Sexual misconduct in ministry is a constant problem. In a 1984 survey, 38.6 percent of ministers reported sexual contact with a church member, and 76 percent knew of another minister who had had sexual intercourse with a member of the congregation. In 1992, Leadership magazine conducted a survey and found that 37 percent of ministers engaged in “inappropriate sexual behavior” with a church member.
Sexual harassment in ministry isn’t something we typically discuss. I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t a large part of the problem. If we were to discuss the real problems of ministry, I firmly believe some of the pitfalls would disappear.
Sexual harassment can be defined as: “Any unwanted sexual comment, advance or demand, either verbal or physical, that is reasonably perceived by the recipient as demeaning, intimidating, or coercive.”
Sexuality drastically changed with the Fall. Before the Fall: “The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). After the Fall: “They knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (Genesis 3:7).
It’s essential to understand: One: God made sexuality. There is nothing inherently evil about our sexuality. Instead, when sexuality remains where God properly placed it, sexuality is a beautiful expression of love between two connected individuals. Two: The misuse of sexuality belongs to our fallenness. Because we are fallen individuals, we need to think about the misuse of sexuality.
Many think of sexual harassment as something only women suffer. In most cases, it is women who are victims of sexual harassment. But, because of the intimate nature of ministry, many ministers face sexual harassment. We are the ones who are with people at the most vulnerable times of their lives: births, baptism, marriage, and death. We are the ones to whom people turn when life turns upside down. People often come to us when they need counseling. Therefore, it’s not terribly uncommon for us to become the object of some people’s sexual fantasies.
In Scripture we see that some men were the object of women’s sexual desire. Joseph (Genesis 39:6b-12). Lot and his daughters could be another example (Genesis 19:30-38). You’d be right to point out that it’s not sexual desire that drove Lot’s daughters to do what they did, but Lot’s daughters abused him sexually.
Scripture would also speak to us about keeping relationships healthy. I’ve always liked Job’s statement: “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” (Job 31:1). While he isn’t talking about sexual harassment, Job is making a declaration about the intent of his heart.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30). The important thing about what Jesus says is that he goes directly to intent. Much of sexual harassment begins with intent and Jesus instructs us to watch our intent.
Timothy was to encourage “younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:2).
How do we handle sexual harassment in ministry?
When someone makes an unwanted sexual advance toward you:
Breathe deeply and keep silent for a while – This gives you time to formulate your response. Picture God sitting in the room with you.
Accept the other person’s feelings.
This does not mean that you approve. It took courage for the individual to express his/her feelings. You can say something like: “Thank you for telling me that. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to do.”
Validate the relationship: “I’m honored to be your preacher.”
Clarify the professional/moral boundary: “I’m honored to be your preacher, but we’re not going where that thought would lead.”
Pause for a response.
Ask how the person is responding to what you have said. Listen for clues that he or she really understands what you have said.
Sometimes, it’s important to get out of the situation immediately just like Joseph did – the person removes clothing, attempts physical contact, or uses overt sexual language. Tell the person directly the behavior has to stop and leave the room. Tell the individual that for all parties involved, you must break the confidentiality of what’s transpiring. Bring back in secretary or spouse to witness a clarification of what’s just occurred. Refuse to see the person again in any type of personal, private setting.
Yet, it’s not always that people make advances toward the preacher – Sometimes the preacher makes unwanted advances toward others.
Pay attention to your intuitive discomfort.
If you’re doing something that makes you uncomfortable, STOP! That is a very biblical response. “Our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you” (2 Corinthians 1:12). “Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things” (Hebrews 13:18).
Stay tuned to your body.
Notice your physiological responses and determine the source of them. Were you flirting, or was someone flirting with you?
Notice whom you touch and why.
Do you touch one gender more than another? Do your hugs linger for a longer time with some people?
Avoid commenting on appearance.
Ask before you hug.
Ask yourself, “Who needs this hug?” Is the hug really for the recipient? Is the hug really for your own benefit?
Notice the feedback.
Pay close attention to the verbal and nonverbal feedback you receive. Does the person respond in kind? Does he/she attempt to get out of the situation?
Take the risk of being called a “cold fish.”
Reduce the amount of touching in which you engage. We can minister effectively without a constant need to touch.
Learn and practice safer alternatives.
Men can learn to listen more empathetically and reduce the need to touch. Give lots of empathetic head nods and verbal comments like “uh huh.”