Following Derailed Clergy:
A Message of Healing for a Shocked Congregation
By Geoffrey W. Sutton, Ph.D., and Eloise K. Thomas, MS
“Did you know he was having an affair?” Jim asked his wife, Linda, following their pastor’s emotionally wrenching apology. Like many other couples in the church, Jim and Linda were shocked to hear of their pastor’s adulterous relationship with the pianist. Sure, they had seen similar stories on the news and knew of problems in other churches, but they never thought it could happen at their church. In this article, we review what we have learned about forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration and offer suggestions to pastors who have been called to help a congregation recover from the far-reaching effects of a former pastor’s sexual abuse.
In Enrichment journal (Fall, 2004), several authors described the problem of clergy sexual abuse and its devastating effects on direct (i.e., pastor’s spouse and family; abused congregant, spouse, and family) and indirect impact victims (e.g., friends, colleagues, other congregants). We often hear stories of embezzlement and clergy problems with alcohol and other drugs, but we are beginning to realize the extent to which clergy become involved in Internet pornography (See Enrichment journal, Fall 2005). We recognize the impact of these sins on these pastors, their families, and their congregations. However, despite the significant damage these sins have done, nothing cuts such a widespread path of destruction through the fabric of a congregation as clergy sexual abuse. You will find suggestions on caring for the pastor and the direct impact victims in the Enrichment journal (Fall, 2004). Here we focus on the role of the pastors who follow in the wake of their fallen colleagues. How can these new leaders bring God’s message of healing to a shocked and grieving congregation?
Scope of the Problem
The biblical accounts of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39) and Kind David (2 Samuel 11) illustrate the point that people in power positions have sexually abused less powerful people since ancient times. Paul’s castigation of the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 5 documents sexual problems in the first-century church. The authors conducted research with the adult Sunday School classes in a large Assemblies of God church; 66.9 percent of the participants responded yes to, “Have you attended a church where a member of the pastoral staff had a known personal or relationship problem that affected his/her ability to minister?” Of these, 55 percent stated that the problem was an affair. Furthermore, eight participants indicated that the situation was common, with responses such as, “typical,” “familiar story,” “not surprising,” and “not again.” White and Sutton conducted a similar study in a different Assemblies of God church. They found that 69 percent of the participants reported having had a pastor with a relationship problem. This study did not provide as much detail about the nature of the problem (Thomas, White, & Sutton, 2006). In a sample of university students, Sutton, and his colleagues found that 37 percent knew a pastor who had a relationship problem while in the ministry, and 27 percent knew a pastor whose relationship problem was sexual (Sutton, McLeland, Weaks, Cogswell & Miphouvieng, in press).
Not only is the problem obvious to church attendees, but the unchurched are bombarded by media accounts of pastoral indiscretion. Furthermore, the problem is not new. In 1988, Leadership, a professional journal for clergy,surveyed its readers; 23 percent self-reported extramarital sexual activity, defined as “anything with someone (not your spouse) that you feel was sexually inappropriate;” 18 percent reported “passionate kissing, fondling/mutual masturbation;” 12 percent reported “sexual intercourse.” Clearly, the magnitude of this issue leaves a need for healing for the victims, as well as the offenders (How common, 1988). Then, in 1998, Thoburn and Balswick found that 15.6 percent of 186 male clergy from over 20 Protestant denominations engaged in infidelity, defined as developing physical and emotional intimacy with another person outside of one’s marriage. Another 9.6 percent had extramarital intimate sexual contact, and 5.9 percent engaged in extramarital sexual intercourse.
Diverse and Intense Feelings
It does not take much experience to know what feelings to expect when people find out about a leader’s sexual abuse. Direct impact victims experience depression, anxiety, shame, anger, and hate. They feel worthless, hopeless, helpless, used, and betrayed. Those victims who still love their pastor often mourn the lost relationship until the inevitable destructive feelings become pre-eminent. Some victims withdraw, but others desire vengeance. One young woman gave this visual image: “I feel like a piece of paper that has been wadded up and thrown in the trash.”
Congregants not involved directly in the affair still experience a plethora of feelings, but perhaps at a different level of intensity. They too struggle with the negative feelings of anger and a desire for vengeance. Some feel like avoiding the pastor or taking action that will remove the pastor from all contact with the congregation, the ministry, or other aspects of society. In contrast, others act as if in shock and attempt to go on as if nothing happened. Still others rush to nurture and support the pastor, the victims, and the families.
