Gifted Bible teacher, powerful Christian personality, author, theologian, nationally recognized speaker, radio voice for a large Southern California Christian University and Senior Pastor of an historic church are roles and descriptions aptly worn by the man I served for 12 years. I was his Associate Pastor. Even though he was often on the road, he led our congregation through multiple crises and a move to the suburbs out of downtown Los Angeles. He led us in expansive numerical growth at our new campus as well.
He was also a pastoral counselor. Periodically men and couples sought his counsel, but mostly he counseled women. The same women. Some were members of the church’s support staff. Their age varied. All were younger than him. One was a minor who looked to him as a father and called him “Dad”. Exchanges of public affection were common. He was a hugger; they collected theirs. He hugged everyone. If observant, one noticed these ladies giving him adoring looks akin to worship. Often after an evening service, one of these counselees could be seen walking up the side of the first balcony of the 4000 seat auditorium to a private meeting with him in his office on the same level of the building. His wife and children drove home without him. Where there’s smoke . . .
When I first became his Associate he was my hero. I admired his apparent spiritual diligence and enormous Bible teaching gift. He exposed the Biblical text’s nuances unlocking its exegetical secrets rendering books of the Bible amazingly understandable. In my experience no Bible teacher was better at capturing and communicating the Biblical author’s flow of thought through a book of the Bible. He was also personally charismatic and captivating. His personal power and winsomeness was dynamite if he wanted you in his inner circle. His special strength and manipulative actions (whether conscious or unconscious) meshed perfectly with my lifelong emotional neediness. I was hooked on serving him. No one previously chose me for tasks so important or trusted me with so much. His praise was effusive. A wine which intoxicated me. It was a privilege to serve my hero. Where there is smoke . . . .
When I started as his associate, I had no idea at the time how my emotional poverty subjected me to his control in my close personal and work relationship with him. This dysfunction also distorted my discernment and inhibited my responses when he routinely counseled alone with women in his office. When I challenged him on these kinds of things, I was predisposed to accept his flimsy justifications. He would say things like, “Dale, if I was doing something wrong with her in private do you think I would hug her in public?” In retrospect I am particularly embarrassed by one event. After a board meeting ended about midnight we got in our cars and headed wearily for home. I noticed his white Mercedes three or four blocks ahead of me as we drove toward the same freeway onramp. Then, almost at the freeway, I noticed his car was no longer in front of me. Concerned, I circled around wondering if he had car trouble and I had been too distracted or drained to notice. I found him and one of his counselees sitting in the front seat of his car behind an abandoned service station building. I was furious. This was too much smoke to ignore for even me.
The next morning I confronted him. Again I heard empty excuses for the secreted meeting. He insisted nothing inappropriate was happening, she was like a daughter to him, had just flown in from visiting her real parents and desperately needed his counsel. He further admitted he should not have met her there and he was sorry he had done so. But, he argued, if she had met him at the office at that hour of the night what would the Board have thought?! I told him the Board needed to know what I had seen and headed for the door. Out came his trump card. “What’s with you Dale?” He asked. “My wife (he used her name) knew I was meeting her last night and she trusts me. Why don’t you?” I dropped my head and walked away. If his wife knew; who was I to question him? He’d made it my problem. I didn’t trust him enough. My resolve crumbled. I didn’t talk to the Board. But, eventually I learned ignoring the smoke wouldn’t make the fire go away.
One does not have to be a pastor’s associate to be deceived like I was. It is easy for us to idealize our pastors, place them on pedestals and assume they just wouldn’t do what it looks like they are doing. Pedestaling pastors allows billowing smoke to swirl around them without us believing there really is fire. We assume the opposite. Despite, for example, the staggering statistics regarding pastors viewing on-line porn, we somehow just “know” our pastor would not do this kind of thing. It is like the magic of the pastoral office tosses a blanket of denial over our collective good sense. This is why few churches or denominations require computer monitoring or institute Internet policies for their churches and pastors. Instead of using fire retardants we spray lighter fluid while the pastor strikes the match.
