Restoration without restitution is complicity

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

July 20, 2023

By Susan M. Shaw, Senior Columnist

The largest evangelical megachurch in Alabama just spent $4.5 million to open a center for pastoral restoration. The center provides counseling and support for pastors working through issues that cost them their jobs — issues like marital infidelity and sexual abuse.

I’m sure pastors with “issues” need support and counseling. I can’t help but ask, however, what it means to prioritize the well-being and restoration of these men to ministry over the well-being and healing of their victims. I can’t say I’m surprised. Evangelicals seem to show a lot of compassion for pastors who commit sexual abuse. Too bad they don’t show the same concern for victims.

The narrative of a center for pastoral restoration is one of a good man who made a bad decision and who simply needs biblical guidance to ensure repentance and commitment not to do it again. Churches tell this story with euphemisms like “indiscretion” and “inappropriate relationship” to describe sexually predatory and abusive acts that use the power of the pastoral position to subject people — especially women and children — to abuse.

Power dynamics

An abusive pastor isn’t a good man who made a mistake. He’s a predator. Maybe that’s more obvious when children are concerned, although it’s not unheard of for congregants and other pastors to defend predators by claiming children seduced them. So-called “consensual” affairs between pastors and congregants are usually judged as moral indiscretions rather than the abuse of power they really are.

“An abusive pastor isn’t a good man who made a mistake. He’s a predator.”

A pastor always has power over a congregant. It’s not an equal relationship, anymore than that of a therapist and client or teacher and student. Sexual relationships between people with power differentials are inherently coercive. The spiritual and institutional authority of a pastor creates pressure for a congregant to go along with what the pastor wants. Saying no is much harder when the person asking for or demanding sex supposedly stands in the stead of God.

To suggest a sexual relationship between a pastor and church member is “consensual” denies this power differential and makes the woman equally culpable. In fact, within purity culture, this narrative makes the woman responsible because women are always responsible for men’s sexual behavior in that subculture.

Naming coercive sexual encounters for what they are is essential: abuse, assault, perhaps even rape. These are not the acts of a good man making bad decisions, and the church has to come to terms with that.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim of Earlham School of Religion and I have just finished the manuscript for a book that will be published by Broadleaf Books in March. Its title is Surviving God: A New Vision of God through the Eyes of Sexual Abuse Survivors. In the book, we make the case that, when the church ignores voices of survivors, it is complicit in abuse. When the church silences survivors or covers up abuse or allows predatory pastors to move from congregation to congregation, the church is an enabler of sexual abuse. And when the church uses the Bible to subjugate women, place sexual responsibility on women and gloss over men’s abuse of women and children, the church damages the very image of the God it supposedly represents.

“When the church ignores voices of survivors, it is complicit in abuse.”

‘Cheap grace’

Part of the problem is an evangelical conception of forgiveness as a matter of simply apologizing to God. In much of evangelical thinking, repentance means asking God for forgiveness. Rarely does it include any notion of making restitution and repairing damage. It’s a perfect example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace.”

In terms of clergy abuse, “cheap grace” means a pastor need only pray to God for forgiveness and promise not to be “indiscreet” or engage in “inappropriate relationships” again, and, just like that, he’s ready to return to ministry — if he’s been removed from a position at all.

Often, then, churches pressure victims to forgive perpetrators and move on, as if nothing ever happened. Yet great harm has been done, and mere words of apology to God — rarely the victim — do not begin to address the damage.

If a pastor has broken the law — if he has sexually abused a minor or has assaulted an adult — the church must report him to the police. The church cannot try to cover up crimes because a pastor committed them. The fact that he is a pastor does not make his offenses less criminal.

“The church cannot try to cover up crimes because a pastor committed them.”

If the church (and denominations like the SBC) want to get serious about dealing with sexual abuse, they can’t be engaged in a rush to return perpetrators to ministerial positions. Yes, they need to deal with them; they need to call them to accountability and provide pathways for redemption, but the focus needs to be on the victims. What do they need?

At a minimum, they need the church and the perpetrators to tell the truth that what happened was abuse, not an “indiscretion” or “inappropriate relationship.”

They also need their needs met as part of a process of transformative justice that seeks to bring everyone back into right relationship. That does not mean they need to be pressured to forgive their abusers or stay in relationship with them. Only they get to determine that part of the process. They get to choose how much they want to engage with abusers, if at all, in these processes. And they get to determine what justice looks like for themselves in this situation.


The goal for abusers is to accept responsibility for their actions as abusive and harmful and to recognize a simple prayer for God’s forgiveness isn’t enough. They need ongoing programs of psychological counseling with therapists trained in dealing with abusers. So-called “biblical counseling” won’t cut it. Something more than “sinful nature” is at work in abusers, and psychologists and social workers are better situated to help than other pastors with a few Bible verses.

Abusive pastors should be required to make restitution. That may mean paying therapy bills for victims as long as they need counseling to work through what has happened to them. It may mean paying medical bills, making up for lost wages in time off because of trauma, helping with addiction, housing or education. Whatever the abuse has cost the victim should be paid by the abuser and the religious institutions that enabled him.

The church (and possibly denomination) itself needs to go through this process of transformative justice as well to discover how it enabled an abusive pastor and what steps it needs to take to ensure the safety of congregants from perpetrators and to transform itself into a congregation that proactively works for justice for survivors.

“When an abusive situation comes to light, it often re-traumatizes other survivors in the congregation.”

The church also should recognize that when an abusive situation comes to light, it often re-traumatizes other survivors in the congregation. Prioritizing pastoral care and support for them is essential in the process of transformative justice. Listening to their wisdom, should they choose to share it with the church, can offer important guidance for responding to clergy abuse.

What the Church of the Highlands is actually doing with its pastoral restoration program, I’m not sure, but based on evangelicals’ track record with abuse, I don’t imagine it’s doing many of the things necessary for transformative justice — a process that ensures that not only is the abuser made whole but so are the victim and the congregation and that is driven by the needs of the victim first and foremost.

While calling pastors to accountability is admirable, it’s ultimately ineffective and harmful if that calling only involves pastors themselves and does not demand restitution for victims or if it approaches abuse as a spiritual failing rather than a destructive pattern of gender-based violence that requires more intervention than prayer and Scripture reading.

If all the church does to address abuse by clergy is to work to restore pastors without requiring restitution, the church is complicit in the abuse. Abuse is a serious offense with lifelong consequences for victims and, until the church recognizes abuse for what it is, it will continue to enable abusers, cover up their abuses and increase harm and trauma for victims.

Pastoral restoration shouldn’t be the goal. Only an approach that centers justice for victims and transformation for all can begin to address the destructiveness of abuse and offer healing and hope to all.