This week’s question comes directly from a pastor’s big heart. Our Matriarchs support her to work through her feelings of pain and confusion, a result of seeking to care for someone who trusts her as he faces the consequences of his what he did.
I have a parishioner from a church I served. He and his partner were the backbone for a new small group of diverse people. We met in our homes, studied scripture, prayed and served outside the church. He is a wonderful tenor and even sang in my home for my in-laws 70th wedding anniversary.
Recently, he was the focus for a sting operation and is awaiting trial for viewing and distributing child pornography. It’s been devastating for all concerned. He is working with a therapist. No past criminal history. His family disowned him for outing the family member who sexually abused him as a young boy and introduced him to pornography and for being gay.
Recently, he reached out to me when the pastor of his church cut ties with him and his partner. He asks only for prayer. He was very upfront about his responsibility as to his charges and is prepared to serve whatever sentence he receives. He says God has removed his compulsion and he no longer has any desire to engage with pornography. He also says he never acted on any impulse to engage in sexual acts with a minor nor participated in any photographing of a minor.
I want to believe him. I pray with him and his partner. Yet I am very conflicted about what he did and the harm visited upon innocent children. How do I navigate my revulsion and my experience of him as a Christ follower and man of great insight and caring?
Our Matriarchs respond:
I had a gent in my congregation who was caught in an inappropriate flirtation with a developmentally disabled young woman at another church; he got booted out of his church and landed in mine. Fortunately the neighboring pastor filled me in on the incident, which was terribly damaging to his former congregation.
I confess I never did come to love him unreservedly, nor did I come to forgive him as he was unrepentant as far as I know (he died a few weeks ago). Was it wrong to hold him at arms length in my heart, while treating him with civility (and putting fences around his involvement with potentially vulnerable people in my church)? I honestly don’t know. Revulsion is not necessarily an unhealthy reaction when vulnerable people are concerned. Maybe it’s righteous and just to retain anger/disgust since children have been harmed.
Martha Spong wrote a great commentary in Christian Century [May 20, 2020] about John 20:23 “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Spong ruminates on this power given to the disciples to either forgive or retain sins, saying “Forgiveness is made possible because…[they] have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, but they must also know when to retain sins, to hold onto them. Knowing the difference will be their job.” “To retain a sin is to hold onto it, to consider it with the weight it deserves. We hold onto particular sins not from a posture of bitterness or malice, but with a mature understanding of what cannot be sustained and supported by the human community. We agree collectively that some things are too terrible to be put behind us, lest they be repeated by future generations—or by us next week or next year…We must come to grips with the impact of sin and ensure that it is not conveniently hidden or cheaply absolved. The retaining of sins requires committed attention and just accountability.” Perhaps there is a role for you in holding the weight of the sin even while you pray with the one who sinned. Meanwhile, you can pray with the author of Psalm 143:
“Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God.
Let your good spirit lead me
on a level path.” [Psalm 143:10]
This seems like a useful prayer for not knowing what the heck to do or even what to pray for.
Dee Eisenhauer, thanks for noting what I wrote. For the particular situation, I would add this. You have experienced a deep breach of trust and intimacy. It’s a violation of your relationship and of your self-understanding. You are allowed to have the feelings you have about what you have learned. Give yourself space to experience them. When shock turns to anger or whatever else may follow, find any means you can to express those feelings, whether through writing, talking to a therapist or other trusted person who can hold confidentiality, and any creative or physical activity that is helpful to you. Bless you, sister in Christ. This is a hard, hurtful, situation.
I agree with all that has been said. I also think we are called to pray for those who are “enemies”, those who repulse us, anger us, confuse us, etc. Knowing how or what to pray is hard when our feelings are so conflicted. For me, prayer can be as much about mindfulness as specific content. Offer up to God all that is weighing on you. Offer up your anger, repulsion, distrust, frustration. God knows what is going on inside you and inside him, and will honor your intention even if you don’t know how to pray, or maybe don’t even really want to. I truly believe that God takes all of it and weaves it into something beautiful..
