Having come from a long line of pastors – father, grandfather, and uncle – his calling to the ministry seemed a natural consequence of being born into his family.
Following Bible college and a stint with a traveling ministry, Aaron joined the staff of a large church with a well-known and “successful” pastor. Pastor Gene had been in the ministry for nearly 50 years and had served at all levels of leadership within Aaron’s denomination. Aaron said he and his wife, Joyce trusted him like a grandpa.
Aaron joined the staff as a music minister. He considered it his “dream job” and Joyce was hired in the youth ministry.
I could tell in our discussion that Aaron was the dream employee. A self-described “people-pleaser” and “rule-follower,” he was eager to please both his senior pastor and congregation. He clearly had a heart for ministry.
Just the Way He Is
But, after two years of serving in the church, Aaron came home to his wife and shared with her, “I think Pastor Gene has a man-crush on me.”
Aaron explained that Pastor Gene would do subtle things.
They would go out to coffee and Aaron noticed that when he would put his hand on the table, Pastor Gene would put his hand on Aaron’s. Taken aback, Joyce responded that she thought it was just the way he is. She knew he was very physical in his engagement with others.
These kinds of actions continued over two years and, though Aaron was disconcerted with it at first, he got more and more comfortable with the touching. Over time, however, the amount of physical touch ramped up. Pastor Gene seemed to get more and more “touchy” with Aaron as he described it.
Then one day Pastor Gene leaned in to give Aaron a kiss.
Four months after Aaron shared his suspicions with Joyce, Pastor Gene’s wife, Lee came to him “and exposed everything.” She explained to him that she and her husband “had been having arguments since October.”
Aaron asked her, “What does that mean?”
“Lee shared how Pastor Gene had fallen in love with me.”
Aaron was shocked. He described putting “walls put up instantly.” He said he went home that night and his son, who was only over a year old, came to give him a kiss goodnight and Aaron said he “immediately put up a wall.”
Fortunately, he said he realized his mistake and “brought him in, giving him a kiss goodnight.”
Power of the Pastor’s Presence
According to Wanda Collins of Baylor University,
“Every clergy or minister is a symbol of religious authority. By virtue of the pastoral office, the minister interprets religious truth, the meaning of life, the way of faith, and even the reality of God. Add to that status the power of the pastor’s presence through ministry, and the special influence a minister holds among his or her congregation.”[“Silent Sufferers,” Baylor University, Wanda Lott Collins, https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/145861.pdf%5D
As I have written before, there is a significant power diferential between pastors and their subordinates or congregant members. As Collins notes, people under their care look to them for guidance that involves eternal life. Sexual advances by a pastor to those under his care are called “harassment” for a reason. It is more than sex that is at play in these cases.
When the pastor’s wife met with Aaron, she said he “needed to go to the church board because she couldn’t.” She feared being the one to bring down her pastor husband.
Yet, by end of week she was telling Aaron, “I’m such a horrible person. I can’t believe I did this.” She had completely “flipped,” confusing Aaron and Joyce. Aaron said, “She told us that everything she had told us was wrong. She asked us to forget about it and forgive her. She said that it was an attack of the enemy on our church and Pastor.”
Aaron and Joyce began trying to prayerfully figure out what to do next. Pastor Gene and his wife were leaving on a vacation at the end of the week and so Aaron arranged a meeting with the four of them before they left.
Aaron described the meeting as a “laying out boundaries” he had determined to enforce. He told the pastor,
- He would not be in a room alone with the pastor.
- He would not allow the pastor to be with his son.
- Aaron would not allow the pastor to touch him.
- Their ministry work needed to be in view of others.
- The pastor would not enter the prayer room where Aaron kept the music when Aaron was there.
Pastor Gene responded, “Are you calling me a pervert?”
As Aaron explained, this showed Pastor Gene’s hand.
Aaron said, “Nope, never did that. Just laying out boundaries.”
Collins notes, “When the male clergy exploits his privileged position for personal sexual satisfaction, he violates a sacred trust that is contrary to Christian morals, doctrine, and canon laws. Because of the respect and even reverence the position carries, there is an imbalance of power and hence a vulnerability inherent in the ministerial relationship.[“Silent Sufferers,” Baylor University, Wanda Lott Collins, https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/145861.pdf%5D
That “sacred trust” was broken. Aaron knew he was in a very vulnerable position and Pastor Gene was not likely to humble himself. Staying meant further violations and leaving meant the loss of jobs and income.
However, Aaron and Joyce knew they needed to leave the church. Aaron explained to me four perspectives he had as they left:
- Aaron said his attitude was, “If Christ forgave me, I have to forgive.”
- Many survivors of abusive leadership will understandably struggle with forgiveness in part because they have been taught it means to ignore the sins of their abuser. However, Aaron recognized the need for accountability in leadership. He said that if nobody had come to leadership to report the pastor’s toxic behavior, he wanted to be first. But, if others had, Aaron wanted to corroborate the testimony of those others.
- Though it was not their responsibility or burden to bear, Aaron and Joyce sought to leave the church quietly for fear of the sheep scattering. Aaron said he didn’t want it all to blow up and the congregation’s faith to be hurt.
