Thursday, February 03, 2011

What Is It About the Church and Sexual Malfeasance?

The folks over at Church Marketing Sucks tweeted a statistic, and linked to a blog that had the link to the full article, that claims an astounding percentage of laypeople in the United Methodist Church (UMC) have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or misconduct. The survey done by 6000 United Methodists claims the following.
  • Half of all laywomen and one-third of laymen witness or are victims of some degree of sexual harassment or misconduct in their congregations, from inappropriate comments by the pastor or laity in leadership to physical assault and stalking.
  • 77 percent of United Methodist clergywomen and 50 percent of clergymen say laity have violated their boundaries through unwanted sexual behavior or comment.
  • Half the people who make sexual misconduct complaints at the local church level say the pastor or laity in leadership routinely “trivialize” their concerns.
Now there is something that makes me wonder about how well a study that polls 6000 members truly reflects the approximately 8 million member UMC. In addition I have no details on how the study was carried out, nor have I seen the questions that were asked. Clearly there are issues that might be going on here that could invalidate the reliability of these numbers. And that would be a shame. For if these numbers are even remotely accurate, any discrediting of the study could harm the basic message: the Church harbors some severely messed up people and we all need to pay attention.

In light of the Roman Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal, I have had numerous conversations with people who feel excessive pride in being protestants without all of the problems that the celibate priests cause. In fact, I tend to think that a number of people eye the priests as oddities before any sex abuse issues are spoken of because the notion of celibacy just seems so unnatural. Then when the sex abuse scandal breaks they feel vindicated because clearly these problems would not exist if the Roman Catholic church would just allow their priests to marry and have sex. But if the UMC study is right, the problem is NOT priestly celibacy. I have argued that looking within the general Protestant category, the percentage of those who harrass or abuse is likely the same as in the Roman Catholic church. Many scoff at my assertion. They point to the numbers of priests who were shown to be moved around and placed time and again in positions of trust.

In this case, I am thankful for such a hierarchy that maintains an adequate bureaucracy so that records exist. Many Protestant bodies have no hierarchy at all to which they are accountable. If a pastor abuses someone and feels the heat, he or she is free to pick up and move before anything comes up. Then of course the pressure from leaders in the congregation kicks in. Rather than seeking justice, they want to avoid shame or guilt and all the negative publicity that might come about because of it. So they try to sweep it under the rug or "trivialize" the incident or any myriad of ways of avoiding dealing with it.

After a person is harmed by a leader, rather than work through it like the body of Christ should, we too often burden the victim with questions of "What about grace?" or "Aren't you supposed to forgive?" Of course grace and forgiveness are important. But so is repentance and justice. The short term gain of avoiding the issue and keeping up the facade of everything being perfect will sooner or later make way for the long term loss of the witness for what kind of community we are.

I do hope the numbers in this UMC study are valid. Not because I want there to be that big of a problem. I want them to be valid so that our eyes are opened and we can begin to look at the beam in our own eyes. I want Christians to acknowledge the power of sin in the world and in our own churches and realize we participate in the system of brokenness just like every human being does. Don't think the devil only prowls around like a roaring lion over there, but be aware of the lions here in our midst.

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