Pastors Don’t Have Affairs… It’s Called Sexual Abuse
It seems like every couple of weeks there is a new headline:
“Pastor of First Church of _____ city accused of having an extra-marital affair”
Whether it is a celebrity pastor or local preacher, we’ve all been hit by the shocking news at one point or another. For some, this may hit even closer to home; maybe you were part of a congregation when the scandal broke out. I spoke with a woman at a conference the other day who had witnessed this very thing and it is not uncommon for a story like this to turn up in my inbox.
Pastors sleeping with the church secretary has become the butt of a few jokes, as this stereotype reflects a story we’ve all heard.
In some cases the pastor is quietly asked to leave (usually to show up in a ministry role at another congregation), but often these “affairs” are addressed as a marital issue that needs some prayer but is explained as a mistake, a temptation we could all fall into. After a few month’s sabbatical, the minister is back in the pulpit heralded as testimony of redemption, a common victim of seductive, wily women.
But is that the true story? When we talk about pastors having sex with congregants or other staffers, the describing word we see most often is “affair”.
An affair is a consensual relationship between two adults. It can only be a common affair if the sexual interactions are adult and consensual. If the sexual interaction is against a minor, this is not an affair, it is non-consensual child sexual abuse. This is far too often the case, and it is something that needs to be address. I recommend finding more information about child sexual abuse here.
I’d also like to focus on the alternative scenario for a minute, clergy having sex with adults working under them or being served by their ministry. Traditionally we have called this an affair, but that is not the correct terminology.
According to the Faith Trust Institute, “Sexual abuse happens when someone in a ministerial role (clergy, religious or lay) engages in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with a congregant, employee, student or counseling client in the ministerial relationship.”
Based on this, the situation described above of a pastors having sex with the secretary, counseling client, or anyone they have a ministerial relationship with, is sexual abuse.
Why is this? Faith Trust Institute goes on to say, “Sexual contact or sexualized behavior within the ministerial relationship is a violation of professional ethics. There is a difference in power between a person in a ministerial role and a member of his or her congregation or a counselee. Because of this difference in power, you cannot give meaningful consent to the sexual relationship.
Individuals usually seek counseling or support from their religious leader at times of stress or crisis. During these times, you are emotionally vulnerable and can be taken advantage of by a religious leader.”
It’s about the power differentiation. Abuse is about power and control, not sexual desire, and if someone with authority engages in sex with someone under that authority it is a misuse of their power. The lay person is not at fault, but was victim to the minister’s wrongful manipulation and use of influence over them.
I believe it is the same with a doctor and patient, counselor and client, teacher and student, boss and employee. One has more power over the other. If the two are adults and wish to have a sexual relationship, the one in power needs to step out of a position over the other for a mutually consensual relationship to unfold.
This might be a shocking revelation to you. And that’s likely not your fault. The way media and churches label this sexual misconduct is extremely misleading. Using terms like “affair” or “moral mistake” fails to communicate the weight of responsibility the minister had to protect the one they were ministering to. “Affair” communicates that the sexual interaction was consensual, when it never could be in the first place. It shifts blame to the victim and draws sympathy towards the abuser. It causes us to relate to the abuser as a regular guy who was tempted to sin rather than a knowing abuser who misused their spiritual authority.
When we see clergy sexual misconduct, we need to name it rightfully as abuse. It needs to be reported and addressed quickly to ensure no one else is victimized. Victims of clergy sexual abuse should be respected as victims and given the support and professional help they need, not shamed as evil temptresses causing the minister to fall.
If you or someone who know has experienced clergy sexual abuse, I recommend reaching out to The Hope Of Survivors for support along with the local police. If you are a pastor aware of clergy sexual abuse, it is your responsibility to report it to law enforcement, see that the offender is removed from their position, and to ensure the victim is protected and directed to professional services.
Note: Some sexual conduct may be considered sexual abuse (a broader term) rather than specifically rape. Laws may differ by state as well. Additionally, there are a few possible exceptions to the rule but I do not believe these to be typical.
(1) Faith Trust Institute: Working Together To End Sexual and Domestic Violence- Abuse By Clergy FAQs
(2) Statistics on Clergy Sexual Abuse -Baylor University