Pastors and sexual misconduct: A response to Miroslav Kis

A response to Miroslav Kis's eight-part series on pastoral misconduct

Mark Carr, Ph.D., is theological co-director. Center for Christ/an Ethics, and associate professor of Christian ethics, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

Editorial Note: During the publication of the recent series of eight articles by Dr. Miroslav Kis in Ministry, it became increasingly clear that alternative ways of viewing some of what was presented in his articles was present among the Ministry reader family. The following article is gladly presented as a critique of Dr. Kis's series, and as an exposition of possible alternative ways of viewing and dealing with matters basic to this challenging topic, especially the matter of whether or not pastors who have "fallen" morally should or should not be reinstated.

There are a number of matters raised by Dr. Miroslav Kis in his 2004, eight-part series of articles Dn pastoral infidelity that call for response and critique. Two areas I hope will get future, more widespread attention are first, an over-dependence upon the priestly model of clergy and second, his explicit ranking of sins.

My main emphasis in this article, however, is to offer a critique and analysis on the question of whether or not fallen clergy who have been through a rehabilitation period may or may not be rehired as pastors. I believe the most significant impact of Dr. Kis's articles will be the effect of his position on this question. When it comes to this matter, Dr. Kis's bottom line is forthrightly stated in the seventh of his eight essays (Ministry's January 2005 issue): "In my view, the pastor who loses his credentials due to adultery remains a former pastor for the rest of his life.1

Which policy?

I would argue against this position for at least two reasons. First, it is inconsistent with past and present realities in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, even though it is true that Dr. Kis's position regarding reinstatement to pastoral ministry is consistent with current North American Division and General Conference Working Policy.

With only minor differences from the General Conference policy, the North American policy reads, "A minister who experiences a moral fall... shall be ineligible for future employment as a Seventh-day Adventist minister" (L 70 20 #2 NAD Working Policy). This policy goes on to state in subsection L 70 20 #4 that "for the sake of the good name of the Church and the maintaining of moral standards," the fallen pastor "must plan to devote his/her life to employment other than that of the ordained/commissioned ministry, the teaching ministry, or other denominational leadership."

Effectively speaking and in reality, this pol icy is routinely ignored when various arms of church employment, most significantly local and union conference presidents, hire ministers and issue credentials for rehabilitated, fallen pastors. Ironically, the breaking of, or noncompliance with regard to current policy and the rehiring that occur, is more consistent with our past than is the policy itself or what Dr. Kis advocates.

When it comes to present realities in the field, I personally know of at least a half a dozen relatively recent cases in which fallen and rehabilitated pastors have been placed in churches by conference administration. In many cases these pastors come back at the request of conference leadership. No doubt the reader can name an equal number of cases in which healthy pastoral leadership is the result.

The point is that rehabilitation and reinstatement of fallen but rehabilitated (What constitutes rehabilitation needs to be clearly defined; see below) and reinstated pastors has happened in the past, it happens presently, and it will probably continue to happen in the future, regardless of what the Church's Working Policy allows for.

This is not necessarily bad or morally irresponsible. While it is obvious that these practices must not be the sole reason to justify a change in policy, we should take it as a serious challenge to the basic effectiveness and character of the policy when the field leadership routinely ignores such policy. It may be a reason for revisiting and reformulating our policies.

The Casuist tradition in Seventh-day Adventism

he second reason for arguing against an inflexible policy on this question has to do with moral decision making in the church. I wish to assert that the method with which Adventists have traditionally dealt with such matters is a blend of rigidity and flexibility. We have, throughout our history, developed and held fast to rigid principles and policies, while at the same time we have remained flexible toward the details of the particular matter in question.

My area of academic expertise is in bioethics. In bioethics we spend significant time examining how humans make moral decisions in situations of intense moral importance. Typically these situations involve clinical healthcare teams, patients, and family members. For decades, bioethicists have argued about whether we should shape moral decision making from the top down or from the bottom up.

Those who argue for a top down approach, or for deductive reasoning in moral decision making, insist that we bring to any given situation a number of moral duties in the form of principles (or in the case of institutions, policies that have been shaped by underlying principles).

So, for instance, on the basis of principles we glean from Scripture, the church has developed policy when it comes to moral issues such as divorce, remarriage, family and sexual abuse, extortion, abortion, and euthanasia.

When a principlist faces a moral quandary, she brings to the case these principles and applies them in an effort to resolve the conflict. If, for example, the principle of not killing applies to aborting fetuses, it matters not who the patient is or what her circumstances are. The principle simply insists that the abortion not be performed, period.

On the other hand, the bottom up, or inductive, thinkers insist that the primary point of concern for resolving any given case is the detail of the case. Principles might become important later and certainly have their place, but in an effort to resolve a particular case, those involved in decision making must focus attention on the details.

Casuists, as these bottom up proponents are commonly called in bioethics, argue that human beings are guided in their thinking on such matters by prior cases that have analogical application in the present case. Such "paradigm" cases can help set the pattern for any given current case. So, if we again take abortion as our example case, if we have seen fit to offer abortions for anyone in the past, we should consider it for the present case also. The specific nature of the details of the case should be weighty enough to shape our moral decision making in a certain direction.

