Recently, God has called me to walk the spiritual journey with a survivor of clergy malpractice. In my own pilgrimage to understand this heart-rending subject, I came across this article during my research. It’s a five-minute read that encapsulates the definition of pastoral sexual abuse and how a congregation’s misunderstanding of this structural injustice serves to exacerbate the survivor’s suffering as well as that of the congregation. Thank you for reading.


Why It’s Not an Affair
by Rev. Patricia L. Liberty

The issue of sexual contact between clergy and congregants is complex. Whenever a minister is exposed for such behavior the aftermath is traumatic for everyone involved. Churches feel betrayed, victims/survivors are marginalized and misunderstood and the families of all involved suffer greatly. This article is intended as an informational and educational forum to increase understanding about sexual contact between clergy and congregants.

Oftentimes sexual contact between clergy and congregants is dismissed as an “affair” between “consenting adults.” This is a misnomer for several reasons. First, the relationship between a clergy person and his/her congregants is professional in nature. That means that clergy have a responsibility to use the special knowledge, skills and gifts of their call for the benefit of those they serve, namely their congregants. It also means that clergy have a responsibility to establish healthy professional relationships. Because clergy carry moral and spiritual authority, as well as professional power it is ALWAYS their responsibility to maintain an appropriate professional boundary.

In practical terms this translates into clergy not pursuing or initiating sexual relationships with congregants (regardless of marital status of either party) and not responding to the sexual advances of congregants who may be interested in a relationship with their pastor. It also means that clergy will not engage in sexualized behavior with congregants. Sexualized behavior includes jokes, inappropriate touching, pornography, flirting, inappropriate gift giving, etc.

Since the ministerial relationship is professional in nature, it is inappropriate to call a sexual encounter an affair. Affair is a term used to describe a sexual liaison between peers, or equals. In addition, the term affair focuses attention on the sexual nature of the behavior rather than the professional violation. It also places equal responsibility for the behavior on the congregant. Since clergy have a responsibility to set and maintain appropriate boundaries, those who are violated by clergy’s inappropriate sexual behavior are not to be blamed even if they initiated the contact.

This is a difficult concept for many people to grasp. We want to blame the congregant (usually but not always a woman) for the sexually inappropriate behavior of the minister (usually but not always a man). As tempting as this may be, it is wrong because it is always the responsibility of the minister to maintain the integrity of the ministerial relationship. The temptation to blame the congregant is also a reflection of the difficulty people have believing that a person who carries moral and spiritual authority, who is respected and trusted, can also be guilty of misusing the power and authority of the office. That denial and confusion causes tremendous damage to victims who need understanding and support as well as to churches that need clear, ethical, theological and faith based intervention to understand their betrayal. Blaming the congregant also means a failure to call the abusing pastor to genuine accountability. The focus needs to remain on the violation of the ministerial relationship.

The term “consenting adults” also reflects a misunderstanding of sexual behavior between clergy and congregants. It is assumed that because two people are adults that there is consent. In reality, consent is far more complex. In order for two people to give authentic consent to sexual activity there must be equal power. Clergy have more power because of the moral and spiritual authority of the office of pastor. In addition, education, community respect and public image add to the imbalance of power between a clergy person and a congregant. Finally clergy may have the additional power of psychological resources, especially when a congregant seeks pastoral care in the midst of personal or spiritual crisis, life change, illness or death of a loved one. This precludes the possibility of meaningful consent between a congregant and their pastor.

In our work with survivors of clergy abuse we often ask the question, “Would this have happened if he/she was your neighbor and not your pastor.” Overwhelmingly the answer is “no”. The witness of survivors underscores the truth that the clergy role carries with it a power and authority that make meaningful consent impossible.

When speaking of sexual contact between clergy and congregants, the term professional misconduct or sexual exploitation is more accurate. It keeps the emphasis on the professional relationship and the exploitative nature of sexual behavior rather than placing blame on the victim/survivor. “An affair between consenting adults” is never an appropriate term to use when describing sexual contact between a minister and congregant. Accurate naming of the behavior is an important step to reshaping our thinking about this troubling reality in the church; how we name it reveals our belief about it. Holding clergy accountable with compassion and purpose and providing healing resources to churches and survivors is dependent on an accurate starting point. Only when we name the behavior accurately can we hope to have a healing outcome for all involved.


  1. Kristie

    This is a very thought-provoking article, Gayle. After reading it this morning, I’ve been thinking about it on and off throughout the day.