When it looks exactly like the pastor is paying too much attention to his groupies or one particular one we assume it just could not be. Surely, if something really was going on the Board, his wife, or a staff member would do something about it. We chide ourselves for being judgmental and know our pastor would be hurt, even insulted if we insinuated he was out of line. We assume we can do nothing. After all, we can’t prove the smoke we see originates from the illicit behavior of our pastor. So eventually we attribute the smoke to a different source. I realize now, I felt so powerless to do anything to stop the pastor’s visible borderline behavior I angrily wished the women would just stop hanging around him or counseling with him. The smoke was in my eyes, I was starting to choke on it, but now I blamed the women. I am no longer this easily duped. To my shame I admit to not understanding or really perceiving the fire’s source for far too long.
This pastor I served and defended when people inquired about what looked “inappropriate”, was God-gifted and obviously used by the Lord. For years his wife, his children, his Board of Elders, his growing congregation and I smelled the smoke but were unsuccessful at putting out the fire. Instead we learned God’s Word from his skilled lips while he just as skillfully hid the fire raging out of control behind the closed doors of his office.
Our pastor’s immoral sexual activity finally became public. Despite more maneuvering and lies on his part, ultimately his secret life surfaced and burned his carefully crafted public leadership image to the ground. The pedestal crumbled. Collective denial was forced to face reality. The darkness of the clandestine immorality met the light of day. It took a law suit from one of the ladies and the courageous truth telling of others involved to effectively extinguish the blaze. The long burning carefully hidden fires of immorality were ultimately doused. The smoke dispersed. Now the white hot bonfire of truth telling and disclosure turned our pastor’s local and national ministries to ashes. His marriage also went up in flames. Where there is smoke there is fire. Always.
Whenever ministerial misconduct is exposed, haunting reoccurring questions beg for answers. In retrospect, after more than twenty years of learning and receiving counsel regarding this, I want to answer some of these questions to guide you now in current situations you may be facing. I have not previously written about this and I assure you these answers are like pebbles worn smooth as they have rattled around in my heart ceaselessly. The last fifteen years of working exclusively with clergy in crises also shapes my answers.
The facts of the decades old experience have not changed but my interpretation of them and my perception about them have changed. Learning about proper pastoral protocol and responsibility has not only enlightened me, it has shaken me. I have often battered my soul bitterly wishing I had understood then what I understand now. I think of and pray for the women who I once resented. They were obviously victims. Yes, I also pray for the pastor I formerly served. Though I was in a different ministry when his secret fires were extinguished, I advised his Board of Elders as best I could. He and I have talked only once since his fall. I still wish I had been able to stop him from burning his life and ministry to ashes. May you be better at putting out the fire than I was.
Author’s note: After reading this article two friends/therapists in Montana commented about the power dynamic which is an essential component of this subject. Power and control are as much a part of this discussion as is sexuality. One has agreed to write an article on the subject. Another comments at the end of this article.
Here are some questions which ask to be answered regarding ministerial conduct: How can those needy women who flirted with him, counseled alone with him and called him “Dad” be considered victims instead of immoral participants? What can you do if you believe your pastor is involved in borderline behavior or worse? What should you do if you find yourself inexplicably infatuated with your pastor? What should you do if you are a pastor or parishioner who is currently involved in borderline or obviously unsuitable behavior? What should Church Boards do with a pastor who has sinned in secret? Below are brief answers to these complex questions.
How can those needy women who flirted with him, counseled alone with him and called him “Dad” be considered victims instead of immoral participants? It’s them, we reason. You see the smoke only when they are around so it surely looks like the problem is them. Without them tempting the pastor wouldn’t he have remained morally pure? Not likely, no. In this particular case, my assessment is he was predatorily bent. If this was the case, he smelled and pursued the scent of prey crossing limits he should never have crossed as a pastor or person. Protestant pastors with these propensities and predatorily bent priests act out in similar ways. Of course not all pastors who cross the lines of personal and professional propriety are predators. Most are not.
