.

Regardless of your physical appearance, there is something about your leadership that many women find intriguing. You can deny that to your own danger, yet it's true. Many a theology graduate who had never considered himself attractive to the coeds on campus suddenly discovers in the pulpit an enthusiastic female following.

These admirers aren't necessarily immoral people. They may indeed be sincere Christians, and yet temptation allures them just the same. It's a law of human nature that people are drawn to those who meet their needs. Women have a deep emotional need for a man's encouragement, guidance, tenderness, and affirmation. If their own husband fails to provide this emotional support, they may be drawn to another man. Since pastors represent the loving qualities of the Good Shepherd, they appear to provide all that may be lacking at home. In reality, we all know that the pastor's own wife can sometimes be the most emotionally deprived woman in the church. Her husband is away night after night, comforting and caring for others of the flock. After he finally droops into his own doorway, he often drops into bed too emotionally exhausted to feel like communicating with his own wife. Of course, the women of the church may not know about their pastor's short comings, so they may find themselves fantasizing about some kind of emotion ally fulfilling relationship with him.

Perhaps unaware of what they really want from the pastor, these women may approach him with a re quest for spiritual help. As they file out the door after a sermon, they fervently murmur, "Pas tor, I was so blessed by your insights this morning. Could you stop by sometime soon and explain them to me further?"

The unsuspecting man, no doubt flattered a bit by such affirmation from attractive women, is all too eager to accommodate them. He may respond "Praise the Lord" upon receiving their gushing appreciation, but he can barely escape a boost to his own ego. Before he realizes it, he may find himself entangled in an emotional web that could lead to sexual involvement. The tragic death of his ministry follows, often with the col lapse of his marriage and then his finances. Total devastation, all because of an unwise attachment that may have begun so innocently.

During my two decades of ministry, I've known a number of pastors who succumbed to sexual temptation. Sensing their shame and alienation, I make a practice of trying to reach out to them with the assurance that even though they betrayed their ministry, God still loves them and so do many of their former colleagues. Sometimes they feel comfortable confiding in me about how they fell. They usually insist that the basic attraction wasn't physical, certainly not sexual. "Nothing pornographic," one of them told me, "like a sight-seeing stroll at Miami Beach on a hot summer after noon." No, the relationship began on a spiritual basis, followed by an emotional attachment. When sex finally came along, it was an unexpected intruder.

I used to think, Come on, man. Of course there was sexual attraction right from the start. It wasn't Grandma Moses you were having such a wonderful "spiritual" fellowship with. I questioned the truthfulness of what they were saying.

I don't anymore. Some years ago in my ministry I had a bout with temptation that opened my eyes and humbled me in the dust. It was in connection with the Lord's work, of course. Assigned to a major project, one woman in particular became quite helpful to me. After a while I sensed she had an attraction for me, and I confess that I wasn't exactly turned off by her, either. I can affirm that at no time was there anything sexual going on in my mind—I know what it's like when I'm tempted along those lines. No, my interest was rooted in spiritual concern. This woman had deep needs—not marriage or emotional problems, but purely spiritual needs—that I felt obliged to address. In trying to help her know Christ in a deeper way, however, a special camaraderie, an emotional bond, formed between us. I considered it merely a brother/sister affection, until I sensed that her interest was becoming roman tic.

Then she said flattering things about my commitment to God, my talents, and eventually my physical appearance. On the surface these comments seemed quite innocent and spontaneous. I felt highly uncomfortable and avoided offering similar compliments in return. In fact, I resolutely brushed hers aside. Nevertheless, I must admit that they had an effect on me, providing a boost to my self-image.

I frankly confess that, frightened as I was of this woman's interest in me, I was also intrigued by it. Something inside me said, "I can handle this in Christ's strength. Nothing will happen to me." And thank God, nothing did happen—only because the Holy Spirit gave my conscience a wake-up call.

It's impossible to maintain a genuine prayer life without coming to terms with renegade emotions. The sword of the Spirit pierced through my delusions of safety. I realized that I had to take a decided effort to squelch the attraction, and I did.

My first step was to introduce the problem to my wife. Wives have a wonderful way of enforcing accountability in such situations—have you noticed? Needing further counsel, I contacted a pastor and a church administrator who were friends of mine. They helped me assess the situation objectively and take a stand. Just as important, they multiplied my accountability. After all, I had to face these people and look them in the eye.

Wanting an additional woman's perspective, I sought help from a conference president's wife, a true mother in Israel. Her insights were especially helpful, and I followed them implicitly. One thing she recommended was to go to the store and pick out a thank-you card. She suggested word for word, what to write on it in order to firmly yet tactfully set the friendship in order. Then she told me to photocopy what I wrote and keep it on file. She also asked me to show her the card so she could vouch for me if that became necessary.

Well, following that note and a fol low-up explanation, things were better. Now there were clearly defined standards to live up to, and several people holding me accountable. The battle was not over yet, but the corner had been turned.

What have I learned from that experience? For one thing, I used to think that as long as I maintained a sincere prayer life and resolutely avoided sexual thoughts, I would be safe in meeting a woman's spiritual needs. Now I realize that even a purely spiritual discussion can build an invisible but powerful emotional bond. Forget that brother/sister business—I don't trust my emotions from here to the corner without Christ. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jer. 17:9).

I also came to realize that I have deep-seated insecurities that render me vulnerable to flattery—or even sincere compliments—from a woman. While I still appreciate being appreciated, everything necessary for my self-esteem I can get from the Lord and from my family. My wife and children also give me all the hugs I need. Sisters in Christ get a handshake from me.

I don't question anymore why Jesus had to say those harsh words "Get be hind me, Satan!" to one of His friends. He hated to hurt Peter, but the disciple had stepped out of line in tempting Christ to abandon His commitment to the cross.

The only way Jesus could protect the integrity of His mission was to stomp upon that sudden satanic assault. Undue flattery, even from a friend, might need a similar response from us to protect our own commitment and integrity.

Finally, I thank God for His holy law. If I loved Him as much as I should, His mercy alone could keep me close to the Good Shepherd during the storms of temptation. Indeed, tender mercy from Calvary is our only hope of salvation and must provide our primary motivation for obedience. Yet there are times when we all may need some thunder and lightning from Mount Sinai to wake us up with the fear of God.

Our heavenly Father offers plenty of mercy and overcoming power to anyone willing to receive them, but He is also a consuming fire to sin and those who refuse to resist it. Brother pastor (and you too, my sister), let's pray that we all remember that.

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Martin Weber is an associate editor of Ministry.

July 1993

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