This article discusses sexual sin in pastoral relationships. It shows that definite boundaries are to be set in place when the minister is giving pastoral care to women. It also considers the question how consistories should deal with a complaint regarding a breach of those boundaries, and concludes by considering whether formal complaint procedures need to be put in place.

4 pages.

Sexuality in Pastoral Relations

Does it actually happen? Is it true that some ministers (or other workers in pastoral care) are abusing their position and that in one way or another they direct things such that they can go to bed with the church member, someone who falls under their pastoral care? The question is rather blunt in its formulation, but that is what it comes down to. And we are not talking here about adultery, to which ministers and office bearers can also succumb.

Sexuality in Pastoral Relations It is well with the great majority of ministers, pastoral workers, and office bearers. We need to say this before all else. No one should harbour any secret suspicions when there is no proof against any minister or anyone else. But Marjo Eitjes, who works at the Interchurch Foundation against Sexual Abuse in Pastoral Relations, mentions that after a period of five years she has treated 450 reports of sexual abuse. The number gives food for thought.

How can it get to this? Is the minister the only guilty person? In a sexual relationship, even a brief encounter, aren’t there always two parties involved? Two adults? This objection is understandable, but it does not apply here.

What is unique in a pastoral relationship? In pastoral care we serve in the ministry of the Good Shepherd. We aim to show Christ’s image to him or her with whom we initiate a pastoral conversation. In our speaking and listening we look for the way to the Good Shepherd, and we try to make it more clear in which way the Good Shepherd wants us to walk. The limits of such a conversation are the limits determined by Christ. Sexual activity never belongs to this. Even initial thoughts in this direction fall outside of the limits of the pastoral conversation. They need to be forcefully rejected. The first inkling of any thought in this direction must be cut off. For it cannot be denied that in a pastoral relationship between two people of different gender such thoughts can arise. There will be only a few ministers who in an intensive pastoral relation have never had any thought of sexuality arise in their hearts. It can happen. The thought as such may not mean danger. However, it becomes dangerous when you leave a certain opening for the thought. Of course this cannot and may not happen. That it is done has been proven. That it happens on a larger scale than expected is unfortunately also true.

Does a Pastor Carry Authority?🔗

Yes and no. People expect something from a minister or pastoral assistant. It goes too far in my opinion to say that as a specific characteristic of pastoral relations, the church member is in a dependent position when he or she seeks the help of the pastor. By definition, that would make the pastor the “authoritative” party. In difficult situations, congregation members may experience it as such, that the minister has authority. But the nature of a pastoral relationship is also that the pastor has no authority whatsoever. He may come with the power of the healing, forgiving, liberating Word of Christ. But he is also subject to the power of that Word himself. It is very deplorable that ministers in one way or another would use – let alone abuse – of any power that has been assigned to them or that they themselves think to possess. When a pastor knows of “the place in the depths”, when he is bowed down in the dust before God, and knows himself entirely dependent on Christ’s accepting and forgiving love, then there is no way to make misuse of any powers. I say it in different words to emphasize this: any so-called Messiah complex, any thirst for power, any thought to the idea that salvation depends on us, is from the evil one and unworthy of any pastor. That there is a lot of error in this regard, also in consistories, is evident.

Back to the subject. In the pastoral conversation, the fact of your own physicality does not belong. This does not mean that physicality and therefore also sexuality can never be the topic of a pastoral conversation. But we can talk about this only in the direct presence of the Good Shepherd, and that will always determine the tonality and content of the discussions. Everything that has entered into our conversation must be able to be brought in prayer before God, without any conscientious difficulties. A minister remains a pastor, he does not become a friend. The closeness does not forget the distance. The warmth must never become a threatening fire. I was touched by the simple rule of thumb that Marjo Eitjes formulated: at any time in a pastoral conversation, someone else should be able to enter the room.

Sexuality in Pastoral Relations It may happen that the person with whom the minister has built a relationship of trust seeks to move the limits of the pastoral conversation. Then clear language needs to be used. The pastor may not leave any doubt as to where the limits are. A consequence may be that the pastoral contact needs to be broken up or that someone else takes over.

One more question: why is it that there is an increase in sexual misconduct in pastoral relationships? You refuse to play with the thought that a minister or an office bearer would actively be pursuing such a thing. How is the situation with the pastor’s own physicality and sexuality? I will simply let the question stand. As in so many other relationships, relations in the manse can also be subject to certain tensions. There can be much pressure on account of the workload. The family, work, the congregation, they all beg their attention. There are just seven days in the week, and according to God’s command there needs to be a day of rest. This command is violated en masse. Suffering and brokenness do not bypass ministers and office bearers. Sometimes it may be better to have the conversation outside, rather than indoors. In short: lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Sanctify and purify our heart, O Lord. And when pastors or office bearers encounter problems and tensions that they can no longer control and that threaten to make their work impossible, let them look for help. No, not with the one with whom they have pastoral conversations, but with people who are professional and confidential.

