Boundaries are the limits that allow for a safe connection in the clergy-congregant (counsellor-client etc.) relationship based on the parishioner’s needs. A boundary violation occurs when a pastor (counsellor) places his/her needs above those of the congregant (client).

A basic professional expectation is that clergy are always responsible for monitoring boundaries and need to be aware of the early danger signs. Blame can never be placed on a congregant for a professional violation.

Identifying a boundary violation is difficult because the violation usually involves a process of many interactions rather than a single event. Often many subtle boundary violations occur before a church leader engages in sexual misconduct. Even the appearance of mutual consent does not address the power imbalance within the situation. This is not “meaningful consent.”

Pastors and other professionals need to continually remind themselves and their peers to hold to the highest ethical standards, particularly sexual ethics. Clergy have a moral responsibility to prevent injurious behaviours while maintaining the integrity of their professional relationships formed over the course of their career.

A boundary violation is:

  • A violation of the professional/ministerial role
  • A misuse of authority and power
  • An abuse of power that takes advantage of someone who is in vulnerable life circumstances
  • The absence of meaningful consent
  • Never the fault or responsibility of the victim but is always the responsibility of the professional

Early warning signs for the professional/clergy:

  • Getting too caught up in their own agenda and ministry goals
  • Using people to ensure their own success rather than listening to other’s needs
  • Starting to feel more like a friend than a clergy
  • Spending more time with certain congregants because of the return it gives them
  • Beginning to see someone outside formally structured settings
  • Failing to develop other interests and relationships outside their church
  • Counter-transference: the unconscious redirection of feelings (either positive or negative) from past experiences with an individual onto the person receiving care.

Forms of clergy misconduct

  • Sexualizing any relationship with a child, congregant, staff person, or persons one is called to serve
  • Continuing a counselling relationship or contact with a congregant after misconduct or attempts to sexualize the relationship have occurred
  • Sexual innuendos, jokes, and/or comments
  • Behaving seductively and flirtatiously with congregants
  • Using information learned in a professional role to manipulate a person
  • Utilizing a relationship with a congregant to meet personal and emotional needs
  • Holding secrets for the purpose of manipulation, hiding wrongdoing, or demanding the victim’s secrecy
  • Demonizing a victim and diverting accountability so that they won’t be believed and taken seriously if they disclose the abuse.
  • Remaining quiet about a colleague’s misconduct

Preventative steps for church leaders to guard against sexual misconduct:

  • Be honest with yourself– besides the sense of call from God to the ministry, personal needs are always bound up in our vocations. The more you are in touch with what is inside you as a human being, the better prepared you will be to seek out necessary and helpful resources to help you maintain the trust placed in you. If you have a feeling that things are moving in an unhealthy direction, own those feelings and seek assistance. When an unhealthy feeling or inclination is ongoing and is not acknowledged it gains more power.
  • Actively maintain relationships and interests outside your ministry setting – Enlarge your identity beyond your professional life. It is vital for your wellbeing to have relationships and interests outside of your vocation. Build networks for personal support and professional growth outside of your congregation so that you have appropriate peers to form healthy relationships with.
  • Emotional Boundaries – As a minister you will be offering pastoral care and empathetic responses to those in your community who are hurting. Those in pastoral care must learn the art of listening compassionately whilst maintaining a level of emotional distance so as not to be a sponge that is absorbing everyone’s pain.
  • It is crucial that you check in with yourself and take a temperature as to how emotionally involved you are in the life of the church. An indicator of unhealthy boundaries and unmet personal needs might include:
    • Spending more time with congregants outside of work hours than with family
    • Thinking about certain congregants all the time
    • Resentment towards those in your community
    • Inability to be emotionally present towards those in your life
    • Loneliness
    • Feeling irritated, absent-minded, or exhausted
  • Self-Care – Take time to love and nurture yourself so that you are not looking for these in inappropriate ways with congregants. Do not try to heal yourself through your counselling relationships with congregants.

In order to serve others, you must ensure your own needs are met in healthy and appropriate ways. God doesn’t call leaders to serve at the cost of their own spiritual/physical/mental health.

Here are a list of questions pastors can ask themselves to increase self awareness, identify risk areas, and assess personal needs.

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