You are going to have to deal with their troubled history,” the district superintendent told me in what would become a familiar litany during my four years of ministry as an “after-pastor.” I was about to become the minister of a church that had had six ministers in 16 years, four of whom had left under allegations of sexual misconduct. Though the congregation had more than 160 members, weekly worship attendance rarely exceeded 35. Congregational giving was sporadic, necessitating that a portion of my salary be paid by the judicatory.
“This won’t be an easy church to pastor,” the district superintendent said.
It is never easy leading a congregation in the wake of any ethical misconduct by a predecessor. This is true whether the misconduct took the form of financial malfeasance or a congregational split orchestrated by the minister. But sexual misconduct has an added dimension in that it usually happens within the context of the minister-congregant relationship. Eliminating the systemic factors that allow it to occur involves much more than establishing “safe sanctuary” guidelines, judicatory sexual harassment policies, and other safeguards, such as a window on the door to the pastor’s study. Congregations where sexual misconduct has happened once are at far greater risk of reoccurrence than those faith communities who have never experienced it.
Clergy entering these congregations are often ill-prepared for what they will encounter. Many assume that strong pastoral care skills, experience in helping a congregation work through a crisis like a devastating fire, or a history of advocacy on behalf of survivors of sexual abuse will provide a sufficient foundation for ministry in such a setting. Judicatories may provide counseling services and due process for direct victims of abuse but have few resources for the affected congregation. One reason is the high burnout rate among after-pastors. The stress involved often drives them away from parish ministry, leaving judicatories with little institutional knowledge on how to minister effectively in such a setting.
One colleague with more than 30 years experience as an after-pastor describes ministry in such congregations as entering the “twilight zone”; things are never as they seem. The relationship between the clergy and the congregation may appear to be going smoothly, with worship attendance rising and board meetings that are remarkably conflict free. Then one Sunday there is significantly lower attendance than usual. The following morning the minister receives a call from a judicatory official concerning a letter listing half a dozen grievances that leave her wondering if the judicatory had mistakenly telephoned the wrong church. This “twilight zone” phenomenon and other dynamics unique to congregations where sexual abuse has occurred baffles clergy and contributes greatly to the high level of stress.
The twilight zone is the result of several factors within the congregational system, which are both the result of and a contributing factor to sexual misconduct on the part of clergy. A clear understanding of these dynamics will go a long way in restoring congregational health and preventing future episodes.
A Breach of Boundaries
In Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School, the main character describes a scene where Robert Frost reads his poem “Mending Wall.”
“I had read the poem and thought I understood it: All walls should come down. But in Frost’s voice the scene became newly vivid, and I caught something I’d missed; that for all the narrator’s ironic superiority, the neighbor had his truth too. The image of him moving in the shadows like an old-stone savage armed—he himself was a good reason to have a wall, the living proof of his own argument that good fences make good neighbors. Maybe something doesn’t like a wall, but take it down at your own peril.”1
There is something in every clergy person that doesn’t like a wall. We question certain aspects of the ministerial relationship that reinforce our “set-apartness.” Still, even when transparency on the part of the spiritual leader enhances ministerial effectiveness, appropriate professional boundaries are necessary to preserve the health of the congregational system. These boundaries protect both the integrity of the relationship itself and the spiritual leader’s place in the system that provides the context for that relationship.
In congregations where sexual misconduct has occurred, nonsexual boundaries characteristic of any professional relationship have long since been breached. They fall away slowly and subtly, their erosion a mutual effort on the part of the minister and congregation. Sometimes the nonsexual boundaries fall during a pastorate prior to the one where the misconduct occurs. Simply removing the offending pastor will not restore them.
An after-pastor encounters a congregation that is extremely resistant to reestablishing appropriate professional boundaries, even in situations where the relationship between their absence and sexual misconduct is obvious. In my own situation, the presence of the church office in the parsonage was a major factor in at least half the pastorates where sexual misconduct occurred, yet any suggestion on my part that we move the church office to the church building was treated as an affront by the administrative council. It wasn’t until after I had been serving for a couple of years that I grew used to the convenience of having the office in my house and—against my better judgment—stopped pressing the issue. Nevertheless, I recognized that in exchange for being able to run off copies of the church bulletin while I watched a basketball game on Saturday night, members of the congregation had access to my home.
