I am excited to announce that the FaithTrust Institute has released a new resource. Responding to Spiritual Leader Misconduct (updated edition) lays out the basic principles of analysis of misconduct in a spiritual or religious community: who, what, when, and where. It offers the principles for trauma-informed responses to complaints and the conceptual framework to navigate the process of response. Best of all, this resource is free to download!
This resource includes my essay, “Community Healing after Spiritual Leader Misconduct.”
Responding to Spiritual Leader Misconduct: A Handbook, edited by Lauren D. Sawyer, Emily Cohen, and Annie Mesaros, 181–86. Seattle, WA: FaithTrust Institute, 2022.
There’s more to be said about disaffiliating congregations, to whom you recently wrote words of warning. While your letter conveys the avuncular wisdom I have come to expect of you over many years of mentorship and friendship, I did not recognize myself or my congregation in your depiction. Some of our United Methodist kin are disaffiliating for very different reasons than supposed in your letter.
United Methodism is a large clan, and our kinship ties are deep and varied. We share the DNA of an evangelical, ecumenical, justice- and mission-oriented tradition of Christians seeking to be made perfect in love in this life. God bless our souls! This is a complicated inheritance. I agree with your warnings, particularly about the Global Methodist Church. However, not every disaffiliating congregation embraces the Traditionalists’ quest for a purer expression of their version of Wesleyan piety, centered on LGBTQ exclusion. Some disaffiliating congregations find themselves in quite the opposite situation: seeking a safehouse from their domestic abusers.
This big tent of United Methodism has provided cover for too many abuses for too long. Every four years we gather for a family reunion called General Conference. However, this gathering has ceased to be a place of joy and renewal. Instead of nurturing friendships and fellowship, we spend most of our time together fighting one another, each of us grasping for enough power to bend the others to our will. This self-perpetuating reunion resists reformation. Until we abandon this combative arena, our clan will continue its internecine strife, substituting one issue for another in continual battle. This reunion is structured for little else and needs to end.
General Conference is but one symptom of our broken family system. Tom, you know better than most that abuse through exclusionary church laws has become a normalized dysfunction within the United Methodist clan. Your courageous witness at church trials and other venues over the years attests to the resulting harm to our collective body. Amid our incessant battles, United Methodists have become inured and insensitive to the harms they perpetrate on each other. These political dynamics are played out in our ecclesial households, providing official sanction for the abuse of some of our most vulnerable members.
I, too, would like to belong to a “broad church” inclusive of Methodists of a wide range of religious opinions. However, I can no more insist on a continued union with kinfolks who have enshrined their discriminatory opinions as essential doctrine masquerading as church law than I can insist that a battered wife remain within a marriage to her abusive husband. In both cases, the abuser broke the covenant long before the survivor of abuse sought safety by leaving. Tom, in stating the dangers of disaffiliation, I think you have understated the violence of continued unity. To shame such a congregation for seeking disaffiliation is tantamount to victim-blaming—or worse, collusion with the abuser.
Until The United Methodist Church transforms itself into a place of safety and affirmation for LGBTQ persons, there will be congregations like Grandview Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which chose to disaffiliate in order to protect the vulnerable. This congregation spent years in discernment about God’s call in their lives, learning that they are called to be in ministry with and to affirm the gifts of all persons. Grandview’s action to disaffiliate was a recognition of a covenant already broken within the UMC. As a child of United Methodism, I grieve this divorce of my ecclesial parents even as I support Grandview’s decision.
Grandview is not alone. There are other congregations that have or are seeking disaffiliation from the UMC in order to escape the abuse and to be freed to be fully in ministry with LGBTQIA+ persons. However, it is difficult to know how many progressive congregations are considering disaffiliation because many do not want to have anything more to do with their former abusers. Some, though, have found each other and offered mutually support and encouragement. Three other congregations, formerly United Methodist, are journeying with Grandview toward a new form of Methodist connection. These relationships are growing deeper as we relearn how to do church together.
Any real change in the UMC will require courage—courage enough to leave this clan, if necessary. I give thanks for my siblings in faith, such as the leaders of Love Prevails, who have witnessed to God’s call on their lives and the ongoing hypocrisy of the UMC. Leaving the UMC can be a prophetic act of resting evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves—including the form of a church. We must repent of having asked LGBTQ persons to bear the burden of our ecclesiology while awaiting the moral arc of United Methodism to bend sufficiently to prevent their ongoing victimization.
Disaffiliation is “a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness.” As such, it can be a faithful response to God’s call on our lives. I wish it were not so. May it be so. Amen.
