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#ChurchToo: Becoming a safe space

This article is by one of the presenters at the #ChurchToo conference held at Columbia Bible College May 25–26, 2018. Read more here.

Anne* goes to Pastor John* for counselling after the death of her husband, and he initiates sexual contact with her. At first she thinks she may be falling in love with Pastor John, but then she is confused. It is some years before she realizes that she has been abused.

Sexual contact between a pastor or church leader and a congregant is never “just an affair.” It can never be consensual because of the power imbalance. God equips certain people for leadership, congregations discern that call, and give leaders power and authority. Leaders are to use that power for the good of others, not for selfish reasons.

People who are hurting sometimes have poor boundaries. But even if the hurting person initiates sexual contact, it is the pastor’s responsibility to exercise judgment about appropriate contact.

Pastoral abuse is sometimes hard to address because it is often a case of “he said, she said.” We trust and respect our pastors. When a pastor has helped us, we have a hard time believing they could be abusive.

But that is the nature of sin: people who have power are tempted to abuse it. Even charismatic, strong, spiritual leaders can commit abuse.

The impact of a church leader crossing sexual boundaries with a congregant is huge. The person may feel used and violated, they may no longer feel safe in church; even their belief in God can be threatened. Many survivors of abuse leave the church and faith because a leader betrayed them.

Stop victim blaming

Too often, I’ve seen victims of pastoral abuse blamed for what happened.

People worry about Pastor John’s ministry being ruined. He says he is sorry and shows remorse, so he is quickly forgiven and allowed to return to ministry.

“He has done so much good!” we say to each other.

We overlook an instance of abuse as a one-time lapse in judgment.

In the meantime, people believe Anne was exaggerating what happened, or they don’t recognize the reality of her pain. They ask why she didn’t just walk away, or they see her as a temptress. She may be accused of “making a big deal out of nothing” or rumours surface about her mental health.

Survivors like Anne often leave the church because of the way they are treated. No one comes after them because all attention is on Pastor John and his important ministry.

When a church blames the victim and supports the abusing leader, this is also a betrayal of trust. Anne thought she was loved by the congregation, but instead she is blamed and shamed.

“One person hurt and betrayed me,” people who have been abused say, “but when I tried to talk about the pain, my community turned on me, and cast me out.” Survivors of abuse tell us that the church’s actions can be more traumatizing than the initial abuse.

Establish accountability processes

A congregation can make the situation worse by not holding the pastor accountable. Too often, someone who is found to be abusing is allowed to resign from their position without their abuse being made public.

“Pastor John says there were no other victims,” we say. But remember that a leader has everything to lose by disclosing more offences. Also, they have already broken trust and failed to respect boundaries.

If Pastor John’s boundary crossing is kept confidential, he is free to repeat his abusive behaviour. It is better to let the congregation know that abuse has happened and ask whether anyone else has been hurt.

Congregations need outside resource people to deal with pastoral abuse. Everyone in the church loves Pastor John; they are not impartial, and are easily fooled. An outside resource person is impartial, and are trained to investigate.

Reporting abuse to the police is necessary because churches are not equipped to do forensic investigations. The volunteers who make up the church’s workforce can be easily deceived by someone who is good at lying and covering up their actions.

But what about forgiveness?

Churches often quickly move to forgiveness when they find out their pastor has crossed a boundary. Perhaps the church board meets with Pastor John who shows remorse and even sheds tears in a meeting. People feels sorry for him, and so they extend forgiveness.

If a church starts talking immediately about forgiveness and return to ministry they are short-circuiting the accountability process. Remorse is not enough. People who abuse others need intensive counselling, often for years, in order to understand the problem. They may be more upset about being caught than about what they’ve done.

We should be asking: is our highest priority maintaining access to power for leaders like Pastor John who have betrayed trust? Or do we have a greater responsibility to protect vulnerable people like Anne?

Once we know someone has crossed sexual boundaries, it is not wise to put them into a position where they can be tempted like that again.

In the New Testament, Matthew, the tax collector, was a money expert, but Jesus never put him in charge of the common purse. Was Jesus being careful not to put Matthew in temptation’s way?

Church leadership isn’t a right, it’s a gift. When a person has abused this gift, they must step down and later find other ways to contribute to the church. In the church, there is forgiveness and new beginnings, but there is also wisdom in not placing people in temptation’s way.

Pastoral abuse upsets the whole congregation. When Pastor John is put on a paid leave of absence during an investigation, it causes uncertainty and fear.

When Pastor John is dismissed from his position because of misconduct, the congregation is devastated. Everyone is hurting.

It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the primary victim is Anne. She did not cause the problem. Pastor John  brought this upon himself by abusing Anne.

Healing comes when people look at sin with clear eyes, and turn to Jesus for healing. There are many good books about pastoral abuse: learning about best practices can equip us to respond appropriately and effectively.

We want the church to be a safe space, where the gospel of Jesus Christ is lived out in word and action.

[Carol Penner is assistant professor of theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ont. She was a presenter at Columbia Bible College’s #ChurchToo conference.

*Names and the situation are fabricated composites


Read more:

Plenary videos from the #ChurchToo conference


Upcoming Theatre of the Beat play on pastoral abuse:


Direction Journal article:


Other MBH articles on the #ChurchToo conference

Voices from #ChurchToo


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Dick Leppky August 10, 2018 - 11:34

There is a clear absense in this dissertration that reflects the “business concept” in church leadership – instead of the New Testament model. (‘church board’ or leadership team’ etc.) Seems to me that the first responsibility should fall to the (qualified) ‘elders’ to deal with these and simlar issues. The one person leadership has many such weaknesses and we have hundreds of examples in the U.S.

Carol Penner August 11, 2018 - 20:33

Hi Dick! Thank you for this observation, I agree that shared models of leadership are very biblical. You are right, the first responsibility does fall to the elders/leadership team/church board. But if there is a complaint of sexual misconduct or abuse, they should always get outside help to investigate. People love their pastors, or are sometimes related to their pastors, or don’t want anything to damage the reputation of the church, and so too often they will not investigate thoroughly, or they will quickly forgive bad behaviour.


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