Thinking about Survivors of Pastoral Misconduct

by Carol Penner

Pastoral sexual misconduct is regularly covered in the news. A famous celebrity pastor, whom everyone looks up to, leaves their post suddenly. In the months that follow we hear about allegations and investigations. This is the case with Bill Hybels, celebrity founder of the influential Willow Creek Community Church. Sometimes the stories of abuse surface only after the death of a leader, such as with Ravi Zacharias and Jean Vanier—both influential authors, speakers and founders of international ministries.

What characterizes this coverage in the press is a focus on the celebrity. We don’t hear much—or anything—about the people who were hurt. In some cases, this is because victims’ identities need to be protected. But even when we know who the victims are, little is written about them because they are not the celebrity.

Similar dynamics happen in cases closer to home in our own Mennonite denominations. People love and support their pastor, and little thought is given to the usually anonymous victims.

What impact does the abuse have on their lives?

  1. Often survivors feel ashamed and angry at themselves for being duped by their pastor. Most misconduct is initiated by pastors, directed at vulnerable people who may have poor boundaries. Congregants can feel used. Self-hatred is common; initially they often blame themselves.
  2. Because the pastor violated them sexually, their own sexuality feels damaged. Some people respond by closing down sexually; others may act out sexually.
  3. Survivors often feel like they can’t trust anyone. They trusted their pastor implicitly, and when the pastor betrayed them by taking advantage of them, they are devastated. If you can’t trust a pastor, whom can you trust?
  4. Survivors often keep the abuse secret. Sometimes the pastor has threatened to kill himself if this becomes public, or threatens to say that the survivor initiated the “affair.” Secrets are heavy and can be destructive. Keeping a secret from a spouse can eat away at a marriage or leave victims feeling detached from friends and family.
  5. Survivors associate church with terrible memories; it’s a place they have to avoid. Survivors feel isolated and alone where once they experienced the community of believers.
  6. As months and years and decades go by holding a terrible secret, survivors can sometimes become very angry when they see how they were betrayed.
  7. Survivors can lose their faith in God. They wonder, “God, why didn’t you help me?” or they may think God doesn’t exist.
  8. The majority of survivors of pastoral misconduct that I know were so stressed out they were unable to work for months or years. This had very big financial implications on their lives. Others had to drop out of college or university programs.
  9. They had to spend thousands of dollars and countless painful hours going for therapy.
  10. Many survivors I know experienced depression; several were hospitalized to deal with this. I know two who almost lost their lives to suicide.

As years go by, and the survivor gets enough help to be confident in their own experience, they may go to the church with their complaint. Churches love their pastors, and can sometimes act defensively because they view the complaint as an attack on their pastor. People in churches often claim that what happened was an affair, and the complainant tempted the pastor into it. A survivor I know was told that she was “just doing this to get attention.”

Survivors’ stories are considered unreliable if they have mental health issues, instead of seeing the mental health issues as a response to the abuse. Churches may not understand why it has taken three, five, or ten years for the story to come out: “If this really happened, why did you wait so long to tell us?” or “What kind of Christian are you if you have harboured a grudge this long?”

If a church does believe the complaint, they may want to have the survivor quickly forgive the pastor because, “Didn’t Jesus tell us to forgive seventy times seven?”

For survivors I know, the pain of hearing these initial reactions has been compounded by mishandling of their case. The identity of one survivor was “leaked” and they felt shunned in the church. Another survivor I know was promised an investigation, but no one ever interviewed them. When a church investigates in-house, the investigators are biased because they are friends with the pastor. Too many times, an investigation was found to be inconclusive, and the pastor continues their work. Sometimes an inadequate apology is offered to the survivor, “I’m sorry if you felt hurt.”

When a church disbelieves or minimizes the hurt of a survivor, this re-victimization can be more traumatic than the original event. Instead of just one terrible person hurting them, the survivor may learn that there is no place of safety, and that no one will believe them. They are filled with even more self-doubt, self-hatred, or sometimes with anger and rage. The church is no longer a safe place. Is God safe when the church casts you out?

It’s hard to overstate how life-changing it is to experience this kind of trauma. We must do everything we can to make sure pastoral sexual misconduct does not happen.

Carol Penner

To learn more about pastoral sexual misconduct, you can download a booklet of stories that I wrote called Sacred Trust: Fostering Safe Spaces in Congregations.

Carol Penner was a pastor for many years, and now teaches practical theology at Conrad Grebel University College. She has a blog of worship resources at


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