|Pastoral Care for a Church in Crisis by Danielle Vallina (originally written for Pastoral Care 301, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary)|
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, and He saves those whose spirits have been crushed.” (Psalm 34:18)
Pastoral Care Situation:
A conservative non-denominational Bible church consisting of approximately 650 congregants and fifteen staff members, is in crisis following allegations of pastoral sexual misconduct brought forth against their senior pastor. The allegations were made to the board of elders by the husband of one of the congregants. Evidence provided by the husband proves that an abuse of power and a serious violation of boundaries has occurred.
The board of elders calls a meeting with their senior pastor to inform him of these allegations. He initially denies having an inappropriate relationship with the congregant, but once the evidence is shown to him, he retracts his denial and admits he had an intimate relationship with this woman. The board of elders requests a letter of resignation from the pastor. He is immediately dismissed from his leadership position.
The congregants and staff are in a state of shock and disbelief. The pastor had been in his position for eight years and had been highly regarded in the church and community. He was energetic, charismatic and had been deeply devoted to his flock. He counseled individuals, couples and families in times of crisis, performed the sacred rites of baptism and communion, officiated at weddings and funerals, and visited ill congregants in the hospital. The pastor has been married for twenty-six years and has two college-age children. His wife is active in the women’s ministry programs. His children are both talented musicians and part of the worship team.
The board of elders has brought in a pastoral consultant skilled in doing congregational trauma intervention. Her role will consist of counseling and educating the board, as well as the congregants, supporting the victim and her family, acting as facilitator for the initial meeting when disclosure will be made, as well as providing spiritual support in the time of healing ahead. Her pastoral care will also include educational sessions on the topics of what constitutes pastoral sexual misconduct, the difference between an affair and pastoral abuse, the emotional suffering of the victim, the church’s responsibility to the pastor and his family, and the church’s responsibility to the victim and her family.
This article will outline and discuss a Biblically sound, holistic and
compassionate plan of pastoral care for a congregation facing clergy sexual
“A pastor is not just a man. He is appointed by God to stand in Christ’s stead to His people.” (2 Cor 5:20)
The role of a pastor holds a sacred authority. They are representatives of the church and God. They are the shepherds to their flock. They are held to a higher standard. “Clergy often embody the Divine for people.” (1) Pastors are Christian role models, leaders, teachers and counselors. “The pastoral relationship can and should be a sacred trust, a place where a parishioner can come with the deepest wounds and vulnerabilities.” (2) The following verses from Ephesians and 1 Timothy, best reflect my theology with regard to the role of a church leader. The subject of pastoral abuse is so complex, that I could not narrow the Biblical base of my theology to one verse.
“And He gave the apostles, the prophets,
the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work
of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we attain to the
unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,
to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no
longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every
wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”
(Eph 4:1-14). These verses speak of the sanctity of pastor’s
roles as ambassadors of Christ.
It is the goal of Christians to restore sinners to fellowship with God. Sin is dealt with according to the Word of God, and forgiveness, by His grace, and through Christ’s blood at Calvary. For church leaders who have committed the sin of pastoral abuse, forgiveness and restoration to positions of trust should not be quickly or lightly given. “Do not be hasty in laying on of hands, nor participate in another’s sins; keep yourselves pure.” (1Timothy 5:22)
In cases of pastoral sexual misconduct, which is often referred to in the
literature as pastoral abuse, the victims are deeply betrayed by a person
they had trusted implicitly; someone who represented the church and God. The
tremendous losses incurred from this crime against the soul are far-reaching
and devastating. The pastor loses his sacred authority and position, and is
alienated from God by his sin. He loses the trust of his congregants, his
spouse, his children, his friends, his family and the community. The church
and its congregants lose the safety and leadership of their church home, and
are left with feelings of deep betrayal and grief. Sadly, the victims are
often an afterthought in the whirlwind of emotions occurring in the congregation.
“Clergy sexual abuse victims feel lost in relation to God as well as
within the human community of the Church. Victims may feel vulnerable and
in need of help, painfully aware of their own invisibility, especially to
those in authority; and at the same time, they may feel quite reluctant to
call attention to themselves, and not all together sure they want or can use
help at all. At the center of this internal drama is shame.” (3)
The pastoral consultant’s initial meeting would be with the board of elders who had contacted her. This will take place prior to the public disclosure meeting with the congregation. The purpose of this session is to educate, as necessary, with regard to the dynamics of pastoral sexual misconduct, as well as provide spiritual and emotional support for the elders. They will discuss in detail the financial and restorative spiritual and psychological care they will provide to the pastor and his family, as well as to the victim and her family. They will demand that he has no further contact with the victim. Next, an outline of the agenda for the public meeting will be discussed in detail.
“The five main components of this meeting will be: truth telling, sharing and validation of feelings, education, spiritual reflection and answering the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’”(6)
“Truth telling should contain enough information so that people understand the scope and duration of the abuse and cannot either minimize it or blow it out of proportion.” (7)
Psychological work will be done in small groups which will be facilitated by the elders and the pastoral consultant. It is the consensus of the consultant and the elders that more detailed educational sessions will be offered to congregants two days after the initial meeting, to give them time to absorb what has happened.
