David Martin is executive minister for the Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. Martin’s work takes him deeply into the topic of sexual misconduct within the Church, and he teaches and writes about it. This difficult work has resulted in the educational series Sacred Trust: Fostering Safe Space in Congregations (www.MCEC.ca/SacredTrust). Martin served more than 25 years as a pastor in Ontario.
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Faith Today: Tell us how you first got involved in this work. We’re guessing you didn’t run to it.
David Martin: Absolutely not. My first experience was back in the late ’80s when I was serving on our regional denominational credentialing body for pastors. It was at that point we were dealing with a fairly serious boundary-crossing issue, and I was exposed to the incredible pain and complexity that is a part of dealing with these issues.
FT: It feels so shocking when it happens within the Church. It feels like it should be the last place we get these kinds of situations.
DM: I think that’s true. We have this expectation Church is about the love of God, that this is a safe place, we are okay here. But we forget Church is also the broken community of sinners. And life is not perfect, and sin and pain happen in the Church.
FT: You used the term boundary crossing. Can you unpack that for us a little bit, and maybe give some examples of what boundary crossing looks like? We are talking about people in power here.
DM: I think when we’re dealing with the Church, it is quite a wide spectrum. We tend to think about this conversation primarily about paid staff leadership, pastors in particular, and other church professionals. But I think it also extends to those in power in the Church who are leaders, and it also extends to those of us who sit in the pew. It is also peer to peer in the Church. That whole range of stuff. It’s everything from the glaring to the staring, from the inappropriate comment to a fellow church member on a Sunday morning – it’s all crossing of boundaries and a breach of a safe space.
It is any form of sexual harassment that is occurring. It becomes particularly [striking] when it is characterized by a power differential – where someone, a church leader, a pastor, is exercising power to gratify their own sexual needs. That particularly is problematic, but it is also the whole range of other stuff from the look right on through to sexual assault.
FT: Some might argue that different people can have a different understanding of some boundaries, the peer to peer, for example. But there are some universal things that everyone would accept is boundary crossing. Is that right?
xDM: Absolutely. Some of the most obvious ones are inappropriate sexual comments, inappropriate touch, and that can be very elusive in terms of what does that touch mean? It might mean one thing to someone else, but be extremely uncomfortable for the next person – right on through to sexual invitation to out and out assault.
FT: You’ve seen this whole range in your work?
DM: I have.
FT: Is this rare?
DM: I would say yes. When I look over the number of years I’ve been in these kinds of positions, with this kind of responsibility of oversight of pastor credentialling, the number of congregations we have and then the actual incidents, I would like to say it is relatively rare. It is certainly not commonplace, but when it does happen, it is devastating.
FT: Let’s talk about people in positions of leadership. Is there a circumstance in which this kind of boundary crossing is most likely to grow? Like a counselling situation where there is an environment of emotional intimacy that may get out of hand. Is that mostly what we are talking about?
DM: It can be, but not necessarily. It’s become even more complex these days. The counselling situation you referenced is a significant one because of the intimacy of the context, and I think there is a fine boundary between compassion and passion, and sometimes leaders can cross that line. But I think with the advent now of social media, technology, that intimacy sphere has multiplied.
FT: Because there are so many more ways to be in touch with someone, is that what you mean?
FT: Are we training our clergy to watch out for signs within themselves? Do they know what to watch for?
DM: I hope so. And that is why it is so important that we work at those kinds of preventive protocols. If I go back to that 1980s situation I referenced, it was at that time that we here in Mennonite Church Eastern Canada started to put more substantial preventive measures into place. One of those that we soon subscribed to was boundary training for pastors, a lot more emphasis on what are professional boundaries? What do you watch for? How do you monitor yourself? How do you know when something is crossing the line?
FT: Is accountability to another person a key part of this process?
DM: Yes. I think within our own ministry context there need to be places of accountability that are very clear. In terms of our denomination, the boundary-crossing [training], we require of pastors every five years. They do not renew their credentials unless they get in that one-day boundary-crossing workshop every five years.
FT: What is the bare minimum churches need to have in place in terms of policies to protect everybody?
DM: We, for the last several decades, have been encouraging our congregations to have their own individual safe spaces policies. That would be policies that cover a whole range of things in the congregation. One of the very fundamental pieces is simply what is your facility like? And how does that work for you or against you? Are your Sunday school rooms in secluded places with no windows?
