Hormones and Ministry: A Good Mix?

Ministry has never been a hormone free zone. Sexuality has always been on the short list of occupational hazards for pastors. Our own culture remains preoccupied with sexual issues. The sexual freedom of the post pill, vasectomy and abortion eras has continued to stimulate lust rather than love, technique rather than understanding, adventure rather than responsibility. The lines which used to differentiate clearly between casual encounter and committed monogamy seem to have disappeared from sight.  It is in this environment that pastors are having to function. The apparent circumspection and clarity surrounding pastoral practice and sexuality of a generation or two ago has given way to uncertainty and unease.

The Many Shades of Current Pastoral Unease:

  • The extravagant, much publicised sexual escapades of the few have made life difficult for the many. There is now a wise hypersensitivity to any form of conduct which may leave a pastor open to charges of compromised behaviour. Any pastor not so exercised is in danger.
  • Pastors are accountable with codes of ethics in place and with a commitment to honour these. The old-style leadership where the pastor functioned with their own self-imposed guidelines has thankfully gone. Many pastors for their own protection are wisely identifying ways of developing accountability with others whom they trust.
  • While the great majority of pastors are scrupulous in their approach to members of the opposite sex, others have been extraordinarily unwise. The full-blown affair has often been the result of either a friendship or a counselling exercise where the boundaries were well and truly lost and accountability non-existent. Then there is the pastoral flirt who avoids the affair but is too attentive, too charming and too readily available. Another like-minded colleague is the undiscerning fool who unwittingly creates compromising situations, opens the door to allegations, dices with danger and wakes up too late.
  • Another type of pastoral liability is a sad reality – the predator. This is the unashamed controller alert to exploiting the vulnerable, given to manipulation, intent on pursuing an agenda to deliver maximum power, devious and secretive, often a great performer in public with a pathological radar able to detect any opportunity for personal gratification. Usually with an untold history of indiscretion, the predator is two people in one: spiritually sensitive and genuinely caring but driven by an unresolved internal darkness, having an awesome addiction to sexual encounter and not at all troubled by conscience in so doing.

Why Do Some Pastors Run into Trouble?

There are many reasons why pastors encounter difficulty sexually. The following spring to mind immediately and do not claim to be exhaustive:

  1. The very nature of the spiritual journey encourages an intimacy of being which can surreptitiously move from the spiritual to the physical. This is a real possibility where a pastor and a member of the opposite sex explore the deeper dimensions of spirituality without there being safety measures in place. It is unlikely that their original intention was to wander into forbidden territory. But this unexpected lack of control surfaces through the sharing of needs without there being the security and scrutiny of, say, a small group setting or a confidential reporting process. The profoundly spiritual and the deeply physical are intimacies which are much closer to each other than most realise. Perhaps it is a mystery; it is most certainly a reality.
  2. Sexual misdemeanours can be traced to a monumental lack of self-awareness, understanding and personal discipline. Let’s get one thing clear now and for all time: we are sexual creatures no matter how young or how old we may be, regardless of length of time in the ministry, or background, or apparent spiritual maturity. That’s the way the Lord put us together and He described this as good right from the start. We are the ones who have managed to spoil the arrangement.
  3. Having noted this, there are certain equations which need to be recognised early if purity of thought, motive and action are to be preserved. The mid-life crisis (with all its variations), the lonely church member, the over-burdened pastor (whose marriage is starved of life and levity because of unregulated busyness) can combine into a very lethal sexual encounter. Regrettably, the pastor may not realise the dynamics of this situation. Genuine care can so easily metamorphose into selfish manipulation and pleasure with a diminished capacity for acknowledging what is really taking place. An extraordinary self delusion hatches an ethical perversion of grand proportions. The pastor may even claim that the “other party” took the initiative but this cannot be regarded seriously. The pastor’s commitment is to responsible care no matter what the intent of others may be.
  4. There is a greater likelihood of emotional entanglement if the pastor’s marriage is already at risk. The very nature of the pastoral role places great strain on many pastoral marriages. Too often the pastor is wrung out by others only to arrive at home completely washed out and fatigued. There is another perilous twist to this. Some pastors may find the cut and thrust of life in the congregation more rewarding and satisfying to the ego than the hard work of being a partner and a parent at home in the manse. Either way, there are serious problems developing.
  5. While many pastoral couples share the depths, not all do. There is a loneliness for some pastors and their partners who long for each other to be more engaged in what they are about. Trust levels and communication border on the superficial which means that honesty and openness in the marriage are at a low ebb. Further, mutual accountability is thereby reduced. This means that genuine dialogue on the tough issues does not occur leaving the pastor acutely vulnerable to the unexpected moment of temptation with a caring member of the opposite sex. This is not to excuse such a succumbing but it does help to highlight the need to foster healthy pastoral marriages.
  6. We are in the kindergarten when it comes to recognising and enjoying the sexual dimensions of our humanity. Although God judged the male-female creation as good, we are uncertain as to how masculinity and femininity can be enjoyed within acceptable biblical, ethical and social parameters. On the whole the subject seems to be surrounded by a general taboo and layers of guilt. While we have been quick to address the “thou shalt not” areas, we have lacked the courage to acknowledge the daily subtleties of our sexuality. We are suffocating enjoyable and natural relationships between men and women.
  7. It is much more than just the physical and emotional differences. It has much more to do with the seemingly intangible. For example, males are deeply aware of the so called “feminine mystique.” They are attracted to the intuitive and the capacity for feeling, the alertness to levels of being which so often escape male recognition and understanding. Femininity carries its own intrigue and fascination for the male psyche.
  8. The problem is that these dimensions of sexuality (and many others) are never discussed. Nor is there anyone brave enough it seems to put the reality of temptation on the line for discussion. This inability to discuss male-female relationships in honest, helpful and constructive ways means that no one has any real idea of how others cope with their sexual reactions, drives and needs. This constitutes a huge gap in authentic sharing. For this reason, there is a real fear of admitting to anybody the struggle for honourable motivation and purity of mind and action. As a result, a most strategic part of our humanity remains isolated from mainstream conversation. Conferences are held to address pastoral indiscretions, define boundaries and develop codes of conduct but not too many to help pastors understand and cope with their sexuality in an honest and creative way with a full appreciation of the pastoral role and its inherent challenges. In short, the pastor who does face boundary problems remains unprepared and unsupported for the tests when they come.
  9. Unfortunately some pastors are accidents waiting to happen. Dreadful as it may sound, some pastors are high risk sexually. A shaky marriage, an inflated view of personal competence (especially in counselling), an easy charm, a happy go lucky style with everybody, a gift for emotion and sentiment coupled with a deplorable lack of anticipating the consequences creates a dangerous mix. Their fall from grace is almost certain.