Spiritual reflection for this church will be a time of prayer for the pastor and his family, the victim and her family, and the congregation.
With regard to the question “Where do we go from here?”, it will be important to stress that this is only the beginning of the recovery process. It will take time to heal.
At the end of the meeting, a schedule of educational and supportive sessions
will be drafted to distribute to the congregation at the conclusion of the
disclosure meeting, which will take place the following evening. The goal
of this meeting will be to inform the congregation that the senior pastor
has been found guilty of pastoral sexual misconduct with a congregant. The
information will be presented tactfully and without intimate details.They
will be informed that he has been asked to resign immediately from his leadership
position. The meeting will be brief, with the assurance that educational and
supportive sessions will begin the following evening.
The pastoral consultant’s first educational session with congregants will present the definition of pastoral abuse, and describe the dynamics of this ethical boundary violation. The session will conclude with thirty minutes of open forum for questions specific to the topic presented.
“The word abuse is derived from the ‘use’ and means a departure from the purpose.” (8) Peter Rutter uses the term ‘sex in the forbidden zone’ in his book by the same title to mean, “Sexual behavior between a man and a woman who have a professional relationship based on trust, specifically when the man is the woman’s doctor, psychotherapist, pastor, lawyer, teacher or workplace mentor.” (9) As related to a member of the clergy and a congregant, Rutter writes, “The most likely occurrence of the forbidden zone relationship in a religious setting is in ongoing one-to-one meetings between the clergyman and a woman in his congregation, whether or not these meetings actually consist of pastoral counseling. Although religious and spiritual issues may provide the original motivation for these meetings, more intimate personal matters soon become involved.” (10) Any relationship where there is unequal power between a man and a woman is extremely vulnerable to boundary violations. It is ALWAYS the pastor’s responsibility to maintain healthy ethical boundaries in the relationship, regardless of the congregant’s words or actions.
Often times, when a woman goes to her pastor for counseling, she is facing
a crisis in her life. She is searching for spiritual guidance and is vulnerable.
In cases where there is pastoral sexual misconduct, the pastor zeroes in on
her vulnerabilities. The very reason she came to him can become the set up
for her abuse. The pastor’s own needs then come into play. “The
offender’s personal issues play into the entrapment dynamic. His need
for power, lack of accountability, emotional isolation, the need to be an
exclusive savior, and all the driving forces which enter into the rest of
his personal characteristics, become present.” (11)
“Often times, sexual misconduct between clergy and congregants is dismissed as an ‘affair’ between consenting adults; this is a misnomer for several reasons. First, the relationship between clergy and congregant is professional in nature. That means that clergy have the responsibility to use special knowledge, skills and gifts of their call for the benefit of those they serve.
Because clergy carry spiritual and moral authority, as well as professional
power, it is always their responsibility to maintain an
“Under these conditions, sexual behavior is always wrong, no matter who initiates it, no matter how willing the participants are. In the forbidden zone, the factors of power, trust and dependency remove the possibility of a woman freely giving consent to sexual contact. Put another way, the dynamics of the forbidden zone can render a woman unable to withhold consent.” (13)
It will be necessary to discuss the issue of transference. “During counseling, it is normal for a congregant to have strong feelings for her pastor. When past or present wounds are revisited, the congregant not only feels strong emotions, but many times tries to substitute her pastor in an unresolved familial role. It takes a strong pastor to help her work through these transferred emotions.” (14) She is in a weakened position. She can only find healing in a safe environment where she is free to be honest, to disclose secrets, to feel, and to learn who God truly created her to be. Her relationship with her pastor should be that environment where she finds freedom, strength, peace and a sense of wholeness.
“It is in our faith in the professional’s abilities to respond to our needs that enables us to comply automatically and without hesitation. Before we confer our faith, however, we have to believe that professional will place our needs before their own. This inherent ethos of care has the force of a profound and, in effect, sacred moral authority. For us to follow their lead into unknown territory assumes and, therefore, requires a depth of commitment from professionals that raises the relationship to a sacred covenant of fidelity and obligation. Rooted in Biblical and spiritual tradition, the covenant between us (clergy/congregant), is currently expressed through professional codes and statements of purpose. Law, therapy, medicine, teaching, and religion are professions that enshrine a meaningfulness to their calling, an avowal to a higher purpose. Professionals who enter these fields implicitly take a solemn vow of personal dedication to their social responsibility. They are granted the rights of power over other people’s lives. In return for this privilege, they promise to abide by and keep sacrosanct certain practices and ideals.” (15) It is not a secular contract.
“Conservative churches deny the existence of sexual misconduct of clergy as long as possible. When they cannot deny it any longer, they deal with it as a matter of the pastor’s adultery, ignoring the issue of professional ethics.” (16) Most churches do not have the policies and procedures in place to monitor and discipline clergy. Under the guidelines of the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute, a goal for this church will be to, “Develop models of intervention, psychological healing, restitution, and recovery of a community of trust in collaboration with such persons as the victim, the offender, the religious leaders, and those in helping professions.” (17)
The third and final session during this immediate time of crisis will focus on the church’s responsibility to the pastor and his family, the victim and her family, the congregation, and the community.
