Ministers, Boundaries, and Sex


A statistical research by FASICLD (Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development) in 1998 interviewed 1050 pastors It showed that about 30% of the pastors surveyed had (or are having) a sexually inappropriate encounter or relationship with a parishioner. Other studies are commonly lower like around 10%, and one done in 2016 showed it as below 3%. This last number seems quite low. The average in the United States for general population extramarital affairs is around 10-15%. I doubt that pastors are doing that much better than the general population. Oops Word on Big Red Button Correct Mistake

You can read articles on these:  1998      and     2016

There still seems to be a significant drop in extramarital affairs for  pastors. Lying seems hardly likely to account completely for a drop from 30% to 3%. According to the 2016 study, at least three things were suggested:

  • Somewhat different target population. The 1998 population was denominationally broader. They were selected from conferences where there can be a higher number of pastors from dysfunctional churches. Personally, I see little to indicate that Evangelicals are less likely to violate moral boundaries than those who are “mainline.” If there is a lesser likelihood for an Evangelical pastor to sin in this manner, I would have to think that the autonomy of many Evangelical churches would lead to a lack of accountability to more than compensate for any surmised greater reluctance to commit adultery.
  • Less stress of the pastors. The pastors selected come from typically healthier churches. Healthier churches are commonly less stressful. Stress leads to burnout, and burnout to acting out.
  • Churches commonly treat pastors better now than they did 20 years before. Possible.
  • There is a greater understanding of the dangers and appropriate precautions related to sexual sins. I would like to think that is true.

But I wonder. Back in 1986, a study by the APA (American Psychiatric Association) found that there was a common series of steps associated with psychiatrist-patient sex. They found a series of steps that consistently showed up. (You can read this article “Psychiatrist-Patient Sexual Contact: Results of a National Survey, I: Prevalence.” by Nanette Gartrell, Judith Herman, et al., American Journal of Psychiatry, 1985, Vol. 143, No. 9.)

The series of steps:

  1. Calling the patient by the first name.
  2. Extending the duration of sessions.
  3. Rearranging appointment times outside of working hours, at the patient’s request.
  4. Giving personal information about oneself to the patient.
  5. Hugging.
  6. Fondling.
  7. Intercourse.

The problem is that in ministerial setting, often many or all of the first five steps are already in play.

  • In the church or ministry setting, first names are very common.
  • In many church cultures, it is considered in bad taste to be too strict as far as abiding by the clock.
  • Also in many churches, the pastor is expected to have flexible work hours, so counseling in the evenings or weekends would not be considered strange or inappropriate.
  • Pastors commonly know their client in a pastor-parishioner relationship that is commonly quite personal.
  • Hugging is often a common part of greeting in many churches.

The counseling environment for pastors is especially problematic for pastors… especially for pastors who are not properly trained in pastoral counseling.  Thom Rainer in his blog, noted anecdotally, the problem of transference in the counseling setting. This concern was also made by Robert Schwartz back in 1989  (“A Psychiatrist’s Vioew of Transference and Countertransference in the Pastoral Relationship” by Richard S. Schwartz Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. Vol. 43 #1, 1989).

So here are some suggestions:

  1.  Avoid burnout. Burnout tends to come from not knowing one’s personal limits. We have limited time and energy.
  2. Have balance. Maintain healthy relationships, with self, with God, with others, and with one’s physical environment. (Consider the four-fold healthy growth in Luke 2:52). Some emphasize having a strong spiritual or devotional life. I think that is true but that is too simple. To fail to have good balanced self-care in terms of physical, psychoemotional, social, and spiritual, will lead to breakdown.
  3. Know thyself. We all have areas of weakness. Recognize what they are, honestly. Knowledge is the first step to having control.
  4. Establish boundaries. It is okay to seem prudish at times. but establish wise boundaries (breaking the 7-step path above) is not a sign of weakness, but of wisdom and strength.
  5. Understand the challenges related to pastoral counseling.

Regarding #5, Scwartz (mentioned above) gives three suggestions, to deal with the issue of transference (and countertransference) in the counseling setting:

  • Education regarding transference, and how it can lead to problems of this sort in a counseling envirnoment.
  • Self-knowledge of one’s own weaknesses or  characteristic distortions. This can be done through introspection… but in many cases, therapy would be helpful.
  • Open oneself up to peers, supervisors, accountability partners for a distanced, unbiased perspective.

Sexual misconduct for a minister is a sin. However, that is only the start, as it has huge ramifications for the minister, family, parishioners, and community. At risk of stating the obvious— it is foolish to be foolish. Balance, self-understanding, and boundaries are important to avoid pitfalls that are still all too common.

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