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Survey probes pastors’ views on handling misconduct

NASHVILLE (BP) — There’s no consensus among Protestant pastors whether a colleague accused of misconduct should step down from the pulpit for a time, according to a LifeWay Research survey released today (May 10).

Few respondents, however, say pastors who commit adultery should be permanently banned from ministry, LifeWay Research reported on the findings of a telephone survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors.

“Pastors believe church leaders should be held to high standards,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, based in Nashville. “They also want to protect themselves against allegations that could be false.”

The LifeWay Research survey asked pastors for their views on handling allegations of misconduct; the type of misconduct narrowed to adultery in one of the questions.

Forty-seven percent of those surveyed say a pastor should step aside while church leaders investigate alleged misconduct. About a third (31 percent) say the church should leave the pastor in the pulpit. One in 5 (21 percent) is not sure.

Older pastors (those 65 and older) are more likely to want the pastor to stay in the pulpit (36 percent). Younger pastors (those 18 to 44) are less likely to hold that view (27 percent).

African-American pastors (50 percent) are more likely to want the pastor to remain in the pulpit than white pastors (30 percent). More Baptists (35 percent) and Pentecostals (43 percent) want the pastor to remain than Methodists (24 percent) or Presbyterian/Reformed pastors (24 percent).

Among other findings:

— Most pastors are cautious about sharing details of alleged misconduct with the entire congregation.

Few respondents (13 percent) say allegations should be shared with all church members. Most (73 percent) say allegations should be kept in confidence by church leaders during an investigation. Fourteen percent are not sure.

Pentecostals (85 percent) are more likely to say allegations should be kept in confidence than Methodists (63 percent).

Pastors are more comfortable sharing details with the congregation if a pastor has been disciplined for misconduct. Most (86 percent) say it is essential for church leaders to let the congregation know in such cases.

Stetzer said pastors and churches alike struggle with how much detail to share with the congregation, especially about alleged misconduct.

“We don’t have a lot of models of how to have transparent conversations,” he said.

Churches and pastors also need to be aware of legal concerns.

A false allegation could lead to a lawsuit for slander, especially if the pastor denies the allegations, said Frank Sommerville, a Houston-based attorney who specializes in legal issues facing churches.

“You are walking a tightrope in those early days,” Sommerville said. “It’s easy if the pastor says, ‘Yes, I had an affair.’ If the pastor denies the allegation, you need some kind of investigation to figure out who is most likely telling the truth.”

Sommerville suggested churches have a process in place for handling allegations of misconduct, including taking possession of the pastor’s work email, cellphone and computer.

The process should take about 10 days, and Sommerville suggested the pastor step down with pay during the process.

“It’s easy to explain that the pastor is unavailable for one week,” he said. “It’s harder to explain if it takes three months.”

He suggested church leaders — the church board, presbytery, council or other leadership group — keep the allegations confidential until the investigation is over. After a decision is made, they can inform the congregation about some of the details.

— In instances specifically regarding allegations of adultery, pastors are split over how long a preacher should step down from public ministry if he has had an affair.

One in 4 (24 percent) support a permanent withdrawal from public ministry. A similar number (25 percent) are not sure. About a third (31 percent) say a pastor should step down between three months and a year.

Older pastors (those over 65) are more likely to want a permanent ban from ministry (28 percent) than pastors age 55-65 (19 percent). Middle-aged pastors (those 45 to 54) are more likely to say from three months to a year is more appropriate (38 percent).

African-American pastors (45 percent) are more likely to say a pastor should leave for three months to a year than white pastors (30 percent).

Lutherans are least willing to reinstate, with half (47 percent) saying an adulterous pastor should leave ministry permanently. Baptists (30 percent calling for permanent withdrawal) are less willing to reinstate than Methodists (13 percent), Pentecostals (13 percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed pastors (11 percent.)

“The Scripture says pastors must be above reproach,” Stetzer said. “So it’s not surprising that some want to see fallen pastors banned from ministry. Still, pastors are also people who talk about forgiveness regularly and, by and large, they want to see those who fall have a chance at restoration.”

Methodology: The phone survey of Protestant pastors was conducted March 9-24, 2016. The calling list was a stratified random sample drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Quotas were used for church size and black Protestant denominations. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church called. Responses were weighted by region to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.2 percent. Margins of error are higher in subgroups.

LifeWay Research is a Nashville-based evangelical research firm that specializes in surveys about faith in culture and matters that affect the church.