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Wisdom for a New Day

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.
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Leaving Well

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When Ministry and Marriage Meet

Dr. Carl Addison EVM, Inc.

Dr. Carl Addison
EVM, Inc.

Most ministry couples would agree that those times when marriage and family life intersect with ministry can be extremely stressful,  Nearly every one of those times requires a choice, frequently a choice that leaves no one feeling like there was a clear cut, win-win choice.  For example, it’s almost time to head out to one of the kid’s soccer games and the phone rings.  A parishioner is on the line with a pressing need for you, the pastor, to make a hospital call, or to see a couple in crisis, or to meet with an elder who has received a complaint from a church member.  It seems that every time the phone rings, there is yet another choice to be made: dinner with my spouse or an unplanned meeting with someone who has a legitimate need; date night or answering that phone call; a much needed and long overdue quiet evening at home or a small group meeting that needs your time and energy.

The tension in ministry that we so frequently feel often comes from feeling torn between responsibilities to and  love for our families and our deep desire to be effective in loving and leading the church.  It would be difficult to understate the intensity of this tension.  It, among many other things, contributes to the feeling that many pastors and spouses have that ministry is an outright hazard to the health of their families. And so for many pastors, the pressing question is how to manage the stress that comes when marriage meets ministry.

One key ingredient in managing this stress is for the couple to avoid blame.  The blame that often surfaces can take two paths. One is for the couple to blame each other.  It goes something like this:  “This is the third straight of our kids’ soccer games you have missed.  You know, the kids are starting to feel like the church is more important to you than they are.”  And the pastor’s response is often typical and predictable.  “You know the ministry is not an 8-5 job. I am on call 24 hours a day and I have to do these things. How can you not understand that?”

And then there is the scenario where the pastor blames the spouse. “If you would just be more understanding and supportive, we wouldn’t have this discussion every time I have something I have to do. I get enough criticism from church people. I sure don’t need it from you.”

In addition to blaming our spouses, ministry couples often fall into a second destructive pattern. This time, instead of blaming each other, they blame the church when stress enters their homes.  This can take on almost countless forms, from, “they expect too much from us” to “they don’t understand what it’s like to be in ministry” to “they put too much pressure on the kids” to “they don’t pay us nearly enough to put up with this.”

While it is certainly true that ministry demands will invade our marriages as well as the lives of our families, blame is not the healthiest way to manage the resulting stress.  A better way would be for the clergy couple to take responsibility for the quality of their lives and to develop skill in managing these intrusions in a way that is not only healthy for the family but recognizes that the very nature of ministry includes such intrusions.

But how do we do that?  Admittedly, the following suggestions may well sound simplistic, but it may be true that in this case simple is better.

First, we can learn to withhold permission from church members to move beyond being people we serve to becoming those who invade every dinner, date night, or band concert.  We often grant such permission, unintentionally and with the most altruistic motives.  We invite them to call anytime, we want to be available to our congregations.  And so they call, drop by, or text us when it best suits them.  But often those times do not suit us.

Consequently, we have to be more precise in our language.  We don’t really mean call anytime (of course, there are the legitimate exceptions here).  What we really mean is that we want to be connected, involved and available in ways that are reasonable and healthy.  So our communication to the church should say so.  But it should in no way give permission for members to insert themselves into our lives in ways that are harmful to our families, or quite frankly, to them.

Ministry couples have to overcome that unhealthy need to answer the phone every time it rings.  It is our phone, we don’t have to answer it unless we choose to.  Use the caller id.  Use the voice mail.  People are accustomed to leaving messages.  If it is urgent, they will leave one.

Do not establish the pattern of answering email during time set aside for your spouse or your family.  Once such a pattern is established, it is difficult to change.  Also, try this: avoid telling church members to call you.  Instead, tell them you will call them.  Then you control when the call is made, not the church member.  One caution should be mentioned here.  Use whatever technology you prefer that reminds you to make that call, or trust will be eroded!

Ministry couples who value their families’ health must be willing to face some criticism.  While it will be worse in some churches than in others, there will always be those who feel that if you are really a pastor, you must answer every time the phone rings, be present whenever asked, and to in the midst of it all have a perfect marriage and perfect children.

Here’s the bottom line: ministry couples are responsible for the health of their marriages and their families.  No one else will make sure that those relationships are prioritized, nurtured, and deepened.  But when we make sure that happens, we can much more effectively lead the church.  So instead of blaming our spouses or congregations, let’s purse healthy marriages and healthy families, so we can be healthy leaders who lead healthy churches.

Wonderfully Difficult

Leading God’s people has never been easy. Just ask Moses. After years of struggle to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, it was only a short while until they began to grumble, a month and a half, to be exact (Ex. 16:1). The complete lack of logic found in their complaints is so very telling. We’d be better off dead in Egypt, because at least there we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted. Imagine trying to address that kind of complaint in a business meeting.

The complaining did not stop there, but the point is well illustrated. Leading God’s people has never been easy. Because of that fact, ministry often takes its toll on pastors. Discouragement, disappointment, anger, bitterness, and burnout are frequent results of the difficult task of leading the church. Nearly 70% of the pastors in the US feel as if they have no close friends. Depression is a struggle for 40%. Conflict with parishioners is not uncommon, and many pastors and spouses feel that ministry is an outright hazard to the health of their families.

There is nothing quite like ministry. It is exhilarating and perplexing, joyful and discouraging. It is awesome and at the same time leaves us feeling powerless. Ministry can address some of the grandest issues in life and it can force us to face the pettiest of ideas and attitudes. It can bring the most phenomenal sense of the divine, and the most awful awareness of evil – sometimes on the same day. We can experience the richness of Christian fellowship right alongside the pangs of loneliness. There is nothing quite like the ministry.

Yet, with all its challenges and struggles, there is nothing greater than the life of ministry. Our call comes to us from the very heart and grace of God. Imagine, he chose us to this high task. To live a life of partnership with God, sharing in his work, joining him in what he is doing, what could be more fulfilling? Where else can one participate in the wonder of God’s activity as he puts a broken marriage back together? What could be more powerful than partnering with God as he breaks the chains of an addict, forgives the sin of a wayward teenager, or brings home the life-long prodigal? Only in ministry do we see God apply words we speak to change lives. Only in ministry do we have the joy of baptizing that new believer into a brand new life. Only in ministry do we daily walk with people, leading them to the life they were created to live. Only in ministry do we experience the joy of seeing a congregation become ignited by a passion for the mission of the church, and only there do we have the privilege of leading them as they do so.

Yes, it’s true. Leading God’s people has never been easy. But that is not the end of the story. Ministry is the most amazing and fulfilling life imaginable. Why not celebrate the wonder of ministry, and the grace of God that allowed us to live this incredible life?

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