Why Pastors Have Affairs: Sacred Boundaries and Sexual Abuse

"He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself" (Proverbs 6:32). Adultery is destructive, and when pastors break their sacred boundaries and abuse those they are supposed to serve, the reasons can be baffling to others.

Sometimes, sadly, even most of the time when boundaries are violated, some clergy are serial abusers who use their positions of power to victimize others, often many people over time. These predators are "wolves in shepherds clothing." In such cases, it's a deep sickness that leaves a trail of secrecy, intimidation, and destruction over years and across many congregations. Clergy abuse is remarkably common--in one study, 12% of pastors admitted to having sex with a parishioner, and only 23% of victims ever reported misconduct to church officials. The Hope of Survivors organization provides support, hope, and healing for the victims of pastoral sexual abuse.

Sometimes, clergy adultery results more from the same intimacy needs we all share and serves as a reminder for us all. A deep hunger for intimacy and affirmation, fed by small amounts of connection, can grow into large amounts. But given the position of power that pastors have in their communities, even "simple adultery" is still abuse. it violates marriages, violates the church, and violates victims, all by someone entrusted with spiritual leadership.

For all of us, intimacy has several facets, or doors. In every relationship at home, work, or play, we open those doors a certain amount as we build trust with one another. Sometimes, we open them inappropriately. We might name four doors of intimacy: physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual, and these are all connected.

Appropriate Openings

In our daily interactions, we continually open and close each one an appropriate amount, depending on the type of relationship. Chatting happily with a store clerk opens an emotional door just crack. Solving a problem with a co-worker opens an intellectual door a bit. At home, however, we strive to open these doors widely so our marriages and families stay deeply invested with one another.

Moreover, each of these doors are connected to the others--when one is wide open it pulls to open the others. Young couples becoming intellectually and spiritually intimate naturally invites more emotional or physical intimacy, for example, and vice versa--a couple in the midst of an emotional conflict might hesitate to pray together. We continually work to open some and close others appropriately.

Pastors, as an occupational group, can face unusual pressures in maintaining intimacy in the right places. Some fall into sin by practicing bad boundaries and betraying their flock. Some abusers use intimacy in one area to manipulate their victims, using power to prey on emotion and take sexual advantage.

Intellectual Intimacy

Intellectually, like many vocations, pastors can be very busy people, finding it difficult to make time to invest at home or even just relax. That's a normal hazard of many professionals. But pastors may be told that meeting the needs of the church is God's work and his (or her) first calling in life, even before family. He may spend long hours discussing church work at the office and have limited time for intellectual intimacy at home and sharing common interests with the spouse and kids. Such a misplaced vocation leaves home life taken for granted and intellectual intimacy withering.

Emotional Intimacy

Emotionally, the minister is often the first person to hear about the concerns and heartaches of his congregation. That requires an unusual amount of emotional investment as part of the job. Furthermore, because of confidentiality, he or she often cannot share those emotional burdens with their spouse. That raises natural but definite barriers at home. The minister may also be emotionally fed and affirmed by people who share intimate details and personal emotional concerns. A pastor may begin to reciprocate that emotional investment. Barriers at home and affirmation on the job present a self-reinforcing danger to pastors. They must be very careful where they invest their emotional energy.

It must also be noted that abusive pastors can use the emotional vulnerabilities that others share with them to manipulate victims, often alternating sharing their own supposed vulnerability and need for the victim's attention with inappropriate demands for more private interactions.

Spiritual Intimacy

Spiritual intimacy happens when we pray together and look to each other's spiritual needs. Spiritual care for others is at the heart of the minister's role. Spending time with the spiritually fragile, praying over hurting or frightened parishioners, wresting through hardships or hard questions, these are all part of the job, and all push the doors of intimacy just a bit wider. Spiritual intimacy in the home, praying for and with your spouse and family, are valuable ways that spiritual intimacy is built. Yet, a pastor's spouse often sits alone on Sundays and misses the blessing of shared spiritual practice together. Building spiritual intimacy in the parsonage takes an intentional effort, especially when it's your day job.

Abusive pastors can use even prayer and spiritual practice to cover their misdeeds, giving a sheen of spirituality to requests for more and more inappropriate intimacy and investment from the victim, as if greater transgressions were somehow God's will.

