Most pastors don't feel qualified to address touchy sexual issues, abuse in church: Survey

ERLC Panel
From left: Trillia Newbell, director of community outreach for the ERLC; Russell Moore, president of the ERLC; author Jamie Ivey; and James Merritt, lead pastor, Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Georgia; and Kimberlee Norris, sexual abuse trial attorney at Ministry Safe speak at the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, Texas, on June 11, 2018. |

New research reveals that while pastors routinely face questions about sexuality issues, particularly areas of pain and brokenness, few feel qualified to speak to them.

The survey — Sexuality & the Church in America I: Are Pastors Responding to Sexual Challenges Within the Church? — which was released Wednesday and explores how American pastors are addressing sexual issues within their congregations was based on research conducted by Barna Group on 410 senior Protestant pastors. The research was sponsored by The Brushfires Foundation, True North Freedom Project and Covenant Eyes.

Results showed that 99 percent of pastors surveyed dealt with at least one question about sexuality in the past year, and 27 percent handled 13-18 different issues brought by church members or staff.

The report also shows that seven in 10 pastors are approached many times a year with concerns about sexual brokenness, with 22 percent approached on a monthly basis or more. However, when pastors were asked about their qualifications for handling sexual problems, less than a third of them reported that they felt "very qualified" to address 15 of the 18 sexual issues in the survey.

Among the issues addressed were marital infidelity, porn use by both husbands and wives, sexting, sexual abuse or assault, and struggles with same-sex attraction. The most common of the sexual issues in the study pastors hear about is marital infidelity, with eight in 10 pastors reporting being approached about it within the past year.

And on average, pastors were approached by the members of their churches or staff about nine of 18 sexual issues over the past year. Only seven issues were ranked by at least one-quarter of pastors as being among those they feel "very qualified" to address.

"I have spoken with many pastors who are trained heavily in theological matters, but have very little actual pastoral training. Theologically, it is easy to simply say that a behavior or thought is wrong or immoral, but living out our faith in a sinful world is messy and not so easily handled, especially since most people under 40 have been thoroughly influenced by a sexualized culture from youth," said Daniel Weiss, founder and president of the Brushfires Foundation in an email to The Christian Post Wednesday, when asked what he believes is at the root of the breakdown and the phenomenon of so many pastors feeling unqualified to speak these topics. (Disclosure: this reporter is a member of the board of the Brushfires Foundation).

"Sexuality has challenged humans from the very beginning because it is so essential for God's plan for human thriving. If God made human sexuality to present an earthly picture of divine communion, then it is no accident that our human relationships are under so great an attack."

While the Church has not always been skittish about sex, it often has, he added.

"Even so, the first Apostles address it clearly and without equivocation. Our bodies are meant to honor God and the way we practice chastity and fidelity within marriage is a clear witness to the greater love of God. The world was as amazed at such a witness 2,000 years ago as it is now."

In order to engage the subject effectively, Christian individualism and the accompanying mindset has to die, he went on to say.

"God did not create us to live alone or in weak community. He made us in His image and likeness, a robust, interpersonal community flowing with love and self-giving. How many of our churches really look like this today? Very few, but this needs to change.

"So too, does our weak or nonexistent efforts at disciple making. Sexuality is part and parcel of a whole new way of life for a Christian. Yet, without teachers, mentors, friends, and family to help us through the daily practice of living out our faith — failing, being forgiven, and moving forward again — we cannot change the devastating impact of the sexual revolution on the Church."

The pastors were surveyed during the final week of October 2017 and hailed from a variety of denominations including mainliners like American Baptist, United Methodist, and Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in addition to nondenominational evangelicals.

Two-thirds of pastors "agree strongly" that churches should help people through these issues, yet just 56 percent of pastors who make less than $40,000 annually say so. This contrasts with the 70 percent of pastors who make $60,000 per year who responded similarly about the role of the church in these matters.

Although the survey focuses on pastors, no Christian should think that addressing sexuality is the sole job of the pastor, Weiss explained.

"It is clear from our research and common experience that our pastors are overwhelmed. We need to rethink our organization structures and training to make it possible for the whole church to pursue sexual discipleship together. This work must be integrated into, not isolated from, the lifeblood of the church's main ministry," he said.

Follow Brandon Showalter on Facebook: BrandonMarkShowalterFollow Brandon Showalter on Twitter: @BrandonMShow

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