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Sexual Attraction for the Religious Professional

William W. Finger and Debra W. Haffner

Unitarian Universalists affirm that sexuality is one of our most life-fulfilling and life-giving gifts. We recognize that our sexuality is central to our humanity and integral to our spirituality. Yet most religious professionals have little specialized training in human sexuality, and they may not be prepared to deal with the inevitable sexual attraction that arises in human relationships, particularly if they are attracted to a congregant.

The ethical and legal guidelines for Unitarian Universalist religious professionals are clear: Married or partnered religious professionals should not engage in sexual contact with congregants. Single religious professionals can do so only with extreme care, with the full knowledge of key lay leaders and transparency of the relationship. Sexual involvement with someone with whom one is involved in a counseling relationship should never occur during the counseling relationship, and after termination of the counseling process only if the religious professional can demonstrate that there is no exploitation inherent in the sexual relationship. This requires, at a minimum, that the professional consider the amount of time that has passed since the counseling relationship ended, the nature and duration of the counseling relationship, and the likelihood of adverse effects for the particular congregant. Under no circumstances should a religious professional terminate a counseling relationship in order to engage a congregant sexually.

Nevertheless, sexual attraction in professional relationships is common, and there are particular elements in professional religious work that may make it even more likely. Outside of the one-on-one caring and listening environment, a congregant may be attracted during sermons, adult education activities, and committee work, responding either to an attraction template or the power and charisma of the professional. (One’s attraction template is a learned response to who we will find sexually attractive and arousing. Parts of an attraction template include height, weight, physique, which facial features are most important, ethnicity, and so on.)

Likewise, religious professionals may find themselves sexually attracted to congregants with whom they work closely on the board, committees, or activities. It is common for people to be attracted to certain people based on experiences in our past; we each are said to have a unique attraction template.

When a Religious Professional Is Attracted to a Congregant

Sexual behavior between a religious professional and a congregant typically begins with minor boundary violations. There are a number of warning signs that can help you recognize when you have stepped onto the slippery slope toward sexual misconduct with a congregant. If you are disclosing unnecessary personal information to a congregant or seeking personal and sexual details from a congregant that are not relevant to pastoral care needs, you should take notice. “Dressing up” when you will see a particular congregant or becoming excited at the prospect of seeing a particular person at church may be warning signs that you are feeling an attraction. While touching congregants may be a normal part of your style, be aware of a change or increase in more intimate touch, such as hugs or kisses, especially if they are selectively offered to a particular congregant. Other signs include making additional time for a person, scheduling extra visits, arranging “chance” meetings, or frequent phone calls after hours, except for emergency purposes. While any of these behaviors may be benign, it is naïve to deny that they may be motivated by attraction. Objectively examining the motivations for these behaviors is the first step in avoiding sexual exploitation of a congregant. Better to “praise God that such vitality existed, and then let go of it,” as Karen and Ronal Lebacqz quote one study respondent putting it in their book Sex in the Parish.

There are a number of appropriate responses to take if you become aware of sexual attraction to a congregant. First, acknowledge these feelings to yourself, but do not share these feelings with your congregant. Knowledge of the attraction will only put the congregant in an awkward and potentially vulnerable situation, and such a revelation will irreparably damage the professional relationship. If you need to discuss these feelings with someone, seek advice or consultation from a peer, supervisor, or your own spiritual director or therapist. Doing so may reduce the likelihood that you will act on the feelings. Second, do not act on feelings of sexual attraction. While this may seem obvious, most sexual transgressions are committed because time is not taken to explore the dynamics contributing to the attraction. While refraining from sexual contact, it is important to continue to express non-sexual caring for the congregant. It is not appropriate to withdraw from a congregant because of your sexual attraction, or to avoid them at coffee hour or social events. Religious professionals who do so leave the congregant feeling puzzled and rejected. Once you are aware of sexual attraction, continue to monitor your verbal and physical behavior with the congregant, especially if pastoral care sessions are being provided. If you have recognized minor boundary violations, there may be others. Question your motives for asking about sexual behavior, self-disclosing personal information, moving closer to the congregant in a session, or dressing up for a session. Question your motivation for touching or giving hugs if this is not consistent with how you interact with other congregants.