The Language of Forgiveness
The forgiveness process has a fairly well-defined pattern. Before we describe the process, it is important to consider what we mean by forgiveness and the related ideas of reconciliation and restoration. First, most would agree that forgiveness is not the same as denying, condoning, pardoning, forgetting, reconciling, or restoring. Forgiveness is a conciliatory response by an offended person toward a person who has acted in some harmful manner. Offended people forgive when they honestly appraise the harmful event, recognize that a sense of justice exacts a penalty, choose to let go of thoughts of revenge and powerful negative emotions, and cease to avoid the harm doer. We will say more about reconciling and restoring later in this article.
Second, there is an emerging sense among Christian researchers that there are at least two different kinds of forgiveness, which may be called dutiful and emotional. Scripture encourages us to forgive each other (e.g., Matthew 6). Often, despite our feelings, we offer dutiful forgiveness in obedience to God’s Word and as a genuine act motivated by appreciation of what God has done for us. In contrast, emotional forgiveness takes time. We can act out of duty and believe we have achieved a state of forgiveness. In contrast, we still can experience negative emotions as though we have not really forgiven the person. These persistent negative feelings of recurrent anger, thoughts of revenge, and actions to avoid the offender reflect a condition of unforgiveness. Pastors can mark the progress of emotional forgiving by the lessening of the strength of these negative feelings in their congregants.
Many authors (e.g., Enright, 2001; Worthington, 1998; Worthington, 2000; Worthington & Drinkard, 2000) have expressed the belief that forgiveness does not require reconciliation. We agree. Consider an extreme example. Liz was abused by her uncle when she was 10 years old. Years later, she recalled the abuse and felt horrible. She was both angry and depressed. As she worked through these powerful feelings with a Christian counselor, she reached the point of emotionally letting go of the hurts that had troubled her for years. By that time, her uncle had passed away. Clearly, any reconciliation would have to wait until the hereafter.
When we speak about emotional forgiveness, we mean replacing those hurtful, negative emotions with a sense of peace when the inevitable events of daily life remind us of painful past experiences. Forgiveness is an internal process. Forgiveness is a commitment to let go of the offense and the negative feelings that accompany it. Reconciliation is an external process. Reconciliation involves those interpersonal behaviors such as apologies, kind words, and helpful actions that promote trust between offended parties. As with forgiveness, reconciliation takes time. Reconciling is a process that can be measured in degrees of increased trust and working together rather than an all-or-nothing categorization. Another clear difference is that forgiveness can be one-sided although reconciliation requires a commitment from both parties: the offended and the offender.
For those in the Christian community, reconciliation is part of God’s plan. Although a pastor who has committed a sexual offense may no longer be present, there will be those groups within a congregation that have taken sides resulting in a polarization of the church community. Some will have been quick to forgive and support the errant pastor while others were extremely angry and sought to rid the congregation of an evildoer. Although many believers will vote with their feet to find another community, others will remain but will likely need guidance to reconcile with those of unlike mind toward the former pastor. Forgiveness is not reconciliation, but forgiveness can serve as an important catalyst to promote reconciliation. For some, there may be an opportunity to reconcile with the offending pastor. The pastor may not return to the congregation in the same role, but there may be a time when congregants can give voice to their forgiveness and experience some degree of reconciliation.
Finally, just as forgiveness and reconciliation are not synonymous, neither are forgiveness and restoration. We use the word restoration to refer to the new status of people who have lost their community standing (Sutton & Thomas, 2005b). Pastors who have undergone church discipline and rehabilitation may be restored to ministry. However, the new ministry might not be the same as the previous one (Sutton & Thomas, 2005a). Restoration is not dependent on either the forgiveness of the direct impact victims or reconciliation with those victims. Church leaders can restore a contrite pastor independently of the responses of those who were harmed the most. In the extreme, all victims can choose to remain in a state of unforgiveness and refuse to reconcile while church leaders acknowledge God’s work of redemption in the pastor and elect to restore the pastor to ministry. In contrast, victims can reach out to a fallen pastor with forgiveness and acts of reconciliation, but church leaders can restrict the degree of restoration based on objective evidence of progress coupled with divine wisdom regarding the pastor’s fitness for ministry. As with forgiveness and reconciliation, restoration is a matter of degree. In all probability, the pastor’s restored status will not match the former status. An example of partial restoration would be a minister who has offended holding some position of leadership, but not returning to the full pre-offense position. Another possibility is restoration to the same level of ministry but in a different community.
