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Prevent Clergy Misconduct

No pastor is immune from the risks of misconduct, but with awareness and determination, many of the potential problem areas can be avoided.
Of all clergy misconduct, sexual misconduct is especially reprehensible. Most pastors know dozens of horror stories. For every case of clergy sexual misconduct we read about in the newspaper, many others are never reported.

No pastor or church is free from the risks of misconduct. The only responsible path is to be aware of the problem, vigilant about prevention, and tenacious in following procedures of accountability.

Ground rules:

  • It is never appropriate to have sexual contact with parishioners.

  • It is the pastor's responsibility to keep the appropriate boundaries.

  • Pastors and other leaders are responsible for setting up and following procedures to hold pastors accountable.

  • Ignorance, inaction, and denial are irresponsible.

Watch for problems and warning signs:

  • Be self-aware. Know yourself. Know the risk factors and warning signs. Be even more cautious when you are vulnerable.

  • Watch for signs that you are attracted to a parishioner. Remember these questions: Do you take more care with your appearance when you expect to see this parishioner? Do you find excuses to be around him or her? Do you set up appointments with the person that is outside the normal routine with other parishioners? Would you be uncomfortable if others knew about the intensity of the relationship? Do you think about this parishioner a lot? Are you much more aware of yourself sexually?

  • Watch for signs that a parishioner might be attracted to you. Is the person spending a lot of time with you, bringing gifts, finding excuses to drop by the office, being a little seductive, or bringing up intimate topics?

What to do?

  • Be clear about boundaries. There is no need to mention the attraction - it can feed the intimacy. Be kind while maintaining more distance.

  • Be vigilant in times of vulnerability. If you are lonely, depressed, or in crisis, be all the more attentive to the preventative steps and warning signs.

  • Be particularly attentive if the parishioner is having marital problems, is sexually attractive, is in crisis, seems unstable, or is especially vulnerable.

  • Establish procedures of accountability for yourself. Make your own rules for interactions with others. Avoid all sexual innuendo (jokes or comments).

  • Be cautious and self-aware when forming close friendships with parishioners. Find people who are healthy and mature.

  • Find a trustworthy confessor to talk with when you are attracted to someone or when facing other problems. Make sure the confessor shares your moral assumptions about faithfulness and sexual boundaries and will also hold you accountable.

  • Set up your office and counseling procedure to protect yourself from misconduct or even the appearance of misconduct. Make sure others are in the building when you counsel. Leave your door unlocked. Consider putting a window in the office door and position your chair where you (but not the parishioner) can be seen at any time.

  • If you need to meet a parishioner outside the office, find a public place. Your home could be used if someone is in the next room.

  • Be wary of home visits or trips when you are alone with a parishioner. Take another church member with you if necessary.

  • If a situation feels wrong or strange, trust your instincts and keep strict boundaries.

  • Whatever your sexual orientation and gender, take precautions with men and women. Just because you are not attracted to them does not mean they are not attracted to you. The purpose is to avoid not only misconduct but also the appearance of misconduct.

Reprinted by permission from The Pastor as Moral Guide, copyright 1999 by Rebekah L. Miles. Published by Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, Mn., To order, call 1-800-328-4648.

Rebekah L. Miles is associate professor of Christian Ethics and director of United Methodist Studies at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University. She is co-author of Wesley and the Quadrilateral and author of The Bonds of Freedom.

What precautions does your church take to try to prevent clergy sexual misconduct? Has your church recently encountered any crises relating to clergy sexual misconduct? If so, how did God help the congregation deal with it? Visit Crosswalk's forums to discuss this topic by clicking on the link below.

Originally published June 17, 2002.