Healthy boundaries are essential to healthy ministry. My own book, Professional Sexual Ethics provides case studies and discussions for group study. If you’ve seen the movie Honk for Jesus, you might be interested in The Rev. Dr. Doug Powe’s assessment of the Eddie Long case! (chapter 12)
Creation justice is the most recent chapter in an evolution of thought in the United Methodist environmental witness. This tradition of beautiful words and actions shows United Methodists thoughtfully and faithfully engaging the most pressing environmental problems of the day—in each and every generation.
Read more in my article in the September Newsletter of the United Methodist Creation Justice Movement.
The Creation Justice Movement is emerging at this kairos moment to connect and support groups within the United Methodist Church and beyond for the work of creation care, justice and regeneration.
I am one of dozens of Christian leaders in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who believe that “Christian nationalism” contradicts both the teachings of Christ and the core tenets of the U.S. Constitution. We voiced our concerns in a recent op-ed.
Journalist Elizabeth Evans features my book and several graduates of Lancaster Seminary in her article, “Bivocational Clergy are Increasingly Common in Lancaster County and Beyond,” LNP and LancasterOnline, June 25, 2022.
“Bivocational Clergy are Increasingly Common in Lancaster County and Beyond,” LNP and LancasterOnline, June 25, 2022.
Should clergy sexual misconduct be against the law? This is one issue on which fundamentalists and feminists agree. On June 15, the Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution calling for the criminalization of pastoral sexual misconduct. Thirteen years ago, the National Organization for Women (NOW) did the same. It is past time for churches and state legislatures to respond.
The following is based on a commentary I wrote for the General Board of Church and Society of the UMC in 2010 and subsequently published in the book, When Pastors Prey. The issues are still the same. The need for action is still urgent.
In 2009, the National Organization for Women (NOW) in the United States called for the criminalization of sexual exploitation of women by clergy. NOW urged state legislatures to make it illegal for a pastor to have sex with a congregant, just as a physician, psychiatrist, or licensed counselor may be held criminally liable for “unlawful sexual relations” with those in their care. Should churches join in this effort to criminalize clergy sexual misconduct?
Sexual misconduct is an immoral act, a violation of the sacred trust of ministry. And religious institutions have been notoriously slow to hold their own clergy accountable for sexual misconduct. I argue that churches are in a much better position to respond to sexual misconduct among clergy than the state, even if churches need the pressure of the state to prompt them to action.
Abuse of power
Sexual misconduct is not an “affair.” Rather, it is professional malfeasance in ministry. The clergyperson has a duty to act in the best interests of the parishioner, to maintain professional boundaries, and to refrain from using that relationship to personal advantage. Sex in a pastoral relationship violates the sacred trust of ministry.
The United Methodist Church (UMC) defines sexual abuse in ministry as “a form of sexual misconduct [that] occurs when a person within a ministerial role of leadership … engages in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with a congregant, client, employee, student, staff member, coworker, or volunteer.”
The power of the pastoral office creates a context in which meaningful consent by the parishioner is often impossible. The concept of “meaningful consent” is based on the ability of each party to say “no,” without fear of reprisal. Consent is maximized in a relationship of equals. The ability of the more vulnerable party in a relationship to consent to sexual activity is diminished as the power differential increases. In a fiduciary relationship, the professional is trusted not to exploit the imbalance in power to his/her own advantage. Because of the authority of the clergyperson, the disparate power between pastor and parishioner, and the emotional vulnerability of the parishioner, sexual contact within a ministerial relationship lacks true consent even if the parishioner agrees to it. There is no meaningful consent possible in such a relationship because of the disparity of power between the minister and person seeking care.
Confession of Sin
Historically, faith communities have been slow to respond to abuses by clergy. In the recent past, predatory clergy routinely were given “geographic therapy” by being reappointed somewhere else in the hope that their misconduct would be kept quiet.
The UMC first explicitly addressed clergy sexual misconduct in the mid-1990s. General Conference, this denomination’s highest policy-making body, passed its first resolution addressing sexual abuse within pastoral relationships in 1996. The same year, “sexual misconduct” entered the UMC lexicon of chargeable clergy offenses.
Sexual misconduct remains a problem, nonetheless. In a 2008 study, three percent of women attending church in the past month reported being sexually harassed or abused by a clergyperson at some point in their adult lives, according to a nationwide study in the U.S. Ongoing news reports about clergy sexual misconduct provide a sobering reminder to every church to confront its own abuse crisis before it blows up as a scandal in national headlines.
We must confess our collective sin: “We have failed to be an obedient church . . . and we have not heard the cry of the needy” (United Methodist Hymnal, p. 8). In secular language, NOW President Terry O’Neill explained: “Law enforcement authorities need to step up their investigations of sexual abuse in religious organizations because it is apparent that many church officials will not act in a prompt and responsible manner.”
