Like ripples from a rock dropped into a quiet pool, the trauma of clergy sexual misconduct spreads well beyond the personal life of those directly involved.
The toll, of course, is heavy for the one who has abused a position of trust—loss of relationship with family and parishioners, loss of respect, loss of leadership, loss of employment, and loss of church membership.
But the trauma goes beyond the pastor's personal loss. The pastor's spouse and children feel branded by a sin in which they did not participate. Congregational and collegial support structures that minister to others in crisis now appear to abandon the pastoral family.
Victims of abuse also suffer. Clearly these individuals are victims, whether they believe they have freely chosen the illicit relationship or not. Sexual misconduct by professionals, such as physicians, attorneys, therapists, teachers, and clergy, who hold power or authority over their victims, amounts to a betrayal of trust and an exploitation of the victim, jeopardizing the victim's home, family, and status in the community of believers.
The reputation of the congregation is also damaged, and its members' ability to trust future leaders is stymied. Typically, it takes more than a decade for a congregation to re cover from the trauma of pastoral sexual misconduct. Ministerial col leagues and the wider body of the denomination also suffer from lowered esteem for spiritual leaders and a generalized assumption that "all clergy are like that!" Ultimately, Christianity in general suffers public scorn from those who mock the sins of those who have been granted spiritual trust.
No wonder the penalty historically has been severe for pastors who morally fall. Increased responsibility means greater accountability. Parishioners have a right to expect the best from their pastors and to believe that a leadership position should not be a launching pad for sexual abuse of power.
Inconsistency in discipline
Increasingly, however, we find sexual misconduct covered up, ignored, or treated as a minor infraction, leaving the guilty clergy free for reappointment to another pastoral role, often without so much as a lapse in service record. Recent cases include clergy who have been "disciplined" for a moral fall and yet reassigned pastoral duties within the same month. One conference asked a congregation to apply church discipline to its morally fallen pastor while administrators continued to maintain his ministerial credentials that enabled him to enter a clinical pastoral education (CPE) course to prepare for chaplaincy ministry. The church refused to discipline a pastor who was still credentialed by the conference.
Such examples are too typical. They directly violate church policy: "It is recognized that a minister who has experienced a moral fall or has apostatized has access to the mercy and pardoning grace of God and may desire to return to the church. Such an individual must be assured of the love and goodwill of his brethren. However, for the sake of the good name of the church and the maintaining of moral standards, he must plan to devote his life to employment other than that of the gospel ministry, the teaching ministry, or denominational leadership. "1 Policy does not equivocate. "He shall be ineligible for future employment as a Seventh-day Adventist minister." 2
Reinstating or transferring quietly a morally lapsed clergy hurts the body of Christ. Church members, on the one hand, are scandalized and may assume that the church administration colludes to protect its own. Members may thus conclude that what is acceptable for leadership should be applicable to them, and violate the seventh commandment with impunity.
The church, on the other hand, faces enormous legal risk for continuing a person in employment after knowing that such an individual had indulged in sexual abuse of power.
If current policy needs revision to allow for employment restoration of clergy involved in sexual misconduct, an appropriate process exists for debating and amending policy in which every viewpoint can be discussed and evaluated. In the meantime the church administration should not establish precedents that are scofflaws or continue to disregard policy under the rubric of compassion. Of course the fallen pastor needs compassion.
But forgiveness and compassion do not guarantee job security. Compassion should focus more on spiritual restoration than on continuation of employment. While I might personally rejoice for individuals who have found professional restoration, I grieve for an increasing perception that concludes that a well connected or popular clergy who has engaged in professional sexual misconduct will professionally survive while others, less well connected, will be terminated without recourse.
Further, it is helpful to note that current policy envisions compassion along with discipline: "Where practical the organization involved shall provide a professional program of counseling and career guidance for the minister and family to assist them in transition." 3
Compassion and discipline
Recently the General Conference Ministerial Association prepared the following resolution:
"Whereas the call to ministry is a sacred trust, involving among other things a respect for the personhood of people as envisioned in the seventh commandment, and any breach of trust in this area brings reproach to minis try, to the church, and to God;
"Whereas it is unreasonable to ask members to trust pastors who have engaged in sexual misconduct (adultery, pedophilia, homosexuality, fornication, etc.);
"Whereas the church is at legal risk when employing or transferring as pastors those with a history of sexual misconduct;
"Whereas the conference is the ordaining and employing authority of the church, and is charged with the sacred responsibility of protecting, preserving, and projecting the good name of the church, and maintaining standards in the ministry for the glory of God;
"Whereas confusion exists where no consistent policy is applied, leaving many pastors convinced that it is not what one does but whom one knows that determines the discipline received;
"We strongly recommend that the established policy be followed in both its disciplinary and its redemptive provisions."
Consistency is needed. If current policy needs revision, then let us ad dress the issue in a way that answers questions and avoids charges of cronyism or cover up. If current policy, disqualifying ministers who have experienced a moral fall from future pastoral or church leadership, is appropriate, then let us stand united in its application rather than allowing some to reenter ministry while excluding others.
Above all, let us emphasize a code of sexual ethics for church-employed professionals that seriously acknowledges that any sexual misconduct within the context of ministry is professionally unethical and morally wrong. Let us also find practical ways to help those who find themselves heading toward such misconduct to seek professional assistance to avoid the moral fall that could destroy their ministry.
1. Working Policy of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn. 1992-1993), p. 332. (Italics supplied.)
2. Ibid., p. 331. (Italics supplied.)
3. Ibid., p. 332. (Italics supplied.)