Sexual sin has been with the ministry for as long as anyone can remember. But the problem seems to have gotten worse. We live in a more sexualized culture. New demands and stresses are being placed on our ministers everyday.
If the rate of sexual sin among male Church of Christ ministers is around 20% (some Christian counselors would set the number even higher!), then nearly every congregation will be hurt this way some time. The minister may not be guilty (or caught!) until he moves on to another church, but most large churches will have ministers serve them who, at some time or other, get fired for sexual misconduct.
If the odds of our preachers’ contracting tuberculosis were this high, we’d get them all inoculated or make them wear surgical masks. We’d certainly look for a preventative of some sort.
And so we should for sexual sin. We need to diligently look for ways to save our ministers from themselves–and in so doing, save our congregations from unspeakable heartache.
Prevention: why ministers fall
I don’t think there’s any perfect solution. But we can improve the odds. We start by considering what drives these men toward sexual sin.
1. Society is highly sexualized, and preachers see the same TV shows and movies as the rest of us. And they have computers with Internet access. Many start with Internet pornography, although I think that’s usually more effect than cause. Many experts (and I’m certainly not one) say this is where it often starts.
2. Men who become preachers often get caught up in an ego trip. Every Sunday hundreds of people tell them that they’re wonderful. They love the “strokes.” They become hooked. When the strokes slow down, perhaps because they’ve been at the same church for a long time, they go looking for some other form of ego satisfaction. And an adoring sex partner does just that.
3. Some ego-driven preachers marry a woman who’ll treat them like kings. Their wives just loved being around this witty, smart, charismatic personality. But when the first baby came, or when she got a job out of the house, she was no longer nearly so adoring. And he went looking for adoration elsewhere.
4. Tragically, some preachers were abused as children. Homosexual abuse can cause a heterosexual man to doubt his sexuality. To prove his “straightness,” he seduces women. This makes him feel more like a man and helps him cope with the shame of his earlier abuse.
5. Some preachers just lack self-control. And preachers are often tempted. When a preacher counsels a woman whose husband is leaving her, she often feels the need to prove to herself that she’s still attractive. The preacher, unlike her husband, seems sympathetic and compassionate. Her ego is damaged by her departing husband. And so an affair with the preacher makes her feel feminine and sexy (I seduced the preacher!) and even gives the zing of a secret vengeance against her husband.
Of course, a well-trained counselor knows to watch out for this. But some men just have trouble resisting temptation.
6. The most common source of adultery nowadays starts with a “work wife,” a woman at the office who becomes friends with the minister. Soon he’s confiding in her and asking advice. They share lunch regularly. They’re “just friends.” Rather than sharing his needs and feelings with his wife, he becomes emotionally close to his friend.
These relationships often result in affairs. Before the affair is physical, the affair is called an “emotional affair,” meaning the man and woman have an emotional connection like a husband and wife, which makes physical intimacy all but inevitable.
7. Sometimes the preacher is overworked. Some churches make them work too hard. Some are just driven internally to work too hard. Because he’s been “good” above and beyond the call of duty, he feels justified in dabbling in a little sin–maybe some Internet pornography, maybe a strip club on an out-of-town trip, maybe flirting with some pretty-young-thing just to feel the old juices flowing. After all, there’s no real harm, and he deserves it.
Pretty soon, he becomes hooked on the thrill, the secrecy, and the naughtiness. He likes the double life and amazes himself at how smart he is at fooling his wife and church! It’s a game. And then one night it goes too far. (Of course, it really went too far long before.)
8. Ministers often feel that if they admit marital problems, they’ll be judged harshly by their elders or the members. They may be reluctant to seek counseling for fear of appearing less than perfect. Over time, the unresolved tensions explode into adultery.
I’m no psychologist, and I’ve likely gotten some of this wrong. I find it hard to imagine why a man would jeopardize his marriage, family, career, and reputation for a night or two of sex–but they do.
Prevention: reducing the odds
With these root causes in mind, here are some ideas on preventing sexual failure by ministers–again, recognizing that there’s no complete cure. We can only reduce the odds.
* At least one elder should make a point of taking care of the minister. It’s his job to be sure he’s not overworked. He should be sensitive to signs of trouble at home–working late unnecessarily, not inviting his wife on trips, and such.
Obviously, the preacher will have no problem slipping past the elder to visit a woman’s bedroom. The elder isn’t his watchdog! Rather, the elder is charged with monitoring the preacher’s emotional health, not just about fears of sexual misconduct, but to take care of a friend and valued member of the leadership team.
