- Always remember what your primary role is: you are first and foremost a pastor. You are not primarily a counselor, though you will be called upon to offer counsel at times. Your expertise is in spiritual matters, not psychology. Consequently, do not get involved in long-term counseling situations of any kind. If you cannot deal with the issue in 2-3 sessions or if the issues are beyond your training or comfort level, refer.
- Never initiate a hug with a female to whom you are not related and who is not old enough to be your mother—and seldom even then. Only accept hugs in public or in the presence of the woman’s husband. Physical contact is just too easily misconstrued. Even if your intentions are as pure as the driven snows of Antarctica, you have no control over what that other person may infer from what you intend as an innocent gesture.
- Keep your study door open when meeting alone with a woman. If matters of confidentiality require the door to be closed, make sure the blinds are open and that the secretary is in the next room. NEVER meet a woman alone after hours.
- You can never know with certainty what that woman is thinking—much less what her fantasies involve. You are paid to listen attentively and smile with understanding, even when you would prefer to be home watching TV with your shoes off and your feet up. You may be the only man in her life to treat her with even polite respect. What you intend as professional courtesy may be misunderstood as implying far more. You can never know for sure what she is hearing or how she is processing what you say and do.
- If a conversation or other interaction with a female takes an uncomfortable turn, terminate the interaction at once and inform Joyce (my wife of 40 years) before the sun goes down.
- If you find yourself wanting to spend more time with a woman than your ministry responsibilities ought to require, interpret that as an alarm going off: “Lane Encroachment Alert!” Get some physical and emotional distance between you and the woman—fast.
- Never engage in any conversation or activity with a woman not your wife that you would not be glad to do in Joyce’s presence.
- It is sometimes unavoidable that ministry responsibilities will encroach on personal/family time. If it does happen, make SURE it is truly unavoidable. Never make it a habit to put parishioners of either sex over Joyce.
- Of course adultery can be physical. But it can also be emotional. You are not immune to flattery. If some attractive female is constantly telling you what a wonderful preacher/teacher/listener/etc. you are, it may well turn your head. Believing that every compliment you hear represents brilliant and unbiased analysis of what you say and do is the first step toward becoming a damn fool. Always remember that the people at church generally only see you at your best. They don’t see you unshaven, sweaty after mowing the lawn, or with that scary face that first greets you from the bathroom mirror in the morning. They don’t have to put up with your bad moods, bad attitudes, or bad breath. Joyce does. They get the “Main Street U.S.A. at Disney World” version of you—not the version with the cracked sidewalks and potholes.
- Be prepared to sacrifice any relationship with any church member—regardless of how innocent it may seem to you—if the alternative is harming your marriage. Some women may see you as a surrogate father. Some may see you as a surrogate husband. You CANNOT, DARE NOT fill either role, even if only in the most platonic sense. Down that path lies personal disaster.
First, this list is my own. It reflects my own life circumstances and my own weaknesses and temptations. I think that most of this would apply equally to any man in ministry, and probably to any woman as well. But I would encourage you to develop your own list tailor-made for you. Feel free to appropriate any or all of my list without attribution, but change it around as needed to fit your own circumstances. For example, some of you may be trained and certified counselors. In that case you would probably wish to rethink item #1. But even in that case carefully consider if the roles of pastor and clinical counselor are truly compatible. It’s a debatable point.
Second, while I don’t claim that any of this is original with me, I cannot identify any specific sources. This is more practical wisdom than research. It represents conclusions arrived at from forty years of pastoral ministry experience. I wasn’t taking notes. I was learning—sometimes the hard way.
Third, I am grateful that God, in His providence, spared me the pain of great personal moral failure. I’ve seen too many ministry colleagues fall by the wayside, including some dear friends. Only a fool believes he is immune from temptation. In my case I suspect that some of my “obedience” was mostly a matter of good luck.
Finally, living by these rules may cost you. Over the years it led to two women leaving churches I served. One wanted me to be her father. One wanted me to be, in an emotional support sense at least, her husband. I was a disappointment to both. – GL