From Pastor to Elders

Organizational Misconduct

James A. Cress was the General Conference Ministerial Secretary when he wrote this article.

Sexual misconduct by clergy has dominated the headlines in recent months. Predatory violation of children is particularly reprehensible, and calls for punishment and reform have come from laity as well as fellow clergy who realize their own reputations are besmirched by the sinful behavior of a few miscreants.

As the media reports on individual clergy criminals, another level of wickedness—organizational misconduct— should be carefully evaluated by every denomination. When a clergy is transferred from one location to another with judicatory administrators aware of suspicion about, accusations against, or even direct evidence of sexual misconduct by the transferred pastor, then the wider group contributes to the sin of the minister and should be accountable to the victims.

And this is not just a challenge for one religious organization. Evils of pedophilia and every type of sexual misconduct cross denominational boundaries. Sexual misconduct by clergy is everyone’s problem, but it is the particular responsibility of administrators who should faithfully serve the congregations and parishioners under their jurisdiction, people who expect more than well-meaning empathy for perpetrators of abuse and who are increasingly unwilling merely to accept reassurances from leaders who are either cluelessly unaware or negligent in their duty. 

Various factors motivate administrators who avoid dealing with guilty clergy and, subsequently, transfer them to new locations. Perhaps the greatest contributing factor is the misconception that the church’s reputation must be protected at all costs, even by keeping secret the sins of the clergy. Like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, they believe that “if we ignore a problem, then the tragic consequences cannot possibly be factual” and the church’s image is preserved.

Another factor seems to be the gospel mandate to forgive sinners. Thus, pastoral sexual misconduct is viewed more as a moral lapse than as a betrayal of professional trust. Of course, this ignores the Savior’s directive that those who harm little ones should be severely and irretrievably punished. Remember, sexual misconduct is seldom a need for a sexual relationship as much as it is an abuse of power and position.

Denominational policies are often violated by well-intentioned leaders who believe that selective enforcement is more merciful than zero tolerance, particularly for a first offense (often the situation which is reported is not the first offense, but only the first of which the administrator has become aware).

When organizational behavior does not match organizational policy, pastors conclude they will be disciplined on the basis of “who they know” more than on the basis of “what they did.” Consequently, if administrators set up themselves, rather than policy, as the final arbiters of justice, they must hide their actions or disguise their motives when their own variance with policy becomes known.

Likewise, for those denominations (my own included) whose official policies offer no rehabilitation process and anticipate that every moral fall means dismissal from ministry, leaders believe they must selectively ignore policy for some offenses while punishing others. Again, the individual administrator, not the body, becomes the judge.

Furthermore, when an organizational culture refuses to deal with reality, training in sexual ethics and professional responsibility may be woefully lacking.

Too often organizations appear to express greater concern for their employee than for the person(s) victimized. Misguided empathy for the needs of a clergy often takes precedence over the victims’ need to see justice. Rushing to forgive errant clergy and to professionally absolve them from employment consequences often ignores the severe trauma experienced by the victims’ unheeded need to express their pain. The victims feel violated again by leaders who refuse to hear their cries.

In fact, victims are often blamed for seducing the clergy. One victim said, “I was made to feel that a man’s job was more important than my virtue.” Because the church must not only “do right” but also “appear right,” laity should serve on all committees that deal with issues of misconduct and violation.

Another group of victims are often blamed for clergy sexual misconduct. Pastoral wives are viewed as contributing to their husband’s sin (sexual misconduct is almost exclusively a problem of male clergy) by the assumption that they did not “meet their spouse’s needs.” Do not underestimate the consequential victimization of pastoral wives and families when justice does not consider their situation.

Absolute integrity in disclosure of misconduct and even unproven accusations should inform every transfer of employees. Otherwise, the organization participates in and perpetuates the very misconduct it purports to abhor.

James A. Cress General
Conference Ministerial Association Secretary