Updated: Jun 23
The only social media that I utilize in my day-to-day life is Reddit. I rarely post on the platform, but I love reading other peoples' comments and stories. Lately, I have come across several stories detailing how pastors have caused harm by committing acts of sexual misconduct. A number of them are from the wives of pastors who recently discovered their husband’s infidelity.
For example, I recently read a story where a woman discovered that her pastor husband had been having an affair with a member of their church. The pastor, in the midst of his affair, caused the church member to become pregnant with twins. Given the conservative nature of their Christian denomination, abortion was not on the table. There were major complications during the labor, resulting in the death of the mother and one of the twins. With one twin left in the hospital, the pastor approached his wife and came clean about their affair. In doing so, the pastor asked his wife if she would be willing to raise the twin that survived as her own child.
The remainder of the post detailed how the pastor and his wife do not have children of their own and how conflicted she is about the situation. Due to the fact that she is part of a very conservative Christian denomination, she believes that, as a Christian wife and the wife of a pastor, she has a responsibility to stay by his side no matter his transgressions.
The thread on this post was comprised of two types of comments. On the one hand, many of the Redditors were attempting to convince this poor woman to leave her husband. They were trying to help her see how she is the victim in this situation and how it’s not her responsibility to raise a child that resulted from her husband’s extra-marital affair. On the other hand, the Redditors were rightly bashing Christianity for creating toxic environments where a pastor could even think he could get away with such behavior without repercussions.
As I was scrolling through the comment thread, someone posed an interesting question: Why do so many pastors fall into this type of behavior where they take advantage of their parishioners? The answers to this question were all over the place. There were numerous comments to the effect that all religion is evil or that pastors are predators who get into the church to take advantage of their parishioners. Given that no one answering this question was an actual pastor, I found that they were all dancing around the real issues at play as to why so many pastors make these types of poor choices.
Therefore, I want to use this post to explore how and why pastors are so often at the center of scandals that destroy their reputations, family, church and career.
I’m friends with Dr. Melissa Perrin, a psychologist who specializes in working with pastors who have made these types of poor choices. At one point, I spent time interviewing her about this topic for my podcast and she said something that really caught my attention: “I have never encountered a clergy person who said, ‘I wanted a collar so that I could abuse somebody.’ Not a single person has ever said to me, ‘The goal of being ordained was to get into the flock of sheep and harm them.’ Never.”
As a pastor myself, when I think back to my beginnings in the church, I can vouch for this. I was very idealistic about entering the ministry. In fact, I would say I was a bit naïve. I believed my calling was to become a pastor so that, together, my congregation and I could change the world for the better. Indeed, every person I met in seminary had a similar desire. We were all there to make a positive difference in the world.
So if this is how we all begin, what exactly happens that leads a pastor down the road of sexual misconduct? Well, what most people do not understand about being a pastor is that it’s very similar to being a doctor—you are on call 24/7. Your contract might specify that you get two days off per week, but the reality is that tragedy, illness and loss rarely follow your schedule. When a member of your community is going through an emergency, they expect you to be at their beck and call.
I speak from experience when I say, initially, this feels great! You got into this business to help people. You wanted to be there for folks when they need you and now you are living out the very thing you dreamed of doing. Not to mention, it feels good when people tell you how much they appreciate your presence, guidance and leadership through these difficult moments. As a result, you justify the imposition on your time. Who cares if you come home late every so often or miss some family events? You’re doing this for the greater good. These people need you and who doesn’t want to be needed?
However, these small impositions on your time start to add up. You’re home less and less with your family, so naturally those relationships start to deteriorate. Over time, your spouse, children and friends begin to see that they are not the priority. The people at church are always first in line when it comes to your time. Sadly, your loved ones must contend with the leftovers, which isn’t exactly quality time because, when you finally get to sit down with the people you love most, you’re exhausted.
Over a long enough period of time, your life can become inverted. Since the vast majority of your energy is dedicated to helping your adopted family at the church, your chosen family, the people who you are supposed to love first and foremost, become like strangers. This places a huge amount of strain on those relationships and they inevitably start to breakdown under the shadow of your absence.
Sadly, I speak from experience. At one point, early in my tenure at my church in Chicago, if you don’t count the time I was asleep, I was physically awake and present with my family for less than 15 hours a week. At the time, both of my boys were under 4 years old. Since we were transplants, we had no family close by to help when my wife needed a break. I was blind to how the burden of raising our boys fell disproportionately on her. Eventually she delivered an ultimatum: Either make time for your chosen family or your church family will quickly become your only family.
Thankfully, this was enough of a wakeup call for me to change my behavior and readjust my priorities. Not that it was easy. I had to make some major modifications to how I approach my job. Unfortunately, there are many pastors who either never get this wakeup call or who are too lost in their work to clearly hear a message like this. Indeed, once the lines of all those boundaries are blurred beyond recognition, that’s when it becomes very easy to make a mistake.
Losing Your Humanity
I’ll let you in on little secret that most people don’t know: There is a deep loneliness that comes with being a pastor. One would think that since you are surrounded by so many people all the time that a pastor would always feel loved by their community. In fact, the exact opposite is true and that is because of an odd paradox that is at play in the church.
