By Ervin Stutzman
For the last number of months, I’ve been writing about the positive aspects of the exercise of pastoral power. Beginning with this issue, I will address some of its dangers and downsides.
A couple of weeks ago, MennoMedia sent me advance copy for two programs scheduled to be aired on the Shaping Families radio program. The recordings told the story of anguished parents who had walked alongside their teenage daughter after she was sexually abused in a congregation by a well-loved youth pastor. Even though the program changed all of the names and other identifying features, it so happened that I recognized the specific situation, since it took place in a congregation of Mennonite Church USA. I agreed with MennoMedia that the reporting was well done and deserved a broad airing.
About the same time, I preached as a guest in a congregation where I saw a bulletin board display unlike anything that I’d seen before. It was a large graph that displayed the congregation’s progress toward the goal of creating a space for children that was safe from sexual abuse. Their Child & Youth Protection Policy included a program of preparation for teachers and children’s workers that included signing a covenant, criminal background checks, and a commitment to follow certain safety rules. Although I have seen congregations make such commitments, I had never seen such a visible tracking of the progress.
This week I attended a meeting of area conference and area church ministers across the Mennonite church in the U.S. and Canada. There we learned about a resource to teach congregations how to report sexual abuse of children. In the same meeting, we heard an anonymous reference to two situations where spouses voiced the experience of verbal abuse by their husbands, who were pastors in congregations.
Reflecting on these recent incidents reminds me that the potential abuse of power in congregational settings is a matter of vital and contemporary concern. It represents a clear and present danger that some people feel when they walk through our church doors or who participate in our church programs. Yet many resist the plans for creating greater safety in the church, prompting one pastor to ask me, “Why is the comfort of those who have not experienced abuse more important than the brokenness of those who have?”
Presumably all of us as pastors or church leaders have a vision of affecting our world in ways that advance God’s kingdom or introduce God’s salvation into concrete situations. To this end, we draw upon the power inherent in our personality, our training, or experience, our gender, our social standing, and our role. Yet we are often embarrassed or ambivalent about the use of our power. We may downplay or even deny the power which is clearly evident to others. When we refuse to acknowledge the power we have, we may readily abuse it. Such abuse too often takes place when we draw near to the intimate or vulnerable areas in the life of our parishioners, particularly those who look to us for support or affirmation. The very place which can be the greatest source of blessing can become a place of profound violation. This is one of pastoral ministry’s greatest potential dangers.
How then can pastors and other church leaders take steps to assure that they will not abuse their power? That will be the focus of my next several leadership columns.