Q: I understand that you have expertise in the area of boundaries and ethical standards of practice for ministry professionals. Where do you see the need for further work?

A: Most ministry professionals understand that it is unethical (and in some states illegal) to become sexually involved with their parishioners, but there still has not been enough conversation and education about professional ethics on the continuum from gross boundary violations such as assault, abuse, and harassment to the more subtle changes in the nature of a professional relationship —changes that place the relationship at risk and cause (at the very least) discomfort and confusion for our parishioners.

I believe it is time for us to define our uniform “standards of practice” and to educate our congregations more fully on what to expect ethically from their ministry professionals. It is imperative that this more subtle end of the boundaries spectrum now be the focus of our full attention in order to address incidents that could lead to gross acts of abuse, to enhance the professionalism of ministry leaders, and to rebuild our reputation in society.

In my experience as a consultant, a high percentage of my conflict cases also involve more subtle boundary violations. What has become clear is that those clergy who understand the enormous power differential between themselves and their parishioners and are vigilant in protecting the vulnerability of their members are also excellent leaders in many others ways. There is a direct correlation: As a clergyperson, if I understand whose needs are primary in the clergycongregant relationship, I will separate my needs and be intentional about where I get those needs met. If I understand that even subtle secrets eventually leak and can leave my members feeling confused and burdened, I will exercise great caution in what I do and say. If I understand that my parishioners will feel caught in a double-bind before I might notice, I will spend more time checking with others about how they are experiencing my words and actions. If I remember who owns their own life experiences, I am unlikely to disrespectfully use what does not belong to me.

A lack of vigilance concerning such boundaries can do a great deal of damage, a sense of which can be gained from the following hypothetical examples: A very popular departing pastor leaves town without paying the charges she accrued at a member’s retail store. The member feels too embarrassed to remind her of this outstanding debt or to mention it to church leaders or the denominational executive. After all, he reasons, “Shouldn’t I just consider it a donation to the church?” But he later quietly stops attending worship because of the disappointment he feels about the previous pastor’s inattention to her debt. In another church, Wednesday morning staff meetings have, over time, become a place for the pastors and staff to unload their feelings about certain “troublesome” lay leaders. The support staff feel as if these meetings have become a waste of time, but they are fearful to bring up their concerns because it’s nearly time for their annual performance reviews.

These are examples of leadership issues as well as subtle boundary violations, but not all clergy and parishioners are able to articulate them as such. There are attempts being made in some of our traditions to develop a set of ethical guidelines and I support these efforts, at the same time recognizing that on the subtle end of the boundary spectrum it is difficult to formulate a set of “rules” that can be applied evenly in every situation. I have been impressed and influenced by those (such as Marilyn Peterson) who have developed conceptual frameworks that provide a set of criteria to evaluate specific incidents in our professional relationships and would like to see more work done in this area. It has been a privilege for me to provide education and training in this area, and I welcome your thoughts and comments (snienaber@alban.org).

Susan Nienaber is a consultant and seminar leader for the Alban Institute. She previously served as a parish pastor, hospital chaplain, pastoral counselor/licensed marriage and family therapist, and consultant to congregations and denominations. Susan has an extensive background in conflict and crisis management/intervention, mediation, systems theory, personnel issues, professional misconduct, leadership coaching, interpersonal dynamics, and communication skills and dialogue. She leads retreats and workshops for clergy and laity on a variety of subjects and is the co-trainer for the Minnesota Council of Churches’ ecumenical clergy boundaries training.