The Grooming Behavior of Pastoral Predators – Part 1

Shattering the Lens.  The Grooming Behavior of Pastor-Predators

Mike Phillips


Julia Dahl M.D.

This may be a difficult post for several reasons.

First, this post asks the reader to reflect on what the term “Pastor” means to them. Commonly, pastors are understood to be spiritual overseers.  If what you believe about all pastors is dependent on the image, faith, or charisma of your own pastor, this post asks the reader lay aside the naive ideal that all pastors are divinely-called shepherds.

There are some narcissistic men who lead a church or ministry and use the flock for their own gratification. Often, this will manifest in sexual relations with church attenders.  This behavior by some destroys many decent images of healthy pastors and other church/ministry leaders. I don’t blame anyone for struggling to confront and accept this conclusion.

Here is the reality we deal with:

Pastors can be roughly grouped in three categories:

  1. Divinely called and faithful servants of God.
  2. Divinely called servants, presently tempted, and struggling with personal sin. They deal with their own weaknesses but do not use others for their gratification.
  3. Intentional usurpers of the pulpit and the congregation for the purposes of their own enjoyment and control.4c50b3e8-24ba-4416-b469-b44e0dbd3af8

This third category of pastor are those who most represent pastoral misconduct. In recent days, with the advent of the #metoo, #churchtoo and #silenceisnotspiritual movements, brave victims share their stories of pastors who practice abuse and mayhem.  It will be impossible to ignore this third category of pastor with the growing body of reports of pastoral misconduct on the news and social media.  To clearly understand the problem of sexual abuse by pastors, I encourage you to read the stories of victims in order to accept that some men seek the pulpit with the intention to serve themselves and not to serve God.

Is this just a few men?  Sadly, no. A recent study in Canada determined that “Narcissistic Personality Disorder in active clergy (in the PCC) is between 500% and 3000% higher than is found in the general population.” Therefore, at least 5% and as high as 30% of pulpits are occupied by this type of pastor.  (Ball and Puls, 2015).

The church has always been a gathering of people seeking knowledge, community, promotion of faith and comfort in this difficult world.

To these “wolves in sheep’s clothing” the church represents an easy source of power, attention, adulation, financial gain, and sometimes sexual gratification.

Are these categories valid? Are they a new phenomenon?  Is this phenomenon happening because of the recent growth of megachurches, ready availability of television evangelism and global ministries? No, these three categories of pastors are not new.  Every New Testament book contains instruction about false prophets, false teachers, and the “one who enters the sheep pen not at the gate”.

Second, this post may be a triggering event for someone who has been a victim of another person’s abuse of power.  Within the behaviors described in these posts, you will probably see some of your own situation, or hear echoes of words said to you. Though you may be emotionally triggered, this post can provide you with the opportunity to recognize your pain, grieve the losses that come with abuse, and provide balm and recovery to the human wounds that left you susceptible to being abused.

Third, if you’re a pastor, this post may cause difficult and even painful introspection.  You may read the categories above and ask – which category am I?  This post urges you to reflect on your past and current behaviors. I believe it is a mistake to do this in order to defend yourself against accusations.  Please don’t let that be your focus reading this. I believe some of you play around with a few of these behaviors because you find them ego-boosting, fun and even sexually stimulating. I want you to see if you allow a few of these behaviors to go unchecked, you may truly unlock an emotional mess you cannot handle.

Finally, if you’re a victim’s advocate, seeing the list of grooming tactics used by Category 3 pastors who commit this type of abuse will just fuel your fire to find every offender and remove them from the pulpit – and lock them up when they have broken the laws of the land. I hope you do.

The Church of Jesus Christ is better off if every victim is helped to recover and every offender is forced to deal with their crime.

I’m a pastor, and in working with victims for almost 40 years, I have arrived at many junctures where I had to search my soul to see if I was guilty of any of these behaviors. I have counseled many pastors who have committed abuse of authority and the examples below are just a few of the many in my files.

I’m also a therapist, and I work with victims of authoritarian abuse and assault. Their stories are hard to hear because many victims have been abused so badly.

I made myself listen to every testimony in the recent Dr. Larry Nassar sexual assault trials. I waffled between anger, sadness for the victims, disgust, disbelief, and back to anger. And I have heard all these types of stories before. I can just imagine what it is like for a person hearing these testimonies for the first time.

