Adventist ministry and sexuality

A plea for professionalism in understanding human sexuality

Len McMillan, Ph.D., is the family life director at the Pacific Health Education Center in Bakersfield, California.

Some pastors deem it unthinkable even to suggest that the need for dialogue on sexual ethics exists. During one presentation to church employees on the subject, a young pastor chastened me for wasting time talking about a problem that did not exist. I spoke with him later. He told me that he had never had a problem with sexual ethics and for that matter had never even fantasized about anyone except his wife. Even those fantasies were rigidly controlled, he said, lest they be inappropriate. He also testified that he was never tempted sexually, and that it was degrading for any pastor to admit to immorality.

My heart went out to this young pastor. "I fear for your soul," I told him. "Denial of our sexuality leaves us naked before the tempter. Between innocence and virtue there's a vast difference. Innocence is a state in which you never have been tempted. Virtue is a state where you have been tempted, but by God's grace have successfully passed the test. I fear that your test is yet to come and you may be unprepared."

Pastor's professional pitfalls

The roots of denial run deep within Christian ministry. By admitting to sexual temptations, some would ask, are we not equating ourselves with other mere mortals? Are we not denying God's calling? How can we admit to struggling with the same temptations as our congregation? How can we help others solve their sexual problems if we admit to the same problems? Would not admissions of sexual temptations make pastors less effective as counselors and less respected by church members?

Beyond such questions, pastors are also troubled by several professional pitfalls. One of them may be an overfamiliarity with God. We become so accustomed to speaking frequently with God throughout the day that we may no longer stand in awe of Him. Even our devotional life may become a part of our workday. (What pastor has never taken sermon notes during his devotional time?) Recreation is integrated with church activities, and even our homes often are owned by the church. In other words, our career and the church become synonyms.

Another pitfall is sin saturation. Everyday people come to us burdened with sin. They often share their anguish in vivid detail. Such constant exposure to the sin problem can desensitize our minds to its awfulness, and sin may lose its sting and get categorized into carefully calculated behavioral stereotypes.

A third pitfall is job overload. The young pastor mentioned earlier indicated he seldom took a vacation, be cause he was too busy. He seldom was home, either. When pastors fail to take time away from the things of God, burnout often results. Time away from the things of God does not mean time away from God. It means taking time out from our frantic pace to be recharged and renewed. If Elijah needed six weeks away from the things of God for renewal, and Jesus needed periodic quiet time, what pastor in today's hectic and hurried lifestyle can afford to forgo a vacation each year?

All these pitfalls compound the problem of sexual ethics in ministry. When we are overworked, underappreciated, and constantly exposed to sin, we may fail to recognize the temptations of sexual attraction before it's too late.

Facing the issues

A Christianity Today survey reported in Leadership reinforces our need to ad dress the issue of sexual ethics in ministry. 1 When asked "Since you've been in local church ministry, have you ever done anything with someone (not your spouse) that you feel was sexually inappropriate?" one in four pastors admitted to a problem in sexual ethics. When asked "Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone other than your spouse since you've been in local church ministry?" one in eight admitted to having committed adultery. Many who answered no added, "I've come very close!"

Sexual attraction and fantasies are often considered inappropriate for pastors. A survey by Men's Health reported that 35 percent of the respondents had sexual fantasies on a daily basis, and 80 percent at least weekly. It is important to note that almost nine out of 10 of the respondents had at least some college education, with four out of 10 having taken postgraduate studies.2 Contrary to what is believed by some, sexual at traction and fantasies do not decrease with higher education.

Looking back on my own semi nary experience, I realize that little time was spent preparing me to deal with physical or emotional attraction and my own sexuality. The perception was that pastors should be able to control their sexual needs and thoughts. In fact, if you asked the wrong types of questions you risked being labeled as unworthy of minis try. The Christianity Today survey found that in the case of three out of four pastors sex was never discussed or explained in the home in which they grew up. The failure of the semi nary to address this issue serves to reinforce pastors' denial of human sexuality. Gary Collins, professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, says, "We're living in a Corinthian Age, but we're preparing students for the Victorian Age."

An Adventist survey

During 1991 and 1992 I presented seminars on sexual ethics in caregiving in nine North American conferences and Andrews University. We took a sexual ethics survey at each seminar before presentations could begin. Of the 586 total respondents, 416 were male. Most were pastors (88 percent of men but only 5 percent of women). Only a few of either men or women were counselors. Among the women, one in five was a teacher, and more than half listed their occupation as other usually the wife of a pastor. Two hundred eighteen of the respondents had been raised as Adventists, 119 in Protestant homes; the rest did not indicate home background. The survey was taken in a crowded room with no privacy, and with couples seated together, perhaps suggesting that the results should be considered conservative.

Have you ever engaged in premarital sex? Half the males and 47 percent of the females answered yes. A significantly lower percentage of those raised in Adventist homes had premarital sex. Even if we don't talk about sex much, we manage to communicate the importance of abstinence before marriage. Perhaps also a lack of opportunity to err could contribute to this success rate.

After marriage, have you ever had sex with anyone other than your spouse? One in nine males and one in 10 females answered yes. However, those raised in Adventist homes had 10 percent more extramarital relationships than the average. Apparently parental pressure in the home to abstain from premarital sex has a reverse effect when it comes to extramarital sex. In all likelihood this is because not all values taught by parents are internalized by children.

