The sins of ministry: Lust

Jesus had some strong words to say about lust: “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart…. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matt 6.28-29).

But how easy is it for men not to lust? The reality is that every look at an attractive woman is combined with some desire – after, all this is simply a God-given drive rooted in creation (biologists would no doubt call it an ‘animal’ drive). As the underlying use of a Greek present participle suggests, Jesus was not condemning looking – but as FD Bruner argued, “staring with the intent to possess or at least to burn”. Or to put the issue differently, we may not be able to keep birds from flying over our head, you don’t have to let them build nests in your hair!

The question arises: how much of a problem is lust for ministers? Andrew Blackwood listed lust as one of the “less common” ministerial sins. However, the sad reality is that ministers are as prone to lust as others.

In 1988 a North American survey of 300 pastors showed

  • 23% said that since they had been in local church ministry they had done something with someone (not their spouse) that they felt was sexually inappropriate.

  • 12% acknowledged that they had had sexual intercourse with someone other than their spouse

  • 18% admitted that they had participated in other forms of sexual contact with someone other than their spouse: e.g. passionate kissing, fondling, mutual masturbation. Of this total only 4% said they were found out.

 In 2000 a North American survey of 564 pastors showed

  • 51% of pastors said that Internet pornography is a possible temptation

  • 43% of pastors said they had ever visited a pornographic site, 21% doing so “a few times a year” and 6% “a couple of times a month or more”

  • 37% of pastors said that viewing pornography was a “current struggle”

 In 1996 a British survey of 141 mainline Protestant ministers

  • 54% felt they were particularly vulnerable to sexual temptation

  • 21% admitted that they had succumbed to sexual temptation: 7% sometimes; 14% rarely

There is, of course, nothing new in sexual immorality amongst clergy. One only has to think of the sexual misconduct of some of the medieval popes. On the other hand, these figures are highly disturbing. 

But are ministers particularly prone to sexual temptation? In the North American survey undertaken in 2000, 70% of those responding to the Leadership survey expressed the belief that pastors are particularly vulnerable. In the British survey 11% felt they were much more vulnerable to sexual temptation than anybody else. Why might be this so? According to Richard Exley sexual temptation for ministers is often rooted not in vice, but in virtue:

What began as legitimate ministry – a shared project perhaps, compassionate listening, the giving of comfort – becomes an emotional bonding, which ultimately leads to an illicit affair.

One obvious way of dealing with this particular temptation is for ministers to establish clear guidelines in terms of their relationship with the opposite sex: e.g. establishing a set number of times one would see a person of the opposite sex before referring them on; never seeing a person of the opposite sex without the knowledge of someone else – and ensuring that the person seeking help is also aware that the pastoral encounter is in this sense not entirely private. An additional way of dealing with this temptation is for ministers to seek supervision. Supervision offers the possibility of confronting ministers not only with how they handle the present problem of the person seeking help, but also of how they handle the issue of their own sexuality, In addition, a supervisor is more able to see and confront the minister’s individual ‘blind spots’.

Equally important as guidelines and supervision is to ensure, in the case of a married minister, that one maintains a healthy relationship with one’s spouse! Unfortunately, comments Peter Brain:

Very often churches encourage their pastors to be unfaithful to their spouses, by expecting and applauding hard work expressed in long hours away from family.

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