I also started out my counseling practice by working with sex offenders in prison. They are some of the people who first introduced me to the concept of Grooming behavior, years before it began to be written in textbooks about narcissist controllers.

I’ve seen this issue from all sides and I have learned a few things which inform all my positions on grooming.

In this first article, let’s dispense with some definitions and distinctions.  What is grooming?

“Grooming” is what someone does if they want to be able to control another person in the future.

Grooming is an intentional behavior someone uses to manipulate another person over an extended period. The purpose is to wear away any defenses the victim has against being manipulated which then allows the abuser to control the victim’s behavior moving forward. Grooming behavior was first identified and characterized when studying sociopathic adults who sexually abused children.  Grooming behavior is now recognized within other abusive relationship settings.

How does grooming work?  Grooming involves creating and/or exploiting an imbalance of power between the abuser and the victim.  In the context of adult abusers molesting children, there is a universal acceptance that adults are in a position of authority over children. Abusers, using grooming tactics, will misuse their position of authority in various ways to ensure that the victim’s defenses are lowered, and that the victim tolerates the initial manipulation. After establishing control of the victim, the abuser then repeats the cycles of abuse with greater intensity.

Wherever there is a defined imbalance of power or a drive to create an imbalance of power in a relationship, there is potential for this type of abuse to occur.

Does the principle of authority apply to pastors and congregants?  Is there an imbalance of power?

Increasingly, we hear of pastors and other church officials having sexual relationships with members of the church. Though not every sexual relationship between a church leader and church member is a case of sexual abuse, a lot of it is. So how can one tell the difference between power-equivalent sex and an abuse of authority?

It can be complicated, but here are the criteria questions I use to determine if an abuse of authority has happened:

  1. Does the pastor have a supervisory authority over the person they have sex with? If they do, it is abuse of authority (sometimes referred to legally as Breach of Fiduciary Responsibility).
  2. Is the person the pastor has sex with a minor (in most states, under the age of 18)? If so, this is abuse of authority.
  3. Is the person the pastor has sex with in a counseling relationship with the pastor? If so, this is abuse of authority.
  4. Has the pastor used grooming behavior before a sexual relationship is initiated? If so, this is an abuse of authority. And though this instance of grooming is not technically criminal, it is a civil assault and pastors have been successfully sued when they practice grooming with a congregation member.

Please understand that ALL abuses of authority are BOTH immoral and against the law.

Some writers and therapists have claimed that all pastors have a non-equivalent power relationship with their church members. I do not believe that is true. There are pastors in some churches who have never supervised or had previous dealings with the person they have sex with. They meet at church and they form a power-equivalent relationship. Though this is immoral, it is not necessarily illegal.

My experience is that this is rare. And though it does happen, most cases of sex between a pastor and a congregant are not power-equivalent. In many instances, for the congregant to get to the place where they have sex with a pastor, they are groomed by the pastor toward that behavior.

In this article and the next two, I will outline specific instances of grooming behaviors. Grooming behavior is found primarily in people with the so-called “Dark Personality Disorders”: Antisocial Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder. Depending on what source of statistics you search, between 1-5% of the population exhibits one of these disorders in their lives. That is a staggering number of people. It is likely that every profession has some.

Unfortunately, the “dark disorders” are also attracted to professions where they might have levels of control built into the job.

The role of the Pastor happens to be one of those. I know it is hard to accept a “Servant of the Lord” could do these things, but force yourself get over that mental barrier. It has and does happen. I have been made a witness of many examples first-hand.

These wolves in sheep’s clothing, who abuse others within the vulnerable church environment, more likely than not have one of these diagnosable personality disorders:  Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Anti-Social Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder.

The idea of pulpits being occupied by narcissists or other dark personalities may seem completely unbelievable.  The Ball and Puls study evaluated the frequency of narcissistic personality disorder in pastors by using a self-reporting questionnaire about leadership.  The lengthy questionnaire included questions designed to reveal narcissistic traits, piety traits and leadership traits.

The study concluded:

“Within the clergy… there appears to be much higher levels of the most destructive expressions of narcissism than in the general population.  The problem is real, and it seems that ministry attracts narcissists for the same reasons that elementary schools and playgrounds attract pedophiles:  these institutions provide access to victims.”

Please note: Just because a person has exhibited some grooming behavior does not mean they have one of these disorders. They must exhibit more of the criteria for each disorder before a positive diagnosis is made. Reference the DSM-V manual to identify other behaviors for these disorders.

