My professor of Pastoral Care, Mel Hugen, issued a very straightforward warning to us soon-to-be-pastors: Never say it cannot happen to you.  He meant the committing of a wide variety of inappropriate actions and sins but—no surprise here—he was mainly talking about sexual temptation for pastors.  Never assume it could never happen to you. 

Never assume you are strong enough to fend off temptation.  Never assume that your love for your spouse or that your love for Jesus would in the moment prove compelling enough to ward off a certain look, touch, or more.  And so never—and Dr. Hugen was adamant on this point—never allow yourself to be in a situation where something could happen because altogether too often when you are in that spot, something may happen (and if you put yourself in such compromising situations frequently enough, sooner or later something probably will happen).

Across the years I spent as a pastor—and now as a professor—I have lived by Dr. Hugen’s counsel.   There were even a few occasions when a woman in need of some pastoral care offered to stop by the parsonage—and at least a couple of times I was sure this person was also aware my wife was gone that particular day—but I insisted each time that our phone conversation was working just fine or that we could later meet in my church office with other staff members around.  There’s just too much at stake all the way around to be careless in such matters.

All of this came back to me over the weekend as I sadly read the shocked postings of colleagues on social media in the wake of the announcement from the L’Arche organization that its founder, Jean Vanier, had engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior with a half dozen women from 1970-2005 (Vanier died last year at the age of 90).  If you are unfamiliar with L’Arche, you can visit a L’Arche website but in general L’Arche is a circle of support, love, care, and service to people with all levels of disabilities.  

Perhaps worse than a run-of-the-mill sexual dalliance, Vanier has been credibly accused of spiritual and emotional manipulation of women under his spiritual care, including through the teaching—and enactment—of some perverted, mystical theology that he may have inherited from his own spiritual father, Thomas Philippe.  (Some of this smacks of some weird sexual sect out of a Dan Brown novel.)  At this point the only item of possible gratitude is that this abuse does not appear to have involved any of the many disabled people who have long been ministered to so wonderfully by L’Arche in any of its facilities across 38 nations.

Still, this sad news sent shockwaves.  If I had to do a word cloud of responses I saw on Facebook and Twitter, HEARTBREAK and HEARTBROKEN would be in the largest font.  Although I spied a few expressions of anger, mostly the tone was of deep disappointment and sorrow.  Sorrow that an organization of such Christ-like nobility and sacrificial service now has a taint that cannot be erased.   Heartbreak that this becomes yet another (very large) log of cynicism to be thrown onto the world’s bonfire of suspicion where all things religious are concerned.  At a time when people are losing faith in all manner of institutions public and private, this devastating news can only do more harm. 

How can one think of such things?  Maybe the fact that we are this day smack in between Transfiguration Sunday and Ash Wednesday provides a hint of a way forward.  We are between the glory of Christ on a mountaintop and an ashy reminder of our sin and mortality.  It’s actually an apt image for all of life.  I have never forgotten a line from Fred Craddock’s sermon “Have You Ever Heard John Preach?”   “In my mind, I serve God.  But there’s another force in my life, and I say ‘I’m going to do that.’  And I don’t do it.  I say, ‘I’ll never do that.’  I do it.  Crucified between the sky of what I intend and the earth of what I perform.”

Crucified between the sky of my best intentions and the earth of my everyday world.  Caught between the glimpse of glory we receive in Christ’s Transfiguration and the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” reality that stares us in the face each new morning.

I grieve this sinful world.  I grieve Jean Vanier’s sin and all the people he wounded over the years and all those who now feel wounded anew a year after he left this life.  I grieve his sin.  I grieve my own.  In the face of such tragedy yes, we should all re-double our commitment to do things better than Vanier did, than we have ourselves done at times in the past.   I renew my commitment to live by Dr. Hugen’s wise admonitions.  All of that is right.

But on the eve of another Ash Wednesday, we are all reminded of the utter necessity to pray daily and often throughout our days that exceedingly simple Jesus Prayer that contains more weighty truth and wisdom than its mere dozen words might suggest:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Amen.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

15 Comments

  • Powerful and thought provoking. It is a good reminder to us all. Thank you. Have a blessed Lent.

  • Allan Janssen says:

    Heartbreak, yes. But what of those whose lives he has shattered?

  • Scott, thanks for this powerful warning and reminder. In our pastoral care class of about 20 people (all men) 45 years ago, Hugen told us., “At least 5 of you will leave the ministry after being exposed for sexual sin.” We were shocked. He was right. More than five. Those who survived took his advice. Thanks for reminding us of his advice.

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    To make it a “baker’s dozen” prayer, I add my Amen to the prayer. Thank you, Scott, for a good and, sadly, much-needed reminder.

    Harvey

  • RLG says:

    Thanks Scott. I also remember Bill Cosby’s creation monologue of about the same time. Eve would say, “Come here, come here, come here.” And then Immediately, “Get away, get away, get away.” which would leave most guys in a state of confusion. It did for Cosby and many pastors, as well as many men. Isn’t sex a wonderful thing. It’s the boundaries we put on it that are so frustrating Thanks Mel for wise advice.

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    I am noticing that the active voice is often linked to women and to temptation in both the essay and the RLG comment, while the passive voice is linked to the pastors. “Women offering.” “It could happen to you.” “fend off” “Ward off a look, a touch.” This is such an important topic for writers to pay extremely close attention to their own uses of active and passive voice, as well the words which are used to describe an event of sexual intimacy between a pastoral leader and one whom a pastor has spiritual authority over. Pastors who are physically intimate with those they are ministering to professionally are not just letting something happen, or being tempted to sexual sin, as might be the case in a peer-to-peer “dalliance.” They are actively engaging in a more intense sort of transgression: the abuse of spiritual authority/power.

