During my last semester of seminary, I took a class called Pastor as Person, and one of the books we read was “Sex in the Parish” by Lebacqz & Barton. It really should be on everyone’s reading list if they are planning on going into parish ministry. It’s an old book – came out in 1991. At the time of the printing, there were some pretty sobering numbers: 23 percent of clergy engaged in some sort of sexual behavior with someone from their church, and 12 percent had sex with someone other than their spouse. The numbers are scary because I’m sure they’re higher today, and the statistics don’t discriminate: it seems that anyone is susceptible to this.
The book isn’t all doom & gloom though. 44 percent of clergy experienced feelings of attraction to members of their parish, but were just able to acknowledge the feelings and never act upon them. Much of the book focuses on intimacy and vulnerability, pastoral “power” and the responsibility that comes from that. They argue that the power differential is far too great between pastor and parishioner for there ever to exist a time when it is appropriate for sexual relations between the two. In addition to “Sex in the Parish” we also were reading Don Capps’s “Giving Counsel.” There was one quote in his book when he was speaking about sexual issues within the parish that really stood out to me:
“…the ones who are most likely to become involved in an affair are those who are trying to reduce the power differential between the pastor and the parishioner.”
It stood out to me because after reading the line, I realized that is what we’re trying to do with emerging ideas of leadership.
In the emerging church circles, and in conversations with the Presbymergent folk, we often talk about the way leadership in the church needs to change. The top-down, pastor-on-a-pedestal, hierarchical forms of leadership have to go. We are all talking about flat leadership, starfish, collaboration and shared leadership. Doesn’t that sound like reducing the power differential…?
I have issues with people who put pastors up on super-high pedestals. I have issues with pastors who take advantage of people because of their position. And I am one of those who wants to move toward a more flattened idea of leadership in the church. But I’m also not so naïve to think that people in churches today don’t view their pastors as having “power” – I just wish it wasn’t the case. Perhaps this is an understanding/ethos that is going to be with us for some time. And since we can’t get rid of that social construct, when we try to reduce that power, perhaps we are putting ourselves at risk as Capps believes.
Now, before you say that I’ve turned my back on my emergent-sensibilities, I’m not saying we should throw away the starfish and go back to a spider model of leadership in the church. I’m not saying pastors should fully embrace the “power” they’re given by congregants and run with it and let it go to their heads (like so many have in the past). And I’m certainly not saying that while the world is flattening, we should find ways to fight against that.
What am I saying is that those of us who are called into leadership are called to lives of integrity, including sexual integrity. And I guess the question I have is “What does that look like?” I think many Presbymergents would want to argue for new models of leadership, and many would use words and phrases like flat, open source, collaborative and shared. And I think that’s the direction we should be moving. But is Capps right? Does that effectually remove or reduce the power differential that – regardless of whether we want it to or not – exists in churches today?
Can we move toward more open source models of leadership in the church and not place ourselves in jeopardy for sexual indiscretion or inappropriate relationships between pastors and parishioners?