However, even if a person does not have one of the dark disorders, their grooming behavior is evil. Churches must not tolerate it.

This post is just an overview of the problem. In the next few posts, I will delve into the detailed behaviors that mark the Grooming and Controlling process. I will outline the various stages these behaviors fit into and will outline why the average abuser utilizes each of these stages the way they do.

However, before going into detail on grooming stages and rationales for this behavior, allow me to give one or two sentence summaries of the pastoral grooming behaviors I have seen through the eyes of the victims and the testimonies of the offending pastors themselves. In the next article, I will go through each of these, spelling out more of their idiosyncrasies, and giving examples of each.

  1. Exaggeration of Credentials, Achievements and Failures: Groomers will use their personal stories to exaggerate their accomplishments and highlight huge failures in their lives. They do this to impress and build trust in the victim.
  2. Confiding Deep Personal Details: The Groomer will often share details of their life which are so personal the Victim will at first be surprised they are being shared. This is done to build trust.
  3. Asking for Deep Personal Details: After sharing their own personal details, the Groomer will now ask the Victim to trust them with the intimate details of their life. This way, the relationship feels mutual.
  4. Excessive Praising: The Groomer, near the beginning of the relationship will often compliment the Victim.
  5. Critical and Targeted Fault-finding: Here is where the Groomer starts to play with the mind of the Victim. They will often criticize one or more minor faults of the Victim.
  6. Extensive Knowledge: Many Groomers seem to have extensive knowledge of the Victim very early in the relationship. If the Victim had been paying attention, they would figure out the Groomer had been researching them even before they were involved.
  7. Near the beginning of the relationship, the Groomer gives the Victim unfettered access to their lives. They answer texts immediately. They interrupt dinner to go out and meet with the Victim. They allow them into their office on a moment’s notice.
  8. Groomer plays the Victim: The Groomer mentions regularly how they are mistreated by others. If they are married, they will begin dropping hints on how they are heroic to put up with their spouse’s bad behavior.
  9. Serotonin Games: The Groomer will cause the victim to get excited about their relationship and then reject them.
  10. Family Connections: The Groomer will sometimes become close to the members of the Victim’s family. They may also encourage the Victim to be friends of their family.
  11. Groomers and Persecution: The Groomer steps up the game from being victimized to a new level. Groomers will pretend they are persecuted by others. They will express a false sense of hurt and betrayal, giving the Victim the idea they need comfort.
  12. Reversing the Blame: The Groomer will contact the Victim after sex has been initiated and instruct the Victim to view the sexual contact as something the Victim wanted and initiated.
  13. Ministry Recruiting: The Groomer asks the Victim to be involved in ministries where the two of them will be alone for extended periods of time. This involves praying together, going on visitation, and attending prayer retreats. The purpose of this is to begin a normalized, spiritual life together. Once that has been accomplished, it feels natural to continue more frequent sexual encounters.
  14. Targeted Use of Scripture: The Groomer knows the Victim looks up to them as a Spiritual leader. They are counting on this to get them to do what they want. But at various times, they must reinforce this. They will give their own interpretation of Scripture to justify some of the things they are doing.
  15. Extended Time Line: The Groomer will refer to their relationship with the Victim as something which is going to last for a long time. They will make plans for what they will do together months or years in the future. This is intended to cause the Victim to break down any remaining barriers.
  16. Intrusive Questions: Groomers often ask more and more probing questions about the Victim’s sex life.
  17. Church Details: The Groomer will begin telling the Victim more and more about the inner workings of the church or their ministry. This will be information that very few people have access to. The purpose of this is to convince the Victim that they are in a secret inner circle in the life of the Groomer.
  18. Fantasy Narratives: Once the relationship becomes sexual, the Groomer will create fantasy scenarios where they will be able to be together and others will accept it. This keeps the sexual relationship going.
  19. One-Way Instruction: Once the sexual relationship is established, the Groomer will never allow the Victim to disagree with them or instruct them. The Groomer will begin to direct them in even minor parts of their life.
  20. Isolation: The Groomer will seek to separate the Victim from other significant relationships in the church. They will encourage the Victim to cut off these friendships and hint that to continue would hurt their own relationship.
  21. Boundary Lip Service: The Groomer will constantly mention how important boundaries are for people, while at the same time crossing every boundary. They will explain this by letting the Victim know that the two of them are a “special situation”.
  22. External Critical Evaluations: Groomers will often tell their victims about other women and their flaws. They will share private counseling information to show the Victim how hard it is to please the Groomer. The Victim will make up their mind they “don’t want to be like those women.”
  23. Prayer Instructions: Groomers will sometimes use their prayer time together to give instructions to the Victim. They will focus on something they want the Victim to do for them by asking God for it..
  24. Reversing Emotional Direction: Near the end of the grooming cycle, the Groomer will suddenly become critical of everything in the Victim’s life. This causes the Victim, who has sold out completely to her Groomer, to become desperate.
  25. Drug and Alcohol Use: Groomers sometimes suggest to Victims they try certain addictive substances in order to experience them together.
  26. Dealing with The End: If the victim tries to pull away or to reveal details of their relationship, the groomer may do one of the following:
    • Threaten to expose or harm them.
    • Threaten to harm their family.
    • Threaten suicide.
    • Mention how exposure would hurt both of them, their marriages, their children, the church, and God’s work in the community.