    Please consider how survivors of pastor abuse may hear a message that pastors are trained to view parishioners as the ones who tend to solicit a pastor for physical intimacy, or that pastors who are abusive are encouraged to see themselves as passive victims of unwanted temptation.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Thank you for this helpful comment and needed correction. Be assured I did try to convey the committing of sinful moves on the part of the pastor. I would not assume that putting oneself in a vulnerable position would involve only a move by a female but the all-too-real possibility of the pastor–of me–inviting something, initiating something. This was in my mind especially since Vanier was so clearly the perpetrator and manipulator. To call it malpractice is too weak a term. So please know that though my prose may have tipped things, I intended what you wrote. Thanks for making me more mindful for the future.

    • Jessica A Groen says:

      Thanks for responding, Scott, I appreciate it. This blog’s essays always are thought-provoking, and provide so much to consider and wrestle with. My comments about passive voice/active verb choices were inaccurate when it comes to the technicalities of voice.

      I’ve been reflecting overnight on the essay as well as David’s and RLG’s comments. Dave describes that cohorts of an all-male theological school who make it through to retirement without a career-ending incident of abuse of spiritual trust/power are “those who survived.” There is painful irony here: women who have endured abusive encounters with Christian leaders they trusted, or who have been barred from pastoral leadership training and professions, are reading here to see several CTS alumni share the stats among themselves with a wry tone of “phew, the tempters were overwhelming for a 25+% of us, but some of us, thanks to Mel, are survivors.” It may be that many writers and readers of this blog share the experience of seminary training from decades ago. Yet this blog’s readership includes women who have worshipped, studied, and worked in Christian institutions that were formed with and often still have male-only leadership models.

      I hope Christians who are reflecting on L’Arche story via this essay and the comments of response have assurance that it isn’t a news release or publication about abuse that is heartbreaking, devastating to a Christian institution, and causing loss of faith or religious membership. The actions of abuse, the habitual description of targets and reporters as the harmful ones, and the common enactments of strategic institutional cover-up are the heartbreaking, devastating and faith-shattering actions. Public revelation offers relief, because it signals to survivors that is potential for future efforts of institutional repentance, prevention, and repair. Survivors are longing for Christian institutions, stakeholders, and leaders to share the burden that they already carry: awareness that spiritual leaders who abuse often get protected, prioritized, and idealized. Thank you for paying attention, as Lent begins, to the Vanier revelation and the harm that abuse of spiritual authority does to people and to institutions.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks Jessica for your comment. It would make sense to me to say both the tempter/temptress and the one acting on the temptation are guilty of sin. At the creation/fall scenario Satan and Eve as tempter/temptress were pronounced guilty of sin, as was Adam who gave into Eve’s temptation. Adam’s sin didn’t let Eve off the hook. as you seem to be suggesting should be the case. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Jessica A Groen says:

      In perpetrations of abuse of spiritual power, such as in the case of Vanier, targets of abuse are most definitely not temptresses/tempters. Your citing of Genesis 3 story, and your reference supporting Cosby’s misogynistic portrayal of women as fallen colluders with the Serpent and perpetual confusers of unfallen men in his “The Apple” monologue, increase the alarm bells I notice in the commentary on L’Arche revelations. This is not how pastors, former pastors, or any CTS seminary alumni commenting in 2020 about abuse revelations should be framing the stories of male Christian leaders who have used their professional positions of entrusted authority to violate sexual boundaries of people who were living or serving or seeking counsel under their spiritual power and influence.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks again Jessica for your comment. Somehow I get the feeling that you do not believe women are fallen creatures when it comes to sexual activity or that they have no power to say “no” when approached by a man. You’re naive if you think women do not have a power of their own to seduce in a variety of ways. Or you would be naive to think the church is only made up of regenerate men and women. Sure, men are often guilty of abusing their power. And women are often guilty of luring men into sin. Read the book of Proverbs. Most often, it takes two to tango. Most often, women and men are complicit in sexual sin. Men should not abuse their power. Women should not be tempting men to sin (as did Eve). Both men and women are sinners. Or are you suggesting otherwise?

  • Emily Loeks says:

    I appreciate the concern that is motivating this. I also question this perspective:

    And so never—and Dr. Hugen was adamant on this point—never allow yourself to be in a situation where something could happen because altogether too often when you are in that spot, something may happen (and if you put yourself in such compromising situations frequently enough, sooner or later something probably will happen).

    This is a mentality that has a history of having led to the exclusion of women in the informal and healthy relational space that often precedes leadership within an organization.

  • In regard to the original post by Scott Hoezee, “Perhaps worse than a run-of-the-mill sexual dalliances”, whatever that entails, minimizes the negatives of sexual impropriety and power imbalance whether by hand, mouth, or mind. Dalliances are allowed but abuse crosses the line?

    Additionally, the insinuation that abuse of able bodied individuals is less devastating than that of persons who live with disabilities is very disappointing. Please educate all seminarians, female and male, about effective emotional, physical, sexual , and spiritual boundaries. Instead of teaching never say….never assume….never allow…., encourage pastors-in-training to establish accountability relationships with persons of same gender, or seek counseling to prevent or stop breaches of healthy conduct.

  • The power differential of the ministry relationship must be noted! This must never be considered a consensual relationship – it is a pastor abusing the power of his position, a shepherd preying on his sheep (See Ezekiel 34). The one with greater power in the relationship bears greater responsibility for the integrity of that relationship.

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