It is inappropriate to ask the congregant to go elsewhere for their faith community because of your sexual attraction. However because we often refer to outside therapists and resources when an issue arises that exceeds our expertise, it may be appropriate and safer to refer the congregant to a community therapist. It is your responsibility to deal with these feelings; never refer a person so that you can pursue a personal romantic and/or sexual relationship with them.

When a Congregant Is Attracted to a Religious Professional

Although the majority of sexual contact in psychotherapeutic relationships is initiated by therapists, studies suggest that 15 to 25 percent of sexual contact in therapeutic relationships is initiated by clients. Although we do not know of a comparable study with religious professionals, we can assume that the percentages are similar. However it is no more appropriate to act in response to this attraction than it is to initiate the contact yourself. Congregants may act seductively because that is how they interact in their everyday relationships or because they seek nurture and attention. They may respond to your caring and concern, your pulpit presence, your power, or your charisma. They may fantasize that you are a person with special insight and aptitude for caring. They may view your love for your congregants as meaning that you love them personally and unconditionally. Others may use sexuality to restore the imbalance created by the relationship. Congregants with a history of sexual abuse or exploitative relationships may be repeating this behavior or testing for safety. Regardless, responding to this seduction is unethical, anti-therapeutic, and damaging to the congregant.

A congregant’s attraction may be overt or subtle. Congregants with an excessive interest in your private life, including your marital or dating status, may be interested in personalizing the relationship. Congregants may seek this information directly or indirectly through contacts with other congregation staff and congregants. Physical signs of attraction such as body position, revealing attire, seductive poses, self-grooming, and “accidental” touch may be indications of attraction. Verbal statements of attraction may be direct or may consist of flattery (of your professional skills or attractiveness), compliments, or unnecessary revelation of sexual exploits or unmet sexual needs in a pastoral care session. Attempts to modify the context of the relationship may also indicate ulterior motives. Gifts, frequent phone calls, “chance” meetings, or requests for more frequent or longer sessions or meetings outside of the congregation may indicate attraction.

The congregant may not be consciously aware of the attraction, or only vaguely aware of it, and may deny the attraction if confronted. If the congregant raises this issue directly in counseling, it is important that you state unambiguously that a sexual relationship cannot and will not occur. Express that commitment kindly but firmly: “Thank you, but because of my position, that cannot occur.” Documentation of such expression by a congregant—or a persistent sense of such attraction—is critical and consultation is highly recommended. While sexual expression may be benign, congregants who feel rejected may be angry and eventually retaliate. Professionals are in a vulnerable position whenever sexual issues arise, and early and thorough documentation and informing a peer or supervisor can reduce potential liability. Contact the Good Officers person of your professional chapter and ask them to document the conversation. You may also want to talk with your support/relations committee and the chair of the Board of Trustees, although for privacy purposes, you may not want to reveal the congregant’s name.

Religious professionals may be flattered and even aroused by expressions of attraction, or they may feel threatened, uncomfortable, and offended. Regardless of the emotional reaction, the religious professional’s response must remain professional. Acknowledging mutual attraction or responding sexually to the attraction are not options for the married religious professional or a professional who is counseling a congregant. A single religious professional who is not offering the person pastoral care sessions can do so only with strict safeguards.

When confronted with sexual attraction, what you don’t do is as important as what you do. Don’t ignore apparent feelings of attraction and don’t criticize the congregant for expressing their feelings. Don’t appear shocked or surprised. Don’t shame the congregant and don’t abandon the congregant by avoiding him or her in public gatherings. However, if the attraction continues, it may be appropriate to recommend that the congregant seek a professional therapist in the community for ongoing counseling, just as a religious professional would for other mental health issues beyond their expertise. A congregant who has expressed sexual interest in a religious professional in a social setting, has been told such a relationship cannot happen, and then asks for a private pastoral care session, should be told that a therapist in the community or other religious professional would better address their needs. In such a situation, if the congregant insists on a meeting, be sure to take appropriate measures, such as leaving the door ajar and notifying a Good Officers contact person or trusted peer in advance. If the congregation has more than one religious professional, refer the congregant to one of them for counseling.

The important point is that sexual attraction is common in religious professional relationships. The issue is not whether you are attracted to a congregant, but how you respond to it ethically and professionally. It’s not enough to tell religious professionals “never” and expect that to be sufficient. Just like everyone else, religious professional are sexual beings; we need to express our own sexuality with holiness and integrity.

Read Next>> Upholding Trust in the Religious Education Community

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Last updated on Friday, April 22, 2011.

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