Thursday, August 9, 2018

Male Clergy Sex with Women- Paths to Destruction & Prevention

Although it should not be a surprise, the sexual assault of women by male clergy continues to surprise congregants and church boards. Perhaps its time to look at the facts and take preventative action. There are lessons that can lead to prevention.

Recently, a clergy sex story made news in the U.S. Here’s a headline from the Chicago Tribune.

“Willow Creek pastor, elders step down,
admit mishandling allegations against Bill Hybels”

What reportedly happened at Willow Creek can provide lessons for every churchgoer in the world because the problem is common in Christian churches and in society at large. I do not wish to pick on Christians. I just do not know about leaders in other religions. As a Christian, I have seen far too many scandals make national news stories so, I hope people will wake up and do something to minimize future destruction; hence, my attempt to draw lessons from the Willow Creek story and other similar stories.


The Clergy Sex Problem

According to the news reports, the Willow Creek pastor was accused by a woman of sexual harassment over a two-year period. Other women reported sexual harassment. The pastor denied the allegations. The church leaders supported the pastor. The reports of the women were not believed until a tipping point was reached.

The research is fairly clear that many Christians know pastors who have engaged in sexual misconduct with a congregant. The problem is large but does not include almost all clergy as some might be tempted to think by such frequent reports.

A few colleagues and I have studied the problem of pastor misconduct in a series of experimental and survey studies. Twenty plus percent reported knowledge of a pastor who had a sexual problem during ministry. Another study found 69% knew a pastor with a relationship problem in ministry. Keep in mind that no names are disclosed in these studies so it is possible that anonymous participants knew the same pastor. Broader clergy surveys indicate sexual boundary violations in the range of 12 to 15%. (See e.g., Sutton, 2016)

The Impact Problem

As in the news article, the impact of clergy abuse spreads like the expanding circle of rings we see when we toss a rock into a pond. The pain we see in the primary abuse female victims is real. In addition to the internal distress marked by feelings of betrayal and guilt, times of depression, and the effort to keep matters silent while trying to avoid further contact, there is the credibility issue.

When a woman has the courage to come forward, her report is often given less credibility than is the denial by the pastor. When the problem is finally acknowledged, it is often worse than it first seemed. That is, more victims are identified. And every victim has family and friends—often people in the congregation. Consider, will the husbands of women stand by them if they think their wife is guilty of adultery? How will their children deal with a mother who some say had an affair with their pastor? Of course, people can say a lot of nasty things about single or married women who have sexual or romantic relationships with married pastors. Many, if not most, family and friends will deal with powerful feelings of betrayal, anger, and anxiety. There will be sleepless nights and much time spent in distressing conversations—the repeated story recurs in mental life for years.

The pastor usually has a family who suffer greatly—betrayal, humiliation, anger, and anxiety over such basic things like how do we pay the bills now he lost his position. And of course, the loss of a long-term relationship—even if the couple remain married, the relationship will need serious repair. Yes, the perpetrators will have many problems as well—they have lost so much and won’t get a lot of support from those who feel betrayed.

Beyond the immediate impact victims are the members of the congregation. As in the Willow Creek story, people leave the church. Church leaders lose their position—often an important part of their Christian identity—people who felt called to serve can feel they failed in their responsibilities. Every person who supported a pastor has been betrayed. Sometimes congregations divide. Sometimes groups of people move on. Sometimes people lose their faith.

The Investigation Problem

It is certainly common nowadays to call for an investigation. Not all investigators are created equal. But even the best investigators can be deceived. In the absence of firm evidence, the tendency is to assume innocence until a man is proven guilty. Internal investigations by inexperienced church leaders are never appropriate as a place to end an investigation. It is far to easy to be misled by a person who has been trusted. It is too easy to believe that a past mistake would not be repeated. It is too easy to discount a woman. Experienced clergy, attorneys, and psychologists can be among those who ought to be part of an investigation. Finding truth won’t be easy when there is a lack of physical evidence.

Establish Accountability

You will read articles about the importance of accountability. I agree, that’s a good thing. Every church must have a strong board with board members equal to the task of confronting their pastors. Pastors also need accountability pastors. All leaders need accountability partners.