While reading through this list, some may be familiar to you, some may be completely absent from your experience.  In the next article, each of these grooming and abusive behaviors will be explored in greater detail to assist in understanding the purpose and the effect of the behavior.


Ball, Glenn and Puls, Darrell (2015).  Frequency of narcissistic personality disorder in pastors: a preliminary study, presented at the American Association of Christian Counselors, Nashville, TN, September 26, 2015.

31 thoughts on “The Grooming Behavior of Pastoral Predators – Part 1

    1. I’m so sorry to hear he did that. But not surprised. Rarely do Groomers/controllers only use a few of these. They need to keep the control going.

    1. You have described my experience with precision!! May the Lord rest His grace and blessing on you as you stand with those whom have been devoured by wolves and then thrown away as trash.

  1. Wow. So ashamed I fell big time for this behaviour. I was so completely vulnerable and lost- I thought he was helping me – he seemed so understanding, accepting and knowledgeable about the grief journey I was on.

    1. Unfortunately, that is part of the abuser’s method of operation. They must build trust and the best way to do this is through helping a person in their area of need. After a while, they use this to establish their own control. I a sorry this happened to you “Lost mama”.

  2. This made me weep and tremble. It is right on the money . Word for word , step by step what my abuser did to me. To have it all laid out so methodically convinces me that my abuser must have other victims. 💔

  3. My former daughter-in-law was groomed, divorced my son, and has now been married six years to the narcissistic man who I know was looking to get out of his marriage, had no formal pastoral training but set himself up in three churches in a small town as a pastor. After the marriage, he was forced out of his pastor positions. As a therapist and the wife of the former pastor of those churches who was an ordained pastor by the Disciples of Christ church with a doctorate in pastoral studies, I recognized many of the above things happening to my former daughter-in-law who was seeking a father figure in her life. Needless to say, I see unhealed scars in my son and grandson’s life every day. Since their marriage, the narcissistic former pastor has been grooming my grandson – hopefully not for a sexual relationship, but to get him to like him more than liking his own dad – by spending lots of money on him, taking him places my son can’t afford to take him, just the two of them doing things together, etc. It’s a cycle that affects not only the victim but continues for generations. I still struggle with forgiving both of them and struggle to know how to help my now 14-year-old grandson recognize what is happening.

    1. Judy, this is a lot to recover from. I am sure it has been torturous for you to watch as this narcissistic controller has hurt so many of the people you love. I’m sorry this has happened to you and your family. Is this man your former DIL married to still doing pastoral ministry?

      1. No, he was kicked out of his former churches. He and my former dil moved to another city and he is leading the singing in a church there – worming his way back in.

  4. Very interesting article. I just recently found out that our pastor’s wife was abused by an elder in one of their churches. She kept silent because her abuser told her he would cause her Pastor husband to lose his job. She finally couldn’t take the abuse any longer and reported it. The elder had her husband terminated and yet he still holds the elder position.

    1. Not surprising. If it is a denomination, there is often a process the pastor can go through to bring resolution. If it was an independent church, only the courts can really help.

  5. Thank you. As the office manager of my small rural church, my job was to answer the phone, make the bulletins, get things ready for Sunday services, then go home and take care of my family, but I lost everything because of that job and my pastor and boss who “needed” me too much. It’s easy to see the grooming process in hindsight. I wish I knew then what I know now.