Here at Mennonite Church Eastern Canada in the last several years we have new office space. Those office spaces were designed to have plenty of windows in the doors, sidelights beside the doors. The environment itself can work for you or against you. We know churches who have gone through and retrofitted all the Sunday school doors with windows. That is one elemental piece.
Other pieces are what are the expectations when dealing with kids? What are the boundaries for youth leaders? Where are the police checks in place? Who needs to be there when you are off-site with a group of people? How do you care for the vulnerable ones? Many churches have policies where there always have to be two adults present when a child is there. So a whole raft of procedures that basically give a clear message, but also are preventative in their own right.
FT: Let’s say something falls apart, these policies don’t work, and someone comes forward and shares their story. How should we respond? How do we best help the victim?
DM: I think probably the first thing we need to be thinking about as churches is how do you build an environment of trust for victims to come forward? Coming forward as a victim is incredibly threatening, and if there are too many barriers in place, that simply won’t happen. How do we reduce those barriers? Even in a congregation policy procedure, a very clear, "Who do you get to report to?" And "Are there multiple places of entry for reporting?" Not just one person. If it’s the church council chair, maybe that’s the person you are having the problem with. There should be at least several multiple entry points for reporting, and there should also be options for choice of gender as well.
FT: There was a time when victims were not believed or were minimized. That seems to have changed with the whole #MeToo movement. Do you think that is changing in churches?
DM: I would say to some degree, but I wouldn’t make assumptions. I think it is too easy for our congregations to want to avoid the pain of dealing with this stuff. Just in the last couple of years I’ve had instances where congregations are very tempted to blame the victims. Victims sometimes come with backgrounds that have made them vulnerable and may even make them look like they are not believable, but sometimes that is the very reason they are preyed upon. It is too easy for someone to look at the victim and say, "Oh well, that’s just her. We know who she is. We don’t trust her anyway." "We don’t trust his integrity. That can’t be true. We will just push it into the corner." I think that is still too much alive and well today.
FT: What do we do about that? How do we change that deeply embedded bias?
DM: That’s a tough one. I think education is one part of that, and it’s not classroom education. I can share with you a couple of initiatives we’ve done here at Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. One is to create a story resource, so we commissioned a woman by the name of Carol Penner, one of our pastors and now a professor of practical theology, to actually write a series of stories and bring in biblical principles, bring in questions for study groups. They are very gripping stories that help you enter some of the dynamics we’ve been talking about, and help people think them through and reflect together.
FT: The fact that we are places of forgiveness, does that make it easier for victims? Or do we rush too quickly to forgiveness?
DM: That’s a challenging dynamic in the Church that we need to both be cautious about as well as firmly embrace. That rush to [forgiving the offender] can easily compromise dealing with the victim and minimizes that experience. I think instead we need to have a strong sense of accountability for dealing with bad behaviour and inappropriate behaviours. And forgiveness is something the Church needs to engage – restoring individuals – something the Church is more concerned about than the wider world. Both parties are important, but I think in many ways forgiveness comes down the road. The first person you are primarily dealing with is the victim, and then also providing support and accountability for the offender.
FT: Holding the offender to account is really what is best for the soul of the offender. Must we believe that?
DM: Absolutely. If someone is offending, I would say there is a problem in their life. There is brokenness and something in their life needing healing that is driving them to inappropriate behaviours. The offender is also a victim of something – broken community standards and values, brokenness in their own lives. They need healing as well. But if we’re going to have to preference someone at least at the outset, my advice would be to preference the victim.
FT: Let’s say a church doesn’t have as much in place to protect people as they could. What should they do next? Is a call to the denominational headquarters in order? What do they do?
DM: I think that makes sense. There are lots of resources out there. I think denominations are taking this much more seriously these days, and would likely be able to provide materials or at least point churches in the right direction. And so I think it is also the responsibility of our church governance bodies, and they should be the ones who are taking some strong leadership on these issues.
FT: Thank you, David.
Listen to our interview with David Martin at www.TheEFC.ca/Podcasts. Watch his May 2018 presentation about churches responding to sexual misconduct at www.Vimeo.com/274113074.