Healthy Boundaries for Spiritual Leaders
Managing power without abuse is the true test of character and leadership.
Written by César De León, ministerial director for the North Pacific Union Conference
Leaders in Christian circles do not typically talk about the topic of power among leaders and much less about the abuse of power. Someone once said, that the way a person manages power is the true test of their character and leadership. Unfortunately, we are reluctant to talk about power and the abuse of power until the news breaks out with a new scandal about the fall of another spiritual leader. Thankfully, this silence is being shattered as we have witnessed the rising of movements like #MeToo coming through the walls of our churches and schools, which have empowered the voices of those deeply hurt by people in secular and denominational leadership. The movement #ChurchToo has formed a platform facilitating an audience for people that had been hurt by their spiritual leaders.
Our North American Division launched the EnditnowNAD campaign to encourage our churches and communities to be intentional about breaking the cycle of abuse because they recognize that abuse deeply affects children, women and men not only outside but within our church and school communities. I thought it would benefit our NAD pastors if I shared some bullet points of the seminar I was invited to present recently (for the Spanish track) at the annual NAD EndItNowSummit on coaching pastors and teachers on how to create and maintain appropriate personal and professional boundaries.
One of this year’s scandals illustrated perfectly how the failure to set intentional healthy personal-professional boundaries can result in situations that create ideal circumstances for the abuse of power through inappropriate sexual conduct. Andy Savage, a respected teaching pastor from the High Point, mega church in Tennessee was accused of sexually abusing a 17-year–old girl more than twenty years ago, while he was a youth pastor. This claim prompted Andy to resign from his responsibilities saying “He had committed sexual sin and had sinned against God.”
In one of the most unexpected scandals of the year, Bill Hybels, lead pastor of the world-famous Willow Creek Church in Chicago, announced to his congregation that he would accelerate his planned retirement by six months and step aside immediately for the good of the church. Though he continued to deny the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, he did publicly acknowledge, “I too often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.” It is evident that as spiritual leaders, we must take the time to reexamine our personal and professional boundaries in the context of the innate power our ministry positions incorporate. I trust that the following 10 suggestions I will share, will help you navigate through the issue of abuse of power and with God’s aid, will help you to be more intentional about preventing and avoiding the falling into sexual misconduct that leaves behind a tragic trail of personal, familial and community destruction.
Boundary #1: Be aware that your position carries power.
In his writings about pastors and boundaries, Peter Scazzero reminds us that there is authority embedded into your role as a leader. Spiritual leaders must think about and intentionally process power, especially because they possess great positional power, personal power, “God factor power”, projected power, relational power, and cultural power. These powers exert a tremendous amount of influence on the thinking process and behavior of others. Unfortunately, most people, inside our circles of influence, relate to our authority with courtesy and kindness and seldom are confrontational. Our society and denominational culture have taught our female members to accept male leadership authority without questioning whether this leadership is healthy or unhealthy.
Boundary #2: Your authority and power will be tempted.
Just as Jesus’ authority and power were tempted in the desert, your authority and power will be also tempted; and the enemy has a thousand and one ways to do so. One of his specialties is to use the dynamic of transference and counter-transference in relationships to facilitate a fall. Who you are, what you do, the way you look, dress and speak will create a profound emotional impact on someone else’s life. People in leadership will inadvertently trigger emotional cords in someone’s life and will either remind them of someone meaningful in their lives or someone they don’t want to remember. Either way, people will unconsciously transfer onto you their emotional material in the way of kindness, acceptance and affection, if you remind them of someone dear in their lives; or with opposite responses if you are a non-grata persona. Counter-transference is the other side of this phenomenon in which the emotional transference that you have received, makes you unconsciously behave, react or say things as a response to the emotional responses/treatment you are receiving. When these responses are of a flattering or romantic nature, they can quickly create a retro-feeding cycle and can easily morph into a situation that can be seductive and dangerous. It is imperative that these two dynamics be clearly understood because spiritual leaders have always been and will continue to be the object of precarious transferences and counter-transferences throughout their ministry life. You will feel attracted to someone; and someone will feel attracted to you. These attractions or transferences and counter-transferences, if not dealt with appropriately, in a spiritually wise manner, can and will destroy your professional and family lives as well as the lives of the involved persons in positions of less power.
Boundary #3: The spiritual leader MUST be an agent of safety and healing.
People that seek our ministry assistance can be emotionally troubled and may be suffering the impact of years of trauma and pain. This can, of course, also be true for men and women serving in positions of power. Often, personal boundaries have been violated and the trauma suffered has conditioned them for unhealthy actions and behaviors. Emotionally/spiritually broken people can sometimes express their unprocessed pain by sexually acting out their trauma. However, these behaviors are “a cry for help” and should never be interpreted by leaders as invitations to continue violating their boundaries and taking advantage of their vulnerability, pain and powerlessness.