Have you ever been sexually attracted to a client, patient, student, parishioner without actually engaging in sex? Sixty-five percent of the males and 31 percent of females responded yes. Interestingly enough, more pastors (64 percent) than counselors (48 percent) or teachers (39 percent) felt such attraction.

Would you feel comfortable speaking to your spouse about your sexual attraction to a client/patient/student/parishioner? Almost half (47 percent) of both sexes responded no! Those who felt least comfortable discussing the topic with spouses were raised in Adventist homes (60 percent). Perhaps pressure to refrain from premarital sex without actually discussing sexuality does not encourage open dialogue on the subject even after marriage.

Have you ever had an affair? Apparently this question was more widely interpreted than After marriage, have you ever had sex with anyone other than your spouse? One out of eight males (mostly pastors) and one out of six females (mostly spouses of pastors) answered yes. In a society in which male sexual infidelity is well documented, it's alarming that more pastors' wives than male pastors reported having affairs.

'Were you sexually abused as a child? We know from research that many individuals abused in childhood cannot recall their abuse until some event triggers the memory later in life. The mind mercifully blocks out such traumatic experiences, or else the pain would often be too great. Still, one out of 16 men and one out of five women reported they were sexually abused in childhood. The highest percentage of sexual abuse came from those raised in nonreligious homes (18 percent), and the lowest rate from those raised in Adventist homes (8 percent).

Cautious conclusions

The Adventist family seems to be somewhat successful at protecting children from sexual misconduct while in the home. Those raised in Adventist homes had significantly less premarital sex and suffered less sexual abuse as children. However, when these young people become adults they engage in more extramarital affairs and feel less comfortable dis cussing sexual issues with their spouse.

This survey confirms Peter Rutter's (Sex in the Forbidden Zone) premise that more males than females are sexually attracted to someone other than their spouse. The Christianity Today survey indicated eight out of 10 extramarital affairs were initiated by physical or emotional attraction and not by problems in the marriage. Because of sexual at traction, even among pastors, we may need to approach sexual ethics in a more thorough and ongoing manner than in the past. Our survey shows that more than six out of 10 pastors report being sexually attracted to someone other than their spouses and one out of eight male pastors actually have had an affair after marriage. That means that with approximately 3,900 church professionals in the North American Division (3,200 in actual pastoral assignments), nearly 480 of them have had an affair and approximately 2,500 have struggled with a sexual attraction to someone other than their spouses.

Recommendations and observations

1. Develop an ongoing educational program and curriculum for pastors and other caregiving professionals to reaffirm and teach sexual ethics. This would require a more extensive endeavor than the good beginning in a video and study guide format currently available through the General Conference Ministerial Association's Ministerial Supply Center.3

2. Restructure the seminary curriculum to provide more emphasis on sexual ethics, counseling, and personal relationships. Pastors already in the field could attend sexual ethics and personal relationship seminars as part of continuing education. Attendance at such seminars could be required for ministerial license renewal.

3. Establish clear and enforceable policies which deal seriously with sexual misconduct and which provide adequate rehabilitative therapy prior to any promises of reemployment or reassignment to spiritual leadership. Such training should seek to address spiritual restoration and healing of broken relationships more than emphasizing the possiblity of continuing church employment.

4. Provide support groups and net works for pastors and other caregiving professionals. "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:1, 2, NIV).

5. Provide professional counseling services and establish ongoing renewal retreats that specialize in pastors and other caregivers. Kettering Clergy Care Center is leading the way in this area in North America.

6. Promote awareness of and adherence to a code of sexual ethics for pastors and other caregiving professionals. The Seventh-day Adventist Minister's Manual has one. Here is another model:

"As a professional caregiver I am an agent of healing and restoration. Sexual exploitation of spouse, family, colleagues, congregants, employees, or counselees is an abuse of the trust, power, and authority of my position.

"I am aware of my obligation to adhere to strict standards of confidentiality concerning that which is confided in me.

"I am aware of the long-term effects of all forms of sexual exploitation, and will seek to help victims cope with such damage through every available means.

"I am aware that sexual harassment and immorality are chargeable offenses under civil and/or moral laws, and I alone bear final responsibility for my actions.

"I am aware of the denominational discipline policies concerning sexual exploitation.

"If I learn of the sexually exploiting behavior of another professional caregiver, I will practice the advice of Jesus (Matt. 18:15-17) and seek to stop such exploitive behavior.

"I am aware of my calling as a caregiver and accept the responsibility entrusted to me by those who seek my help.

"I will seek the advice and counsel of other professional caregivers when issues of sexual ethics arise in my practice or ministry." 4

1. See "How Common Is Pastoral Indiscretion?" Leadership (Winter 1988), pp. 12, 13.

2. Men's Health Newsletter, April 1992.

3. Sexual Ethics for Professionals (Silver Spring, Md.: Ministerial Continuing Education, General Conference Ministerial Association, 1992).

4. Adapted from Donald C. Houts, Clergy Sexual Ethics: A Workshop Guide (Decatur, GA.: Journal of Pastoral Care Publications, Inc., 1991).

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Len McMillan, Ph.D., is the family life director at the Pacific Health Education Center in Bakersfield, California.

November 1994

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