Destructive Behavior

How to Avoid Destructive Behavior

There's no denying the fact that many pastors face sexual temptation. How does one recognize the warning signs? What can be done about it?

Lawrence Downing is senior pastor of the White Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church in Los Angeles, California.
C. Richard Johnson, MD, is a psychiatrist and a long-time member of the Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Seattle, Washington, United States.

A month after Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor of the state of New York in early 2008, Evan Thomas, a Newsweek writer, reported that one of Spitzer’s old friends asked him, long before the scandal broke, if he liked being governor. “ ‘I hate it,’ ” Spitzer answered. “ ‘Really?’ ” the friend asked. “ ‘Yeah, I’d rather be a high-school teacher.’”1

We, along with Thomas, can wonder if indeed Spitzer’s dislike for his job was at all related to the destructive behavior that would end his promising political career. If he did hate his job and wanted to get out of it, but lacked the courage or will to make such a momentous decision, his traceable association with a prostitute was a sudden and sure solution.

Spitzer’s case is not unique. Examples of people with self destructive behavior can be found in every profession, pastors included. As did Spitzer, some pastors dislike, even hate, their jobs. They would rather do almost anything than be a pastor, but they cannot bring themselves to resign. And, if they did resign, they do not know how they could pay the bills. They feel trapped and, like Spitzer, they become involved in self-destructive behavior, often of a sexual nature, that, when discovered, results in resignation or termination. The pastor has solved the frustration with ministry. Sound far-fetched? Reflect on the circumstances that led to the termination of people you know.

Destructive behavior in the church

A pastor, over a period of months, seduced several women in their homes (on visitation) from his churches. After each seduction, he mailed a tape recording to the woman he seduced, and in tears, begged forgiveness for his sin. The husband of one of the women discovered several of the confessional tapes and sent them to the pastor’s supervisor. A minister’s career came to a sudden and scandalous end.

Another pastor had an illicit relationship with a woman whom he had known in high school. He filmed his sexual conquests and left the film and videos in his church office where they were seen by a parishioner. Another career was over.

Those of us who have witnessed a valued colleague’s career crash and burn because of an inappropriate behavior deal with an array of emotions: sadness, disappointment, embarrassment, anger, and wonder. What drives a person to such foolishness? How could such smart people do such dumb things? Why did they make it so easy to get caught? It’s almost like they were crying out, “Here, catch me!” And, perhaps, they were.

When pastors feel there is no way out

When pastors feel trapped in their job and want to change careers, they find themselves in a dilemma. To leave ministry becomes difficult, for expectations are associated with being a pastor. The call of ministry is often understood to be a direct call from God. To explain to family, parishioners, friends, and colleagues the decision to forsake that call cannot be expressed as an easy task.

Times do exist when the tension within a pastor may build until, consciously or unconsciously, the pastor allows, or even initiates, a situation that assures sudden and final solution to the building frustrations. Should this involve a sexual relationship, then with the discovery of that relationship, the anxiety over a career change ends.

Effects of destructive behavior

When an illicit relationship or other high-risk venture results in a pastor’s termination, the shame and disgrace is not limited to the perpetrator, for a ripple effect results. No one can calculate the effect on family, parish, those violated, and the community. The negative effects linger for years. We also know that people do not enter ministry with an intention to self-destruct.

If we were to interview the pastors before they left ministry, no doubt each would condemn the acts that brought an end to their career. We would expect the pastors to affi rm their commitment to ministry, their love for the church, their desire to help people, and to lift up the Lord. How, then, does one explain the disparity between what they claim and the sad actions that ended their ministry? What can be done to help valued people avoid situations that damage people and destroy careers?

There are things that can be done. And the avoidance systems begin with the pastor.

Factors that lead to destructive behavior

Pastors need to be aware of the importance of recognizing the cognitive and emotional factors and forces that affect our behavior. Within each of us swirl perceptions and expectations that arise from our real and perceived needs: our hopes and fears, our dreams and fantasies, and the reality that is our life.

At times we feel overwhelmed by what life brings, and we find the things that bring us pleasure are short lived and of limited effect. We find ourselves in a whirlpool of events that we feel powerless to overcome.

The fact is, though, that we are not powerless. We can avoid destructive behavior and high-risk situations. We must accept that we are in control of what we do, and that we are responsible for our decisions and behavior. We have the ability to be intentional with our relationships and behaviors.

The pastor trap

Many people who come to the pastor for help are weak, needy, and vulnerable. (In rare situations, there are predators from both sexes that prowl for victims and cast their wiles toward those in positions of power, including pastors.) Pastors understandably accept compliments when these people assure them of how they have ministered to them and stress how much they are needed. They give of their time and energy, and thus become emotionally involved with their needs.

Beware! You may not see a red flag flying, but it’s there. And if the roots of an unhealthy relationship begin to take hold, cut off that relationship—and do it quickly!

Contemporary culture, as depicted in the media, suggests that unfaithfulness to a spouse, rather than faithfulness, is the norm. We suspect that ministers, despite denials, may themselves be influenced by the popular culture. Clergy, like all others, are products of their time and place.

Ministers and other professions that require the occupancy of a center stage are susceptible to flattery and the adulation of the audience, especially from the opposite sex. This susceptibility may often result from unmet and unconscious psychological needs. Then, when a parishioner of the opposite sex comes for counsel and is undergoing obvious distress, the human impulse is to touch or embrace that person in order to provide comfort and support. This physical response can be fraught with some danger. Touching can be stimulating to both parties. Save the embraces and the touching for family members; don’t do it for parishioners.

