Over the past several months, revelations of sexual harassment and assault have stunned many and brought to light the pervasiveness of abuse and silencing. The church has not escaped scrutiny, nor has it been acquitted of wrongdoing. In fact, abuse perpetrated by spiritual leaders against other staff or congregants has proven to be widespread. These realities have implications for pastoral searches:
Recognize there might be resume gaps that a candidate cannot fully explain. Sometimes survivors of sexual assault or harassment are compelled to sign a non-disclosure agreement to receive severance or settlement payments. (Some clergy depend on this money to make ends meet until finding a new call.) That means they cannot talk about their reasons for departing their previous position. On the flip side, ministers who have perpetrated abuse might leave their churches suddenly - and not have a compelling explanation - when allegations surface.
Do your due diligence. These days it is imperative to do an extensive background check on your candidate of choice. This search should – at minimum – include state and national criminal records. (Many congregations will also look for red flags in driving and financial records.)
Make no assumptions. If something your search team picks up on causes a question or hesitation, pursue it. You don’t want to weed out a great candidate if your gut reaction turns out to be nothing, and you don’t want to call a minister who has a history of abuse in the hopes that things will be different at your church. (Spoiler alert: abusers rarely change their ways of their own volition.)
Set up strong support for the new pastor from the outset. Help your minister meet other clergy and community leaders. Establish a pastoral support team. Encourage your minister to retain the services of a coach and to join or start a peer learning group. Pastoral isolation is a setup for boundary violations (whether as initiator or target) that alter the lives of everyone involved as well as the witness of the church.
Now that the truth of so much hurt is emerging, the church has a responsibility to acknowledge it and an opportunity to accompany the recipients of it through their healing.