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A Quick Question 

How do you make pastoral misconduct in the congregation worse?

The quick answer: Respond to it in the wrong ways.

The longer answer:    The problem of pastoral misconduct affects all denominations. The Presbyterian church estimates that up to 23% of its clergy engage in "inappropriate sexual behavior or inappropriate sexual contact."  In the year 2000, every Catholic Diocese in America except two had been hit with civil lawsuits involving sexual misconduct. 

Most church officials are ill prepared to deal with such problems. Many instinctively act to protect the institution.  They try to wish cases  away or even to stifle the accusers.  They fail to recognize that sexual misconduct is a subset of power abuse and that administrative mishandling can seriously complicate a case.   

The book, Decent and in Order: Conflict, Christianity, and Polity in a Presbyterian Congregation, by Ronald R. Stockton, is a case study of a church conflict that got out of control. A pastor was accused of power abuse and sexual harassment.  Inexperienced congregational leaders failed to act.  District leaders proved inconsistent and ineffective.  Members filed charges in the church courts.  Those who raised concerns were seen as the problem and were subject to retaliation.  There was a civil lawsuit.  The church was wrecked.

The key questions are why this conflict went on for three years and why it went so far awry. District officials said there was no credible evidence that the minister had done wrong and they supported him in his successful effort to find another church.  They decided early on that the problem was conflict rather than abuse and acted to bring reconciliation.  When the aggrieved members persisted with their concerns, the higher authorities decided to take  action against them.  While the church was Presbyterian, what happened reflects a pattern of institutional malfunction that goes well beyond one denomination.

The study, written by a political science professor who was also an Elder, is based on interviews and documents.  Because the Presbyterian Church has a formalistic polity with an independent judicial process, the study describes in detail how these structures operate.  Analysis covers two reconciliation committees, two formal judicial investigations, a Presbytery-appointed Administrative Commission, the resignation of the minister, retaliatory firings, counter-charges in the ecclesiastical courts against those who had raised concerns, and a civil lawsuit. There is a chapter on sexual harassment law and the role of women in the church.

The book has numerous recommendations. Among them are the following:

  • There should be early and aggressive intervention.  In this case, eight months lapsed from the first report of sexual misconduct until an Investigating Committee was created.
  • Officials should be familiar with the legal concept of “negligent supervision and retention,” that if an official “knew or should have known” of a problem but does not  act, that official is responsible for subsequent damage.
  • Officials should be familiar with the two dimensions of sexual harassment law.  Quid pro quo offenses involve demands or coercion; hostile environment offenses involve behavior that would cause a reasonable person to feel under threat.  In the latter case, the emphasis is upon impact rather than intent.   
  • There should be a focus upon protecting the congregation as a community rather than the church as an institution.  Many officials reverse these priorities. 
  • Officials should keep in mind both civil law and codes of pastoral ethics, with pastoral ethics making higher demands upon the clergy.
  • Avoid using "God Words" to manipulate members. There is particular danger in the word "reconciliation."
  • There is a need for an Ombudsman to provide information and to  mediate.
  • In ecclesiastical lawsuits, there should be neutral legal advice and counseling for all parties
  • Remember that if ecclesiastical law does not produce justice, members may well seek their rights in the civil courts.  

Findings taken from the book Conflict, Christianity, and Polity in a Presbyterian Congregation. by Ronald R. Stockton (Westport, Conn.:  Praeger/Greenwood, 2000).

The Amazon.com listing of the book has an excerpt which can be read online. 

Ronald R. Stockton, University of Michigan-Dearborn, 4901 Evergreen Road, Dearborn, Michigan, 48128.  313-593-5384, Rstock@Umich.edu.   The author will accept questions. 

Additional Readings on the topic:

Marie Fortune, Is Nothing Sacred? When Sex Invades the Pastoral Relationship.  San Francisco. Harper San Francisco, 1989.

Anson Shupe,  In the Name of All That’s Holy.  A Theory of Clergy Malfeasance. Westport Conn., Praeger, 1995.

For information about another study of clergy misconduct, please visit the research note by Nancy Ammerman.


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