Nonetheless, she was trained in seminary not to make advances at parishioners, and denominational officials and various outside organizations all eventually said that she had violated the basic rules and ethics of ministry.
One more quick point: Unlike, perhaps, some of the readers of this article, I actively support full LGBTQ equality, and I do not believe that the only province of sexuality should be the marital relationship. Reasonable people disagree about these things. But you, and I, and everyone, universally agree that some classes of sexual behavior are simply not acceptable, like child molestation, or sexual assault.
And pastors dating their parishioners—although seemingly more benign at first—actually fits into that category. They were either her bosses or her colleagues. This would be like dating your manager, and then going to the CEO of the company for relationship advice. Your emotions toward your church get mixed up with the emotions of your relationship.
None of this is good for your spiritual life. No matter what you do, your pastor is going to have at least some charismatic power over you. Ministers are, by definition, experts on God-related stuff.
They get hired because they can capture the attention of their congregation. They do this by presenting themselves as having some kind of spiritual or supernatural sensitivity—they wear flowing robes, or bless the bread and wine, or explain Bible passages. If you believe that someone has a special sensitivity about God, he or she is going to have power over you, because God is, by definition, all-powerful. Especially if that community is paying their salary, and holds them up as a model of moral behavior.
Everyone wants a little privacy. But when someone in a congregation finds out that a pastor and a parishioner are dating, the news is wildfire, and the questions never stop. Alternately, you can not keep things secret, but then Jesus loves everyone equally, and so should a pastor. The pastor has a professional fiduciary duty toward you—like your doctor, psychologist, or teacher. So dating him or her is actually illegal in many places. Certain professionals are given trust with no questions asked.
They, in turn, have heightened responsibilities toward their clients students, parishioners. You automatically confide in these people with sensitive information for specific purposes, and in return, they do not use it for another goal—such as trying to develop sexual intimacy. The entire United States recognizes a legal fiduciary duty between doctors and patients and teachers and students, and 17 states give or take a few, depending on how you count now recognize a legal fiduciary duty in the pastor-parishioner relationship.
Which makes dating your pastor breaking the law. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Pastors very frequently begin their interactions with new parishioners by sitting down, maybe over dinner, or in their office, or in my case over email, and letting the parishioner talk about their deepest secrets. That gives the minister power.
In my situation, from the beginning I told my pastor about my fears about death, family problems, and troubles with my studies. But I figured it was OK, because she was a minister. They show compassion, worming their way deep into your inner life. In my case, three months after these emails started, my pastor started sharing all kinds of stuff about her own personal life, as well as the complex political struggles behind the scenes at the church.
I figured wow, we really click! Some people argue that all pastor-parishioner relationships would constitute full sexual assault.
Nonetheless, these people make a good case. That power is then used to gain sexual access. And getting sexual access through force—whether physical or psychological force—is a violation of physical integrity, and hence is a form of assault.
I also mention it because in my case, there was a physical incident which may have come dangerously close to sexual assault or perhaps, indeed, was , under French law. My pastor never told me that a sexual misconduct policy even existed, or that there were inherent dangers in pastor-parishioner sexuality.
How was I supposed to know that? I grew up Roman Catholic, where priests are officially celibate, and never thought about dating any of them. Suffice it to say, a large percentage of us end up with clinical issues afterwards—everything from depression to PTSD to substance abuse to body image disorders. For me, it was depression and post-traumatic stress. These latter two phenomena are absolutely horrible—but so is adult exploitation. Religious leaders are notorious for covering up sexual misconduct.
They pay off victims to keep silent or threaten her or him with lawsuits, they shuffle the pastor to another parish, they lie about what happened. And then they had their lawyer bully the Post into misreporting the story. Then they de facto kicked me out of the diocese. And the pastor never apologized or even said anything, ever, publicly or to me about the case, despite the fact that denominational officials themselves called it sexual misconduct. For all I know, she may be trying to date other parishioners.
If you report it, lots and lots of people will probably blame you. Like nearly everyone who reports sexual assault, rape, abuse, harassment, exploitation, and so forth, people will start asking you what you did to bring it about.
I could go on about this, but victim-blaming is a well-known phenomenon. It can do even worse damage than the original misconduct. Thankfully, there are organizations that come to the aid of sexual misconduct victims; they were my only line of support at some moments. Your spiritual life is at risk of being destroyed.
All the horrible emotions that accompany assault and victim-blaming may very well get attached to the religious context in which they occurred.
And you may end up getting nauseous every time you see a church, or hear a hymn, or even just think about God. For a year, it seemed like God was torturing me. A few last points. The definition of parishioner is sometimes tough. If you go to a church just once, are you a parishioner? In my case, I was there multiple times a week, so it was clear. The grooming process can start really quickly. But the dynamics really apply to other faith traditions as well.
Any kind of religious leader—rabbi, imam, Buddhist monk, guru, even a seemingly non-religious New Age spiritual figure—can develop an unhealthy sexual relationship with a follower. Society has evolving standards of decency on this whole issue.
It was even considered an honor to be that woman. Researchers are becoming more and more aware of the incredible frequency of sexual abuse within churches, and the trauma it induces in victims.