A Harsh Wake-Up Call

The Berry Street Essay was established by the Rev. William Ellery Channing in 1820. His church was the Federal Street Church in Boston, but his study faced Berry Street, thus its name. It is now the longest annual lecture series in the United States!  A Unitarian Universalist minister is asked each year to deliver the lecture on some aspect of ministry.

This year the Berry Street Essay was delivered by the Rev. Deborah Pope-Lance. She is a psychotherapist and a consultant to clergy and congregations, and a minister affiliated with First Parish Church in Wayland, MA. Her expertise is in healing the aftermath of clergy sexual abuse–the scourge of congregational life. Deborah has provided consultation to multiple denominations and faith communities.

What is a faith community all about but to provide sanctuary? Community, spiritual growth, social action, yes, but within a safe place. Unfortunately the sanctuary is sometimes violated.

When professional boundaries are crossed it is always the individual in authority who is ultimately responsible. No matter how tempting a counselee or congregant might be; no matter how he or she might pursue their affections, clergy have to draw the line clearly and forthrightly.

This is not an egalitarian relationship! Ministers in their work settings have an unspoken “authority” by virtue of their office. Boundary violations hurt not only the congregant, but all the family members, the children, the congregation, and the very office of Minister.

I was stunned to hear some estimates: In a 400-adult member congregation, 7 women have experienced clergy sexual violations. In addition, 32 women in that congregation have witnessed this in one of their congregations. Women can also be perpetrators of abuse, though the incidence is lower among reported cases.

Deborah said that ministers who serve as Interim Ministers estimate that 67 percent of congregations have some kind of sexual abuse in their history. The ripples continue for years and for generations unless there is appropriate intervention. And we’re talking about Unitarian Universalists here–just as prevalent as any other faith tradition.

Members of congregations can lean on ministers, but we may not lean on you. We are your ministers–we are not your friends in the same way that you are friends with one another. We must have friendships outside the congregation; we must have strong collegial connections; and we must become more and more spiritually grounded.

I have witnessed the aftermath of sexual boundary violations, I have seen men’s ministries devastated, and I have helped women recover from trauma. My experience as Resident Advocate for a women’s shelter opened my eyes back in the 80’s. Wednesday’s lecture by Deborah Pope-Lance was another wake-up call.

A few bad apples spoil the pie, the cider, the applesauce, and the entire orchard. Let me know if you want to share your story.

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