  6. I am going through this now. He has said many inappropriate things and has inappropriately touched my leg and gave way to many hugs. I have recently confronted him on it. He plays dumb, I am a single divorced woman and he is a pastor … they will not believe me I think he has done this before. He seems to know exactly what to do. I feel like God has left me and that I am wrong. I sometimes cant sleep. I have told him he can no longer “stop” by.

    1. Oh Sandra, I am so sorry. This kind of grooming behavior is despicable and should be stopped. If it were me, I would put as much distance between me and him as possible. And unfortunately, they are not going to believe you.

  7. I’ve very recently come to terms that this is EXACTLY what happened to me. The grooming, the manipulation, and the exploitation all led to a ruthless discard. Unfortunately, I’m only opening my eyes to the reality of what was happening in the wake of the devastation left after this person completely destroyed every single aspect of my life. He was my boss, pastor, and counselor who preyed on my vulnerability during my marriage troubles, ultimately leading to my marriage and my entire life going down in flames. I don’t know how exactly to heal, but I am determined to reclaim my power over my own life.

    I’m looking for a counselor with a specialty in this area of abuse to help me begin healing, but I’m having trouble finding someone who understands the multiple levels of power dynamics at play. When seeking advice for how to explain things to my young children, my current therapist suggested I start with “Mommy made a mistake.” I am so thankful I had already done research on my own about pastoral sexual abuse and had begun recognizing the fact that I had been internalizing a debilitating amount of shame on his behalf. Shame that should never have been mine to carry. Had I not yet been at that point mentally, her comment would have cemented that shame in my psyche forever.

    1. I’m having this trouble too and it’s because most of the world and society is enabling narcs and the me tal health system also tries to paint predators as sick …so idk I’m scared because I haven’t been helped since I was a child when I should have been taken away from my family and church for safety. Nobody understands coercive control really or truly cares. Try Hawaii ad California.

  8. This was done to me by my father/preacher. I’m barely surviving and would like to speak to you. I left a message on your “why I left the evangelical church” post as well just now. Thank you for this list.

    1. Sasha, My heart breaks for what you going through. I’m so sorry for the pain and abuse you’ve experienced. If possible look up Sarah Mcdugal on Facebook. She can point you to some great resources!

  9. This happened to me & I am a female & it was a female pastor. It is over but I have only learned over the past year that this was not my fault. I have never had romantic/sexual feeling towards another woman but for some reason this pastor was able to create those feelings towards her in me. I am a recovering drug addict and when I was “placed in her care” I was in the middle of the worst part of my addiction & so desperate to get better. Everything only made my addiction worse. I have gone to a few therapists and talked about it all, but I feel like I’m not getting the help I need. It’s almost as if being an adult the therapists don’t see how much I have been affected. Anyway, I am still seeking the right therapist for me as I would like to no longer carry around the shame and guilt…especially that it was a same sex “relationship.” I am now 4 years clean and have done my best to cut her out of my life although her family & my family have some ties so it’s really hard because I sometimes have to hear about her and her family. I have not directly spoken to her in over a year. If I could be directed towards some resources to help that would be great!

  10. I myself went through this. I grew up in the church, had a fervent desire to serve and little did I know I had to be someone’s prey. Since I was a little girl, I desired to be someone until today I desire to influence and truly believe God can still do it, I believe the pastor I worked for Mocked the ministry God had in me, mocked my desire, and mocked my vulnerability, and the fact I did not have a father present, my dad was shot when I was 14.. Never will I forget when I was told that nothing will harm me as long as I worked for him, and that he would do all possible to take care of me and take me to my calling. I was groomed for 9 years, and my spiritual gifting I believe was something he used to create communication that was knowledgeable, spiritual and convincing. Now I get to see he was using my love for the Lord to his convenience- because every convo would end in a lust full remark, question, and over all feelings of despair with time and questions on how I should leave. I felt more and more trapped every time and wanted my life to end. Reading these articles bring more and more revelation to the fact that these personalities are inside ministry, and I truly believe and advocate for ppl in ministry to either step down if this is the case, or simply acknowledge they have an issue that needs therapy. One of the problems I see, is how self-righteous these places of authority are, and come to understand this really is not the church, more like a man-made movement.

  11. This article perfectly articulates the experience I had with my step-father, who was a pastor and began sexually abusing and grooming my sister and I from a young age. It went on for eight years until we were able to seek help from the justice system. He was sentenced to 28 years. My heart breaks for all of the people I know he hurt in churches throughout the years. He was a MASTER manipulator. The worst of the worst. This article is so enlightening, I will be sharing. Thank you.

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