Protect yourself from ministry predators
It all started my freshman year of college. It was my first time away from home, and I was excited. I was eager to meet new people and explore the world. I came from a small town, so with great excitement also came naïveté.
I volunteered that fall during campaign season to make some extra money; that’s when I met Pastor Brown.* He seemed to be such a godly man. He invited me to his church and even picked me up from campus. His church membership had only two adults and the rest were children, but that was okay; I didn’t mind. I was just happy to hear a message from God and worship with other believers. Pastor Brown asked me to volunteer at his church right away. I always loved serving God and the community, so I said yes! In the beginning, everything seemed fine.
After a short period of time, he seemed to develop feelings for me. He started to act more like a man who was pursuing me than a pastor who was three times my age. I began to receive hugs that seemed more like squeezes. They just didn’t feel right, but I thought I was overanalyzing it. It wasn’t until my roommate and her friend began to discuss their observations with me that I realized something wasn’t right.
I was very uncomfortable, but I loved the kids, so I kept serving. The next school year, my boyfriend made the same observations. I guess I didn’t want to believe it. Finally, a sergeant from the campus police department saw Pastor Brown pick me up one day and received negative vibes (or maybe discernment). I’m not sure what caused his concerns: the pastor picking me up in his freshly polished Cadillac, his flashy outfit that looked as if he were going out for a night on the town, or the awkward embrace he gave me that almost cut off my circulation. Whatever it was, the sergeant had a talk with me the next time he saw me. I was a work-study student in his office, and I guess he felt the need to protect me. He asked me many questions about the pastor and expressed his concerns for my safety and well-being. That’s when I finally took heed to my intuition and my friends’ observations. I stopped serving at Pastor Brown’s church. However, Pastor Brown continued to call me and ride around campus looking for me for approximately one year. It frightened me and hurt me at the same time. How could a married pastor do this?
Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of my encountering pastors and ministers inappropriately seeking me. Over the last 10 years, I have come across several men telling me and other women that God told them we were their wives. These men had no intentions on marrying me or my sisters in Christ. I’ve also encountered leaders making inappropriate comments to me and other women. I’ve seen men invite women to be part of a ministry, only to invite themselves into their lives.
I believe this problem is more prevalent in churches where the pastors or ministers have no accountability. The churches are not connected to a denomination, and/or the pastors started their own churches. From my observations, they find it easier to prey on single women, divorced women, or women having problems in marriage. In my case, I’m single. So I say to my fellow sisters in ministry, Be careful.
Setting Proper Boundaries
It is important to set appropriate boundaries when serving with men in ministry. We are serving the Lord based on the calling he has placed on our lives. We do not have to be treated as objects when we serve. It is important to address inappropriate comments when they are first made. It has been my experience that the more you allow inappropriate comments to be made, the more the comments continue and become even more offensive. We need to address the comments directly or report them to the proper authorities.
If a crime is committed, report it to the police. Do not allow church personnel to handle criminal behavior. In my experience as a former prosecutor, many times churches cover up sexual abuse. If it is not criminal behavior, I recommend going to another trusted leader in the church. If the matter is not appropriately addressed, you should seek another church where you can be safe. You should also know that you are not alone and it is not your fault. You should be free to serve the Lord without harassment.
“You’re My Wife”
I don’t know if this is in a handbook somewhere, but this line is used frequently in the church. Many men use this line with both new and mature Christians. I’ve heard it more since I’ve been serving in leadership roles. Many ministers have indicated to me that God has called us to serve the body of Christ “together.” Some men use these lines in an attempt to win our hearts, but they really haven’t sought the Lord about marriage. Ladies, we need to seek direction from the Lord for ourselves. When we get connected to the wrong men, it will affect not only our lives, but also the people we are called to minister to. I have discovered that I am not alone in my experience. I have found numerous websites that highlight thousands of women who have been victims of clergy misconduct.
In fact, Baylor University conducted a study of the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct. This study defined clergy sexual misconduct in this way: “ministers, priests, rabbis, or other clergypersons or religious leaders who make sexual advances or propositions to persons in the congregations they serve who are not their spouses or significant others.” This study found that in an average congregation with about 400 people, where women made up 60 percent of the congregation, on average, seven women reported being victims of clergy sexual misconduct. Of the entire sample they used, 8 percent of people reported having knowledge of clergy sexual misconduct in their own faith community. Based on this finding, an average of 32 people in a congregation of 400 reported being affected by clergy sexual misconduct in their own congregations.
When clergy sexual misconduct occurs it affects everyone. The Baptist General Convention of Texas released a report in 2000 which noted that in the 1980s, 12 percent of ministers said they engaged in sexual intercourse with church members and nearly 40 percent acknowledged sexually inappropriate behavior of some kind. Richard Blackmon, in an unpublished 1983 doctorate thesis, quoted the same statistics. He went on to say that in the study, 16 ministers refused to answer the question about sexual intercourse with parishioners, so the numbers may have been even higher. Unfortunately, there is no true way to determine how many victims there are, since no national database tracks clergy abuse.
The word of God warns us, “Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Ladies, we must use wisdom and discernment when accepting ministry opportunities. In my experience, some people will ask you to serve in their ministry only to get to know you better. These individuals recognize your gifts and will use them to their advantage. They see your heart for God and your passion to serve in ministry. They’ll use them to start a relationship with you. When the opportunity presents itself, they will make their advances; therefore, we must pray and ask the Lord to guide us before accepting ministry opportunities.
It is a privilege to serve the Lord. It is an honor to be called into ministry. We must protect ourselves from the individuals who want to distract us. We are called to work alongside men in ministry to advance the kingdom of God; however, it is important to be wise. We need to trust the Holy Spirit living inside us to lead us away from danger. So let us continue to serve the Lord with boldness and with wisdom. I have learned the hard way, but it is my hope that others will not make the same mistakes I have.
If you have been a victim of abuse, it is important to seek counseling right away. I would also recommend reading more about clergy abuse at Hope for Survivors or Sharon’s Rose. These websites offer hope and encouragement for victims of abuse.
Ladies, let us continue to serve the Lord and let nothing distract us from this precious message we have been entrusted with.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
Carmille L. Akande is a licensed minister, attorney, speaker, writer, and blogger based in Dayton, Ohio. She has a heart for outreach and discipleship ministries and blogs at CarmilleAkande.com.