Remember the names Ted Haggard, Eddie Long, and Jack Schaap? Scandal among evangelical pastors has been so steady that wikipedia has a list of evangelical scandals.
While working on a chapter for an upcoming book, I had the blessing of researching the moral failures of several prominent church pastors. I say “blessing” because it was enlightening to observe some common dynamics and failures in the scandals. In most cases, men who should have been disqualified were back in their pulpits or establishing new ministries within months. In most cases, churches were seriously injured by the transgressions and hurt further by the inadequate efforts at redress. In all the cases, the offending pastor received more attention and support than the victims of his abuse or deceit. It was a sobering exercise.
The effects are devastating. Two researchers at Baylor University have summarized the social and psychological effects of clergy sexual misconduct on congregations . Studies:
suggest that the results for the offended include self-blame; shame; loss of community and friends if forced to relocate either to escape the community’s judgment or to escape an angry offender who has been discovered or reported; spiritual crisis and loss of faith; family crisis and divorce; psychological distress, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder; physiological illness; and failed or successful suicide attempts.
All of this carnage begins with a process researchers call “grooming.”
Grooming includes expressions of admiration and concern, affectionate gestures and touching, talking about a shared project, and sharing of personal information (Carnes, 1997; see also Garland, 2006). Grooming may be gradual and subtle, desensitizing the congregant to increasingly inappropriate behavior while rewarding her for tolerance of that behavior. Offenders may use religious language to frame the relationship, such as “You are an answer to my prayer; I asked God for someone who can share my deepest thoughts, prayers, and needs and he sent me you” (Liberty, 2001, p. 85). Grooming is essentially seduction in a relationship in which a religious leader holds spiritual power over the congregant.
Garland and Argueta’s study focused primarily on identifying the conditions that permit clergy sexual misconduct. From their interviews of adult victims of clergy abuse, they found five factors that contribute to the behavior. In their own labels and opening paragraph description:
1. Lack of Personal or Community Response to Situations that “Normally” Call for Action
Most (n=23) of the offended said that they had felt uncertain of what was happening in their relationships with their religious leaders. Spouses and friends and other congregational leaders also were uncertain about the meaning of what they observed, and so they did nothing. Their trust of the leader was stronger than their trust of their own perceptions of the situation. In fact, it altered how they interpreted what they were experiencing.
2. Culture of Niceness
American culture expects people to be “nice” to others, most particularly those with whom we have caring relationships. By “nice,” we mean overlooking or ignoring the behavior of others that we know to be socially inappropriate rather than naming the behavior and risking embarrassing, angering, or hurting them. The offended we interviewed were living by this cultural norm, even in the face of offenders’ blatantly inappropriate behavior. In other words, they were not simply normalizing the offenders’ behavior and questioning their own perceptions; they recognized that the behavior was sexual and thus inappropriate and still they did not object.
3. Lack of accountability
Our world has increasingly privatized communication and consequent ability to avoid oversight or accountability to others. Instead of letters in a family mailbox, where anyone in the family can see that a member has received communication and from whom, letters come to private e-mail accounts out of sight of all who do not know the password. Instead of phones being located in public space, such as the kitchen wall, they are now in a purse or on a belt and can be used anywhere. Such communication allows a relationship attachment to form and deepen, removed from observation by others. Many of those interviewed told of long and frequent conversations over the phone or through e-mail with their offenders.
4. Overlapping and Multiple Roles
Of the 46 offended congregants we interviewed, more than half (n = 24) were in a formal counseling relationship with the religious leader. An additional 16 reported that they were regularly meeting alone with their religious leader for “spiritual direction.” They described spiritual direction as a private meeting between the leader and congregant in which the congregant shared personal struggles and concerns and the leader provided guidance about the use of spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation to deal with those struggles and concerns. The common characteristic of these two groups, together representing 87% of the sample, is that the leader was meeting alone on a regular basis to provide professional services. In some cases, interactions differed from professional counseling relationships with other helping professionals, in that the direction of invitation was reversed. Instead of the congregant asking for help, the religious leader volunteered to provide the congregant with counseling.
5. Trust in the Sanctuary
The congregation and its leaders are expected to be safe, a “sanctuary,” where vulnerabilities will be protected. Congregants expect to be able to confess personal thoughts and struggles to their religious leaders without fear of those confessions being used to manipulate them. Leaders are supposed to be safe sources of guidance and forgiveness. Interviewees recalled that one of the ways the offender gained closeness that led to sexual activity was by using knowledge gained from their confessions as a way to breach what would have been their ability to protect themselves. An expectation of emotional closeness is assumed after sharing deeply personal issues. The closeness is deepened when the other knows aspects of one’s life few others know—a shared secret. This emotional closeness gave the offender additional power as the keeper of the offended’s secrets.
Congregants trust their leaders to protect their families; these leaders are those that perform weddings and are expected to be present and supportive to congregational families through times of crisis. Instead, these offenders often denigrated the women’s spouses, driving a wedge into what they knew was a vulnerable marriage. In the aftermath of the death of her child, by definition a marital crisis, Paula’s pastor told her that her husband would never be able to meet her needs. Delores remembers the tension between her husband, who had a leadership role in the church, and the pastor as the pastor began to initiate a relationship with her.
Experience, media stories, and research all warn of the damage clergy misconduct causes. However, most congregations continue without policies and practices to protect themselves from the fall of its leaders. Of course, no church can be completely protected and we don’t want to breed an atmosphere of undeserved suspicion and mistrust. But a little forethought and planning could be the ounce of prevention that prevents the need for a pound of cure. Garland and Argueta’s findings hint at some protective measures that might serve pastor and people.
On the back end, Eric Reed’s 2006 article, “Restoring Fallen Pastors,” provides at least some preliminary questions to get congregations started. If leadership teams think through these questions, they’d at least develop a skeletal response for responding to the moral failure of leaders.
- Which offences require absence from ministry?
- Is exposure to pornography an equally serious offense as an actual sexual affair?
- How long is the pastor to be out of ministry?
- What are the requirements for counseling and who will oversee it?
- Will there be any financial support for the pastor and the family?
- Will the pastor’s spouse be included in counseling and in meetings with the denomination or restoration officials?
- After the restoration process, how will the pastor find a new position, if deemed qualified?
- And what will the new congregation be told about his indiscretion and period of removal from ministry?
 Diana R. Garland and Christen Argueta, “How Clergy Misconduct Happens: A Qualitative Study of First-Hand Accounts,” Social Work and Christianity, 37 (1), p. 5.
 Ibid., p. 4.