Physical Intimacy

Physically, a pastoral role constantly calls for some level of physical presence. It might be a hand on shoulder during prayer, or a closed door for private confession and conversation, or even just being a leader who stands in front of people and is constantly seen. Being physically present is an important part of spiritual care. But, escalating physical privacy or finding excuses to spend time with someone who is already intellectually or emotionally close should be a major warning sign that a relationship is becoming inappropriately intimate.

Serially abusive pastors may start with apparent emotional vulnerability and then escalate slowly to increasing physical interactions, often with apologies and prayers even as they continue to push sexual boundaries that should be sacred to their office.

One Leads to the Others

While none of these aspects of intimacy are exclusive to the ministry, being a spiritual caregiver requires significantly greater levels of intimacy that can become dangerous to any pastor (or any layperson) if good boundaries and self-care are not observed. If anyone has not been investing well at home, increasing outside emotional and spiritual intimacy may invite inappropriate physical intimacy with the wrong person. 

We might imagine a pastor, one who regularly spiritually prays with the office staff, intellectually discusses church matters, emotionally connects over hurts and trials, and spends time physically alone with staff members. Imagine that pastor being unhappy at home and finding deeply needed affirmation through a work relationship with someone equally lonely and with similar interests. Without good boundaries and self-care, that stage is set for trouble. Good conversation leads to heartfelt confessions, which leads to more time alone to talk. They might find themselves creating reasons to do "the Lord's work" together more and more, until things spin out of control. None of this is an excuse, however. As professional caregivers, pastors should know the hazards and their own fallibility.

Preventing Infidelity

The bigger question is how ministers can avoid intimacy developing where it does not belong. Here are some suggestions for preserving healthy boundaries.

  • Stay strong in your relationship with God. A minister who is more focused on personal leadership skills rather than on God's glory is walking into temptation. A pastor should not be arrogant, but remember they are but a fragile, broken tool in God's toolbox.
  • Cultivate healthy relationships at home that allow for all the doors of intimacy to be open. Invest at home first and foremost so you are strengthened for dealing with others. You can share the concerns on your heart without violating confidentiality. You can discuss feeling overwhelmed by the needs of the congregation without spelling out what each need is.
  • If your marriage is unhappy, get help, and get it now. Seek counseling in another town if necessary. Your marriage is for life, and it comes before your ministry. If your marriage falters, your ministry will crash.
  • Likewise, congregations should demand pastors take time for family and time for your spouse. Your home is the foundation of your ministry--if it blows up, so does the witness of the church. The pastor should have support within his congregation to hold him accountable for preserving family time and avoiding burnout.
  • Put safeguards on your interactions, especially with those of the opposite sex. Meet privately with a parishioner only a limited number of times before referring to a counselor. Avoid working alone with someone of the opposite sex--it is better to have multiple members of a team work together if possible. Make sure your office door has a window to allow greater accountability while still allowing for confidential conversation.
  • Find a mentor or counselor with whom you can debrief on a regular basis. This is good for not only your marriage, but your ministry as a whole.
  • Avoid sharing your personal challenges about your spouse with coworkers. This is a red flag for any marriage, a sign that emotional investments are being made in the wrong place. Find a mentor or counselor instead.
  • Be aware of your emotional state, and consider explicitly how you are being intimate with others. The doors of intimacy reinforce one another. With whom are you intellectually or emotionally close at work? How will you manage the other doors? There are natural pressures on intimacy for pastors, which makes it all the more crucial you intentionally cultivate and protect them.

More Resources

Pastors have a sacred duty to care for Christ's sheep, and never to abuse them for their own gain. For more resources on abuse by clergy or other ministry leaders, visit the Safe Church Abuse Resources page.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Steven Koster

Steven Koster is a writer, speaker, and producer with Family Fire. Formerly the Director of ReFrame Media, Family Fire's parent organization, Steven currently serves at Grace Church and consults on ministry through The Joshua Lab. He also leads a hospitality ministry at The Parsonage Inn and enjoys family tree research as time allows. Steven and his wife Deb enjoy leading marriage retreats and family seminars to encourage people in their most intimate relationships. The Kosters are the parents of three awesome young adults and reside in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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