On the contrary, when offering counseling or helping a member or student we need to remember that we are there to offer a safe and secure place of healing where they are able to trust someone with anything that they may be experiencing, including acting out sexuality. By responding in an ethically healthy manner and by establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries, a leader can empower hurting individuals to seek healthier and more appropriate ways to deal with their pain and tragedy instead of taking advantage of their vulnerability by continuing to use, abuse, and victimize them further.
Boundary # 4: Your core emotional condition and degree of emotional connection can be precipitating agents for sexual misconduct.
If you are single and not being emotionally nourished by healthy relationships or if there is significant emotional distancing in your meaningful relationships to the point that you are feeling under-appreciated, lonely, emotionally disconnected, and meaningless, or if you are married, but you are not experiencing emotional and/or sexual connection with your spouse, you are vulnerable to falling into boundary breaking, inappropriate sexual behaviors. Spiritual leaders must be continuously working through their own emotional baggage, establishing and maintaining a healthy, emotionally connected life, and must aggressively work to create and maintain an emotionally connected marriage (if married) or create and maintain emotionally healthy relationships with the significant people in their lives, if single. Never lose sight of who you are and the role you play in the lives of those you serve. You are not only a child of God, redeemed by Him to be an heir with Jesus. (Galatians 4:4-7), but you are also a spiritual leader called by God to serve as an agent of healing, not as a destroyer of His flock. A lack of emotional and sexual intimacy with your spouse could be an indicator of unresolved marital issues. Be proactive and talk with your spouse about this subject. It is imperative that this critical area of your life and ministry be addressed: “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:5). Honesty and transparency regarding this topic and everything else that is going on in your life emotionally will help you establish a more emotionally healthy, authentic and connected life (and marriage) which will help keep you emotionally/spiritually fortified and will also help you to be more intentional about addressing potential vulnerabilities you may not have addressed before. Remember, battles are rarely won alone. Every leader needs to be accountable to someone. We all need people who can give us counsel, support and most importantly people who will commit to praying for us while keeping us accountable.
Among other key factors that can precipitate the vulnerabilities commonly present with sexual misconduct are: chronic unhappiness, boredom, burn out, stress after or before a crisis, and transitional periods in your life. Additional personal factors that can intensify a leader’s vulnerability to sexual misconduct and abuse of power are: Low self-esteem, addiction to adrenaline rushes, sexual abuse during one’s childhood, marriage infidelities in one’s family history, an inability to connect and establish emotional intimacy, narcissistic (self-centered) tendencies and the tendency to deny the reality of one’s brokenness.
Boundary # 5: Avoid situations and places where you can be tempted.
Let’s return to the two pastors discussed in the introduction. Andy Savage was driving his automobile accompanied by a 17-year-old girl who was a part of his youth group. He was 22, and single. He suddenly stopped his car and asked her to perform oral sex on him. She assumed that this was his way to let her know that she was the one he had chosen to be his wife. However, after a few minutes, he got out of the car, knelt on the road, cried and confessed his sin to God, and asked her not to tell anyone.
Bill Hybels, a world traveler, would travel with this team and his personal assistant who would stay close to him at the hotels in order to work on ministry projects. They spent a lot of time together in the church office, as well as on the road. One broken boundary led to another broken boundary, which led to yet another, and he ended up abusing his power and engaging in inappropriate sexual behaviors with her and several other women over decades of his ministry.
I can still remember the time when, during my tenure at a conference where I was the Ministerial Director, my newly hired administrative assistant, a young single woman, asked me to give her a ride to our conference grounds, a three-hour trip. She was being required to work at the campground where camp meeting would take place, and since she didn’t know too many people in the office at that time (and after getting negative responses from others who were unable to take her for various reasons) she asked me if I could give her a ride since I was going to the same place. I felt bad, my good Samaritan heart was telling me to give her the ride. I knew that if she didn’t make it to camp meeting, she might lose her position. On the other hand, I had already established personal and professional boundaries and had discussed these with my wife. My previously constructed, protective boundaries alerted me that regardless of the way I felt about this situation, I needed to say no, so I did. She did finally manage to get a ride from a relative and I felt relieved. Colleagues, we must intentionally create and commit to uphold our protective boundary policies, even when they seem inconvenient or ridiculous.
Boundary # 6: Be careful with how you use social media.
The way we communicate with other people now days can be potential triggers for inappropriate sexual behaviors. The internet, texting, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others, are all powerful tools to help communicate efficiently and productively, however they can become dangerous weapons that can also facilitate undue familiarity that lead us in a direction that we haven’t planned to go. Technology has given us tremendous access to a world of anonymity, secrets, inappropriate content, illicit connections that are being abused by all kinds of people including leaders and teachers who may be living in spiritual, emotional, relational, and marital bankruptcy.
Boundary # 7: Avoid dual relationships.
Someone said, maintain a clear definition of all your relationships. This is a simple but powerful recommendation. Systematically define all your relationships and know who is who, why are they are in your life, and what role they play in your ministry vision. Once these roles have been clearly defined, commit to not combining professional relationships with personal ones.