NOW’s resolution urged states to add clergy to existing laws covering other counseling relationships. Nearly every state in the Unites States criminalizes sexual contact between secular counselors or “mental health professionals” and their clients. In 2010, only 13 states included clergy in these laws, which are based on legal concepts of fiduciary duty and professional standard of care. Only two states criminalized sexual contact between clergy and congregant outside of a formal counseling relationship.
From a legal standpoint, though, NOW’s approach may not be as effective as taking a different tack to avoid unnecessary entanglements between church and state in US constitutional law. A statutory focus on lack of meaningful consent rather than fiduciary duty may provide the legal traction necessary for states to criminalize clergy misconduct.
Courts are hesitant to intervene in cases involving adult-to-adult relationships in religious institutions. The US criminal justice system is constitutionally limited in its ability to address clergy misconduct due to separation of church and state. As a consequence, secular courts cannot rule on the standard of care appropriate to a pastoral counseling relationship. Clergy cannot be convicted of malpractice because the state cannot legally define the “practice” of a religious professional.
Identifying the lack of consent within a relationship based on power and authority is within the court’s purview, though. As with laws protecting minors, the mentally impaired, intoxicated persons or others whose consent might be easily coerced, this approach would protect the vulnerable party and does not ask courts to rule on religious questions.
While state laws may provide some degree of public accountability for clergy, the church is much better situated than the state to protect the integrity of the ministerial relationship. Churches can clearly communicate appropriate interpersonal boundaries, the differential in power inherent in a pastoral relationship, and the fiduciary duty of the minister. Churches must also hold all persons in a ministerial role of leadership accountable to these standards. Lack of clarity about the nature of the pastoral relationship and lack of moral will to address the problem of clergy misconduct are at the root of the Church’s failure to provide justice for the vulnerable.
Criminal statutes would help bring accountability to churches. For example, churches in the United States did not begin to address sexual harassment until the 1980s, prompted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and a US Supreme Court case upholding EEOC guidelines and reporting mechanisms. Only then did the UMC make its first official stand against the sin of sexual harassment in 1988.
From a practical standpoint, criminalizing clergy misconduct may also provide external support to churches seeking to investigate allegations of misconduct. Judicatory leaders would be able to rely on the trained expertise of law enforcement officers to conduct investigations and handle evidence (such as DNA samples), in the same that way child abuse cases are handled now. The state would also maintain clear jurisdiction even when a clergyperson surrenders ministerial credentials. The church often has difficulty bringing an investigation to conclusion if an accused clergyperson leaves the ministry prior to adjudication. Justice is derailed for all parties when there is no determination of guilt or innocence.
The Church cannot delegate responsibility to the state for determining ethical standards for clergy, but where a clear professional relationship exists that restricts freedom of consent, abuse of pastoral power should be against the law. Criminalization of clergy misconduct may have the positive effect of deterring would-be clergy sexual predators, protecting potential victims and promoting clarity about sexual activity in ministry as an abuse of power. State intervention would call the Church to accountability.
 “Sexual Misconduct Within Ministerial Relationships,” The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2008 (Nashville: UMPH, 2008), 133–39.
 On the lack of meaningful consent in ministerial relationships, see Marie M. Fortune, Responding to Clergy Misconduct: A Handbook (Seattle: FaithTrust Institute, 2009), 28, 49–50; Karen Lebacqz and Ronald G. Barton, Sex in the Parish, 1st ed.(Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 113–31; Karen A. McClintock, Preventing Sexual Abuse in Congregations : A Resource for Leaders(Herndon, Va.: Alban Institute, 2004), 78–82.
 I am indebted to researchers at Baylor University for data and legal strategy presented in this section. Bradley J.B. Toben and Kris Helge, “Sexual Misconduct of Clergypersons with Congregants or Parishioners – Civil and Criminal Liabilities and Responsibilities,” http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/96096.pdf.
Bivocational and Beyond: Educating for Thriving Multivocational Ministry is an open access, edited volume for church leaders and those that teach and support them. Buy a hardcopy on Amazon. Download a free electronic version from Books@Atla Open Press.
Contributors include bivocational pastors and other reflective practitioners as well as theological educators and researchers: Ronald W. Baard, Phil Baisley, Kristen Plinke Bentley, Mark D. Chapman, Ben Connelly, Jo Ann Deasy, Susan J. Ebertz, Herbert Fain, Norm Faramelli, Kwasi Kena, Kathleen Owens, Anthony Pappas, Ed Pease, Hartness M. Samushonga, Darryl W. Stephens, Steven C. Van Ostran, James W. Watson, Ralph B. Wright Jr., and Jessica Young Brown.
Cover art by Cecily A. Stephens.
Want to learn more? Attend the Embracing Multivocational Ministry Conference, Saturday, May 14, 2–5pm EDT, via Zoom. Sponsored by Lancaster Theological Seminary and MESA, Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization of the United Church of Christ. Only $35.