In this case and less severe cases of clergy misconduct all cases tend to transpire gradually over time. The relationship may even begin with virtuous intentions. It may initially appear and even be entirely innocent. But, two behaviors turn virtuous intentions and innocent beginnings into increasingly guilt-ridden interaction. First, lies. Lies to oneself and lies to cover what is real start in the heart and are progressively given voice. The more the deceptive behavior, the more the lies. Lies are always part of improper pastoral conduct. Second, boundaries are violated. Because of sacred calling and professional responsibility clergy who cross boundaries involving others are always primarily culpable. No matter which party begins the pursuit or crosses a line first, any pastoral interaction which allows or engages in boundary violation becomes his responsibility alone. Pastors are duty bound not to cross the restraints of personal and professional limits.
If a pastor allows any of these boundaries to be ignored or stepped over, the fire begins to burn. When boundary breaking increases in intensity and frequency what was once only conceived internally and spoken secretly becomes physical. Then what was only physical becomes sexual. It is always easier to scramble more eggs than unscramble one. But, aren’t those women responsible too? Not necessarily. Whenever pastoral misconduct occurs the personal responsibility of the one involved with the pastor varies over a wide continuum. When minors are involved they carry no blame. With others culpability is hard to determine and varies greatly. But, the pastor is always, one hundred percent of the time, responsible for his conduct and the conduct he allows in privacy. Incumbent on each pastor is the responsibility to guide every person in his public or private ministry toward the Lord, and emotionally healthy spirituality.
A pastor should not, therefore, engage in flirting and excessive emotional bonding with others. Nor should he allow others to develop a flirtatious or serious emotional attachment with him. Such behavior mixes the role of spiritual leadership with unhealthy emotionally loaded distorted interactions. When a pastor allows this kind of behavior or engages in it he is betraying himself and violating what is best for the person flirting or seeking too deep a bond. He is breaking the sacred expectations of his pastoral office and the intent of his marital vows. This kind of behavior is not harmless and some defensive pastors have told me.
The pastoral office with its sacred authority cannot escape the demands of professional liability. Each of us as pastors is responsible to be professionally accountable and above reproach in interacting with those God trusts to our care. The neediest among us should find safety and help when she sits alone with the pastor behind his closed door. If a sizzling seductress sways through the pastor’s door he is morally and legally responsible to uphold the high sacred standards of his office as a pastor and to maintain his own heart purity and morality. If he succumbs to the seductress she becomes the victim of his pastoral misconduct. Any therapeutic or pastoral relationship should meet these high standards. Some find the power and position of the pastoral office personally seductive. Even they, perhaps especially them, should always find the pastoral relationship sacred and safe.
What can you do if you believe your pastor is involved in borderline behavior or worse? The primary principle to remember is really very simple. Where there is smoke there is fire. Assume the flirtatious smoke you see and all the smoke you smell comes from a fire. Don’t allow denial to blind you. Determine with the resolve of a fire fighter rushing into a burning building to be used of the Lord to fight the fire which creates the smoke.
I am not suggesting you rush in with anger and flying accusations. This is typically as counterproductive as doing nothing. Compassionate grace combined with unflinching honesty must blanket everything you say and do. It is not useful to merely find someone who agrees with you and draw negative conclusions about your pastor’s actions. It may be very useful if you graciously, privately and honestly tell the truth about what you see to your pastor. If you see the pastor regularly going into his office alone with the same female, look him in the eye and tell him you are concerned about what you see. If you see females, especially younger ones flirting with him and he welcomes or allows it enough to be ongoing, tell him how concerned you are with what you see. Tell the truth like, “Pastor for some weeks now I’ve seen you and Freda flirting with each other and I am concerned you are crossing lines which are inappropriate for a pastor to cross. I cannot prove you are crossing more lines than I observe, so I am not accusing you but would you be willing to talk about this with me? Would you be willing to consider the damage you are doing to the internal world of the ones you allow to flirt with you? Would you read an article I just read and give me your response?”