Power and its abuse

Of course, occasionally a minister who has some sociopathic traits will take advantage of vulnerable parishioners. This consists of an unholy use of pastoral power.

In most cases, though, the pastor falls into the trap unexpectedly. For instance, Jesus said that to look on a woman with lust is the same as committing adultery. This statement equates with the idea that a thought is the equivalent to action. If a person subscribes to this belief and recognizes that feeling and desire, the person may reason that because the wrong already prevails in the thoughts, and thought is equal to action, why not experience the action itself?

Deny this irrational conclusion! To make every thought equal to action carries high risk of heartbreak and ruin!

Here are some important precautions every pastor should take:

1. Recognize and admit to ourselves that we can have sexual feelings in inappropriate situations. We do not have to judge ourselves harshly for these feelings, nor do we have to act on them.

2. Recognize that our congregation sometimes allows us, as ministers, by virtue of our calling, special power and privilege. We should never use this power to our own advantage.

3. When in a counseling situation, we should avoid physical contact other than a handshake.

a. When in a counseling situation, the pastor should establish a definite time limit per session and adhere to that schedule. Usually not longer than an hour.

b. If the minister has not had formal training in counseling, it would especially be wise to avoid seeing the parishioner on a regular basis over a long period of time. We believe that even if the pastor has licensed counselor credentials, it is not a good policy to enter into long-term therapeutic counseling with a parishioner.

Transference and countertransference

The pastor should be aware of the importance of the concepts of transference and countertransference. These are technical terms that define the feelings a counselee (parishioner) has toward the counselor (pastor) and vice versa. For example, in transference, the parishioner transfers feelings they have toward others—such as toward a parent, a sibling, a boyfriend, or a lover—onto the pastor. These feelings may be either negative or positive. In either case, when a parishioner tells a pastor how they feel toward others, the pastor must recognize that this describes how transference operates.

Countertransference comes when the pastor transfers their own feelings onto the parishioner. The pastor may feel the suffering of the parishioner to such an extent that the parishioner’s sufferings are perceived to be their own.

Both transference and countertransference are real. The feelings of love or hate that a parishioner expresses toward a pastor may be real. Likewise, the feelings a pastor has toward the parishioner may be real. The pastor should recognize the importance of responding to both perceived and real feelings appropriately. Never should the pastor compromise the counselor-counselee relationship or violate the ministerial moral code that defines appropriate relationships between a pastor and a parishioner.

The parishioner usually does not have insights to know that the feelings they have toward the counselor result from transference. The pastor must recognize the importance of remaining aware of the potential mischief these emotional powers exert if not under control.

Ethical guidelines and accountability

Rules and policies alone are not enough. Of course, we need rules, policies, and guidelines that govern professional behavior, but because these are not enough, every church organization should have a Ministerial Code of Ethics that each employee must read and sign. The Adventist Church in Southern California has adopted a Professional Code of Ethics that can serve as a model.2 Employees are required to sign that they have read the Code of Ethics and understand what it says. While necessary, that in and of itself is not enough.

Every conference should establish a pastoral continuing education program with a component that addresses ministerial ethics and behavior. The parish minister, like other professionals, should be required to complete a minimum number of continuing education units (CEUs) each year. Those who do not comply will have their ministerial credentials suspended until they complete their CEUs.

We suggest that church administrators assure pastors that they have the freedom to pursue other fields besides ministry. No negative judgment toward those who change occupations should be expressed. If a pastor pursues another line of work, the conference should assist in this transition.

Establish an accountability system with a close friend or colleague whom you trust. If that person raises warnings, pay attention and take action to remove yourself from the potential problem. It’s better to cause a bit of hurt now than a greater pain later.

Personal and professional responsibility

Accept as fact that, whenever a minister enters into an illicit behavior, the minister is at fault. There is no exception! “I could not help myself.” “I was trapped.” “I did not intend things to go this far.” These excuses are unacceptable. When feelings take us into areas that we know violate the moral code, the pastor’s responsibility is to back off.

Be honest with yourself. Every person is vulnerable. Our brains below the cerebral cortex are basically wired like other mammals, and mammals are not known for sexual faithfulness. What separates us from the other mammals? We have a cortex that allows us to choose or modify actions and that enables us to have ideas about moral behavior. Our mammalian instincts and the moral values may, at times, conflict. There is within us, says Paul in Romans 7:21, a war, a struggle between what we know is right and the evil we are tempted to do. Simon Peter, meanwhile, echoes this warning. “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8, NRSV). His solution: resist him! How? Be “steadfast in your faith” (v. 9, NRSV).

It comes down to our decision. When we are in the throes of destructive behavior, we can choose to remain true to our calling and honor our values, or we can make the decision, as did Governor Spitzer, to be caught in self-destructive behavior. There are better ways to leave the ministry than doing something very damaging and destructive, not only to yourself but also to others.


Additional resources:

"Does Ministry Fuel Addictive Behavior?"
Leadership journal
"A Preventable Tragedy"
Evangelicals must not pretend to be immune
to sexual sin by clergy or volunteers
DNF, Leadership journal,
"A Family That Risked the Relationship"
Leadership books
"Journey of Recovery" http://www

"Sexual Training," Leadership journal,

Transference and countertransference: http://

1 Newsweek, March 24, 2008, 44.


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Lawrence Downing is senior pastor of the White Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church in Los Angeles, California.
C. Richard Johnson, MD, is a psychiatrist and a long-time member of the Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Seattle, Washington, United States.

March 2009

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