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