It is certainly stating the obvious to say that the issues of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment have been in the forefront of the news and much of the discussion we’ve been having as a culture. It’s almost as if we get up in the morning and read the news to see who the next person is to be in the public spotlight for such behavior.
While issues of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment have been around forever, it has rarely, if ever, been so thoroughly and openly discussed. The news media are saturated with reports of those in power exploiting others in such a humiliating and dehumanizing way. The list of offenders continues to grow, with no indication it will stop in the immediate future.
Those who have been victimized by sexual misconduct or sexual harassment have, without a doubt, been subjected to behavior that is immoral, painful, and sinful. Can it be said that those in ministry positions have been guilty of such behavior at times?
What follows is in no way an attempt to cast doubt on the truthfulness of those who have been victimized. Those individuals have been ignored, disbelieved, humiliated, and silenced far too long. Yet, it seems that given the current cultural climate, some common-sense strategies for avoiding those behaviors that could be misunderstood, or for avoiding false accusations of unwanted sexual behaviors, ought to be on the radar of everyone in ministry. And, we should not be naïve, female ministers are vulnerable to misperceptions and false accusations as well as males.
Those guilty of sexual misconduct should be held accountable. Their victims should be heard, cared for, and find a place of healing in the church. And those in ministry should guard themselves from any such behavior, but also from being misunderstood or falsely accused. Lest we make the assumption that it could never happen to us, consider the ordeal faced by teacher and apologist, Ravi Zecharias. It was his lot to deal with false accusations, and he recognized how his own behavior contributed to the situation. You can read his story at https://churchleaders.com/news/314379-ravi-zacharias-pulls-lawsuit-responds-sexting-allegations.html.
So, how do we minimize the possibilities of misperceptions or even false allegations? What follows is not an exhaustive list but rather something that is intended to encourage thoughtful reflection, re-examination of boundaries, and behavioral change when necessary. Consider the following:
- Guard your reputation. Integrity, transparency, and honesty cultivate a reputation of holiness that can serve to protect the minister. In many ways, one in ministry can only be as effective as reputation permits. It is the authenticity of one’s faith and the character formed by it that build trust, create a visible integrity, and deter the misperceptions of behavior. Walk with Christ, strive to live in a relationship with him that would make others initial reaction to any accusation one of doubt rather than one of questions about character.
- By that, it is not implied that one puts forth a persona that is not real. Rather, live out your convictions that people of the opposite sex are valuable, of great worth, and have the right to never be treated as an object of another’s pleasure, especially at the hands of one who has a position of power or respect.
- If married, diligently strive for a healthy marriage, one that others see as exemplary. This is not to say that ministers must have perfect marriages, but that they should model the lifestyle that honors one’s spouse, one’s vows, and endeavors to continue to grow in that relationship. This can make misperceptions much less likely and false accusations much less believable in the eyes of others.
- Recognize your own vulnerability to behavior that compromises integrity. We all know the Proverb that reminds us that if we think we stand, we may well fall. Our human weakness, our unmet needs, or our desire for ego strokes can push us very close to the lines that become blurred, opening the door for misunderstandings and accusations.
- Know what behaviors constitutes sexual harassment, and stay as far away from those behaviors as you possibly can. There are tons of resources that delineate that information. In this era, there is no excuse for not knowing.
- Establish boundaries that are healthy and that guard against temptation, the appearance of availability, and that guard against communicating any type of sexual intent. Ironically, most in ministry know what boundaries need to be in place, yet some feel invincible enough to make continual exceptions. For those, danger lurks around the corner.
- Keep your spouse in the loop regarding your schedule. For example, counseling sessions with members of the opposite sex should never come as a surprise to your spouse, and it is often wise to make sure that person you are meeting with knows that your spouse is aware of the appointment.
- Learn to recognize the signs of transference. Both male and female ministers can be victimized here. Know when to refer. It would be wise to read material by Archibald Hart and others regarding this issue.
- Be kind, be gracious, communicate caring, but do so with wisdom. Avoid situations that enable those emotions to be misunderstood.
- The so-called “Mike Pence” rule is nothing new. Until recently, it was better known as Billy Graham’s rule. As ministry contexts change, the challenge remains the same. Guard against those times when the setting creates the opportunity for a “he said, she said” situation. Avoiding times of being alone with the opposite sex honors that person, it honors your spouse, and eliminates much of the danger and temptation that can destroy a ministry.
- Consider the consequences. Even if accusations are unfounded in fact, the damage can be catastrophic. Marriages can be threatened, ministry can be damaged, the church can be harmed, and families can be damaged or even shattered, even when actions have been misunderstood or accusations are patently false.
- Be wise. Don’t let culture determine your boundaries in this area, but rather allow them to be formed by biblical principles. Be willing to be seen as overly cautious, and don’t expect everyone to understand the limits that serve you best. Find ways to minister to those of the opposite sex with dignity, honor, and love. Just do it with boundaries that work, respect that is appropriate, and a desire to guard your reputation and bring honor to God.