    If we truly derive our moral rationale from the word of God, I agree that we shouldn’t use terms like affair, but perhaps we also shouldn’t use terms like structural injustice, ministerial/clerical abuse, or even professional misconduct. God simply calls it adultery – there is no need to make up new terms for it to fit our culture. It only complicates and confuses the issue.

    And yes, His scripture makes it clear in James 3:1 that teachers and those in spiritual authority should be held to a higher standard and will be judged more strictly. No doubt about that.

    The author of the quoted article speaks of “reshaping our thinking.” I’ve heard the message from the pulpit recently that we should perhaps “reshape our thinking,” and it makes me wonder why and to what ends? Should we reshape our thinking to the world’s view of God and of scripture? God forbid – we should be transformed to God’s thinking in how we view the world.

    I can’t say it as well as Rom 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

    • Gayle

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Kristie, and for your willingness to discuss a sensitive subject. I’m glad the article has inspired your thoughtful response, the intended purpose.

      You’re right. One of the ways Jesus overcame evil was to call sin “sin.” He didn’t use lightweight words like “affair” or “indiscretion” to refer to adultery. Jesus was a heavyweight when it came to calling sin “sin.” Jesus didn’t mince words, for sure. He was passionate about the truth, telling us it would set us free. I hope to follow his example. I know you do too. So let’s call it what it is.

      If I had a friend who had been raped (and I do), I would not call what happened to her adultery. What happened to her was beyond her control. She was overpowered physically and emotionally. Even though she might have had dinner with her perpetrator and invited him in for a coffee afterward, it’s still rape because it was against her will.

      For me, to use the word “adultery” to describe illicit sex between a clergy member and a congregant is a misnomer because it discounts the power differential. Does pastoral sexual abuse include adultery? Technically maybe. But I would not use the word “adultery” to describe pastoral sexual misconduct because the word “adultery” infers mutual authentic consent which presupposes the free will and equality of both participants. Using either the lighter word “affair” or the weightier word “adultery” to name clergy malpractice fails to acknowledge the crux of the sin: the misuse of authority by a spiritual leader. Also, using the word adultery to describe pastoral sexual misconduct does not reflect the spiritual betrayal which has occurred to the congregation as a whole.

      Your point regarding James 3:1 is excellent. Jesus had harsh words for the spiritual teachers in his day calling them adulterous, wicked, and hypocritical (Matthew 16:4; 23:23) because they had neglected the more important matters of law including justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

      Perhaps justice, mercy, and faithfulness call us to not deny or reinterpret the sin of pastoral sexual misconduct but to call it what it is. I really believe that’s what Jesus would do.

  2. Jan Moore

    Hi Gayle, WELL PUT-so glad you posted this article-it’s important for people to realize the whole issue – it’s truly awful and prayers for healing need to be lifted to our God for a very long time.

    • Gayle

      Thanks for your comment Jan. I appreciate you. Prayers are needed for healing and for strong, fearless leaders who, like Jesus, stand up for and protect those who are the weakest and most vulnerable.

  3. Andrew Phay

    Thank you Gayle for the article. The person with the power has the greater guilt and responsibility. I hope survivors get the help they need and that churches bear the cost of counseling.
    Thank you.

    • Gayle

      Thanks for reading the article, Andrew, and for your reply.

  4. Andrew Phay

    Gayle, as you know I am a psychologist. There are rules and penalties for psychologists who abuse their clients. It is unethical, with consequences which vary across the states, for having a sexual relationship with a client. This is as it should be. I do not know if there are similar rules and consequences for physicians and patients or professors and university students.

    This is not to say that one party is blameless and the other carries the full responsibility. But it seems to me that the person with the greatest power/influence usually deserves the greater part of the guilt/burden/responsibility.

    What I must remind myself is that I am not to judge the individuals but the action and must remember the many sins I have committed (particularly sins of omission which in my view are usually greater than sins of commission, e.g. why have I not done more to help the homeless who live around me or the hungry, those in jail, etc. etc. etc.) What I must offer to those who seek my help is support for self-exploration and compassion for the person. Loving the sinner while hating the sin is hard. Being Christian is impossible but it should be our goal.

    • Gayle

      Thanks so much for your professional and spiritual insight Andrew. You’re right. It’s not about blame. It’s about truth and responsibility which inspire genuine compassion, sympathy, and forgiveness for all involved.

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