It was 30 years ago when I began spending 40 to 50 hours a week as a clinical social worker listening to life stories. Story after story unfolded of the complex dynamics of sexual abuse: physical, emotional and spiritual violation, silence, isolation, fear and doubt. Individuals and families found their way through a recovery maze, beginning work in an environment of trust, transparency of communication and education about dynamics of abuse. Often what became clear was that generations of abuse were held in the silent denial of family systems — abuse leaving a legacy impacting the whole system, generation after generation.

Family is not always the sanctuary we wish or imagine it to be, and neither are all congregations. It was not long into seminary when I began to hear stories of clergy abuse. A Baylor University study on clergy sexual misconduct notes that “In the average American congregation of 400 persons, with women representing, on average, 60% of the congregation, there are, on average 7 women who have experienced clergy sexual misconduct.” The stories of clergy sexual misconduct continue to be disclosed. Although seminary requirements of ethics courses, boundary workshops and courses on the impact of sexual misconduct occur, the problem has not ceased. The legacy of clergy misconduct impacts the whole system and requires years of intentional healing for the whole system to recover.

The Rev. Dr. Deborah Pope-Lance, congregational consultant and author, notes that clergy misconduct by sexual or other exploitation is a violation of the standards of clergy practice. The Texas Penal Code 22.001 Section 2, b, 10 specifically notes that clergy abuse and exploitation is against the law. The Faith Trust Institute describes clergy sexual misconduct this way: “Sexual abuse happens when someone in a ministerial role (clergy, religious or lay) engages in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with a congregant, employee, student or counseling client in the ministerial relationship.”

Educating ourselves, our congregations and holding clergy and larger faith associations accountable are some of the ways we can begin to create environments of trust and health. When we begin to understand the various roles in systems dynamics, we empower health. Like chimes, each system has multiple parts creating its own rhythm. Some rhythms are those of minimization, denial, silence and self-doubt. Others are clear systems of transparency, truth telling and accountability.

Arriving to sanctuaries of faith, people are searching for community, faith, hope and healing, among other things. Serving a congregation, denomination or association and ultimately serving that which is greater than any one being are some of the gifts of ministry. When we educate ourselves and others, when we break the code of silence related to abuse, and when we serve our congregations with healthy care, we can create healthy sanctuaries of faith and hope.

Clergy sexual misconduct is an abuse of power. If you have experienced clergy sexual misconduct, tell, tell again and keep telling until your story is heard. Learn more about the dynamics of clergy abuse. If you have experienced clergy abuse, please reach out to Denton County Friends of the Family. Their 24-hour crisis line is 940-382-7273. For other Friends of the Family services, call 940-387-5131 or visit them online at

THE REV. DONNA DOLHAM serves Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship as interim minister. Her ministry centers on increasing awareness and access to basic rights for people living on the margins. You can reach her at or 940 566-1286, ext. 12.

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