Guard against clergy misuse of money, sex and power

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email

WACO—Congregations need plans, policies and procedures to guard against clergy sexual or financial misconduct and to guide them if the unthinkable occurs, professors from Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary and School of Social Work told a group of Central Texas ministers.

robert creech300Robert CreechIt’s no accident the ancient monastic movement demanded three vows—poverty, chastity and obedience, said Robert Creech, professor of Christian ministries and director of pastoral ministries at Truett Theological Seminary.

“Money, sex and power are the three big issues historically that clergy have come up against,” Creech told a workshop on misconduct in the church, sponsored by Baylor’s Center for Ministry Effectiveness and Educational Leadership and Waco Regional Baptist Association.

Churches can help guard against ministerial misconduct by recognizing and addressing the vulnerabilities of clergy, he noted.

Community is the remedy for isolation

“Isolation is one of the biggest issues clergy face,” Creech said, noting the pastor is the one person in any congregation who has no pastor. Churches should encourage ministers to be involved in peer groups that offer support, companionship and accountability, he said. “Community is the remedy for isolation and loneliness.”

Failure to address issues of isolation and loneliness create a situation just as potentially dangerous as in some drought-stricken rural counties that impose burn bans to prevent fires, he observed.

“Sometimes, things are too dry to risk sparks that could start a fire,” he said.

Congregations should adopt a “trust and verify” policy and make sure ministers and church members understand clear boundaries, Creech suggested.

“Build accountability into life,” he said. “It’s not foolproof, but it’s foolish not to have it.”

Churches should encourage ministers to develop a personal code of ethics they share with someone or a covenant of trust  they enter into with the congregation, he said.

Have clear policies in place

Congregations also need clear policies in place to guide them in handling ministerial misconduct, Creech added. They include clear understanding that any incident involving sexual abuse of minors must be reported immediately, and any accusations involving adults follow a clearly delineated due process.

diana garland300Diana GarlandChurches need to change the vocabulary they use to describe sexual relations between ministers and church members, said Diana Garland, dean of the Baylor School of Social Work.

A minister does not have an “affair” with a church member, because most people view that term as referring to a private matter between consenting adults, she noted. Clergy sexual misconduct is not private; it is a betrayal of trust within the faith community, she said. And the minister holds a position of power that makes consent irrelevant.

“It’s not an affair. It’s an abuse of power. The church member is not a consenting adult but a parishioner in the power of a religious leader,” she said.

Garland, lead researcher on a national study  about the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct, identified six characteristics in congregations that allow it to occur:

Tendency to ignore warning signs. “When we don’t understand a situation, we don’t do anything,” she said.

Niceness culture. Christians tend to be trusting and even naïve about abuse of power by religious authority figures, she noted. And even if they suspect something, they don’t want to risk hurting anyone’s feelings and tend to avoid confrontation.

Ease of private communication. Mobile phones, email and texting make inappropriate contact between clergy and church members possible and detection difficult.

No oversight. Churches often fail to build in systems of accountability for clergy. When ministers do not have to report to anyone about how they spend their time or where they go, it creates a potentially dangerous situation, she said.

Conflicting roles. Ministers should see themselves as “first-responders” who provide immediate pastoral care to people in crisis—not as therapists who enter into long-term counseling relationships with vulnerable people, she insisted.

Trust in the sanctuary. “We think of the church as a safe place. That’s why we call it a sanctuary,” she said. But that can result in people letting down their guard and allowing a religious leader to misuse a position of power.

Pressure, perceived opportunity and rationalization allow financial fraud to occur in churches, said Jan Cason, financial manager and instructor at Truett Theological Seminary.

Pressures include personal financial problems such as debt, health issues and changes in marital status, as well as an unfavorable work environment, where employees perceive they work long hours with high expectations for low pay, she noted.

Lack of communication, formal reviews, direction, oversight and a formal whistle-blower policy—along with inadequate internal controls and no segregation of duties—all contribute to a climate of perceived opportunity, she said.

“Trust is not an internal control,” Cason said.

When pressure and perceived opportunity come together, they create an environment that may encourage rationalizations, such as “I am only borrowing the money,” “I am underpaid, and the church owes me,” or “They will never miss it,” she noted.

Watch for ‘red flags’

Cason encouraged churches to watch for “red flags,” such as a minister or staff member who suddenly appears to be living beyond his or her means; “control issues” where one person performs multiple financial tasks and resists handing over duties; an inappropriately close relationship with certain vendors; and family problems.

Churches should take preventative steps, such as insisting on background checks for all employees, rotating teams to count offerings and prepare deposits, maintaining a lock-box for mailed-in checks and offerings, periodic audits and separation of duties, so the same person does not record contributions, reconcile bank statements, sign checks and approve invoices, she suggested.

She urged churches to establish clear policies about contributions, use of credit cards, benevolence, and building and vehicle use, along with defined procedures regarding check-writing, counting money and making purchases.

Fraud not only results in poor stewardship of resources but also diminished trust and confidence in the church, she observed.

“Fraud puts the reputation of God’s church at risk,” Cason said.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email

Care to comment? Send an email to our interim opinion editor, Blake Atwood. Maximum length for publication is 250 words.