Secrets Can Kill

Q&A with Martin Homan
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In what way(s) are congregations wounded by the misconduct of a trusted minister?

A congregation that has had clergy sexual misconduct has significant trust issues. When I am focusing on sexual misconduct issues, I am working with situations where there are shame issues and a loss of intimacy. With sexual misconduct cases, I have discovered that the image of God has been changed, because people see God in their pastor. When that trust and intimacy is lost, people take a long time to regain trust. The congregation’s boundaries become porous. Congregations and members are wounded and lose trust in themselves and in God. They are more susceptible and more vulnerable to other church workers and other people with boundaries violations. The congregation can close in on itself and continue to repeat the pattern they established with these violations. If the secrets are not dealt with, the congregation and future workers can repeat what has been happening in the system because this has become the norm. They lack trust in clergy and can play out their issues in the next pastor or church worker. If the church does not deal with the misconduct, they will continue to be affected by this lack of trust. The next church worker can act out either externally or internally. The church can continue to shrink and perhaps die.

These misconduct cases cause the image of God to be changed, because people come to see God in pastors. If the sexual misconduct is perpetrated by the first pastor, much of ministry after that is damaged. Long term affairs damage congregations even worse. When a church worker has an affair with a member of the church, it is often an issue of power and control. The church can lose its identity.

Other church workers can become symptom bearers of the anxiety of the church system. The health of the pastor is co-causal with the health of the church. If the church has high anxiety, this anxiety can be and is often played out in the church workers. In many cases, when one church worker has had sexual misconduct, following church workers may have sexual misconduct. In other churches, I have seen church workers and their families become ill because of the stress in the congregation caused by the sexual misconduct case.