Different elders might approach the task differently: playing golf together, praying together, going to ministry seminars together … The point is to become genuinely good friends so that you know this good man always has a close personal relationship within the congregation.
* The ministers should be asked whether they’d like to have a pornography filter on the church computers. They’d be insulted if the church just imposes a filter. They’re annoying. They sometimes block legitimate sites. But wise ministers will ask for the filter.
* The employee handbook should allow elders to see minister’s telephone logs, charge card receipts, and computer records.
* The originals of these documents should be reviewed by the church’s bookkeeper or other staff member. If a preacher goes to a strip club and uses the church charge card (as often happens), he shouldn’t be able to conceal the charge. If he’s going to buy candies for his lover, at least make him use his own money!
* The church should insist on a strict sexual accountability policy. Here’s a sample I’ve pulled together from some Internet resources, written by preachers for preachers:
Many Church of Christ ministers have had their marriages and ministries destroyed by sexual unfaithfulness. The fact is that ministers are often placed in situations that encourage temptation. The best solution is to flee those situations. It would be foolish to suppose that mere willpower would be enough. There are scores of shamed ministers who thought they had willpower.
• Therefore, each minister will provide the Elders with a written sexual conduct accountability plan for their approval. Unless otherwise approved by the Elders, the accountability plan will include at least the following:
The minister will have an accountability/support group. A minister needs the company of people other than his spouse who understand his weaknesses and are committed to help keep his actions pure. If the minister has a support group established by the Elders, the support group may serve this function. The group should meet at least once every couple of weeks, and woven into the group’s time of fellowship and prayer should be these questions:
1. Have you spent adequate time in Bible Study and prayer?
2. Have you given priority time to your spouse and family?
3. Have you exposed yourself to any sexually explicit material?
4. Have you been in any type of compromising situations?
5. Have you lied about any of these questions?
• Understand sexual harassment. Ministers, no matter how witty and charming, are not exempt from the prohibition on harassing behavior. Married ministers may not flirt with anyone not his spouse. Single ministers may not flirt with a married member or with a teenager. The sexual harassment prohibitions stated in this Handbook apply with special force to the ministers.
• Install clear windows. A minister should never be alone in a room with anyone, especially a member of the opposite sex-unless others are able see what’s going on inside. All minister’s office doors must have a clear glass window and this window may not be covered or blocked.
• Defer to your spouse. If the minister’s spouse recommends against the hiring of a particular employee of the opposite sex, such as an intern or secretary, the minister should accept the spouse’s advice even if the minister doesn’t understand or agree with the spouse’s concerns.
• Three’s a crowd. If the only time a minister can meet someone is after office hours-and let’s face it, many of ministerial meetings take place at night-he shouldn’t meet at the Church building. He or she should schedule late appointments at a well-lit restaurant, the mall, or some other public place. Or schedule one day each week where a Church secretary comes in late so he or she can stay until all the minister’s appointments are over. The “three’s a crowd” rule also means that the minister can’t give someone of the opposite sex a ride-which, at times, will be a major inconvenience-unless others are in the car.
• Travel with a friend. It’s not by accident that most major airports are surrounded by strip clubs and adult shops. Men on the road take advantage of their anonymity to do things they would never risk closer to home. The ideal solution is for the minister to travel with his spouse or a friend. If that option isn’t possible, he should take extra precautions. While a minister is traveling with Church members, teens, or children, he or she should have an adult of the same sex sleep in the minister’s room with him or her. If the teen minister, for example, is traveling with teens, then a parent of the same sex should share his room. If a minister attends a seminar with a member of the opposite sex, such as a campus minister traveling with an intern, he or she must sleep with someone of the same sex or else one of the two may not make the trip.
• Be careful around children. Many a minister has been in trouble due to accusations of pedophilia. Unfortunately, in today’s society, with so many cases of proven clergy pedophilia, any minister must be aware of the risk of being accused of improper relationships with children of either sex. It’s imperative that a minister follow the “three’s a crowd” rule when around children.
• Failure to follow your accountability plan makes defense nearly impossible. If a minister is accused of a sexual impropriety while in violation of his accountability plan, he or she will be subject to great difficulty in demonstrating his or her innocence and salvaging his or her reputation, marriage, and career. Such accusations are always difficult to defend. Allowing oneself to be accused of sexual impropriety while in violation of Church policy will greatly exacerbate the problem.