Treat the people on your team as people on your team and nothing else, especially if they are of the opposite sex. Treat your members or students as such and nothing else, especially if they are members of the opposite sex. Treat your secretary as your secretary and nothing else. Monitor your relationships and identify those that have the potential to develop into a dual relationship and be proactive in avoiding it. Do not become engaged in private extracurricular activities with these individuals. Don’t ask for special favors that will compromise or threaten your personal/professional boundaries. Don’t engage in any type of business with them or accept expensive gifts from these individuals, as these activities create emotional connections that can quickly develop into something else. Remember that at the end of the day, you, as the person in power, are the one ethically and professionally responsible to keep your boundaries intact, not the other person, even if they are the ones to initiate inappropriate behaviors.
Boundary # 8 Be quick to identify danger and be honest about listening to the warning signs.
Self-deception is a cultural phenomenon; we are living in the Laodicean era where the tendency to deny our true emotional and spiritual state is common. The Bible says, “Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3.17). Our emotional and spiritual radars that detect danger have been affected by more than six thousand years of sin. They are atrophied and cannot detect our realities or perceive truth in full sense of the word. We are calling evil good and good evil, light darkness and darkness light; we desperately need the guidance of the Spirit to be able to discern our true condition. Emotional and spiritual authenticity can only be obtained and maintained by intentionally cultivating and maintaining a rich and flourishing relationship with the God of heaven, through a life of constant self-reflection with a passionate prayer life.
Additional warning signs that need to be identified, addressed and resolved appropriately are:
- Feeling attracted to another person
- Seeking physical or emotional closeness with the wrong person
- Seeking visual contact and frequent interactions with this person
- Seeking physical touch, even if it’s very subtle.
- Feeling compelled to see pictures, send texts and be in the same social networks as the other person
- Experiencing the impulse of buying “gifts” for the other person
- Using lies to cover up your true intentions, feelings and actions
Boundary # 9: Remember that the responsibility to establish limits and keep them intact falls on the person with the greatest power.
There may be individuals in the places where we serve who will manipulate situations and conversations in order to seek proximity with us. Some people may take liberties to be inappropriate with us, even to the point of acting out sexually; but we can never forget that the responsibility to do what is right, always falls on the person with the most power. God has entrusted us with a significant amount of power, authority influence, but along with these gifts, He has given us the responsibility to care for his sheep, especially for the weak, vulnerable and wounded.
Boundary # 10: Meditate on the life of Jesus and how He treated people.
Notice how Jesus dealt with the abandoned, the marginalized, the broken. Contemplate on how sympathetic and kind He was to the suffering, socially discarded and neglected. His love, compassion and sensibility were evident in His treatment of women in particular. He never took advantage of the sorrowful and broken. When people came looking for him with the wrong ideas and motives, He reprimanded them with love without destroying their identity or humanity. Jesus elevated humanity in every one of His encounters; He offered acceptance and friendship in the purest and correct manner. His final purpose for every individual that He met was to bring them back to the Father’s love; and we are called to do the same.
Taking the time to process the topic of power and the abuse of power takes character and determination; I invite you to make decisions that will help you to navigate your life and ministry with integrity and with intact personal boundaries.
This will only be possible to the degree that you make decisions beforehand that will prepare you for the moment of truth:
- Propose to live and serve with financial, professional, relational, and marital integrity.
- Propose to not demonstrate any attention or affection that can be questioned.
- Propose to not see people in counseling of the opposite sex without someone else being present or unless you are in an open space where others can see you.
- Propose not to make a ministry home visit to a person of the opposite sex.
- Propose not to go out or have dinner with a person of the opposite sex, if you are married.
- Propose not to be alone in your car with someone of the opposite sex if you are married.
- Propose to not watch pornography. If you can’t stop, seek assistance.
- Propose to be careful with the way you use your oral or written communication with people of the opposite sex.
- Propose to seek professional help when you identify areas of brokenness in your life that have left you feeling broken and vulnerable.
I recently read a story told by Pastor Dan Serns, while writing on this same topic. A king who lived many centuries ago was looking for a new chauffeur for his carriage. As he interviewed three potential candidates, he asked them the same question: “If you were driving me through a mountainous terrain, how close to the cliff would you be willing to drive without going over. The first candidate answered, “Ten feet”; the second “Five feet”; the third said, “I would stay as far from the cliff as I could.” The third individual got the job.
We live in an increasingly complicated world, Paul told Timothy that “in the last days, we will have dangerous times” (2 Timothy 3:1). Those times are here. Pray that you will be granted an abundance of humility, teachability, and spiritual discernment in order to be able to identify danger and have the courage to do the right thing.
1. Scazzero, Peter, The Emotionally Healthy Leader, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan), 2015.
2. Serns, Dan, “Three steps to setting healthy relationship boundaries. Or: How far from the cliff?” Ministry® International Journal for Pastors, September 2006.
This article first appeared in Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.
Written by César De León, ministerial director for the North Pacific Union Conference
Published in Mosaic newsletter, 2021 Q2, spring issue