Shattering the Lens. The Grooming Behavior of Pastor-Predators
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:
- Divinely called and faithful servants of God.
- Divinely called servants, presently tempted, and struggling with personal sin. They deal with their own weaknesses but do not use others for their gratification.
- Intentional usurpers of the pulpit and the congregation for the purposes of their own enjoyment and control.
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?
- 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).
- 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.
- Is the person the pastor has sex with in a counseling relationship with the pastor? If so, this is abuse of authority.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Excessive Praising: The Groomer, near the beginning of the relationship will often compliment the Victim.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Serotonin Games: The Groomer will cause the victim to get excited about their relationship and then reject them.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Intrusive Questions: Groomers often ask more and more probing questions about the Victim’s sex life.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.”
- 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..
- 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.
- Drug and Alcohol Use: Groomers sometimes suggest to Victims they try certain addictive substances in order to experience them together.
- 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.