Last Tuesday, on March 8th, following a three month investigation, the Overseers Board of the Southern Ontario multi-site megachurch The Meeting House, issued a statement that one of their teaching pastors, Bruxy Cavey, had engaged in a sexual relationship with a woman whom he had been counseling. While Cavey publicly confessed to “an extramarital affair,” the Overseers Board identified it as an abuse of power and sexual harassment and called for Cavey’s resignation.
Why Call This Clergy Sexual Abuse?
Some might wonder about this designation “abuse of power” and “sexual harassment.” The woman, after all, was an adult. Cavey wasn’t holding her physically hostage and didn’t violently attack her. Wasn’t she just as much to blame as Cavey himself for their sexual behavior?
The answer to this is unequivocally no. She was not an equal partner, participating in a consenting relationship. She was a parishioner who turned to her pastor to provide spiritual support and direction. It was precisely because of his role as a pastor and the authority that the church had invested in him that she trusted him to comfort, care, and help her in a time of crisis.
Instead, he violated that trust and used her vulnerability and his power to satisfy his own emotional needs and sexual desires at her expense. She was 23. He was 46. She was a parishioner seeking counseling in a time of crisis. He was a pastor authorized and supported by the church to provide pastoral care. It was his responsibility to ensure that appropriate boundaries were maintained and that his relationship as a pastoral counselor to his parishioner contributed to her flourishing.
Instead, in the survivor’s words, “it was a devastating twist of pastoral care into sexual abuse” (www.hagarsvoice.com), an egregious abuse of power in which power was used for personal gain at the expense of another person.
The full impact of Cavey’s failure has yet to be seen, but already his actions have left a wake of wreckage: the spiritual disorientation, trauma, and harm to the survivor, chaos and fallout within the Meeting House community, grief and pain to Cavey’s family, and the damage to the Church’s witness to the gospel in Canada and beyond.
What God intended for good, Satan used for destruction, calling to mind the Apostle Paul’s warning that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12)
As Christians we know that Satan will not have the last laugh. Still, he certainly wreaked significant havoc here.
Could This Happen in the CRC?
There are some in the CRC that believe that this couldn’t happen in our circles, that this is a phenomenon that happens in megachurches where people don’t know each other very well and where the pastor functions like a CEO.
Unfortunately, the CRC not only has a history of cases of abuse by clergy and office bearers, but the Safe Church Ministry office continues to receive calls every month from persons in our denomination who report abuses of power of one sort or another—spiritual, emotional, or sexual abuse—by office bearers, ministry leaders, or volunteers in our congregations.
This reality begs the question, why is the church so vulnerable to abuse and what can we do to prevent it?
The Church and Vulnerability to Abuse
Certain characteristics associated with churches make them naturally vulnerable to abuse.
One such characteristic is the high levels of trust by members of the congregation for those in leadership. Trust is a good thing to be sure. However, when high levels of trust co-exist with low levels of accountability, as is found in many churches, the stage is set for situations of abuse.
Most churches have an initial screening process and run background checks on their staff and volunteers. However, many of those same churches lack structures of accountability. For instance, regular systems of oversight for volunteers and staff, checks and balances around one-on-one meetings, a set of clear expectations for conduct as a ministry leader, a technology use or electronic communication policy, or a clear system for reporting misconduct.
The implication is that ministry leaders, office bearers, and volunteers are entrusted with significant power and influence over others often without any structures in place that provide accountability for how they use that power.
There is one potential exception to this generalization about structures of authority and that is the practice of mutual censure, which is stipulated by Church Order Article 36b. Four times a year, the council is to exercise mutual censure whereby they encourage each other in the performance of their official duties.
While providing a significant opportunity to check in with each other, however, this practice is typically focused on tasks rather than conduct. Council members reflect on whether they have fulfilled their obligations in providing spiritual oversight and care to members of the congregation. Rarely does mutual censure involve self-examination regarding conduct or whether, as officebearers, the members of council are exercising their position and power in the church in ways that lead to the flourishing of the members of the congregation.