Reestablishing appropriate professional boundaries requires persistence and often involves crossing what have become cultural norms in the common life of a congregation. Because the congregation has grown so accustomed to clergy with poor boundaries, ministers with healthy boundaries may be perceived as distant, aloof, or uncaring. Still, it is better to err on the side of caution when reestablishing professional boundaries. In some congregational cultures it may be appropriate for the minister to share a cocktail or glass of wine with members of the community, but in a congregation where sexual misconduct has occurred it might be wise for a pastor to abstain in the presence of parishioners, especially when an inappropriate relationship involved alcohol.
Symbolic actions on the part of the pastor can go a long way toward helping restore appropriate professional boundaries. Sometimes wearing a clerical collar or jacket and tie when performing pastoral duties will reinforce—in the minds of both the parishioner and the minister—the professional nature of the relationship. A minister might also request that he or she be addressed by title and last name, even if the minister has always gone by Pastor Pat or Reverend Ralph.
Lack of Lay Leadership
Peter Steinke refers to mature leaders as “the immune cells” of any church or family system. It is their capacity to respond in a nonanxious manner that encourages the congregation to maintain its integrity in the midst of internal and external threats. A congregation needs effective lay leadership to preserve its identity, mission, and core values in the face of a traumatic experience that has the potential to rip apart its very soul. Their nonreactive stance enables the congregation to respond in ways that will do no further damage to the already fragile community.2 Also, it is far more difficult for a clergy leader to engage in sexual misconduct in an environment where strong lay leaders partner with the ordained leader for effective ministry, reinforcing and defining the responsibilities and expectations of each leader, team member, or committee.
A clergy person is more likely to behave inappropriately in a congregation where the roles and boundaries are undefined, or where the minister wields an unusual amount of power or is given sole responsibility for charting the course of a congregation’s identity, mission, and ministry.
One of the insidious effects of ministerial sexual misconduct is what it does to lay leadership. Often, the most mature members of the church family become fed up when the spiritual leader’s misconduct is disclosed. Even if they remain a part of the congregation they may withdraw from leadership, especially when others resort to blaming the victim, or the judicatory fails to discipline the perpetrator.
Any congregation that has survived sexual misconduct on the part of its spiritual leader will regress to some degree. The disclosure of sexual misconduct is usually followed by several families transferring their membership or becoming inactive. As attendance and contributions fall, those left behind band together to “save the church at all costs.” They will be quick to assess blame, often focusing on the victim who came forward with the allegation, or the judicatory official who processed the complaint. The minister who follows will likely be treated as an outsider whose very presence is a reminder of the painful episode that has yet to be fully processed.
The after-pastor is left with a dilemma. He or she will not automatically be granted the trust necessary to lead. At the same time, there will be an absence of mature, self-differentiated lay leadership capable of providing vision and direction. The church board may lack the motivation to engage in ministry or outreach and sabotage attempts by the minister to exert leadership. One of the most frustrating aspects of being an after-pastor is that congregational blowups are likely to occur when the pastor’s initiatives are bearing the most fruit.
My own turning point as an after-pastor came when I gained some degree of understanding and acceptance that my church was a pastor-centered congregation that didn’t trust pastors. I would need to identify potential lay leaders, develop spiritually focused one-to-one relationships with them, and encourage them to faithfully develop the skills needed to answer the call God had placed on their lives. I also had to accept that these persons, not I, would get the credit for returning the congregation to vital ministry. My role was neither star nor coach. Instead, I functioned as the mentor behind the scenes who encouraged capable and gifted people on the margins of congregational leadership to become lay preachers, Disciple Bible Study leaders, Stephen Ministers, and conflict resolution specialists. It was important that they lead the effort at restoring the congregation to health and helping it claim its vision. Any attempt on my part to assume center stage could derail this process.
Identifying and equipping mature lay leadership is an essential task for any after-pastor seeking to restore congregational vitality. Often, the best people for this will be found among those who attend regularly, but shy away from congregational leadership. According to Edwin Friedman, one of the characteristics of any system in regression is that those most capable of pulling the system out of regression do not seek leadership. This is true whether the system is a family, church, or nation.3 These people are often present somewhere in the congregation and, despite their reluctance to get involved, care deeply about the future of their church or synagogue. The after-pastor needs to figure out who these individuals are and motivate them to claim their rightful place as leaders.