• Beware the jilted suitor. Be aware that some members will make romantic advances toward a minister, even a married minister. When the minister rejects these advances, the spurned suitor sometimes seeks revenge by making a false accusation of sexual harassment, a sexual relationship, or sexual abuse. The only way to defend oneself from such an accusation is to have had a witness present. Worse yet, some ministers are often insensitive to this danger, actually enjoying the attention. If your spouse or a friend tells you that a member’s attentions ought to be avoided, take the warning seriously no matter what your instincts tell you-without exception.
* Don’t overwork your minister–and then blame him if his marriage is in trouble! Good stewardship does not mean squeezing as much work out of the man as possible. Rather, treat him with respect and love, be considerate of his time and family, and you’ll be rewarded with a remarkably loyal minister who’s an example of a great family man. Don’t let him burn out. Don’t even let him burn himself out!
Make sure your ministers take their vacations and take most of them with their families. Make sure they don’t work nights unnecessarily. Limit how many out-of-town speaking engagements they may take. Some ministers wear themselves out seeking honorariums from preaching meetings and seminars. Don’t let their pursuit of money or fame hurt your congregation or their families.
* If a minister’s marriage seems to be struggling, urge counseling by a Christian therapist, pay all the bill, and keep it very, very secret–even from your wives. Don’t condemn him or look down on him. He may be at fault–but he may be heroically trying to salvage a relationship troubled through no fault of his own. Give him the benefit of the doubt.
* For reasons that should be obvious, women have a “sixth sense” of when a man is on the hunt. If a lady friend tells you that a minister has a roving eye or is on the make–believe her. Confront him. Of course, you likely won’t be able to prove anything, but there’s no harm in impressing on the minister that you’ve noticed! Be delicate, but be firm.
* Talk about sex with your ministers. Warn them of the dangers. Put someone in charge of enforcing the sexual accountability policy. Hold the staff to high standards. Lovingly discipline ministers who break the rules.
* If a minister develops an inappropriate work relationship with a woman, end it. Totally. Don’t let your ministers play with fire. If a minister spends too much time on the phone or over coffee or lunch with a female intern or secretary, fire the intern or secretary (or the minister). Somehow or other completely sever the relationship.
Don’t allow the relationship to continue at a lesser pace. Stop it in its tracks. (Read Shirley P. Glass, Not “Just Friends” regarding emotional affairs) . Be generous with severance, etc.
Let the staff know if they get too close to a member of the opposite sex, they may well get their friend (or even themselves) fired. Don’t wait for physical intimacy before you intervene.
* Ask the ministers to make a list of what the consequences of sexual sin would be in their lives (like telling their daughter that they have to move because Daddy lied to their mother). Ask them to write it down. Then suggest they use it as a screen saver or glue it into their Bible’s binding. They might read the list with their accountability group regularly. (This is an idea from another website by preachers for preachers.)
* Limit counseling by your ministers. Some denominations establish an absolute limit of three visits. Once a minister sees someone three times for a particular problem, he has to refer her to a professional counselor. This sounds prudent to me. Your insurer will thank you, too, because most ministers aren’t licensed or qualified as counselors and shouldn’t be dealing with truly difficult situations outside their training. (An alternative is that he may instead refer her to another counselor within the church, perhaps an elder–but elders can fall to the same temptations as ministers–or, better yet, a qualified woman.)
* I’ve not come up with a way to check ego-driven preachers. Some of our most effective, most “dynamic” preachers are this way. Sadly, there’s one cure that works: humiliation. It might be wise to remind your ministers now and again that they can either work on humility now or wait for God to beat it into them through humbling experiences!
* Finally, just as you must do with regard to your sexual harassment policy, there should be a means whereby other ministers or employees can report their suspicions without fear of retaliation. This should be an elder who is not close to the minister. There should be an alternative or two, in cash the primary elder is unavailable or has a conflict.
The retaliation a fellow employee might fear is either (a) being fired for a “false” charge or (b) being fired or abused by a minister who is the employee’s supervisor. Therefore, the elder may have to promise confidentiality to the reporting employee, even as to the other elders. Every situation is different. The point is that the staff must know that they can safely report their suspicions, even without absolute proof (which rarely exists).
The theory is that this policy will allow a wise eldership to intervene early, perhaps well before physical sin occurs, possibly preventing a truly horrible sin — and rescuing the minister’s career.
Sexual sin by a minister is awful. It’s traumatic. No eldership wants to go through it, but few are willing to do much to prevent it–or even reduce the odds. As a result, ministers ruin their careers, suffer divorce, and churches are split more than really should be the case.
Take the time to do what you can. You’ll never know whether you’ve prevented a scandal. Nobody praises an eldership for scandals that never happened, you know. But God will know, and your congregation and ministers will be greatly blessed by your efforts.