The Process of Forgiveness
Several writers have put forth a multistep process of forgiveness. Lewis Smedes (1996) describes a three-step process. First, we need to rediscover the humanity of the person who hurt us. Second, we surrender our right to get even. Third, we revise our feelings toward the offender. Robert Enright (2001) details a four-phase process of (1) uncovering the anger, (2) deciding to forgive, (3) working on forgiveness, and (4) discovering and releasing emotional pain. Everett Worthington (1998) has developed a REACH model, which is an acronym for a five-step process: Recall the hurt, Empathize with the one who hurt you, give an Altruistic gift of forgiveness, Commit to forgive, and Hold on to the forgiveness.
Each of these models shares some common features. Given three book-length treatments of the aforementioned models of the forgiveness process, our goal in this article must be much more reasonable. We therefore present an overview of a four-step forgiveness model, which is different from the above conceptualizations in two ways: (1) its distinction between dutiful versus emotional forgiveness and (2) its clear Christ-centeredness. We will refer to the emerging prototypical pattern of forgiving with the letters ABCD: Assessment of the harm, Belief in God’s grace to forgive, Commitment to forgive, and Doing something to affirm and reaffirm the forgiveness.
Assessment of the harm
The process of forgiveness begins at the point of an event so severe that it cannot be overlooked. Clearly, the example of a pastor’s sexual abuse fits that type of an event. Following the event, people experience a condition referred to as unforgiveness (Worthington, Berry, & Parrott, 2001; Worthington & Wade, 1999). Like a raging fire, the early reaction is often characterized by hot emotions such as anger, hate, and a desire for revenge. With the passage of time and no added stimulus, those emotions appear to smolder like an untended campfire. However, the emotions may run hot again when fueled by a memory or some news item about the offense or the offender.
This condition of unforgiveness can continue for years, perhaps even a lifetime as people hold on to the hurts they have experienced. A pastor entering a congregation that has experienced this type of hurt needs to be aware of two groups of people. First are those who have been offended, reacted with varying degrees of strong emotion, and slipped into a long-term smoldering state with a sense of righteous indignation about their feelings. These believers need their responses affirmed as normal and justifiable in view of what has occurred. It will be much easier for them to begin their forgiveness journey if they are convinced that the church leadership will not tolerate abuse. Any communication that they are wrong to hold on to their hurts only serves to strengthen their sense of injustice. Eventually, they will need to hear a message about healthy living. They will need, at some point, to appreciate the negative effects on themselves and others of allowing powerful negative feelings to fester. Ultimately, they will need to hear a call to forgiveness.
The second group of believers consists of those who were shocked and upset but, responding with a sense of Christian duty, declared their forgiveness and determined to move on. These congregants may lack awareness of the extent of their hidden feelings. They do not deny what happened was wrong, but they feel they have forgiven the pastor and no longer need to deal with the past. These are not hypocrites who say one thing publicly but act in ways contrary to their avowed beliefs. Rather, they are committed to doing what is right, but they are unaware of the ways in which denial can affect their capacity to grow. This group of believers needs to hear a very different message. They must evaluate whether they have truly faced the impact of their pastor’s sin on themselves and others. They need to recognize the difference between acting from duty and facing emotions honestly, as well as the difference between forgiving and merely dismissing the offense. True forgiveness cannot occur without an acknowledgement that an offense has occurred. Moreover, this group must understand their potential for self-righteousness towards those believers who struggle with forgiveness.
In writing about these two groups, we are aware that people are complex. Their responses will vary not only because of the actual events, but also in terms of their own histories of abuse, betrayal, forgiveness, and restoration. Some will need individual attention because of their unique status. Pastors can expect that most people will function as a group. That is, people follow congregational leaders that emerge in a time of crisis and take cues from those leaders for their own responses. This pattern allows pastors to provide messages of healing to groups with some confidence that a large number of people will respond.
Given this backdrop for the assessment phase, a pastor can promote forgiveness in several ways. Guidance can come through sermons, Sunday School and small group lessons, and pastor-led meetings with church leaders. Educational materials can be placed in bulletins, on tables, on the church Web site, and in the church library. Throughout the process, people can be encouraged to assess the damage to the congregation as a corporate body, direct impact victims, and themselves.
Identifying the sinful deed can reassure the congregants that they were not at fault for what happened, and they need not struggle with guilt when memories evoke feelings of anger and resentment. Describing common emotions can promote awareness.
