Preventing and Addressing Clergy Sexual Misconduct: Advice for Ministers

February 7, 2017

Marriage should be seen as precious by everyone, and the marriage bed should be kept pure. For God will judge adulterers and fornicators.
Hebrews 13:4

The writer of Hebrews has given us an important command. And, yet, it is one that is often difficult to put into practice. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it is—even for members of the clergy and other church leaders.

That is why, over the next three weeks, my wife and I will address this delicate and difficult topic. I will begin the discussion by speaking to ministers about their own struggles in this area. Next week, my wife will speak to the wives and husbands of ministers, reminding them that they have a role to play in helping their spouses maintain a healthy and holy sexuality. The following week, I will address how churches and parachurch organizations can help their workers pursue God’s vision for this very important area of their lives.

Our goal is to provide the readers of this blog—along with the organizations that they lead—with practical resources that they can use to prevent and address sexual misconduct. We are not holding ourselves out as paragons of virtue, and we do not seek to condemn anyone. Still, we have seen how sexual sin can wreak havoc on the lives of ministers and congregations alike. We want to share what we have learned from years of study, reflection, and practical engagement in the war against sin in the hopes that it will save you and your organization from having to go through such difficult experiences.

Declare War on Sin

So let’s get on with it! The first point that I want to make is that the struggle against sexual sin is, in fact, a war. Moreover, it is a war worth winning. You might think that this goes without saying. If so, count your blessings. It is all too easy for most of us to talk ourselves into thinking that what we are doing is really not that bad. We need to be reminded that we aren’t supposed to accommodate our inappropriate desires. We are supposed to kill them!

If you need one of those reminders today, I encourage you to look at Pastor Jim Essian’s sermon “Lust” (delivered at Paradox Church on September 28, 2014). Pastor Essian’s sermon is sensitive and thoughtful. But it is also a powerful and uncompromising call for God’s people to put away their unholy and destructive desires and embrace the life that Christ has for them.

Be Honest with Yourself

Unfortunately, the war against sin is not easily won. It is full of difficult tasks, and one of those tasks is being honest with ourselves. We have to be honest about the things that we are doing well and about the things that we need to improve upon.

Being honest with ourselves requires that we bring our most closely guarded secrets out into the light. Long-forgotten actions and much-beloved fantasies need to be critically examined for what they tell us about ourselves and for how they conform to the gospel we preach. After all, what we do and what we fantasize about doing give us a much clearer picture of who we really are and what we really believe than do the sermons we preach on Sunday mornings.

Be Honest with Your Spouse

Once we have seen ourselves for who we really are, we have to take practical steps to bring every part of us under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Bible is clear that one piece of that process is to confess our faults to one another (James 5:16). I know that a lot of people recommend discussing issues like this with a mentor or colleague in ministry, and I think that this can be a really important piece of your strategy for achieving and maintaining sexual wholeness. Nevertheless, I think that, too often, this is proposed as a substitute for talking with your spouse, and I do not think that this is healthy.

To put it another way, as you make discoveries about your own sexuality, the first person that you need to share those discoveries with is your spouse. Why is this so important? The first reason is imminently practical. Your spouse is the one who is (or at least is supposed to be) most intimately acquainted with your sexuality. She or he is the person who can best meet the legitimate sexual needs that you have, and she or he is the person who can shed the most light on why you want certain things and not others.

The second reason is much more theological. The relationship that you have with your spouse is qualitatively different than any other relationship. In marriage, a man and a woman commit themselves to one another and to God, and they are granted by God the privilege of together reflecting His image on earth in a unique and powerful way. The relationship is a permanent and passionate coming together of two people who are lovingly committed to one another’s well-being.

At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “My marriage doesn’t look anything like that. If my wife/husband knew the stuff that went on in my head, she/he would throw me out of a fourth-floor window at the first opportunity!” Or, perhaps worse, you might be thinking, “My wife/husband doesn’t care. They wouldn’t lift a finger to help me even if I came to them in tears about the struggles that I am having.” I understand. Maybe it will take some time and some work to get your marriage to a place where it can withstand the pressure that comes from an honest conversation about sex. Still, I encourage you to make the effort—in part because I think that God wants us to have healthy marriages and in part because I don’t see how anyone can maintain their sexual integrity without the help of a loving spouse.

Listen to Your Spouse

When you and your spouse start talking honestly about sex, there are a couple of things that you need to be listening for. First, you need to listen for how your disclosures affect your spouse. Do they elicit longing, admiration, confusion, fear, loathing? These reactions are not an infallible guide, but they can help you judge when your desires may find a healthy expression within your marriage and when they are simply out of bounds.

Second, you need to listen for ways that you can help your spouse deal with her or his own sexual struggles. Ministers must keep in mind that their first ministry is (most often) to their own family. If you can love your spouse through her or his own struggles—demonstrating a healthy balance of understanding and forgiveness on the one hand and truthfulness and accountability on the other—then your spouse will be more likely to return the favor. And, you’ll have a healthier marriage for your trouble.

Develop a Plan of Action

The point of all this talking and listening is not just to share feelings and be understood. These things are important, but their impact will be greatly diminished if the two of you do not come up with concrete plans for addressing the temptations that each of you faces. Here are some questions that you can use to aid in the planning process.

  • What are the deep psychological needs that you are trying to meet through your sexual fantasies? Are these legitimate needs that can be met in other, more healthy, ways? Or are they a reflection of unhealthy and idolatrous thinking that needs to be addressed (perhaps by a professional)?
  • What spiritual, emotional, or physiological factors make it harder for you to maintain your sexual integrity? How can you lessen the impact of these factors on your life (rest, diet, exercise, etc.)?
  • What boundaries do you need to establish in order to protect the integrity of your marriage and ministry, and what strategies do you need to employ in order to address sexual temptation when it comes?

Confess When You Do Something Wrong

The final step of the process may be the hardest. We need to be honest and forthright when we mess up. In my experience, men are particularly reluctant to do this. Obviously, they do not want their wives to be mad at them, but they also do not want to hurt their wives. The best of us men are painfully aware of how sexually broken we can be—and of how our brokenness affects the women we love. Men often hope that they can resolve the problem on their own without involving their wives, and they hope that in this way they can spare their wives (and themselves) the pain of a difficult conversation.

My experience also tells me, however, that this is normally not the best approach to the problem. I confess that I have not always admitted my mistakes, either to my wife or to others. But, with my wife at least, I have confessed my struggles enough to know that it is a good thing to do. Confession makes the transgression more real, which, in turn, calls forth in us a more genuine repentance. Moreover, confessing small transgressions makes it harder to engage in bigger ones, because there is someone else who knows what we have done and is watching for signs of other transgressions. That watchfulness, in turn, makes it easier to confess, for the watcher’s probing questions will not allow a misdeed to remain hidden for long.

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