When a pastor is said to be “inappropriately involved with a woman or women in his church other than his wife”, it used to be that the phrase was our ecclesiastical euphemism for breaking the seventh commandment. The pastor got physically involved in an adulterous affair. Once that is known to be true, the pastor is effectively finished at his church while church leadership attempts to arrange his departure in a way that shows grace towards him and his family but upholds ministry standards.
Opinions vary about whether or not the adulterer pastor is finished for good. LifeWay Research did a poll of pastors on this and found that about one-third though that for the pastor to withdraw for three months to one year would be sufficient, about one-fourth though adultery to be a permanent disqualifier, and one in six though an absence from public ministry of two to ten years would be sufficient.
There are many new things in the Christian pastoral ministry, but one thing I’m encountering regularly now are incidents where a pastor is found to have “inappropriate interactions with women in the church”. What is meant to be conveyed by this phrase seems to be that the pastor is not having an adulterous affair with a woman in the church but is interacting inappropriately with women in other ways.
What is the meaning of this and how serious a problem is it?
As I listen and read, here are some things I’ve seen described as “inappropriate interaction” with women.
Hugging; no less than the hilarious Babylon Bee has a piece on this. I don’t recall any of my pastors ever, ever hugging anyone in church. While I wouldn’t classify hugging as an inappropriate interaction with women, I have seen things that have made me uncomfortable and that have raised questions. One pastor was very big into full-frontal, double wrapped semi-bear hugs. Better save those for the wife, not the church ladies. That’s only asking for trouble. I would counsel any pastor who believes these are appropriate to stop immediately. I know church women who avoid staff members who expect to hug every woman every Sunday.
Conversations that would be judged to be emotional adultery. The idea that the pastor (or any husband) can discuss life issues on an intimate emotional level with any woman not his wife, much less with women for whom he is pastor, is absurd, extremely dangerous, and probably an indicator of present or future unfaithfulness. The pastor can have close working relationships with women in the church (he better, since in many churches women do most of the work) but he cannot let these develop into deeper emotional attachments that include discussions about the pastor’s or the woman’s home life, sex life, or marriage. If these subjects are approached the pastor should either initiate a counseling referral or set up a formal counseling session with the woman with appropriate protections and controls in place. While this isn’t a disqualifier for ministry, if a husband accused the pastor of this, it should be investigated and the pastor warned about the dangers of such.
Inappropriate touching. A large church pastor recently resigned for being a serial “toucher” of women in the church. When one woman complained publicly, others came forward. This behavior is disqualifying and may violate laws for sexual harassment or even assault.
Inappropriate communication. It is part of our 21st Century culture that everyone is connected and that communication is almost constant. We don’t always have details when we read or hear about a pastor resigning because of “inappropriate interactions” with women in his church but my guess is that such likely included exchanges of emails, texts, and/or photographs of a sexual or suggestive nature – “sexting.”
A woman in a church accused the pastor of inappropriate communications. She participated in exchanges up to the point where it had escalated to the degree that she was upset. She told people and eventually the matter came to the church leadership. The actual texts (and perhaps photos) were not released. Church leaders approached the pastor who said it was a misunderstanding. The matter was dropped. A second, separate but similar incident led to the pastor’s voluntary resignation. Two credible reports, even absent concrete evidence, must be taken seriously.
As a confirmed, old dude curmudgeon, I confess to a certain level of ignorance in this area. Would my younger colleagues help by answering the following questions:
- As a pastor (or staff) are you connected to any or most church members by email and phone and do you handle communications directly with most membership?
- Have you ever received emails or texts that included comments that made you slightly (or greatly) uncomfortable?
- How did/do you handle such comments so as not to encourage any escalation?
- Have you ever sent or received a text or email that was clearly inappropriate?
- Do you maintain some formality with women in regard to hugging? Exactly how do you manage this?
- Do you know of colleagues who are or have been guilty of “inappropriate communication” of this type (sexting) with women in church?
- What do you find to be the best way to handle interaction with women in your church?
Brave new world.
Here are a few links on the subject:
Christians and “Sexting” This is from The Fallen Pastor who has had articles here.
Proceed with care: Handling Pastoral Misconduct Current article from LifeWay’s Facts and Trends by Bob Smeitana.
Seven Warning Signs of Affairs for Pastors and Other Church Staff; Thom Ranier, simple and straightforward.
Have a great Lord’s Day. Avoid the full frontal hugs for all women under 70 but any older than that, hugging is fine, just watch out to see that you don’t get snuff spewed on you in the process.