In all this, safe and supportive leadership will need to be in place to avoid an unnecessary and unhealthy focus on condemning the offender rather than a focus on assessing the damage from the perspective of how recovery can occur. An analogy of rebuilding after a disaster may help keep the focus on the positive value of assessment. People can no more prevent a storm that has destroyed a town than they can reverse the clock and prevent a pastor’s abuse. They can and should evaluate the emotional damage, the loss of relationships with others, and the natural loss of trust in other clergy. Finally, they must assess the damage done between individual congregants and God. If the congregants have lost trust in their pastor, they may have lost some trust in God as well.
All of these feelings need to be faced in an honest and forthright manner. Forgiveness cannot occur unless people know the offense they are forgiving. They cannot let go of hurts without identifying them. There is a time to weep and mourn over the losses. Undoubtedly, some congregants will need individual or small group meetings with leaders or other professionals, but most can gain much from a larger and time-limited focus on the assessment process. Not every one ceases to mourn in 30 or 60 days or some other prescribed dimension. However, in a public setting, a wise pastor will be sensitive to the time to move forward.
Belief in God’s grace to forgive
Scriptural examples provide the basis for developing a confidence that we can forgive as Christ forgave us. The story of Joseph’s response (Genesis 45) to his brothers reminds us of God’s capacity to intervene in the life of an embryonic nation to bring about his purposes. We can see God’s redemptive work in the life of Judah (Genesis 38) and the lost son (Luke 15). We can be reminded of our sinful status (Romans 3), the importance of seeking forgiveness for our own sins (Matthew 18), and the need to be careful about our distorted perspective on life (Matthew 7: 3-5).
Next, we can approach the teachings about forgiveness, which are hard sayings indeed (Bruce, 1983). An insensitive interpretation of Matthew 6 and 18 can either induce guilt in those who are struggling with forgiveness or prompt a quick and superficial forgiveness response to avoid God’s punishment for not forgiving.
When people forgive under duress, they may overlook the damage and cling to destructive emotions. Clearly, this phase can go awry if the congregants are left feeling guilty about their reactions to the fallen pastor and the inevitable personal and interpersonal conflicts they experienced. The aim of the pastor in the belief phase is to foster humility and develop a perspective that we are all sinners, undeserving of forgiveness. When most of the congregants attain this state of spiritual development, a pastor can then clarify the distinction between dutiful and emotional forgiveness, which should offer some needed relief. Congregants can begin to forgive as an act of faith and pray for God’s grace to make up for the lagging emotional state. In so doing, they reaffirm their trust in God and their belief that they can do all things with his help (Philippians 4:11–13).
Commitment to forgive
Dutiful forgiveness sets the stage for a commitment to emotional forgiveness. The healing process must continue. For a true healing within the congregation, those old destructive feelings must abate and be replaced with love, compassion, and all the fruitful attitudes (Galatians 5) that compose a Christian community. Emotional forgiveness takes time and effort. Those who want instant cures will be disappointed if they believe they have resolved their feelings when they decided to forgive. Joseph thought his troubles were behind him when he married and had children (Genesis 41), but his brothers’ appearance after several years was a painful reminder of the trauma of his youth (Genesis 45). In fact, the emotional effects of those early painful events became evident when his brothers sought to reaffirm their forgiveness after their father died (Genesis 50).
As with most efforts at change, people who commit to forgive will experience a relapse. The harmful memories will come back at inopportune moments and attempt to re-ignite the fires of anger and revenge. Just as with programs to lose weight, increase exercise, complete a course of study, or avoid some unacceptable habit, forgiveness requires effort. We need sermons and teachings to remind us of the pitfalls. Some will need trusted friends and leaders who will reaffirm the commitment to forgive. Others may benefit from preparing a written commitment that they can review when harmful memories emerge.
Doing Something to affirm and reaffirm the forgiveness
James’s admonition to demonstrate faith by works (James 2) is a powerful truth that can promote forgiveness in a congregation. We are not talking about acts of reconciliation with the offender, but rather acts that reflect a sense of peace and conciliation toward those congregants who expressed different feelings and ideas about the offense. People in the congregation may remind us of the pastor and the offense. Doing something can refer to acts as simple as smiling, complimenting, and noting positive things about those who seem to resist forgiving and resuming healthy interactions. If, in fact, occasions arise for interaction with the pastor, then these are further opportunities to display the outward signs of forgiveness, which can in turn strengthen the commitment to maintain the forgiveness already granted.
