A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

The Problem of Clergy Power and Sexual Misconduct

Last night, I attended a Clergy Ethics meeting that was pretty much focused upon the issue of clergy sexual misconduct with a pastor’s parishioners. It is indeed an important topic in light of recent scandals still within the consciousness of society. While I felt the seminar was not really beneficial to the average clergy with little training in psychology (and a person even said so openly last night), for people like me it gives food to chew on and to think about it.

The reality is that in the current system where a pastor is seen as the center and foundation of leadership within a church, there will be clergy sexual misconduct. Matter of fact, there will always be unethical behavior including sexual misbehavior until the day that God’s Kingdom is fully inaugurated and all evil is purged from His people by God and all evil people are purged from His kingdom, irregardless of the amount of power centered on particular individuals. Ultimately, I think the United Methodist church (amongst others) is fighting an ultimately fruitless way against clergy sexual abuse. While yes, training and help can help influence some clergy to avoid pitfalls, it is not going to be that effective in ridding the church of the overall problem.

In the problem of clergy sexual misconduct, it has been seen that different pastoral offenders fit on a spectrum between that of a wanderer and a predator. The wanderer is a person who is not inherently abusive in power, but is lacking in some way themselves, perhaps in feeling of closeness to others. Whereas the predator is a person who consciously uses their power vested in the ministerial position to obtain certain desires, such as sexual ones. Irregardless of the motivations behind clergy misconduct, it does great harm to the individual churches, the whole denomination, and even the whole Church.

The basic hierarchy of all churches, in my opinion, in part add to the problem. In the end, most churches are centered around a pastor, who is seen as something of a do-it-all person for the church: preacher, teacher, counselor, evangelist, leader, priest, organizer, entertainer, etc. While congregations may not expect everyone of those qualifications, clergy better have multiple of those gifts. In doing that, it puts plenty amount of pressure upon clergy along with also vesting a lot of trust and power within the clergy that are capable (at least those who seem so on the surface).

For the wanderer type, the immense pressure on him and the pressure it puts on his family if he is married and/or has children, leads to them being high risk candidates for sexual misconduct. There are time constraints and there are expectations for the pastor to become adequate in an area in which they may not be very knowledge or able. While the United Methodist denomination (as I am sure others have) have recognized this pitfall and talk about keeping oneself healthy and not over extending oneself, they are in the end sending mixed messages. The mixed message is you don’t have to be this way, and yet for a great number of the churches there is the expectation placed upon the pastoral appointee, in part because of the appointment. In the end, the appointment system can be likened to a welfare and the current stimulus package in the United States. If you make it as such as failure is not possible, people will have little motivation to become viable contributors themselves. Likewise, within the appointment system, churches are not expected to be a community of charismata (plural of charism, Greek for grace or gift) since they are given clergy on the unspoken premise that they will guide the churches. All churches except for the most extreme cases are given an unconditional “welfare” in charismata, so there is not the importance perceived by the congregation to use and practice both supernaturally and naturally given charismata and to develop learned charismata. One can talk about the empowerment of the laity, but as is natural for people as a whole, they will not do something except out of perceived necessity.

Now before one might see this as a criticism of the appointment system, it is not. It encourages this type of view within the churches, but others traditions place huge emphasis upon the pastor. For instance, my previous denominational affiliation, Southern Baptist, find and hire pastors and place a huge importance upon the pastor they hire. At the heart of this is the criticism of the centralization of authority, power, and charismata in the clergy persons. It just simply happens that the appointment system, I feel, contributes to this tendency

Because of this centralization of authority, powered, and charismata in the clergy positions, it is the perfect feeding ground for predators. In the end, predators  are drawn to places where there is a heavy reliance upon them, so that they can exploit their so-called service for others. They use their power in a quid pro quo fashion. They maybe even exploit their mission as a means to get other people to “help them” so they can do their “mission.” After all, if the clergy are responsible for the church in so many ways, they need to be lifted up, so lifting them up is part of God’s mission. Hence, that can turn sexual very quickly.

You can not identify and stop the predators either. Part of what makes a successful predators is being successful in the trial and error process of manipulation. Those who fail will likely discontinue or always be caught and stopped before they bring about too much harm. Those who are successful at it are going to learn how to hide their misbehavior, even from the most perceptive persons. So any effort to reliably identify them before they get into pastoral positions will be difficult, if not impossible. In addition, many of them know how to make their past irrelevant in new situations, so they will continue to be predatory, even if they are caught in one place. And clergy training is not going to really affect them as they in the ministerial position for their own gratification, not for the goodness of the cause and service to God.

Training, on the other hand, like we did yesterday, might help those on the borderline of becoming a wanderer. However, for those who have pressing felt needs, one time or intermitent training sessions are not going to get them to reorient their life. Emotions and desires are not easily controlled. It takes constant dedication and time, time that many pastors may not feel is available as it is. Training might also help those to watch for pitfalls before they go down the path that would lead them to become predatory, while they still have a desire for the goodness of the cause and the service to God. But in the end, most training and guidance mostly only helps those on the borderline. And even then, in my opinion, it can not stem the tide against the pressing stress and reliance upon the ministerial leaders.

