Sexual misconduct at church: What every member should know
It is despicable.
News stories appear of a prominent Christian accused of fondling children. A denomination reports their historic mishandling of sexual misconduct cases. A pastor in town resigns and whispers circulate about an “affair.”
A significant problem
"Harassment is still a significant problem:
well over three-fourths of the clergy (men and women) and half of the laywomen had experienced sexual harassment in the Church (about one third of laymen)."
The Book of Resolutions
of The United Methodist Church 2016
¶2044 (emphasis added)
We would like to believe these things only happen in other churches; that our house is pristine. Sadly, that is not the case.
United Methodists have committed acts of sexual misconduct. Adults have been sexually harassed by their pastor. Children in our care have been abused. Staff members have viewed pornographic material on their church computerfs.
When it happens congregations are divided, families devastated, and careers derailed.
The United Methodist Church is committed to preventing misconduct and addressing it when it occurs. Toward this end, the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW) has a website, UMSexualEthics.org, to assist victims, local churches, annual conferences, and those accused of sexual misconduct.
To eradicate sexual harassment and misconduct in The United Methodist Church, every member of every congregation must get involved.
Each of us needs to know what constitutes sexual misconduct and how prevalent the problem is.
Becky Williams, Senior Director for Sexual Ethics and Advocacy for GCSRW, teaches that some basic definitions are a great place to start. In her role, she has counseled several victims who have said, “I knew this [behavior] was not OK, but did not know what it was called. Didn't know how to name this.”
The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2016(BOR) offers some helpful definitions.
Sexual misconduct in the church is described as “a continuum of sexual or gender-directed behaviors by either a lay or clergy person within a ministerial relationship (paid or unpaid).” Those behaviors include "child abuse, adult sexual abuse, harassment, rape or sexual assault, sexualized verbal comments or visuals, unwelcome touching and advances, use of sexualized materials including pornography, stalking, sexual abuse of youth or those without capacity to consent, or misuse of the pastoral or ministerial position using sexualized conduct to take advantage of the vulnerability of another." (BOR ¶2044).
The Book of Resolutions goes on to remind us that sexual misconduct of any sort is “an exploitation of power and not merely ‘inappropriate sexual or gender-directed conduct.’…Anyone who works or volunteers under the authority or auspices of the Church must be held to the highest standards of behavior, free of sexual misconduct in any form” (BOR ¶2044).
Definitions for sexual harassment and sexual abuse are also included in that paragraph of The Book of Resolutions.
The prevalence of sexual misconduct is shocking. According to The Book of Resolutions, a recent study revealed that of those surveyed, “More than three-fourths of the clergywomen and half of the laywomen had experienced sexual harassment in the Church” (BOR ¶2045).
Help for victims, families, and those accused
Safe Sanctuaries® Resources
All United Methodist clergy are required to receive up-to-date ethics training at least once every quadrennium—the four-year period between General Conference sessions (BOR ¶2044). While each annual conference creates its own curriculum, the workshops typically cover topics like identifying sexual misconduct, techniques for maintaining appropriate boundaries, and ways to keep one’s self and a congregation safe.
Other congregation leaders and members are encouraged to attend these workshops. Ask your pastor or district superintendent, whose contact information is on your church’s Find-A-Church page under “Additional Info,” for more information.
Another key toward the prevention of sexual misconduct in every United Methodist congregation is the adoption of safety policies.
One of those is a sexual misconduct policy, which should include at least these four things.
- Theological foundation – The Bible tells us that all human beings have sacred worth because we are created in the image of God. “That needs to be respected in all relationships,” Williams said.
- Basic definitions – Many people have a general sense that interactions with their pastor or another in the church do not “feel right,” but need the vocabulary to name it.
- Complaint process – Everyone needs an easy-to-understand outline of what will happen once a complaint is received.
- Cyberspace guidelines – Emails, text messages, social media, and other cyberspace interactions are also places where sexual misconduct can occur.
Another means of prevention is for each congregation to have a Safe Sanctuaries® policy. Melanie Gordon, Director of Ministry with Children, Discipleship Ministries teaches, “Safe Sanctuaries® creates an environment where children and youth 'may experience the abiding love of God and fellowship in the community of faith.’ Safe Sanctuaries® reduces the risk of sexual abuse through regular training and background checks, facilities management, and setting healthy boundaries between children, youth, and adults.”
Every member should be aware of their congregation’s policies and follow them. “Safe Sanctuaries® policies, procedures, and guidelines that are left on a shelf to gather dust are equivalent to having no guidelines,” Gordon continues. Congregations need to “live into them daily.”
When the sacred trust between a church leader and a congregant is broken, it needs to be reported.
If you become a victim of sexual misconduct or witness an incident, tell someone. If the misconduct is criminal it must immediately be reported to the police who will conduct an investigation. Williams recommends this website to find resources for your state.
In the church, contact your Staff/Pastor-Parish Relations Committee chairperson, district superintendent, bishop, or a United Methodist clergyperson to share your story. While it is not always easy, reporting abuse may save others from becoming victims later.
The United Methodist Church seeks to confront these issues directly, and unreported acts cannot be addressed appropriately.
Seeking just resolution
When complaints are reported, the goal of The United Methodist Church is to bring about a “just resolution.”
According to The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016 (BOD), “A just resolution is one that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible and bringing healing to all the parties” (BOD ¶362).
"The United Methodist Church has a good system in place,” Williams shares. “We must use it every time. We can't afford to not respond to these situations in a way that encourages and ensures accountability and healing. It’s the right thing to do every time."
This story was first published June 9, 2015.