Our purpose has been to see how some of the models of forgiveness might help pastors who have been called to bring healing to a congregation struggling in the aftermath of a former pastor’s sexual abuse. We close by providing a summary of the process of emotional forgiveness vital to the restoration of a congregation. In the reference section, we have included links to journals that contain some of our work for those interested in academic research.
- Begin with an honest and prayerful evaluation of the full extent of the damage done to various members of the congregation.
- Identify those common emotions that accompany unforgiveness.
- Look for those who may be quick to forgive out of a sense of duty but have not experienced emotional forgiveness.
- Look for those who struggle with guilt because they feel they cannot forgive out of duty unless their feelings align with their words.
- Provide teaching to stimulate the perspective that all are sinners and in need of God’s forgiveness.
- Encourage humility by focusing on our propensity to distort events and quickness to judge without careful examination.
- Explain the difference between a willingness to forgive out of a sense of duty and the problematic emotions that may not resolve so quickly.
- Encourage people to consider one step at a time. That is, focus on forgiveness first without considering reconciling or restoring the pastor.
- Encourage existing groups to begin a book study on forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.
- Clarify the differences among the concepts of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.
- Provide examples of the struggle to persist with forgiveness despite recurring memories of pain or feelings of anger and the desire for revenge.
- Consider a series of sermons on the sons of Jacob. Highlight the lengthy process of healing evident in Genesis chapters 37-50.
- Ask for a commitment to forgive.
- Encourage congregants to enact their forgiveness in small but meaningful ways.
- Ask people for to smile, shake hands, and give words of encouragement to those who have been polarized because of sharp disagreements following the former pastor’s abuse.
- Remind church leaders to help congregants to re-affirm their commitment — especially when they perceive a resurfacing of the negative emotions that we described as unforgiveness.
Bruce, F. F. (1983). The Hard Sayings of Jesus. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.
Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice: A step-by-step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
“How common is pastoral indiscretion?” (1988). Leadership, 9, 12-13.
Smedes, L.B. (1996). Art of forgiving: When you need to forgive and dont know how. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sutton, G.W. McLeland, K.C., Weaks, K. Cogswell, P.E., & Miphouvieng, R.N. (in press). Does gender matter? An exploration of gender, spirituality, forgiveness and restoration following pastor transgressions. Pastoral Psychology.
Sutton, G.W., & Thomas, E.K. (2005). Can derailed pastors be restored? Effects of offense and age on restoration, Pastoral Psychology, 53, 583 – 589. http:// www.springerlink.com/content/?k=derailed+pastors
Sutton, G.W., & Thomas, E.K. (2005b). Restoration, reconciliation, and forgiveness: State and process conceptualizations. American Journal of Pastoral Counseling, 8,27-42.https://www.haworthpress.com/store/product.asp?sid= 9BFLXA9EX0X B8N2N8PCKXC9211MS7MX7&sku=J062
Thoburn, J.W., & Balswick, J.O. (1998). Demographic data on extra-marital sexual behavior in the ministry. Journal of Pastoral Psychology, 46, 447-457.
Thomas, E.K., White, K., & Sutton, G.W. (2006). Clergy Apologies Following Abuse: What Makes A Difference? Exploring Gender, Apology, Responsibility-Taking, Forgiveness, and Restoration. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Worthington, E.L., Jr. (1998). The pyramid model of forgiveness: Some interdisciplinary speculations about unforgiveness and the promotion of forgiveness. In E.L. Worthington Jr. (Ed.), Dimensions of forgiveness: Psychological research and theological perspectives (pp. 107-137). Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press.
Worthington, E.L., Jr. (2000). Is there a place for forgiveness in the justice system? Fordham Urban Law Journal, 27, 1721-1734.
Worthington, E.L., Jr., Berry, J.W., & Parrott, L., III. (2001). Unforgiveness, forgiveness, religion, and health. In T. G. Plante & A. C. Sherman (Eds.), Faith and health: Psychological perspectives (pp. 107-138). New York: Guilford.
Worthington, E.L., Jr., & Drinkard, D.T. (2000). Promoting reconciliation through psychoeducational and therapeutic interventions. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 26, 93-101.
Worthington, E.L., Jr., & Wade, N.G. (1999). The psychology of unforgiveness and forgiveness and implications for clinical practice. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 18, 385-418.