Minister used poor judgment with female congregant


Q. A woman in our church accused our pastor of sexual assault. The minister, who is married, drove her home after church. He said he went into her apartment to counsel her on spiritual issues. She said he assaulted her. He admits driving her home and going into her apartment, but nothing else. People are taking sides over this, and I’m confused. I’d like your opinion as a psychologist.

A. Professionals should attempt never to do anything that can be misconstrued. A married minister who drives a single woman home from church and goes into her apartment to counsel her is asking for trouble. If a woman needs counseling, the church is the place to do it, not her apartment. At the least, the minister used extremely poor judgment. Whether he assaulted the woman is something that will likely never be proven or resolved.

Ministers, teachers, psychologists and many other professionals are supposed to set a good example for others. They are supposed to lead. A minister has a particularly difficult role. Your minister’s congregation trusted him and depended on his leadership. When he engaged in questionable behavior, he lost much of that trust.

As professionals, we know there are ethical guidelines that we must follow. As a psychologist, I can have no hint of sexual impropriety with anyone who is a client. Certainly a minister should be just as careful in following a code of ethics.

The question is not did the minister have a relationship with the woman, but why did he allow himself to be in such a vulnerable position. It is my professional opinion that he has some explaining to do to his congregation. Hopefully, the woman in question has found another church home by now, and she has learned to set some limits on her behavior as well.

Q. I am a 15 year-old honor student. Everything in my life is great except that I worry constantly that I haven’t been saved. I know I have been, but I can’t stop thinking about it. What is wrong with me?

A. You are likely suffering from a type of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) called “scrupulosity.” Although many people have not heard of the disorder, religious doubt is one of the most recurring obsessions in people with OCD.

As a psychologist, I have found that doubting salvation is a prevalent obsession in Evangelical Christian communities. Conversely, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim obsessions are more concerned with following religious rituals or correct methods of prayer.

According to the International OCD Foundation, most people who doubt their salvation have repeatedly asked for reassurance from their ministers, family and friends. Every time an individual with OCD is reassured that they are saved or not going to hell, the obsessions actually worsen. Notice that when you receive reassurance you feel better for a short time; however, the doubting returns with a vengeance. Eventually, you may be able to think of little else.

According to many research studies on scrupulosity, individuals with religious fears and obsessions are often taught that God is more punitive than loving. You may believe that normal thoughts, such as doubting and questioning, could result in harsh punishment. You may even believe that you would not have these thoughts if you really were saved.

Scrupulosity should never be confused with faith or the strength of one’s religious beliefs. People with OCD do not feel spiritually fulfilled by their repeated prayers or church attendance. Instead, religion eventually becomes a negative rather than a positive experience.

Your problem is not religious; it is a mental health problem. Schedule an appointment with a psychotherapist and consult your family physician about the possibility of taking medication that can help you manage your obsessive thinking.

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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. She currently teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College. If you have questions, e-mail them to drnryburn@gmail.com. They will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.