Sexual promiscuity and ministerial accountability

A proposal suggesting consistent ways of dealing with pastoral sexual misconduct

Nikolaus Satelmajer is the Editor of Ministry.

Editor's note: This proposal is not intended to be an official statement of the Ministerial Association of the General Conference. It is process oriented, and presupposes further responsible theo logical and executive reflection. So far, the paper has been presented to the Board of the Biblical Research Institute and the North American Division Human Relations Commission. It has also been distributed and discussed in various pas toral group settings. It is presented in Ministry for purposes of ongoing discussion.

Ministers are individuals who have responded to a call from God, and whose call has been confirmed by the Church. They are entrusted with a sacred task. They1 are in constant and personal contact with individuals. It is important that they treat these individuals as persons who belong to God.

Most ministers relate to others in a moral and ethical way. However, some behave unethically and engage in immoral behavior or sexual misconduct. Some have theological, financial, or violence issues that violate their ministry. This paper addresses the issue of sexual misconduct by ministers and the question of what the Church should do. The principles may apply to other areas.

The present situation

At present, policy assumes that once a minister engages in serious sexual misconduct, that individual is not to continue as a minister in the Church.2 In reality, the application of these policies is not consistent. While it is true that some ministers who engage in sexual misconduct are dismissed from ministry, it is also true that others find employment in other Church entities, or even continue where they are. This lack of consistency creates confusion among ministers and the Church generally.

Thus, we live with a false assumptions. We think that sexual misbehavior by ministers brings about dismissal, but in reality the out comes vary significantly. If we do not initiate change, cynicism will only increase among ministers and members. We must become consistent in policy and application.

Theological perspective

Our theological perspectives may be summarized as follows:

1. There are those who maintain that our theology mandates that we dismiss ministers who engage in sexual misconduct. Again, the problem is that we are not consistent in the way we apply this theological position. If this is our theological position, then administratively the Church must address the issue of unequal application or, as mentioned above, our credibility will continue to erode.

2. Others maintain that our theology does not mandate automatic dismissal from ministry for those who have engaged in sexual misconduct. Some wish to assess the nature and gravity of the offense before such a decision is made. Thus, in some instances rehabilitation is seen as an appropriate response. While it is true that publicly many are reluctant to acknowledge this view, in application this approach has been followed in a number of cases.

If this approach is to be applied, we need to study and define our theology and outline its application so we can proceed in a consistent, equitable and unified manner. It needs to be stressed that if this is the approach we are to use, it does not mean that offending ministers will automatically continue in their role.

For their sakes, the sake of the victim or participant, and for the sake of the Church, such ministers must be held accountable. The future of these ministers must be determined by their behavior, the attitude of the minister, the minister's past behavior, a thorough investigation by the Church, and finally a decision made by appropriate bodies within the Church. Theology and application must be in agreement and consistent with one another.

A proposed process

Whichever theological position we take, we need to develop a more effective process of handling sexual misconduct cases. This process must be fair, consistent, and uniform. 3 If an accusation of sexual misconduct is made, or if evidence of sexual misbehavior comes to the attention of the leadership of the employing organization, the following procedure is suggested:

The administration of the employing organization4 will determine if there is credibility in the accusation or evidence of pastoral sexual misconduct. If there is no credibility to the accusation, the matter will be brought to a conclusion without any further action. If there is evidence the following steps are suggested:

1. The matter will be referred to a Professional Conduct Panel, which will have the responsibility of investigating the matter and making the determination.

2. The panel will be made up of five (suggested number) individuals who will be from a trained pool within a division representing ministers and lay members. The committee hearing the case cannot have members from the employing organization and must not have other conflicts of interest.

3. The panel will review the accusation^) and make one of the following recommendations:

a. The panel may find that under their investigation there is no basis for the accusation. They will then recommend that the individual continue as an employee. This recommendation will be reviewed by and acted upon by the employing organization.

b. The panel may determine that minor, yet still inappropriate behavior took place and that it was of such nature that the individual should not continue in the employing organization, but that the individual may be employed in a similar role in another entity within the organization. (There could be several other options.) In this instance, any organization of the church may feel free to employ this person.

c. The panel may find that the allegations are more likely than not to be true and that the individual should not continue in the Seventh-day Adventist ministry. The employing organization will make its decision based on this report. If it chooses to ignore the committee decision, the employing organization may be taking legal and insurance risks. Likewise, any organization that hires such an individual will be taking legal and insurance risks.

d. Appeal: An appeal process would be set up so that any of the parties (accused, accuser, employing leaders) may appeal the decision.

Conclusion

If the above approach5 is followed, there will be greater consistency in the application of our theology and governing policy. The panel process may seem costly for some, though it is possible for the group to meet on a specific occasion, which will shorten the over all process and keep expenses down.

Further, it is important to realize that the Church has a significant investment in a minister and the credibility of the Church is at stake, not to mention the reputation of involved individuals.

While this paper suggests an approach that should improve the process, it is only the beginning. Additional work would need to be done before such an approach can be implemented.6

1 This paper refers to ministers, but similar procedure could be developed for teachers and others

2 See GC Working Policy L 60 "Safeguarding Credentials the Integrity of the Ministry For a Division implementation see NAD Working Policy L 70. "Safeguarding Credentials the Integrity of the Ministry.." D 70 "Harassment," and D 80 "Sexual Misconduct in Church Relationships involving Denominations Employees or Approved Volunteers Model Procedures " The Church Manual (HO, 141) also has a brief section titled "Removing a Minister From Office " All of these policies give the primary responsibility of dealing with wrongdoing or with accusations to the employing organization.

3 The proposal would not place the primary burden on the employing organization, but rather a special panel would be given the responsibility of hearing the  case. The employing organization would be involved in the process. If the employing organization has to deal with the matter by itself, it often finds such matters to be extremely time consuming for the leadership and it is more likely to be subject to input that is not helpful in the resolution process. Furthermore, it may be perceived that the employing organization may be in a position of conflict. The disposition of such cases is a matter of concern to more than the employing organization since ordination is an act of the Church as a whole. If this proposal is to be implemented, appropriate policy changes would not be made.

4 In this paper, it is assumed that the individual is an employee of a conference--local or union. The policy would make provision for employees of other Church entities and institutions.

5 The proposed panel would also address questions of re-marriage (after divorce) by pastors Often when such re-marriage takes place questions are raised as to whether there was a basis for re-marriage Or not and the impact such re-marriage has on the work of the minister. Additionally, the panel would address the conduct of ministers who, after accusation of sexual misconduct, resign. Their cases are not resolved and yet all too frequently we find them later in ministry.  The panel would make a determination as to whether a minister who resigns under such circumstances should in the future serve in the ministry.

6 For instance, individuals who are accused of sexual misconduct may be reluctant to meet with the panel if the hearing takes place before or during any criminal proceedings. This concern needs to be addressed.

 

 

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Nikolaus Satelmajer is the Editor of Ministry.

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