Pastors dealing with infatuated parishioners

Yesterday I was interviewed by a local newspaper reporter regarding the problem of pastors dealing with parishioners who become infatuated with them. She was interested in what seminaries do to help train divinity students to handle such a problem. The impetus is a situation where a woman was killed in her church allegedly by another woman who thought that the murder victim was trying to steal the pastor away. All allegations thus far. **Update 4/8/08: Here’s the reporter’s article. You’ll see that I’m not the most eloquent interviewee.**

I’m not the clearest or most formal speaker when it comes to interviews (I talked about warm fuzzies instead of attraction).  But, I tried to convey this.

1. Lots of folks feel warm and attracted to their pastors because their pastors listen, care, pray for, and encourage them. That’s pretty normal.

2. Some people (a small minority I believe) mistake these “warm fuzzies” for romantic feelings based on prior history.

3. An even smaller subset are willing to act on their sexual attractions.

4. Finally, the smallest subset become or were already delusional about the reciprocity.

What do pastors need to do? Build solid, clear boundaries. When boundaries are violated, they need to address those violations and involve other leaders or appropriate people–including the legal system should the person persist (stalk?) the pastor.

In reality, we spend far more time making sure that pastors understand their power and do not abuse it. We don’t spend a whole lot of time helping them protect themselves. But, we do try to help them normalize #1-2 above without freaking out or assuming the parishioner will move to #3-4. 


Filed under Christianity: Leaders and Leadership

10 responses to “Pastors dealing with infatuated parishioners

  1. Pingback: Pastoral Infatuation : Under the Grace

  2. Scott Knapp, MS

    I was until recently an attender of a particular church in my area, where infatuation with the pastor is inculcated into the culture of the church. The church is “seeker sensitive” (a movement I support), and tends to be attended by non-believers, immature and just starting out believers predominantly. In that kind of environment the leadership can carefully cultivate the culture into what they want it to be. They enjoy immense popularity amongst the folks who are thrilled beyond words to have found a church unlike anything they’ve ever experienced, so they are loathe to examine, question or criticize the positions, motives of methods of the leadership. And that leadership is mostly free from accountability for what it does, within some very wide parameters. Several months ago, on a very public blog the pastors administrated, I entered a discussion over a “hot potato” topic, and disagreed with the position of the leadership (it had to do with an advertising campaign the church used about 10 years ago that I found offensive, when I attended a different church). Top leadership was so offended that I expressed this opinion, that I was VERY publicly pressured to leave the church, all within the written portion of this blog (no personal conversations, no intervention)…so we complied and left. The leadership would not tolerate articulate dissension on any topic regarding beliefs or methods, and used highly aggressive tactics to protect the “infatuation” mentality of the congregation. I was considered a dangerous influence, because I disagreed with the use of an offensive ad campaign 10 years ago! I think “pastor infatuation” is a problem, but what are you to do when an insidious form of it is being promoted from the offices of the leadership, and anyone who might expose it is considered expendible?

  3. Physicians deal with the same thing. We have to be really clear with boundaries and never leave room for any questions at all. It is a boundary that needs to be quite wide, as pastors (and doctors) also notice the attractiveness of some of their parishioners. That is how trouble happens.

  4. When you think about it, it is amazing that church leadership ever works. The shepherd is first a sheep (and so just as likely to be lost or misdirected). The shepherd can screw up by being too people pleasing, by being too defensive, by taking what is not his or hers, by starving oneself under the guise that all they should do is serve and not feed.

    And yet, God does call for folks to be leaders of his church. Note that it should be leaders and not leader. There will likely be one with seniority (wisdom and skill, not merely age).

    Rob, good point that it isn’t just pastors that have to be wary of infatuation.

  5. Pingback: Notes & News | Counseling Notes

  6. Lightbearer

    “In reality, we spend far more time making sure that pastors understand their power and do not abuse it.”

    Agreed. My wife, in her previous marriage, was sexually molested by her pastor, and after it was discovered, was harrassed out of the church by the pastor, the pastor’s wife, the board members, her husband, and the other church members. They all agreed that she had led the pastor on and was the instrument of his fall from grace (hmm, I wonder where they got that idea from?).

    I noticed that nowhere in the article, and barely hinted at in the above blog, about the problem of clergy becoming infatuated with their parishioners. As this is one the most common client complaints in the counseling profession, it it dealt harshly and directly by both state law and professional licensing boards, as well as discussed at length at all well-run graduate and doctorate counseling programs.

    I am aware of no such equivalent training or emphasis in any of the various religious or theological training programs, boards, etc. Can you illuminate?

  7. I am very sorry to hear of your wife’s mistreatment by the leadership in her church. I assume your hmmm is pointing all the way back to Adam and Eve and the tendency to shift blame to the other.

    The article and thus the blog entry was about parishioner infatuation so I stuck to that content. But you are right that there can be the problem of pastors becoming infatuated with parishioners. It is especially likely when the pastor entertains fantasies of hero-worship. I have counseled more than one who got involved with a member under the guise of being the man who would treat the woman right for the first time in her life. He wants to be a hero and ends up deceiving himself that his “love” is different from others.
    There is training about this in my seminary. Can’t speak for others. I suspect it isn’t as frequent as grad psych programs which is a sad thing. Funny, despite the overwhelming education in grad psych programs, the numbers of counselors having sex with clients isn’t decreasing. Just shows that education, while important, won’t stop us from our baser instincts.

  8. Lightbearer

    Thank you for your sentiments about my wife.

    A friend of mine who is a former Baptist minister and is now a Christian counselor, specializes in working with women who have been molested by their clergy (she is the one who treated my wife). She assures me that it is far more prevalent than anyone suspects, and that ministers are reluctant to admit that there is a problem. Therapeutic rapport is, by definition, a two-way street. The article and blog only mention one side of the issue. How many cases of “parishioner infatuation” are actually “rejected pastor infatuation?”

    To be fair, I know that I’m biased towards the subject, given my loyalty to both my wife and my friend, and their experiences. Doesn’t necessarily make me wrong, though.

    I’d love to see your source for the #s of counselors having sex with their clients, if your source is handy; I’m having a hard time finding anything reliable.

    On an off note: “Just shows that education, while important, won’t stop us from our baser instincts.” So what does this say about abstinence-only training ? 🙂


  9. tony

    There were some churches i went to (no longer go to church) where the pastor actually left their wives for the parishioners. This was a gradual process and I dont think one on one councelling between the pastor and parishioner really helped.
    I guess we live in an imperfect world. Good luck!

  10. LG

    What do you do when a parishoner has mental health problems, refuses to take medication, begins to harrass other church members and the local police department says they cannot do anything unless there is proof.
    Currently, this person has been going to members homes and workplace taking letters that are offensive, becoming beligerent and we don’t know what to do… it seems as if this person’s infatuation is some sort of control over the members of the church and also the church environment… what are our rights as a church in a case like this?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.