The pelican papers

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Open letter to young pastors

Posted by Ron George on August 31, 2011

"At eternity's gate" by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

My dear friends in Christ,

You’ve been earmarked for pastoral ministry in the Body of Christ. You’ve been set aside by the laying on of hands for discrete purposes within the Body. It doesn’t make you special, but it does impose heightened awareness of responsibility to the Body into which all Christians are baptized. You are not only responsible to the Body but also for the Body. You’ve been formed by the disciplines of scripture and prayer. You’re deeply invested in and committed to the Body and probably have been most of your life, whether you knew it or not. Don’t put it all at risk by taking advantage of what surely will come your way, if it hasn’t already, before you retire from pastoral office – people willing to sleep with you and your sacred profession.

You already may have discovered the kind of power that comes with being ordered within pastoral ministry. It gives you a stage upon which to appear larger than life, where your gifts and training are on display for all the world to see. Pastoral ministry also gives you permission to enter personally and deeply into people’s emotional lives by invitation and circumstance. It can become an excuse for someone sexually attracted to you to have you alone behind closed doors. Don’t do it. Make your workplaces safe zones with windowed doors; and really, don’t ever close the door if you can avoid it. Don’t go behind closed doors with weepy parishioners who want nothing more than to be comforted and embraced by your sacred body; and for God’s sake, don’t take advantage of your entrée into people’s lives to exploit their vulnerabilities with your sexual desire. It can work both ways, and it’s never the right thing to do, no matter how you may rationalize it.

Regardless of the situation, you’re in the driver’s seat. It’s your call, your responsibility, your vows and your vocation to fix and maintain the boundaries of pastoral care. Being seduced is no excuse. If inappropriate behavior occurs, it’s your fault, period.

If you’re as serious as you claim to be about your church members’ witness, as well as their prayers, presence, gifts and service, then don’t let your own witness be hypocritical. Always be vigilant, and never even appear to be in any kind of special relationship with people other than your spouse. Beware of grooming behavior, promoting the “ministry” of especially attractive people who want to be close to you every way they can on the off chance you might find them sexually appealing. And for sure don’t groom someone in order to arrange situations where you might be alone, especially at night behind closed doors. Ministry is no excuse for being inappropriately involved with members of your church or anyone else. Even the appearance of impropriety is damaging, because, as you may already know, your reputation is really all you’ve got in pastoral ministry.

"Where tears can't stop," by Carlos Alfonso

Formality may not be your style, but for your own good and that of your congregation, maintain at least some formal elements in your relationships with individual persons. Avoid full-body embraces, and don’t jump to the conclusion that just because someone breaks down in tears that they need to be held. A human and humane touch in response to pain or grief can be conveyed without being breast to breast and thigh to thigh. And be frank if someone comes on to you. Let her or him know in no uncertain terms that you are not available for extramarital sex, because it’s inconsistent with Christian teaching and your personal commitment to your spouse, if you have one. Say you’re not flattered by their attention; and in fact, that it was inordinately presumptuous for her/him to make suggestive remarks or gestures. Do not fear being firm about this and stern if necessary. Avoid lewdness of any kind, even double meanings expressed as jokes. It’s not funny if it incites a member of your congregation to see you as someone available for sex.

None of this means you have to be an uptight prig; it means you must be totally self-aware, aware of your environment in every situation, confident of your boundaries and willing to maintain them. Being single is no excuse for being profligate; but being married is absolutely a reason for maintaining your pastoral integrity without being aloof. If you’re not regular in prayer – that means several times a day – and being open to scripture, you’re cheating yourself of a primary means of letting God form you in ways that will make sexual misconduct unlikely. Daily self-examination and repentance of sin is not a gruesome holdover from Christianity’s dismal past, but a clear and present gift from God that cleanses and refreshes the soul and strengthens one’s character for pastoral ministry. No excuses: If you don’t have time for this, then make time for it or reconsider your vocation.

"Feed my sheep'" by Kimberly Burgess

The hell of it is that you may be tempted into believing you can get away with it. I know of a retired Methodist bishop who, as a pastor, was notorious for extramarital sexual affairs, and yet his congregations always were willing to look the other way, blame the women and rationalize that he had been seduced, that it was a one-time lapse and that it would hurt the church’s reputation for his infidelities to be disclosed. He’s semi-retired now, with a cozy teaching appointment and his church pension. I’d like to believe it’s less likely now than once upon a time that clergy sexual misconduct will go undisclosed, but some miscreant pastors do go unscathed. Don’t let that become a reason to take on a risky romance. Even if you’re not caught, you’ll have to live with your hypocritical self and the paranoid fear that, someday, romance will turn to dust and you’ll be outed by a disgruntled paramour. Trust me, this is no way to live into a lifelong ministry of providing pastoral care.

Don’t be smug. Don’t assume it can’t happen to you. It can, and it will if you’re not paying attention. Every authority figure in the helping professions – physicians, counselors, nurses and, yes, even lawyers – must cope with this problem, but it’s especially insidious for Christian pastors charged with caring for Christ’s flock to betray their congregations with sexual misconduct.

Jesus said, feed my sheep not fuck ’em.


One Response to “Open letter to young pastors”

  1. […] intimate lives – inevitably leads to temptation, and I did not have the moral courage to resist. (Click here for more on this […]

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