Understand and Assess Narcissism

If you are ever in a church where the congregation applauds the pastor as if he were a celebrity, you might expect trouble. A clergy friend of mine said all pastors are narcissists. That might be a stretch. But perhaps we should consider that those with certain personality traits will harm others and themselves. Darrell Puls (AACC, 2017) reports survey data indicating 31.2% of pastors score in the diagnostic range for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It seems my friend was close to right—even if he exaggerated a bit.

People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, lack empathy for others, and have a strong psychological need for the admiration of others. They take advantage of others in pursuit of their goals. Most, but not all, are men. (Read more at PT). Understanding and assessment can help clergy and other leaders to take steps to modify behavior or set boundaries that will help the pastor and protect vulnerable persons.

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Manage the Balance of Power

In a humble person, legitimate power can be a good thing. People need leaders to accomplish many tasks, including guiding the faithful in churches and Christian organizations. We know power can be abused. Thus, wise groups establish checks and balances to limit the potential for the abuse of power. Senior pastors have power, which must be checked by strong boards and leadership teams empowered to speak up when they disagree with a strong leader. Too often Christians view dissent as questioning God’s anointed or view consensus as evidence that God’s spirit is working in the group. 

Consensus can be an enemy of truth.

Broaden the Moral Foundations of Team Leaders

Religion by nature is conservative. Christianity is no exception. Traditional male leadership is the norm. A pastor’s authority is often respected as God-ordained. The markers of conservative morality are three: Authority, Loyalty, and Purity. These virtues bind people together in community.  When a trusted and respected leader is under fire for any reason, the community binds together to support their leader and their own identity. To balance this conservative triad, church leaders need to include people with strong foundations in two other moral dimensions of Care and Fairness. The latter two aspects of morality are common among those who focus on caring for those harmed by abuse and advocate for the equal treatment of those who are disadvantaged. They may not be favorite people of those focused on authority, loyalty, and purity concerns (Read more, Sutton, 2016).

Sex Education

I empathize with those who argue that problems like those at Willow Creek are not sex problems. The same kinds of arguments are made in regard to the #metoo movement. I’m concerned that the sex problem is minimized.

Most folks will surely agree that the desire for sex is powerful. Almost all people want to have sex. Young people want a lot of sex. And data suggest men want more sex than do women. If I am right, every Bible school, seminary, and online clergy preparation program must provide sex education along with recommendations for establishing interpersonal boundaries. Clergy and church leaders must really understand sexual attraction and all the subtle ways people can become aroused. Humans flirt. Some do not realize the presence of or the effects of their flirtatious behavior. Sex Education won't solve the problem of self-control over sexual activity. Sex education must include self-control strategies.

I’ve written about this sex-morality issue at some length in the book A House Divided and other posts. Keep in mind that sexual attraction is not just heterosexual. Some people are attracted to members of their own sex and some are bisexual. Each culture adds shades of nuance to what people consider sexually attractive. Churches must deal with the reality that their congregants can be attracted to energetic godly men and women. And the people attracted to their male leaders may be teens and women of all ages as well as men of all ages. More and more women are entering church leadership at high levels. Women will also need to deal with sexual attraction experienced by both men and women of all ages.

Evaluate and Correct Forgiveness Theology

In recent decades, forgiveness has taken on some characteristics of a fad as psychological science has established support for a practice mandated in the Bible. The problem is not forgiving a fallen leader but what people think forgiveness entails. Forgiveness does not mean reconciling with an abuser nor does it mean restoring a leader to leadership.

Forgiveness, like the sabbath, is made for people. Forgiveness allows the victim to be freed from the burden of the past. Forgiveness does not mean setting an abuser free to abuse others. Forgiveness is not excusing an offense.

Teach and Practice Boundary Maintenance

In recent years, especially as a result of the #metoo movement, many men who would not think of engaging in sexual activity with another woman at work have become more aware of less overt ways that harassment can occur.

Touchy-feely leaders are in risky territory. Leaders should neither touch nor encourage touch by congregants. Leaders are always in a power position in any organization. Given the high rates of women who have been sexually abused in human societies, it is better for all concerned to limit interactions to friendly smiles and conversations. In society, unwanted hugs, kisses, and more are grounds for dismissal. Why is the church behind the culture? There is no need to focus on intent or motives. All people in a work or social group need to respect interpersonal boundaries.

Perhaps some do not understand the touch issue.

