26 April 2019  |

Dear Aunt Sevvy

Our respected senior pastor has just been reported for having an affair with a married woman. The woman in question had some serious personal issues, and the pastor was counseling her. But it turned into something more. What are we parishioners to think now?

Signed, Broken Trust

Dear Broken,

When a pastor has a moral failing, it is upsetting to those who trusted him. While not excusing what happened, it is a good reminder that pastors are, in fact, quite human. They can be wonderful and encouraging, but they are also sinners in need of grace and forgiveness just like the rest of us.  

That said, this is a particularly serious thing for a pastor to be guilty of. The relationship between a pastor and a church member he is counseling is one of authority to vulnerability, like doctor to patient or teacher to student. By definition, this is not an affair, nor is it merely an “indiscretion.” The imbalance of power makes it an abusive relationship.

Pastors should learn how to respond appropriately in crisis situations, recognize mental health problems, and do a referral. But unless they are part of a team in which counseling is their role, they shouldn’t do long-term counseling. And this is one of the reasons why. Nowadays, a pastor in this situation can be prosecuted or the church sued—or both. Aunty believes that a pastor who has once trespassed in this area has forfeited his right to ever do ministry again.

Yet too often such pastors get a “pass.” Sometimes the pastor denies the story and is believed over the woman, or claims that it isn’t his fault because he was beguiled by a seductive woman—such as in this wrenching story. Just like in the Garden of Eden, people will sometimes blame the woman. I hope your congregation won’t do that. She’ll need love and support. Aunty recommends Hope of Survivors, an organization for those who were sexually abused by clergy.

And even though this pastor has done something very wrong—and yes, as the authority figure, it is his fault—Aunty knows that he, his wife and children are hurt, too. Pray for all of them.

An enlightened conference leadership would send a professional to help a congregation through the aftermath. But most don’t. It is likely that your congregation will have to pick up the pieces on its own. This will require a lot of prayer.

Faithfully yours,

Aunt Sevvy


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