What about some guidelines for the future?

There are many good rules of thumb. Some suggestions….

  1. Get in touch with the way your own system works. Understanding your own sexuality is crucial. Some of us cope with our sexuality better than others. Past failures may yet weigh heavily upon us. If there have been unhappy experiences in the past (including abuse), ensure that you have attended to these with appropriate assistance. Do not ignore past failures. Has there been confession, repentance and forgiveness? In what ways are you now accountable so that history will not repeat itself?
  2. If you are a married pastor, work hard at enriching your relationship. A married pastor may encourage other couples in marital growth yet fail to nurture their own marriage. Sex may sit on the shelf unattended thereby creating a needless vulnerability to wandering thoughts and behaviour. Nourish that level of honesty which provides the security of being able to signal to your partner when others are getting too close emotionally. Under no circumstances encourage any friendship which is improper and inappropriate. If your domestic situation allows it, undertake visiting with your partner. This can be hard if your partner is pursuing their own career.
  3. Put an accountability procedure into place now. This should be a little easier for a members of a pastoral team. Solo pastors need to confide in an elder or other trusted leader. Leadership groups should be demanding that their pastors establish such accountability as a matter of course. There needs to be understood protocols regarding counselling and home visitation, for example. Regular reviews should address accountability systems and their effectiveness as a matter of course.
  4. When it comes to counselling, do not claim an expertise you do not have. Know your limits and stay within them. There are profound differences between ongoing pastoral care and in depth counselling. Individual counselling with a person of the opposite sex alone and long term is an unwise and imprudent practice. If you stumble into areas of sexual difficulty and abuse in the experience of the person you are helping, do not proceed further if you are not appropriately trained. Refer rapidly and retire quickly. Remember the need for accountability at all times. There are no prizes for admitting that a counselling situation got out of hand after the damage has been done.
  1. Keep a careful balance between care of the individual and the care of the congregation. The investment of large amounts of time in a small number of needy people at the expense of other leadership roles needs to be thoughtfully assessed and corrected.
  2. Give the visitation ministry of the church a thoughtful rethink. These days there are competent people in many churches who are gifted to undertake at least some of the visitation ministry. This is particularly helpful if you have a woman or two who can follow up with female contacts.

Some closing realities:

Finally, let’s identify some other realities….

  • Temptations will come our way. If we are sufficiently foolish, there will be the opportunity to manipulate, to flirt, to leave the door deliberately open to inappropriate behaviour. Ending up in bed with the wrong person is not an accident. It is the outcome of undisciplined and selfish thoughts and motives with no regard whatever for the consequences.
  • The undisciplined pastor who breaks the boundaries wreaks havoc upon family and congregation. It will take years for a church to recover from such dislocation with many members quitting out of disappointment, disgust or anger. Tampering with the trust of members and friends is a devastating blow to the Body of Christ and brings the church into disrepute in the community. The damage is long term and near to irreparable.
  • Anxieties about misperceptions and misunderstandings is leading to an increasingly and subtle withdrawal of friendly exchanges between genders. We are in danger of slipping into an arms’ length, hands off distancing of the sexes where there is a studied commitment to awkward and unnatural relationships. This is unhealthy and well short of what our Creator had in mind. This sanitising of relationships could easily lead to a pastoral paranoia where we will have more in common with robots than real people with real needs, real feelings and real potential for growth and enjoyment. May that day never dawn!

Rev John Simpson