Sexually abused people may react to touch differently than those who have not been abused.

Verbal and written communications between a pastor and a congregant can approach boundary violations and should result in advice or counseling when a communication problem becomes known. 

Some comments and long looks may be outside of a leader’s awareness, which is why church leaders need accountability partners. One sexual harassment trainer advises people to keep their eyes to themselves (Best). That may be difficult for a pastor or other church leader, but it illustrates Jesus comments about looking (Matthew 5: 27-28) and the eye that offends (Matthew 5: 29). 

Some looks are innocent and some are not. Some looks are innocent but misinterpreted. It is not going to be easy.

Settings that involve close working relationships require people of integrity to maintain strong interpersonal boundaries. Boundaries are not just physical.

Clergy who provide counseling need to participate in ethics training common to that which professional counselors and other mental health professionals receive (e.g., AAPC). Boundary violations are taken seriously. Some violations lead to loss of license and others lead to required supervision. Even experienced clinicians benefit from supervision. Almost every two-person relationship can be a blessing or a problem.

Bible Study and Prayer

I place this last because many Christians believe that the answer to sin problems is more Bible study and prayer. The challenge to this belief comes from evidence that so many clergy have problems of sexual boundary violations with congregants. And that does not include all the leaders in the church. It is hard to believe that all of these fallen leaders failed to engage in Bible study and prayer. In fact, some fallen leaders are well known for their Bible teaching. So, do not discount bible study and prayer and do not discount the importance of other ways to set boundaries and keep leaders on track.


As we consider the detructive effects on the people involved in any leadership failure, let's not forget to help those who have been hurt. Recovering from moral injury usually takes time and involves support. Pastoral counselors and Christian counselors and psychotherapists may be needed when support from family and friends is not enough. We should also remember that some will need practical support when they have lost employment.


Many of the articles are free pdf downloads. The books are available from the publisher or AMAZON, GOOGLE, and other stores. Most books can be examined free by instructors.

Pop, J. L., Sutton, G.W., & Jones, E.G. (2009). Restoring pastors following a moral failure: The effects of self-interest and group influence, Pastoral Psychology, 57, 275-284.  Academia Link    Research Gate Link

Sutton, G. W. (2016). A house divided: Sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick. ISBN: 9781498224888

Sutton, G. W. (2010). The Psychology of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Integrating Traditional and Pentecostal Theological Perspectives with Psychology. In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds). Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Multidisciplinary studies from a Pentecostal perspective. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.

Sutton, G. W. & Jordan, K. (2013). Evaluating attitudes toward clergy restoration: The psychometric properties of two scales. Pastoral Psychology. doi 10.1007/s11089-013-0527-7 Published online 16 March 2013. Academia Link  ResearchGate

Sutton, G. W., McLeland, K. C., Weaks, K. Cogswell, P. E., & Miphouvieng, R. N. (2007). Does gender matter? An exploration of gender, spirituality, forgiveness and restoration following pastor transgressions. Pastoral Psychology. 55, 645-663. doi 10.1007/ s11089-007-0072-3 Online Link n11144j1655536l2/ Academia link Research Gate Link

Sutton, G.W. & Schmidly, S. (eds.) (2016). Christian morality: An interdisciplinary framework for thinking about contemporary moral issues. Eugene, OR: Pickwick. ISBN: 9781498204767

Sutton, G.W., & Thomas, E. K. (2005). Can derailed pastors be restored? Effects of offense and age on restoration. Pastoral Psychology, 53, 583-599. Academia Link    Research Gate Link

Sutton, G. W., & Thomas, E. K. (2009). Following derailed clergy: A message of healing for a shocked congregation. Enrichment Journal   Academia Link    Research Gate Link

Sutton, G. W., & Thomas, E. K. (2005). Restoring Christian leaders: How conceptualizations of forgiveness and restoration can influence practice and research. American Journal of Pastoral Counseling, 8, 29-44. (The journal has been renamed, Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health.) Academia Link    Research Gate Link

Thomas, E. K., & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious leadership failure: Forgiveness, apology, and restitution. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 10, 308-327. Academia Link    Research Gate Link

Thomas, E. K., White, K., & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious leadership failure: Apology, responsibility-taking, gender, forgiveness, and restoration. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 27, 16-29. Academia Link    Research Gate Link


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