This back and forth debate about how humans reason their way through moral difficulties is not new.

Peacemakers in this debate argue for a third, moderating position. They assert that human moral reasoning is a blending of principles and case details. Faced with any given moral quandary we begin reasoning from either principles or case details, and eventually include the other perspective.

In this way, established principles or policies are more finely interpreted and understood because of the details of each subsequent case. Likewise each case we encounter is placed in its broader context through consideration of the overarching principles.

Working Policy is very important to us; it always has been. Working Policy, we must assume, is that to which God has led us. Yet, it is not fixed in stone as if it were written by God's own hand. Of equal importance is a consideration of the details of any given moral quandary. Jesus himself modeled for us the importance of focusing on persons struggling with specific issues in the face of the application of some current policy. Examples of this in His ministry are plentiful.

It is in the blending of the concerns of both approaches that we find the preponderance of lived reality. This is true of Scripture and it is true of the experience of our church. I'll cite just two examples.

From Scripture

First, consider the day Jesus was walking through the grain fields on the Sabbath with His disciples. In their hunger they began to pick and eat heads of ripened grain. When the religious leaders of Jesus' time saw this, they said to Him, "Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath." But He said to them, "Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here" (Matt. 12:1-8, NASB.)

The policies that had developed around Sabbath-keeping were good, though strict and rigid. They involved the application of one of the Ten Commandments honoring the Sabbath. However, the over reliance on this sort of policy had shifted the attention of church leadership away from the Sabbath's essential meaning.

The point is that just as the Sabbath is greater than the policies developed by the Church leaders of Jesus' day to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath, so also is the pastoral ministry in our church greater than the policies we have developed to protect it. When we come to the case where a fallen and rehabilitated pastor is called once again to the ministry, we should not allow policy to restrict the blessing of pastoral ministry in the church.

From the annals of Adventist church history

A story that emerges from the days of Ellen G. White is a fascinating one and constitutes the second example of more effective casuistic moral thinking. This example revolves around the dispute of an Elmshaven church school board's policy regarding the age children should be before they may be admitted into a kindergarten educational program.

Ellen White had written that it was not good to allow children under seven years old to enter formal school programs. In this case, the school board was determined to maintain this policy even if constituent parents wanted exceptions made. The school was able to invite Mrs. White to a meeting of the board, convened in part to resolve this quandary.

Mrs. White was not impressed with the decision making of the board in this matter. She actually mocked their rigid adherence to what she had writ ten. Among other things she said that night was the following comment that was recorded in the minutes of this school's board meeting:

"'Why, sister White has said so and so, and sister White has said so and so; and therefore we are going right up to it.'

"God wants us all to have common sense, and he wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things."1

Her words are consistent with the casuist focus on moral decision making, namely, case details must shape our resolution of any given moral quandary.

Some recommendations

Given the disjunction we have pointed out between what is happening in the field and what is stated in the Working Policy, and given the allowance for casuist moral decision making in Seventh-day Adventism, I would urge the reshaping of current Working Policy. The policy could be written with an effort to build into it this blend of principles and case details; rigid rules and flexible response to persons. As well as we can shape it, our policy should reflect the best of what happens in the field.

Currently, this is not happening.

Let me suggest three things:

1. Develop an international committee/task force to re-examine current policy, including in it the possibility of rehiring those fallen pastors who have in fact been rehabilitated. The goal of this committee would be to bring about a change in Working Policy when it comes to this matter.

2. A detailed procedure needs to be developed (perhaps by the above task force or another) outlining the particular characteristics necessary in the spiritual, personal, and professional rehabilitation of fallen pastors who desire such help. The group designing this procedure might recommend the development of an office or official within the Ministerial Association at General Conference, division, and union levels that would oversee this process. This developed procedure should include both relevant ministerial and lay persons.

3. In addition to the focus on the effort to rehabilitate pastors, concomitant study needs to be given to finding specific ways of actually helping victims of pastoral sexual misconduct. Dr. Kis's articles point out the difficulties of the person who has been the object of pastoral misconduct, and these victims must get help from the church.

It would be unacceptable to reintegrate a pastor into the ministerial workforce without proper care being given to those whose trust has been broken by that pastor's misconduct. Regaining this trust is a significant and difficult challenge and could have extended implications.

The use of experts in ministry, psychology, and counseling could be involved in churches in which the pastor's sexual infidelity has affected not only his victims but also others in the congregation.


In the end, I commend to you the real cases of the scores of pastors who have suffered through a moral fall. I say suffered because for them it was a fall, not a descent into something they desired. Their hearts are repent ant, and they eagerly and sincerely wish to serve God and His church.

Those who seek to justify and sustain their fallen behaviors need not concern us here. As a church we have a moral obligation to them as well, but this article is explicitly focused on those repentant, rehabilitated pastors who seek to answer God's call to ministry. Under the grace of God and the careful wisdom of church leadership, is it not possible does our faith not provide for the return of these men and women to pastoral leadership?

1 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 3:217.



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Mark Carr, Ph.D., is theological co-director. Center for Christ/an Ethics, and associate professor of Christian ethics, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

June 2005

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