Are you afraid if you did this your pastor would reject you, be angry at you and refuse you as his friend? These common fears paralyze otherwise effective Christians keeping them from being useful to their pastors. Been there, done that. If you approach your pastor with genuine concern, telling the truth as suggested above and he rejects you it is clear he is either already doing what you fear he is and is trying to fend you off or, he just does not properly value the importance of maintaining the integrity of his pastoral office. It is far better to share your concern and be rejected than to ignore the smoke until the fire burns sears the precious souls of people in need.
What about him rejecting you as a friend? You are not truly his friend if he will not hear your heartfelt truth without rejecting you. If he will not listen and or his behavior continues, your growing disrespect for his behavior will cause you to pull away from the friendship. If you as his friend smell smoke you may discover the friendship is only an illusion. If you truly are friends your humble honesty may be used to put out the fire. Either way giving up a friendship to help extinguish a hidden pastoral fire is a risk true friends must take. There is also more you can do.
If he rejects you ask him if he is willing to sit down with you and a Board member, a counselor or another respected Christian Leader to help the two of you navigate the differences which have arisen between you and your pastor because of your concerns. Do not stop if you keep smelling smoke. Escalate your actions. Take someone with you and tell the pastor you are not satisfied with his previous response or his unwillingness to hear and resolve your concerns. If he refuses to listen, inform him that you feel obligated to take your concerns to his wife, Board, the denominational representative or wherever you must but persistently, kindly, graciously pursue the issue until the fire is out.
Do not give in to the protestations of innocence from any pastor’s lips if the following is true:
- He will not heed the wise counsel or honest questioning of spouse, staff member or Board member regarding a particular person in his life.
- He will not quickly and willingly stop risky behavior pointed out to him by spouse, staff member or Board member.
If you are getting nowhere you may want to seek the help of a professional counselor or a seasoned pastor to be certain you are being objective and whether your observations are valid. As you interact with your pastor be clear you cannot prove what is really going on so you are not accusing him of immorality but what you see with your own eyes is behavior which you deem to be crossing lines and that it deeply concerns you. If what you see in public concerns you; what is happening behind closed doors would likely concern you more. So, graciously and tenaciously tell the truth about what you observe. Your act of courageous truth telling may put out a ministry destroying fire and rescue souls from this dangerous fire. If all you get from your pastor is rejection and denial you have lost nothing. If you repeatedly talk frankly and empathetically with him, take others with you and even reluctantly take it to the Board, your courageous journey may or may not be rewarded. Either way you have not ignored the smoke where there is fire.
What should you do if you find yourself inexplicably infatuated with your pastor? Run. Find another church and go to it. Do not allow yourself to be alone with him at all, ever. If you work for your pastor find another job. Seek professional help with someone other than your pastor. These feelings have a source which is likely rooted in your family of origin and need to be appropriately processed in counseling. If you are married share the feelings you are having with your spouse. Refuse to nurture these feelings fueling fantasy or allow them to become a long held secret. Yes, it should and could be safe to interact with this particular pastor at this time but pastoral stress, countless church crises and his own struggles may render him unusually vulnerable. Don’t you dare risk the chance of striking a match to his kindling wood vulnerability.
It is not uncommon for us to be strongly attracted to people like pastors. Many of us suffer from father loss issues; I lost my father to death when I was not yet five years old. In these kinds of cases we tend to be excessively drawn toward father figures. It is easy to view your pastor as a loving father figure and attach to him in ways he is ill prepared to handle appropriately. Please do not assume he is safe. If he has already flirted with you, he is not safe. Please seek the help you need elsewhere.
What should you do if you are a pastor or parishioner who is currently involved in behavior which is borderline or obviously inappropriate? Stop the behavior. Quit merely confessing the sin and stop it. Read Caught In the Confession Cycle? Immediately seek confidential help. Depending on the length of time and the lines crossed this may or may not be something you can stop on your own. Even if you do stop the behavior, seek professional help to discover what it is inside you which allowed you to cross lines you know you should not have crossed.