The solution, in the end, is not to focus our efforts to stop sexual misconduct. It will happen, as we live in a world that teaches and guides us to search for ourselves first and that doesn’t always meets the good, healthy desires of individuals. Instead, I believe the best way is to decentralize church power, authority, and charismata. It doesn’t put the immense pressure on the sincere that turns them into wanderers, and ministry is not the great feeding ground for the predators. By decentralization, I would think there would be a reduction the cases of sexual misconduct in the positions of power, and those cases where they are there they will be less harmful than when it is performed by the “center and foundation” of the church ministry. The damage will still be done to the individuals and the families in those cases where there is an abuse of power (and not just in cases of sexual misconduct), and those are the people who need ministering too. However, at least it doesn’t reverberate as far.

The alternative I would think is best for my own denomination to go towards is beyond the scope of this post. But to give a brief description, I feel moving towards established churches having internally grown leadership and ministry instead of external appointments (whereas new and exceedingly fractured churches would be have appointments for a time for a temporary period of time). I feel this doens’t require the total change of the church hierarchy within the United Methodist tradition, such as Annual Conference and General Conference. In other words, the UM denomination need not become a set of loosely affiliated churches like the Southern Baptist denomination.

I also am not denying the need for ethical training for clergy. But I view it right now as trying to putting a band aid on a bullet wound.


March 2, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Canonical Theism and ministry

For one of my classes (the same class for which I am reading God and History), I am reading a book called Canonical Theism, which is a collection of essays edited by Willaim J. Abraham, Jason E. Vickers, and Natalie B. Van Kirk. The basic premise of the book is that the church has often times excluded certain sources for theology, most primarily the Protestant church which has the tendency to elevate Scripture as the normative and sole basis for theology and worship. The book starts off with thirty Theses about Canonical Theism (Theses on Canonical Theism), the address a variety of issues such as the different forms of theism (classical, open, pantheism etc.), concerns for sources of theology, and epistemological concerns.

Paul Gravrilyk outlines eight different canonical sources for theology (coming from pages 27-28):

1) Canons of faith – Confessional statements and creeds

2) Canons of Scripture – Lists of scared writings

3) Canons of liturgy – Guidelines for conducting worship service

4) Canons of bishops – Approved lists of episcopal authority

5) Canons of saints – Lists of the saints venerated locally or universally

6) Canons of fathers and doctors – List of authoritative theologians

7) Canons of councils – Disciplinary and doctrinal guidelines imposed by the councils

8) Canons of iconography and architecture – General rules regulating the depiction of God and saints; rules of church architecture

These eight canonical sources are not necessarily taken as a closed canon for Canonical Theism, nor are they required for everything tradition. Rather, the same Holy Spirit speaks and heals through all these different resources, as well as speaks through other resources not mentioned.

So far, a third of the way in, it has been refreshing to see other potential sources of theology that may have been neglected. For instance, the role of liturgy to the formation of theology. The sad reality is that in our churches, while there may be the basic portions of other forms of theological teaching (such as the traditiona United Methodist worship service recites the Apostle’s Creed), Protestant churches rely upon either Scripture or experience as the primarily theological teaching tool. Perhaps the Church could better communicate its core theology to the average church member, thus erradicating folk theology, if we made better use of the different canons for theology.

As Jason Vickers writes:

In our judgment, the tendency, where prevalent, to over-emphasize the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in particular ecclesial canons or gifts has led to the spiritual impoverishment of the church by divesting it of the fullness of the generosity and creativity that characterizes the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. For example, in traditions that ignore or even reject the power of images, visually oriented persons are robbed of any deep awareness of or sensitivity to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in and through images. Similarly, in traditions that ignore or reject the canon of saints, persons who learn best from observing examples set by other persons are robbed of any deep awareness of or sensitivity to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in and through the saints. Further, in “anti-liturgical” or “low-church” traditions, persons who are oriented naturally to symbolism are left uninformed of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in images, in hymns, and in the sacraments. (p. 14)

At its core then, it is not merely trying be ecumenical (as if merely trying to endorse Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy), but rather it is more focused upon the ability to teach to those who are more geared in another fashion in learning. There is a bit of overlap between the different sources, in order to make sure a church with all the sources is geared towards communicating to the widest possible group.

But, as Gavrilyuk warns about liturgy and applies to the usage of the Church’s use of canonical sources, “The third and final way to disrupt the harmony of the liturgy is by orchestrating liturgical revolutions in the name of returning to the ancient sources. Repetition is at the very core of liturgical action. It is healthier for liturgical life to develop by gradual evolution, not revolution.” Likewise, in our usages of the canons in churches, it would be advisable not to force it upon a church, but to encourage it and get rid of the road blocks, and let the congregations move towards that direction through the realization of the canonical sources value. And in the end, congregations can see God speaking even today, for instance through modern day saints or through modern formulation of liturgies or through recent theologians.

The one shock to the system of many churches though is that Scripture loses its normative role, inerrancy becomes secondary, and that theology requires the progressive discernment and working together of the canonical sources. Certainly not a task easily fittable in the immediate gratification. But the unintentional byproduct of canonical theism may be that patience becomes a virtue in a church society that, like the rest of society, tends to demands answers now. Or the necessity of patience may in fact push away canonical theism.

October 8, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment