Everyone pays a high price for ministerial misconduct - Word&Way

Everyone pays a high price for ministerial misconduct

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Anyone who has ever googled any topic or product online usually will get a similar ad from amazon.com at or near the top of the returned search list. Smart marketing — but in the case of ministerial or pastoral ethics, everyone pays a high price when the church shepherd breaches trust.

God’s under-shepherds must be held accountable for the care of their congregations.

“I just wanted to talk to the pastor about my uncle’s abuse,” the young woman sobbed to her friend. “Instead, he pushed me down on the couch in his office and raped me.” Though she remains active in a local church in a different town, she still has difficulty sitting through most worship services.

The teenaged girl often hung out with her best friend, a PK (pastor’s kid), after school, usually at one or the other’s home. One day at the minister’s house, the pastor grabbed his daughter’s friend while his daughter was next door. The girl managed to fight him off. A few years later she learned her mother and the pastor were having an affair.

Both these stories are true. The victims aren’t identified because neither reported the incidents and probably never will.

Sexual misconduct and abuse grab the most headlines among the ethical and moral breaches ministers make, primarily because of the clergy sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Roman Catholic Church. Uncovered first in Boston in 1992, the scandal and ongoing investigations continue to unveil abuse.

While sexual misconduct gets the most attention, other moral issues also are garnering notice. The Internet and social media have helped both to uncover unethical behavior and to contribute to it, believes Tarris Rosell, Rosemary Flanigan Chair at the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, Mo.

Also professor of pastoral theology, ethics and ministry praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan., Rosell sees Internet pornography addiction, social media boundaries and conduct, plagiarism and financial misconduct as growing concerns. The Internet provides easier access to pornography and other ministers’ sermons and materials. Technology also makes detecting moral lapses, particularly plagiarism and pornography, easier, he said.

Daniel Darling, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission vice president for communications, agrees. In the past, individuals had to go to a store to purchase magazines. Now technology makes pornography available on a number of devices in the privacy of their own homes, he said.

“And this is just one example of how technology — which has made our lives more efficient and has enabled the spread of the gospel — has also made sin more accessible,” Darling added.

Ethicist and author Joe Trull sees sexual misconduct as a primary issue. The retired Christian ethics professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary co-authored, with James Carter, two editions of an ethics book for church leaders. The first, published in 1993, is titled “Ministerial Ethics: Being a Good Minister in a Not-So-Good World.” That edition did not address sexual issues, he said.

The 2004 edition, titled “Ministerial Ethics: Moral Formation for Church Leaders,” did. The authors have been asked to update the book, with release scheduled sometime next year.

A former editor of Christian Ethics Today magazine, Trull sees more incidents of sexual misconduct “being uncovered and discovered,” but believes the problem “was there all the time.” Society is more aware of actions that constitute misconduct and people are “less forgiving,” he said. He believes more incidents have been discovered because churches are becoming more educated.

After retiring from teaching at NOBTS in 1998, Trull returned to Texas where he consulted with the Baptist General Convention of Texas Christian Life Commission, particularly on sexual misconduct issues, and helped develop the booklet, “broken trust: confronting clergy sexual misconduct,” that has been used across the state.

Ethicists emphasize the tragic consequences of clergy misconduct, particularly sexual behavior.

“The cost of ministerial misconduct is grave to the soul of the pastor, but most importantly, to the souls of those the leader is called to shepherd,” ERLC’s Darling said.

The minister loses self-esteem, position, family, finances and professional standing, and sometimes faces jail time or other restitution.

A pastor should lose his or her job, Judson University Chancellor Jerry Cain believes. “Ministerial misconduct should cost the minister his career in pastoral leadership. Yes, ministers are judged by a higher standard and should understand from the beginning that the guilty minister may be forgiven by God but can never reclaim his role as pastor,” Cain said.

He compared a minister’s position to other licensed professions. “In like manner, attorneys with a felony conviction can no longer practice law.”

The cost to the clergy family also is high — loss of income, sometimes of a home, of trust between spouses and children and of the nurture from the church family. The clergy family suffers shame and guilt from the congregation and the community in which they live. The spouse and children often are shouldered with the responsibility of apologizing for and explaining the minister’s behavior.

The abused — most often a woman — is victimized again when church leaders and members don’t believe her story. She sometimes loses her own family over the violation, and often turns away from church, or even faith, altogether.

In his ethics courses at Central, Rosell hits hard on prevention of sexual misconduct because only a few cases end well. “Very few abusers seem to get it…. The most that could happen is that the abuser doesn’t abuse again in that context,” he said.

The problem, though, is that many simply move on and find a different context, he added.

Rosell focuses on prevention because he does not see restoration in abuse situations. “There are awful outcomes for everyone, including yourself,” he tells seminarians.

Though the cost of clergy scandals in recent years has been high for everyone involved, Rosell sees one positive outcome — that victims have finally been given a voice and are being heard. In fact, he views 2002 (when media concentrated on the Catholic scandal), not as the bad year it was portrayed to be, but as “something to celebrate because victims had found their voice.”

That voice has led to greater awareness of clergy sexual misconduct in particular, but also an understanding that, while ministers are human beings, they still must be held to high standards as God’s under-shepherds.