As a pastor, you fulfill a role. Yes, the duties of a pastor are like any other job where you have particular responsibilities. However, a pastor is also a figurehead. People look to you as a religious leader and, whether the parishioners realize it or not, that role takes on certain dimensions in their minds. What that role means can differ from person to person, but once the people in your church see you as fulfilling a role, they can quickly forget about your personhood. What do I mean by this?
Dr. Perrin talks about how there’s always a wake-up call that occurs where this dichotomy becomes obvious to the pastor. Everything is going along just fine and then something happens in your life. Perhaps there’s a death in your family or perhaps you have a medical emergency or a mental health crisis. You tell the people in your congregation about this crisis, but nobody really seems to notice.
With all the care you’ve extended to your community, you assume that the same care will be reciprocated back to you. When it’s not, you realize the relationship is one sided. You are left to manage this crisis on your own and the nature of the relationship between you and the members of your church becomes crystal clear: We are close because I serve you.
This event strips the clergy person of their humanity. Once this happens, the loneliness intensifies to a point that can feel unbearable. The pastor, starved of authentic human connection, has to find that humanity elsewhere. The question becomes where? The pastor should look for that connection from their family and friends, but since they spend so much time at the church, they’ve become disconnected from their natural support system. Instead, they look to the people who occupy their sphere of influence.
The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions
This is when something unexpected happens. Someone enters the pastor’s sphere of influence who seems to see them as a human being. Perhaps the pastor is counselling a woman going through a divorce. She speaks of being lonely and isolated. She talks about how she poured her love into her spouse only to have that love rejected after all these years. This catches the pastor’s attention. The pastor is thinking, “She’s speaking my language. She’s articulating how I feel in a way that no one else seems to understand.”
All of a sudden, the pastor feels this deep emotional connection. The more they talk, the more the boundary between pastor and parishioner becomes blurred. The pastor starts to see this relationship as special. Given that this woman is in a vulnerable emotional state because of her divorce, she may start to reciprocate those same feelings and that’s when choices are made by one or both parties that leads to physical boundaries being crossed. This is how inappropriate sexual relationships begin.
In this scenario, there are disproportionate power dynamics at play. Paradoxically, the role of the pastor, which caused the clergyperson to feel so isolated and lonely in the first place, is that exact same element that provides them with the power to manipulate the other person. The victim often feels special. This important religious figure has taken notice of them. Due to the status of the pastor’s reputation in the mind of the victim, it can be very easy for the clergy person to take advantage of the victim, which always has horrific consequences.
(For more on the repercussions felt by victims of clergy sexual abuse, I would recommend listening to Season 2, Episode 5 where I interviewed Larry Antonsen, a leader of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), who told his story of being abused by an Augustinian priest. This episode delves into how this event had lifelong ramifications for him and his family and how the church needs to be reformed to stop these events from happening in the first place.)
The Perfect Storm
As you might be able to tell by my description of these events, this can happen to anyone. The people called into ministry are not special or more susceptible to these types of bad behaviors than any other person. The problem is that the church is breeding ground for this type of behavior because of the nature of the relationships that are formed. It’s a perfect storm.
The clergyperson gets into the church because they want to help. Unfortunately, the church is a blackhole of need that will take as much from you as you are willing to give. Without the appropriate boundaries, the clergyperson can “help” so much that they lose themselves in the process. Without the right kind of guidance and support, the task of finding themselves again can be quite messy and often leads to poor decisions.
Another job where this perfect storm exists is in politics. Many people who get into politics do so because they want to serve their community. Similar to the church, many politicians work hard to form genuine relationships with their constituents. Then something unexpected happens. The politician is working on an issue that causes consternation in her community and, all of sudden, the people who she once counted as friends are attacking her.
The same basic realization is at play for the politician as for the pastor: We are friends as long as I serve your interests. The moment I stop serving your interests, our relationship ceases to function in the same manner. The politician realizes that the vast majority of these relationships are transactional.
In this moment, what the politician should do is rely on her support system. But if she’s been working long hours and is never home, then she might feel disconnected from that support system. Again, the feelings of loneliness and isolation creep in and, without the correct boundaries, it can be very easy to seek out that human connection wherever you can find it, which can sometimes lead to inappropriate relationships.
Setting Healthy Boundaries
As you can see, I couldn’t exactly post this to a Reddit thread to explain why pastors are so often
at the center of scandals that destroy their reputations, family, church and career. The truth is that this happens to lots of different people in all types of caring professions—teachers, doctors, nurses, counselors, social workers, police officers, firefighters to name a few. If you are working long hours where your job is to serve other people, then without the appropriate boundaries, you are at high risk for burnout and poor decision making.
Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the same patterns emerge for anyone working extremely long hours who is not taking appropriate care of themselves and their relationships. Human nature is to seek out connection wherever we can find it, even if that connection leads to horrible consequences. Therefore, my advice would be to always invest in your support system first and foremost. If your family and friends are your top priority in terms of your time and relationships, then it becomes much harder to transgress those important boundaries.
I speak from experience when I say don’t alienate the people who love you most for relationships that will ultimately leave you feeling more isolated and alone. Don’t confuse the good feeling of helping people with the love of your closest relationships. Similar to a drug addiction, seeking out that feeling over and over again will eventually hollow out your insides and take everything from you. Your family loves you for a reason. Invest in the relationships that matter most to you and the rest will fall into place.