Pastor, please contact Clergy Recovery Network. We will wrestle with you through the maze of who to tell and what kind of help to seek. We will do so confidentially.
If you are a pastor who is emotionally, physically or morally crossing lines you are starting dangerous fires so please reach for help now. Reach for confidential, safe, experienced help. Pick up the ten thousand pound phone and dial 406-292-3322 or email firstname.lastname@example.org . I will treat you compassionately as a fellow struggler. You will receive honest direction and the benefit of years of experience as we seek creative solutions together. I will give you all the help I can and or guide you to help I am not qualified to give. There is hope. There is a way to put the fire out. Let’s do it together. The longer it burns the more destructive it becomes. Life as you know it and all you have worked to build can instantly become ashes. Seeking help is a wise alternative so reach for graceful help which just might be able to help you turn the ashes into beauty. Remember, you will find grace and direction only if you reach for it. If you sat where I do and knew all the ways hidden fires are discovered you would unquestionably reach for help. You would not wait until you were caught. Fires, no matter how long they smolder, are ultimately discovered. The advantages of reaching for help instead of waiting for the inevitable discovery of the secret are enormous. The disadvantages of getting caught are mostly obvious.
Spouses of pastors often come to believe something secret and inappropriate is going on with their pastor husbands but are stymied about what to do. If this describes you please contact us. Some spouses think they are “going crazy” when they feel suspicious and things are not adding up in their relationships with their pastor husbands. Spouses are often the first to call or email us for help. I surely invite you to do so. It is not uncommon for me and a spouse to work together to get the attention of her husband to put the fire out before the church, community ministry and life as they know it burns to the ground.
If you are someone who is emotionally, physically or morally crossing lines with a pastor you are starting dangerous fires so please reach for help now. Confidential, safe Christian counselors are available almost anywhere. If engaging in this kind of behavior has become repetitive in your life please consider the possibility you may be sex or love addicted. You can likely find a counselor nearby who is a specialist in this addiction by going to www.sexhelp.com . An incredibly beneficial resource for females with love or sex addiction issues is No Stones: Women Redeemed from Sexual Addiction by Marnie Ferree. The Hope of Survivors is a web site designed to address the pain of those who have been hurt by clergy. http://www.thehopeofsurvivors.com/
What should Church Boards do with a pastor who has sinned in secret? First, understand your pastor has previously sinned in secret. Every human does. He is a human being. Perhaps this is his first secret sin of this nature. We must approach even the sins of our pastors humbly knowing we are sinners too. “He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” Jesus said to the accusing circle of righteous leaders. Whatever you do, do it humbly and graciously.
Second; I suggest you seek help. But, beware. The help you seek will likely determine how you handle your pastor’s secret. As a matter of long standing engrained systemic dysfunction, denominational leaders often find themselves unable to give the grace they would like to extend to an errant pastor. Each denominational executive is responsible for the church as well as the pastor. Every executive has faced the issue of his loyalties being divided between the pastor and the church. If, for example, he appears to be too soft on the pastor’s sin he could lose a church which supports the denomination. There is more. When our protestant traditions of impossibly high ministerial standards which are written out in lengthy denominational policy statements slam into anything sexual the end result is typically harsh and rigid. Any pastor emotionally, physically or morally crossing lines is treated with the same consequence. Get rid of the bad pastor person to keep the church pure. This is not necessarily wise or Biblical.
As someone who has wrestled with solutions to the secret sins of pastors for the last 15 years I know this is confusing and treacherous territory. The simplest thing—fire the sinner—may be more destructive than constructive. I urge you to seek experienced help on this issue. I welcome your call or email to help you work through the dilemmas and available options for you as a Board.
Click on the Ministerial Misconduct Chart below to display clearly and succinctly the ways pastors cross lines. It also lists typical risks which may kindle secret fires and Scriptures which apply to these kinds of things. Cultural and individual congregational expectations vary. These issues are often difficult to discuss but where there is smoke there is fire. Always.