First, my best advice today is “listen to Martha.” Second, don’t you dare feel guilty for the emotions that are wrapped around your relationship with this man. You have every right to feel sad and angry and confused and whatever other tough emotions are jangling around for you right now. I think it is important to remember that although you are not this man’s pastor, your professional boundaries should be standing strong and even reinforced. One of my favorite pastoral care professors has taught her students to remember that “if it feels icky, it is icky.” (Thanks, Dr. Storm Swain.) While he may be telling you the full and honest truth about himself, there is every reason to suspect that he has not been fully forthcoming. So trust your instincts. He has asked for you to pray for him and that’s a good thing. But your prayers can come with limitations, set by you, for your own well being.
Speaking of limitations — h/t Heidi — if you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to give yourself permission to let go of this relationship because it is from a previous congregation. The energy that you put into him and his crisis is energy you don’t have for your current setting &/or your own well-being. It’s hard for big-hearted You because you care and because he has been rejected by another pastor. Assure him that you will continue to pray for him and encourage him to brainstorm with his partner about other sources of support.
Thank you, Matriarchs, for embracing our colleague with love and encouragement and wisdom as she ministers with care and courage.
Readers, please share your own compassionate advice in the comments below.
We invite you to email askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com with your ministry questions and life dilemmas. You are not alone!
Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.
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2 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: What Do I Do with this Gut-Punching Truth?”
A former executive in my presbytery was arrested and charged with a similar crime, and many who knew and loved him spent time processing what had been good in our relationships and what we had to let go now that we knew more. It was helpful to us to acknowledge that people are complicated creatures, never perfectly good or wholly bad. Our good experiences had been real; they weren’t the whole truth.
He was imprisoned, so we didn’t have to make decisions about allowing his physical presence (this was largely before formal “safe church” policies), but we did have to decide what space he should occupy in our minds and lives. Depending on their own wounds, some could not allow him any space at all. Others covenanted to pray for him; a few stepped up to serve as accountability partners or support for his wife. Many just drifted away.
All, though, were hurt, and many grieved the relationship that they had once valued even as they knew the illusion could never be regained. If you can summon prayers for him, that is enough. If you can’t, that is enough too. You bear no responsibility here.
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A member of a congregation I served was arrested, pled guilty, and went to prison on similar charges – downloading and making available for distribution child pornography. He was not kicked out of the church. He also expressed remorse, denied that he had ever engaged in any sexual act with a minor nor photographed or produced pornography. This was a man who had been in worship leadership and had been in my home on many occasions. While many of the particulars seem similar, the boundary issues in your situation are quite different as this man is not a member of your congregation and I think that changes things. I offer my experience in case it is helpful. My relationship was never the same – how could it be? Although my tradition is fairly low church, it was helpful to me to lean into the priestly role during this time. My faith is such that I truly believed what I said to him, that God was with him and would not desert him and that God forgave him – for me that also meant walking through this with him. That looked like helping him look at who he had hurt by his actions and supporting him as apologized to each, hearing his confession and reminding him of God’s forgiveness – looking to scripture for examples of God’s faithfulness – the story of David was helpful to him – reading through the 18 pages detailing his charges with him prior to court, sitting on the defendant’s side of the court room and writing a letter for the court about what I knew of him (not denying or defending his behaviour). Due to the way the law works in Canada that also meant that until his guilty plea was entered he was advised by his lawyer not to admit to anything to anyone – so we used the term “his arrest” to talk about the harm done to others and his confession could not be heard until the guilty plea was entered. This was probably the most challenging and humbling thing I have ever experienced in ministry. Prior to entering ministry I was a psychologist and worked with many survivors of sexual abuse – it was extremely difficult to walk with someone when I knew so much of the harm that came to the children in those photographs. The disgust never went away; however I also experienced the depth of God’s love and forgiveness in ways that I hadn’t before. May God’s peace surround you, hold you, and fill you as you discern your role, whatever it may be.
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