Whether we speak of schools, homes, the workplace, the community-at-large or the church, all of these entities are subject to rules of engagement as it pertains to appropriate vs. inappropriate relationships.

In the home, there are appropriate and inappropriate spousal, parent-child and sibling-to-sibling relationships. Educational institutions, corporate America and governmental agencies have clear guidelines for interaction between boss-employee, employee–employee and faculty-student relationships. In many of these instances, there is a line drawn in the sand that no one can cross without repercussion.

Contrary to popular belief, the church/parish is not exempt when it comes to appropriate vs. inappropriate relationships. Such relationships, even if consensual, have the potential to ultimately disrupt the good order and discipline of that sacred organization.

In recent years, unfortunately, there has been no shortage of inappropriate church/parish relationships. As a matter of fact, many evenings, we’ve been crushed with news headlines again and again. Stories were filled with powerful church leaders falling as a result of these inappropriate interactions. Whether it be Catholic or Protestant, mainline or free, all have had incidents that involved those who carried out sacerdotal duties among their congregants. To make it plain, men and women of God have taken liberty to overstep boundaries that should never been crossed.

Just a few months ago, I was saddened to learn that someone I knew personally had crossed those boundaries, fallen from grace and ruined their entire ministry. The unfortunate fallout of this is, the minor female, her parents and the church congregation are reeling in an attempt to understand why such a thing would occur. At the same time, they are seeking sources that can provide answers and hopefully serve as a balm that can be an agent of healing.

As a minister myself, the intention of this editorial is not to judge, point fingers or insult anyone but to increase awareness of a subject that is becoming more and more prevalent. The greatest underlying motive for addressing such a controversial issue is my desire to see the church/parish remain the strong, reliable, stable and life-giving force it has been for many years.

I understand that every case is not initiated by the spiritual leader. There are multiple cases in which the spiritual leader was approached inappropriately and fell for the bait, got caught up in the situation and made a complete mess of it all.

Regardless of how it occurred, crossing boundaries in the body is always immoral, unethical and unacceptable. Leaders must think twice and turn away from the temptation of luring or being lured into this dark and inescapable place.

Since the subject of appropriate vs. inappropriate relationships has consumed my thoughts over the last little while, I thought it helpful to develop a model for proper parish and church relationships. Spiritual leaders should model Christ among the congregants/parishioners, making the house of worship a safe space for all to dwell.

For this reason, I would like to suggest the following, with hope that the current trend of inappropriate church/parishioner relationships can be countered:

First, I want to give a word to those who might have ventured into relationships such as these and now suffer as a result of the stigma that is attached to it all. It is my opinion that if this has occurred, you need to seek the proper assistance that will aid in healing those scars left behind. Seek someone who holds a professional standing in the area of counseling, mental health or spirituality and talk. Make sure this person is safe and can guarantee 100 percent confidentiality.

Next, to those who have been victims or perpetrators, if you are experiencing any guilt associated with such a thing, forgive yourself and realize that grace is always available to those who have fallen and decide to change. It is my prayer that wholeness and healing be yours.

Lastly, I would say to you, now, learn how to protect yourselves from such acts that will land you in this predicament, and always maintain healthy distances, building safe boundaries with others involved in ministry. Respect those who have spiritual authority over you AND their positions.

Finally, a word to the spiritual leaders: In my worship tradition, spiritual leaders are viewed as both powerful and sacred. Normally, that combination leads to being almost untouchable. We are responsible for maintaining healthy parish and church relationships. Never allow your good works to be evil spoken of (Romans 14:16).

Always maintain your focus, no matter how popular you or your ministry has become. Please remember that you must always keep yourself spiritually strong so that fleshly desires can’t override good character and sound judgment. God is looking for us to be both salt and light in a world where immorality seems to be the No. 1 option. Never approach anyone with motives that are less than honorable, and never entertain notions, inuendo and passes from those you serve. Respect your familiar relationships: respect your spouses, respect your family, and respect God, who has planted you among these people as a shepherd.

So what can a spiritual leader or parishioner do to prevent such a hard and horrible fall? Let me suggest three things:

No. 1, stay connected to God through regular and systematic practice of the spiritual disciplines. Maintain regular personal Bible study, build your personal prayer life, and worship when you are alone.

No. 2, stay in touch with who you are. Never let a title make you feel so empowered that you begin to operate carelessly.

No. 3, remember that you are a child of the living God, redeemed by the blood of Jesus and saved by his grace. Remember, you too, must stand in His presence and account for your actions.

It is my prayer that for the many sacrifices I know you make for your parish/congregation, you won’t allow a few moments of pleasure or power used inappropriately to cause you to miss the mark.

Never allow your gifts to take you where your character can’t keep you.

It is my prayer that all of us can stand before the throne and hear Him say well done thou good and faithful servant.

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Michelle M. Law-Gordon is the pastor of Open Door Baptist Church and a lifelong member of New Ebenezer Baptist Church in Florence. She is a member of the Morning News’ Faith & Values Advisory Board. Contact her and other board members at fvboard@florencenews.

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