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“After Pastor” Congregations Long-lasting Consequences of Inappropriate Behavior

By Lisa Presley

Shattered clear glass in a web pattern

“After Pastor” is a term used in congregations when the pastor (minister) or other leaders have violated the boundaries that are expected in their behavior. Often it’s applied to situations where the violation has been sexual in nature—where the minister/lay leaders have behaved sexually toward members/friends, and situations often involving abuse of power. Examples include ministers involved with interns, ministers involved with married or unmarried members in their congregations, ministers serially dating within the congregation, etc.

However, “after pastor” is also used to refer to other boundary violations, such as inappropriate use of funds (directing money to their own benefit, paying for things that haven’t been budgeted out of funds for some other purpose, etc.). It can involve bullying or gaslighting behavior, and in general acting in ways that blurs the lines of professionalism and authority in the congregation. As well, inappropriate actions by other staff, or members of the leadership (not ordained) can create the same kind of issues in a congregation, especially when these actions are kept secret, and/or otherwise hinted at but not dealt with and named as inappropriate behavior.

There are very predictable outcomes from congregations where there has been boundary violations. These outcomes persist until intentionally challenged and changed—they continue well beyond the tenure of the misbehaving person, and even when the behavior may not be in the conscious history of the congregation. Some of these outcomes are:

  • Failure to thrive despite efforts to address chronic issues
  • Culture of distrust in the congregation, and particularly of leaders whether ordained or not
  • Unhappy relationships with subsequent leaders/ministers
  • Reluctance to confront inappropriate actions in the congregation
  • Culture of secrecy
  • Reactivity and anxiety in the congregational system
  • Anger
  • Shame
  • Loss and grief
  • Blaming the victim

In After Pastor congregations (organizations), boundaries and policies are often blurred. There can be a sense of something “off,” but it’s not talked about. There are unspoken expectations that arise mainly because of the lack of trust in the system. The congregation can become rigid and unable to change, and meet sabotage when leaders attempt to change the culture of the congregation.

The biggest impact is the lack of trust in leadership and authority in the congregation. People question many decisions and processes. There are “behind the scenes” deals, and a lack of transparency in decision making. Even when subsequent leaders are behaving appropriately, these leaders will find themselves questioned deeply, and challenged when they exercise appropriate leadership. There can be a passive aggressive quality, though that is not always present. And despite the congregation’s attempts to right the ship, to move forward, and change the culture, the secrecy of what has happened before holds the congregation/organization captive to the trauma of the previous leader’s actions.

In congregations where the misconduct/misbehavior is mentioned and processed (which can take a number of years), the congregation can return to more appropriate behavior and again prosper and thrive. The work on the misconduct does not have to include “naming names” but does include talking about the dynamics and addressing the inappropriate behaviors, and articulating the impact that the misconduct/misbehavior has created. Many congregations do not undertake this work, and they then languish.

One congregation that has done this hard work is the First UU Church of Nashville, with Rev. Gail Seavey as their minister. Ms Seavey spoke about the congregation’s hard work to address the history of misconduct during the Berry Street Essay in 2016; that lecture was challenged by the misconductor who threatened to sue Rev. Seavey, the congregation, and the UU Ministers Association. In response, the Berry Street essay was pulled from the UUMA website, although copies can be found on private websites. The response to Rev Seavey’s essay was done by Rev. David Pyle, and that response is still available.

For more information:

Wholeness After Betrayal: Restoring Trust in the Wake of Misconduct by Robin Hammeal-Urban

When a Congregation Is Betrayed: Responding to Clergy Misconduct, Candace R. Benyei, ed.

About the Author

Lisa Presley

Lisa Presley is a life-long Unitarian Universalist who was an active lay leader before entering our ministry in 1991. As a lay leader she was board president, board member, worship associate, stewardship campaign chair, religious education teacher, bookkeeper, secretary, and shoveled the snow as...

For more information contact conglife@uua.org.