Dangerous Liaisons: Ministry, Power, and Sex
I picked up the phone and heard the strain in my friend’s voice: “I messed up with a married fellow-worker, so the church fired us both.”
My heart sank. She obviously recognized her wrongdoing and it took guts to admit what she’d done, yet picturing the devastation to a church and two marriages brought a wave of nausea.
“You don’t have to say anything,” she said before I found words. “And you should know—it’s not that I don’t love my husband. It’s less about my marriage than it is about my failure to fear God. Can you recommend a good counselor?”
Sadly, her story—used with permission—is common.
While headline news describes ministers who power-play by preying on the vulnerable, most leaders who fail morally are not sickos with strange obsessions but ordinary people with normal desires. In a survey of ministry workers, more than one in five confessed to inappropriate sexual behavior. Often the “partner” in such behavior was a member of the congregation, and nearly one in five was a counselee. Ninety percent of the time no one found out.
According to an Alban Institute study, ministers are considered “most attractive” by profession. So simply having a position in ministry leadership can make one appealing to the opposite sex—not because of personal attributes but because of one’s role. In congregations where someone has excessive power, that authority adds to the appeal. It’s the old hazard technically known as transference: The people receiving the ministry of another, in finding a compassionate, responsible, educated listener, transfers desires to him or her that belong elsewhere.
Christian psychologist Archibald Hart conducted research on how such transference affects ministry workers. His conclusion: Those who know about the dynamic are less vulnerable. The healthiest leader quickly recognizes the distinction between role and person. The greatest danger happens when the leader, faced with the job-related demands and loneliness, enjoys the affection and reciprocates.
Success in ministry can make it harder for leaders to perceive this dynamic at work. More than a decade ago Time magazine ran an interview with Harvard Medical School psychologist Steven Berglas who treated rich, successful people for more than ten years. In it he described the “core attributes of people who achieve stellar successes without the psychological bedrock to prevent disorder”:
The statement, “[I] fed a self-focus, an egotism and a narcissism,” heard in the U.S. news in the past few months reflects just such a mentality. Yet politicians have no “corner” on the hubris market. Nor do males in pastoral leadership. Women form dangerous liaisons, too.
Ministers begin the pattern of “Four A’s” by wondering, “What can anyone else teach me?” When people seek out the successful leader to duplicate “how it’s done,” it’s easy to think of oneself as having all the answers. Soon the leader experiences the loneliness that accompanies performing a “solo act.” Admitting shortcomings becomes more difficult, and an I’ll-do-it-myself mentality takes over. Following that is addiction to the adrenaline of success, sometimes seen in a drive to start multiple projects even though they no longer bring pleasure. Or the “adventure” might begin with sexual or romantic movie images followed by involvement in a cyber-relationship. When “virtual” contact fails to bring enough of a thrill, the leader finds solace in a real person.
In the last decade the church has begun talking more about accountability and community. As those who eschew going to priests for confession, we often swing to the other extreme in never admitting wrongdoing. We must carefully consider the biblical imperative to “Confess your sins to one another” (Jas. 5:16), as those with accountability partners are less likely to fail.
While we can never preemptively “affair proof” ourselves, we can set up safeguards. The first is to fear Christ and draw on His strength moment by moment, recognizing that He sees all and—having given all for us—requires perfection in our thoughts and emotional attachments. Next is recognizing that “if it happened to King David, a person after God’s own heart, no one’s immune.” Third, we must commit never to reveal reciprocal feelings. Fourth, as mentioned, is accountability. Telling someone about any innuendo or attraction helps leaders prevent toying with immoral thoughts.
As Hart notes, “You can’t trust yourself. That’s biblical. You’re at risk under two conditions: Too much failure and too much success. We lack a theology of failure—bigness does not equal God’s blessing. God is in the refining business, not the success business. We’re into bigness. Success teaches you nothing; failure can teach you all. There’s no such thing as a failure to God—only forced growth.”