A second characteristics of churches that make them vulnerable to abuse is the tendency of congregants to put pastors (and other ministry leaders) on pedestals, to see their pastors through rose colored glasses, attributing to them levels of giftedness and goodness that are inconsistent with their humanity. Not only is this pedestal mentality soul-crushing for pastors, establishing a standard they cannot live up to, but it makes the idea that the pastor sins and falls short of the glory of God untenable.
The tension between how a pastor is perceived on the one hand, particularly if they are a good preacher, a gregarious person, and by all accounts “successful” in ministry, and allegations of abuse of power on the other, can be so disorienting that congregants will seek to discount or minimize this “new” information to resolve the dissonance.
In church after church, the early warning signs of patterns of abuse of power existed but the church leadership struggled to take these indicators seriously because their own high regard for the pastor got in the way.
One final characteristic of churches worth mentioning is the problem of bias toward and familiarity with the alleged abuser. When allegations of abuse are brought against a ministry leader, they typically pertain to someone who is well-known to those who are required to make decisions about how to respond to the abuse. The alleged abuser is someone they have befriended, laughed with, met with, ate with, worshiped with, prayed with, and sometimes cried with.
Even after an investigation verifies that a ministry leader has abused their authority, taking appropriate disciplinary measures is an extremely hard and painful decision and often feels like the betrayal of a friend. As a result, there are times when councils and classes, out of concern for the ministry leader who has acted inappropriately and out of a desire to protect that person’s reputation and future livelihood, compromise on disciplinary action, thereby putting the needs of their colleague ahead of justice and care for the survivor as well as ahead of the best interests of the church.
It’s important to note that this is not just theoretical. We have, in the history of the CRC, ministry leaders who were serial abusers, moving from one church/classis to another, leaving a trail of victims in their wake. This happened because each council or classis acted with “compassion” for the abuser.
When the church equivocates on its response to abuse, it communicates that abuse is tolerated in the church, which inadvertently invites more abuse.
How Do We Prevent Abuse?
So how do we do better at preventing abuse? Here are some suggestions:
Increase accountability for all volunteers, ministry leaders, and office bearers. This can be done by instituting a code of conduct (see the CRC's new Code of Conduct for Ministry Leaders) and asking ministry leaders, office bearers, and volunteers to covenant together around that standard of behavior.
Conducting regular check-ins and annual reviews with ministry staff and volunteers to acknowledge, affirm, and celebrate things that are going well, explore ways to provide further support, and address issues of challenge or concern. Regular communication between ministry leaders, volunteers, and the council/board can provide natural avenues for early intervention.
Update the church’s safe church policy to include:
guidelines for one-on-one meetings involving ministry leaders or volunteers (eg. where and when meetings should take place). Consider using a meeting log that is accessible to the council and Safe Church leader in your church for all one-to-one meetings;
a technology, e-communication, and social media use policy that provides guidelines for using technology in ways that are beyond reproach and serve ministry objectives well.
Encourage and support ministry leaders in their effort to establish healthy boundaries and practice good self-care. A healthy pastor is less likely to abuse power.
Encourage all ministry leaders to take abuse of power training. By talking about the use and misuse of power, ministry leaders become more aware of and learn to examine their own use of power—whether they are using power for the flourishing of others, or whether their use of power, advertently or inadvertently, is causing harm.
Have a clear method of reporting misconduct by ministry leaders or volunteers. This can be providing an anonymous hotline, directing people to a Safe Church advocate, or identifying a member of council to receive reports of misconduct. The goal is that when congregants suspect misconduct or experience abuse, they know what to do and where to go with that information.
Ask for outside help. When it is clear that familiarity with the ministry leader will get in the way of responding to abuse well, involve your Classis Safe Church Coordinator or church visitors, or even consider bringing in an independent investigator to provide a more objective and unbiased assessment of the situation and recommendations for going forward.
Consult Safe Church Ministry at [email protected]. We are always eager to help churches in the work of abuse prevention and response.
We want our churches to be places where the gospel of Jesus Christ is reflected both in the words that come from the pulpit and from the way we interact with and treat each other. Because we live in a sinful and broken world, we will never fully eradicate the risk of abuse in our congregations.
However, we can do small things that can effect real change in making the church a safer and healthier place for church goers and church leaders alike.