- And finally, Aaron said if Pastor Gene wanted help, Aaron was not the one who could give it, but could lead the pastor down that road.
Leaving the Abuse
When Aaron announced his resignation, he saw Pastor Gene begin to cover his tracks.
When Aaron and Joyce met with him a week before his last sunday in the employ of the church, Pastor Gene said, “My wife is Norwegian and I don’t know what I’m going to do with her.”
He blamed her for misreading his actions saying, “I’m a touchy kind of guy. I hug. She doesn’t understand that.”
As Aaron and Joyce left the employ of the church, he spoke with three trusted pastors: his father, Joyce’s uncle, and another local pastor named Troy.
He and Joyce went to her uncle and said they were trying to “get out fast.” The uncle asked why? Aaron said, “It’s just important to get out.”
Joyce’s uncle said, “Is there an issue with pastor?”
Finally Aaron said, “Yeah.”
“Joyce’s Uncle asked her if we were leaving because Pastor was having an affair. Joyce did not respond. He asked if it was with a man. She was shocked and began to cry. Being that they already knew part of the situation, we relayed the whole story to them. They both said they were not surprised.”
The uncle shared about other pastors who had left shortly after working for Pastor Gene. He also spoke of rumors regarding Pastor Gene exhibiting homosexual behavior.
The uncle even described a night “when he got a call and the caller was inappropriate and he thought it sounded like Pastor Gene.”
Up to this point, Aaron and Joyce thought this was an isolated incident. However, the uncle’s comments added to the pastor’s wife’s revelation that it had happened before.
Joyce’s Uncle encouraged them to tell someone what was going on, but Aaron said they felt insecure, embarrassed, and confused.
However, Aaron and Joyce went to Aaron’s father, also a pastor. Aaron explained that his denomination is very concerned about slander and if Aaron accused Pastor Gene of anything, things would not go well for him. His father’s advice was helpful to Aaron. He told Aaron, “Don’t accuse, just share your story when reporting it.”
Blood on His Head
Pastor Troy came to Aaron and asked him why he was leaving the ministry. Again, Aaron tried to hide the true reason, but the pastor kept pushing him.
Aaron asked Pastor Troy, “Why are you pushing?” He replied, “Because I think I know why.” Aaron asked him what he knew and again the pastor said he had heard rumors. The pastor said, “I should have done something about it [when I heard the rumors]. I didn’t, so your blood is on my head. I’m not going to let that happen again.”
As they left the church quietly, they faced the anger and disappointment of family members who didn’t understand their move. How could they leave the church “in a lurch like this,” they asked.
Joyce’s mom shared her suspicions that the pastor had an affair, thinking he was involved in a sexual relationship with a woman. They explained Pastor Gene’s sexual advances. Obviously, it was not an affair as that would imply consent and willing emotional and/or sexual involvement between two adults.
Neither of which applies in Aaron’s case where Pastor Gene groomed and attempted to sexually assault him.
Her father told them they needed to tell others or “Pastor Gene will see it as weakness and he’ll do this same thing again.”
After several months, having resigned, Aaron typed up his story and had it notarized. He made two copies “so it wouldn’t be forgotten.” He set up a meeting with the regional leadership of the denomination and read it to them.
Joyce’s father went with them to the meeting along with the other pastor to whom Aaron had shared the story.
The other pastor told Aaron he wanted to tell his own story and not have Aaron in the meeting when he did. He wanted to tell his story seperately from Aaron so the evidence would be presented in an “unbiased way.”
After nearly a year and a half, Aaron and Joyce had heard nothing. The other pastor began pushing the regional leadership to do something.
The leadership called Aaron about meeting with Pastor Gene because the pastor wanted to apologize to him. Aaron agreed to recieving a letter from Pastor Gene, but not a personal visit.
Pastor Gene wrote the letter and it was like so many apologies of abusers. Aaron described it as saying, “I’m sorry you feel badly that I did this to you.” Aaron said there was no actual apology.
The leadership asked Aaron what they should do about Pastor Gene. Aaron shared with them that it was their responsibility to hold him accountable, not Aaron’s.
When I asked Aaron what has provided the most healing for him, he said he sought perspective on his ministry. Aaron said, “My dad is a pastor. My gramps is pastor. I have experience knowing that even though people are in the church, they are still people.”
Aaron went on,
“My relationship with God is not dependent on people. It’s got to be my relationship with the Lord . . . We often put people on pedestal because they are in leadership. We honor those people God has given us, but we must primarily honor the Lord. I can’t look to leaders to build my relationship with the Lord. . . Jacob wrestled with god, there is a wrestling we have to have with the Lord to grow.”
Aaron made much of building good and solid boundaries.
Though abuse is never the result of the victim’s sin, but rather the deeply rooted sin in the heart of the abuser, Aaron sought to be humble before the Lord and consider how he could grow, knowing he couldn’t fix Pastor Gene’s heart.
Beauty from Ashes
In parting, Aaron shared that he saw the sovereignty of God in bringing beauty from the ashes of the evil Pastor Gene perpetrated. Though he lost his “dream” job, he was given a beautiful mnistry planting a church, ministering alongside his wife to other broken people.
“He works all things together for our good. I have to believe that and I have seen God’s hand in that.”