It is the church’s responsibility to relieve the offending pastor of his sacred office. God requires fidelity to His commandments at all times. The church will make provisions to assist the pastor and his family in getting proper counseling, and provide the opportunity for them to heal spiritually and emotionally. At all times, the pastor and his family will be addressed tactfully, in love, and with compassion. Efforts will be made to restore the pastor to the church, but not his position, when the genuine fruits of repentance are manifested in his life. (18) The associate pastor will assume the responsibilities of the senior pastor position at this time.
The church’s responsibility to the congregation will be to provide ongoing spiritual, emotional and educational support in the coming months as needed. The consulting pastor will be available by appointment for specific individual needs, as will the board of elders, and the associate pastor.
The church’s responsibility to the victim and her family will be to provide them with a safe and compassionate haven where they can be heard and validated. The church will provide the financial, psychological, and medical resources necessary for healing.
One of the most important things to the victim is to be heard, understood, comforted and believed. She needs to be treated with dignity. The victim never wished to bring harm to the church, her pastor, his family or anyone else. As a church, as children of God, we are concerned about her soul.
It is important to remember that she was very vulnerable when she sought pastoral counseling. She feels like a lost child in her church family. She feels shame. Shame can become a disease that completely erodes the ‘self’. We are to be her companions on her journey to healing. The pastoral consultant, as well as the chairman of the board of elders, will be available to meet one on one with the victim and/or her family at anytime they request such intervention.
The biblical story of the woman who suffered from hemorrhaging for twelve years can give us Godly wisdom in this situation. No doctor could cure her. She heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched His cloak. She was immediately made well. Jesus turned to the crowd, and said , “Who touched my clothes? and His disciples said to Him, “You see the crowd pressing in on You; how can You say, ‘Who touched me?’ Jesus looked around to see who had done it. The woman came in fear and trembling, fell down before Him. Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5:25-34). Though each healing journey is different, one thing is sure, it takes time. “It is requires patience, stamina, and hope.” (19)
“Most reported cases are not dealt with in a healthy way. One thing that makes it hard for the victim to understand that she was truly exploited and violated is when her church family does not understand that it was abuse.
Churches often not only blame her, but rally behind the offender who abused his power. She faces the church’s rejection, which causes her to experience another wound on top of an existing wound. Many victims will say that the injuries received from the pastor do not compare to the wounds received from the church.” (20) A healthy response from the church is to show grace, be her safety net, and her shelter in the storm. We are to be the Body of Christ.
The following excerpts (see link) from a poem written by a survivor of pastoral abuse will be shared in this session in the hopes that the congregation will gain further insight into the pain the victim experiences. It is titled, “Little Girl’s Soul in a Woman’s Body.” (21).
The church’s responsibility to the community if the inappropriate actions of the pastor were made public, is to offer its regrets and inform the community of the steps it will take to address what has happened. If the situation is not known outside the church, members of the congregation should not engage in any form of gossip. To do so would not only be a sin before God, but would bring further shame and pain to the pastor and the victim.
Any congregant approached with questions from people of the community outside
the church should keep their comments short, compassionate, and truthful.
The pastoral care outlined in this paper provides Biblically sound and compassionate guidelines, and a plan of care consistent with the righteous, gracious and merciful teachings of Christ. Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Shepherd gives His life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not in this flock, and I must bring them also. They will listen to My voice, and there will be one flock and one Shepherd.” (John 10:11,16)
“Human sexuality is sacred; misuse of power underlies all forms of sexual compromise, compromise that violates human dignity and harms individuals and communities both emotionally and spiritually. Healing and restoration are possible for survivors, offenders, and their communities through a complex and painful process. However, truth telling and justice making are integral to change and healing in individuals and institutions.” (22)
“Promises of Love and Forgiveness”
“Arise and go to your Father. He will meet you a great way off. If you take even one step toward Him in repentance, He will hasten to enfold you in His arms of infinite love. His ear is open to the cry of the contrite soul. The first reaching out of the heart after God is known to Him. Never a prayer is offered, however faltering, never a tear is shed, however secret, never a sincere desire after God is cherished, however feeble, but the Spirit of God goes forth to meet it. Even before the prayer is uttered or the yearning of the heart made known, grace from Christ goes forth to meet the grace that is working upon the human soul.” (23)
1. Hopkins, Nancy Meyer. The Congregational Response
to Clergy Betrayals of Trust. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1998.
* The Hope of Survivors is a ministry of compassion
providing support, hope and encouragement for victims of clergy sexual abuse
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Please note: The Hope of Survivors does not necessarily agree with or endorse all the information contained in these articles. We recognize that various denominations have different heirarchies and that this proposed model for healing the church in crisis may need to be modified to suit that particular denomination. Education of the issue of clergy sexual abuse and misconduct, and how to respond to it, is key.