Informal Networks Replace Official Structures
Parking lot meetings and telephone grapevines are a fact of life in congregations. There is always a meeting after the meeting. Difficult decisions made by the board will be second-guessed by those who turn down every invitation to serve in leadership. Such is the nature of congregational life just about everywhere. The difference in a congregation affected by clergy sexual misconduct is that these informal networks replace official boards and committees, both in terms of disseminating information and overturning decisions made during official meetings in the presence of the pastor.
While this aspect of being an after-pastor is maddening, it begins to make sense when looked at from the perspective of the congregation. First, when a scandal involving the minister breaks, only a handful of leaders knows the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the situation. They may feel it is better for the congregation to disclose as little information as possible. The majority of the congregation is kept in the dark, their requests for information denied. As pieces of the story begin to surface or are leaked, a grapevine is established. This network remains in place long after the offending pastor is removed and may still be perceived as the only reliable source of information concerning the congregation. Second, congregants may have attempted to address the behavior of the offending minister through the official committee structure only to be met with denials, accusations, and threats. They have learned through painful experience that confronting a clergyperson directly is not worth the effort. Appeals to judicatories bring even greater frustration when bishops, superintendents, or presbyteries are perceived as more concerned with protecting the offending minister’s career than addressing the interests of the local church. Consequently, after-pastors often find appeals to denominational polity or congregational bylaws ineffective when trying to sustain decisions made by administrative boards, sessions, or vestries.
Though this behavior is understandable, it ultimately works against the congregation’s best interests, creating a web of “triangles,” where direct communication between people in conflict is avoided. This pattern of indirect communication may begin as a way of adapting to a recalcitrant pastor or stonewalling vestry, but soon becomes standard practice for any conflict within the congregation, including situations that do not involve the pastor at all. The result is a congregational environment where anxiety is ever present and seemingly minor disagreements become major flare-ups in no short time.
The after-pastor is in a position of having to “de-triangle” the system, but this is almost impossible to accomplish when the congregation has lost all confidence in the pastoral office. Judicatory officials may be even less effective in working directly with the congregation due to lingering mistrust. The best person to handle the task of reestablishing open communication is somebody outside both the congregational and judicatory system. A consultant retained by the governing board is probably the best option. If a congregation lacks the financial resources for this, they might consider asking the judicatory if grants or funds are available. When funding is not available it is probably better for the congregation to contact an experienced clergy- or layperson from another denomination than to use someone from the judicatory staff. Another option might be selecting a mature and capable layperson who is currently on the margins of the congregation and consequently not part of any existing triangles. In our own case, we selected a nonmember who had been attending regularly for several years to be trained in conflict resolution. He led the effort in establishing listening groups and training the congregation to communicate openly with the pastor and one another.
A Few Cautions
Most people with experience in working with congregations affected by ministerial sexual misconduct say it takes 10 years for a motivated congregation to recover its vitality. There are no shortcuts. An after-pastor must understand this and resist the siren calls of the latest church growth theorists. I am not discounting the importance of vi
sionary pastoral leadership. For after-pastors, however, the vision needs to be modified. For at least five years, the goals should be achieving congregational stability by reestablishing appropriate professional boundaries, developing spiritually mature lay leadership, and establishing patterns of open communication. Once this is accomplished, the congregation may begin to claim its own vision. Members might even trust the minister enough to allow him or her to be an active participant in this process.
The after-pastor must never underestimate the difficulty of serving in such a setting. The potential for burnout, health problems, divorce, or another episode of sexual misconduct is tremendous. It is helpful for the after-pastor, at times, to ignore the content of the previous pastorate (acting out sexually) and focus instead on the process that resulted in an underperforming or unhealthy minister. A pastor may not face public embarrassment or loss of credentials for gaining 40 pounds, but if the result is a debilitating illness, is he or she really better off? Taking care of oneself physically, spiritually, and emotionally is of primary importance. If the after-pastor is not healthy there is little chance that he or she will lead the congregation to a restoration of health.
1. Tobias Wolff, Old School (New York: Albert A. Knopf, 2003), 49.
2. Peter Steinke, How Your Church Family Works(Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 1993), 106.
3. Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (The Edwin Friedman Estate, 1999), 115.