Prevention, Treatment, and Reconciliation🔗

There is always a certain tension in a pastoral relationship. It is the tension between being distant and being close. A conversation where the heart will open up demands a certain closeness. Without an involvement in the theme that is being talked about, there can hardly be a conversation or an encounter. Involvement cannot exist without some degree of closeness. A person needs to connect with the topic, needs to be engaged with it, and the subject can often not be separated from the person who raises it. A certain degree of interpersonal warmth is essential to a pastoral conversation. This will go wrong when a pastor behaves in a cool and detached manner. That would cause feelings of disappointment with the other party. For fear of being too close, it happens that pastors are too distant. The other person may experience this as: he has no real interest in my concerns. It only touches them on the outside.

We have to learn how to handle this tension in pastoral relations. Closeness and personal involvement with the topic are good things, but guard the limits of a pastoral conversation. A certain distance is necessary to look at matters objectively and to be able to evaluate things properly. However, this detachment may not become so cold that it may harm trust and hamper the ability to be up building. The emphasis should be more on the closeness and the engagement, than on the distance.

Pastors, shepherds of the flock – and that includes also and especially the elders! – must be at peace with themselves. Without having accepted or having processed their own problems – of whatever nature – you cannot and will not remain a good and wise pastor for others over the years. In the previous article I already pointed out that the minister’s own sexuality must stay out of the pastoral conversation, always and under every circumstance. There is no way that anyone should try to experiment with this. It is true that it does happen; the statistics provide hard proof. Behind statistics there are real people: people with their office, people in their relationship and accountability to the great Pastor, Jesus Christ, people with or without their own sexual relationship, people with a family, with a wife and children. For pastors who do not have their own (also sexual) relationship it may be a big challenge to lock out any sexual feelings in certain pastoral conversations, or under any special circumstances. Every human being has a need for warmth and attention. However, you may never seek such warmth or attention for yourself in pastoral conversations and relationships. When you enter into this, motivated by whatever feelings, you end up in the swamp.

How Should Consistories Deal with This Matter?🔗

When there is nothing going on in this regard, the matter does not need to be dealt with either. That much is clear. Thank God that most consistories encounter no or few problems in this regard. By far, most office bearers and pastors behave in an exemplary manner and act with wisdom. There is no reason to become suspicious. But if there is ever any complaint, treat it seriously. The treatment of this type of complaint demands a large measure of tact and prudence. What is behind the complaint? Truth needs to be brought to the fore, without regard to the person. Without regard to the person does not mean: hard and without love. Love must work in everything. But that does not mean that a complaint, which can be painful, and when grounds are found that prove it to be well-founded, may be covered up. The demand of love means also that no one may be nailed to the pillory. The requirement of love remains in force under all circumstances. When a complaint turns out to be true, measures need to be taken. The nature of the measures will depend on the seriousness of what has happened.

Sexuality in Pastoral Relations A consistory should always insist on reconciliation. It cannot produce such reconciliation by itself. However, it needs to work toward this accommodation. Reconciliation is impossible when someone does not acknowledge his actions, and hides behind excuses or attempts to exonerate himself. It is an unfortunate thing when someone starts to play the role of being the victim. Such a thing testifies of psychological and spiritual immaturity. Sadly, it may occur with people from whom you expected it in the least. Confessing guilt is not a shame! When guilt has been established, confession becomes a necessity. Let each one consider that it is impossible to appear before God without confession of guilt and atonement. Any manipulation with confessing guilt and the desire to come to reconciliation constitutes a new sin that can entangle someone in the net of the devil to such an extent that he can be lost for all eternity. Again: which methods are used to arrive at reconciliation does depend on the nature and the severity of sinful cases. Whatever does not need to be brought out in public, keep it private.

When there is a case of abuse in a pastoral relationship, the first demand will be that there is confession of guilt toward her who was involved in the abuse. The other party can be guilty also. That does not preclude that a pastor needs to acknowledge his guilt in a genuine way. This will not happen without the experience of, for example, Psalms 32 and 51.

Do We Need Complaint Procedures?🔗

In the Reformed Churches and in the Roman Catholic Church such procedures have been instituted. In the Dutch Reformed Church people are working on it. Also in our churches there are discussions about this, although as far as I am informed, not yet in broader ecclesiastical meetings. The best thing is that you bring such a matter before the consistory. That is the proper ecclesiastical way. It may serve consistories well if an ecclesiastical assembly, for instance the synod, would appoint a committee that could provide general guidelines for the churches. This would imply that the matter is brought up from the churches to a synod. We have to deal with the problem. What is not there today can be there tomorrow. Loneliness in society is on the increase. In spite of all labour for building up the congregation, loneliness often still affects the church. Being a pastor can from time to time be a lonely job, although I certainly plead that we do not over-exaggerate this aspect. Every human being has to process and integrate certain things in his or her life that are difficult. Daily we need to take up our cross and follow Christ. That cross is connected to certain types of suffering, also in connection with labouring in the gospel.

In conclusion: be a joyful office bearer. Be a pastor with joy. It is beautiful work. But know yourself and guard your heart, your lip, your eyes and your hands.

This article was translated by Wim Kanis.

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