“Then it happened one evening that David arose from his bed and walked on the roof of the king's house. And from the roof he saw a woman bathing, and the woman was very beautiful to behold. So David sent and inquired about the woman. And someone said, ‘Is this not Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?’ Then David sent messengers, and took her; and she came to him, and he lay with her, for she was cleansed from her impurity; and she returned to her house” (2 Samuel 11:2-4).
As king over Israel, David had unique access that only his authority could give. His power, his influence was irresistible. Even if Bathsheba wanted to repel the king’s advances, she had no chance against the sovereign command he had over her life and that of her family. Sadly, he used his position to bring Uriah’s wife under his control and took advantage of her.
Leaders, whether they realize it or not, have a certain amount of influence over those who submit to their authority. This is especially true when the spiritual leader assumes the role of a counselor to those who are suffering or in need.
In fact, many of the people attending our churches are deeply troubled and emotionally wounded. They may be going through a divorce or suffering neglect in their marriage; they may be reeling from childhood trauma or working through issues of rejection and insecurity. As a result, many of these struggling saints are very needy; they may lack self-worth or are looking for affirmation and support. Many are broken hearted; they are lonely and afraid. And most are simply looking for a compassionate ear to listen to them and validate their pain.
As pastors, we are called to love these suffering souls with empathy and understanding. We need to guide them to the Healer who can mend their wounded spirits. However, as we minister to them, we need to be very cautious. There is a great danger here—a subtle snare—especially when the one coming to us for comfort is of the opposite sex.
Naturally, when she (or he) comes to you—the pastor—you listen. You show compassion, understanding, affirmation and love, the very things that she (or he) is in desperate need of. As a result, an unhealthy attachment can develop. She begins to regard you as a special person in her life: her source of empowerment, support and self-worth. She comes emotionally dependent on you and—if you are not careful—she subconsciously begins to see you as her surrogate parent or spouse. Emotionally, you become the father or husband she has always longed for.
And if that’s not bad enough, this dependence can affect you—the pastor—as well. It becomes very gratifying to know that you are so important, so needed and such a powerful force in someone’s life. In fact, many pastors, who themselves are emotionally wounded and insecure, need to be needed. They need to know they are admired, respected, and appreciated. And it is especially gratifying when the one appreciating you is a younger, attractive member of the
It becomes even more gratifying when the pastor’s emotional needs go unmet in his own marriage. If his wife continually nags, complains, and tears him down—if she often criticizes him and threatens his self-worth—then he too may develop a dependency on the counseling relationship. Not because he is receiving counsel, but because he is receiving what he needs emotionally: respect, affirmation, a sense of importance and self-worth—things that he cannot get anywhere
The result is an emotionally dependent pastor–parishioner relationship. It is an extremely dangerous snare. It is
very often the beginning of an affair.
There are three rules that will deliver you from this snare.
First and foremost, love your spouse. The best defense against falling in love with a parishioner is to stay in love
with your wife. Learn to appreciate the better qualities of your spouse, make an effort to talk with her and compliment her and express your affection. Remember that love grows through expression and dies with neglect. Proverbs 5:18-20 emphasizes this as well: “...rejoice with the wife of your youth. As a loving deer and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; and always be enraptured with her love. For why should you, my son, be enraptured by an immoral woman, and be embraced in the arms of a seductress?”
Second, let the sisters counsel the sisters (and the brothers counsel the brothers). Titus 2:3-4 says, “the older women…(should) admonish the young women.” The Apostle Paul understood human nature well when he told church leaders to stay away from those young women. “If they need admonition or counsel,” the wise apostle wrote, “let the older, godly women take care of it.” Amen!
After a recent Sunday Morning service, I was in the church lobby greeting people as they departed the sanctuary. Suddenly, a young, attractive, blonde woman approached me. I had never met her before and greeted her as I do all new visitors. As we shook hands, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “Your sermon really touched me today. I’ve been going through some really difficult times lately and…” She paused to wipe a tear from her eye with a handkerchief. “And I think you might be able to help me. Do you think we could meet together during the week and talk privately?”
At that moment, a million red flags went up in my head and warning sirens began to scream in my spirit. It was the Holy Ghost imprint on my character telling me, “Danger, danger—this is trouble! Don’t do it.” With that, I looked at her with sincere compassion in my eyes and said, “You know what I think you really need? You know what I think could really help you? We have some powerful, experienced, Holy Spirit- anointed sisters in our church. They are the wives of our deacons and elders and pastors; in fact, there is one right behind you. Let me introduce you to her. I know she would be glad to meet with you and talk and pray with you and…”
“No thanks.” She said. Her eyes cleared up. The tremble in her voice disappeared. The hanky was stuffed into her purse. She thrust her chin up, brushed her hair out of her face and out the door she went. I never saw her again.
Did I offend her? Perhaps, but I take no chances with my integrity. Did I miss out on an opportunity to heal a hurting soul? Absolutely not. I offered her an opportunity to meet with some powerful, deeply wise and spiritual women. They would have ministered the grace and love of God to that lady in a way that no man could ever minister to her. Sadly, she rejected it.
Keep it short and simple. In other words, if you must counsel the opposite sex, provide compassion and counsel but stay focused on the issue at hand. Refrain from offering the kind of support and sympathy that produces an emotional connection leading to a dependency. As well, keep the session short and simple. Avoid delving into issues and areas that are deep and intimate, emotionally volatile and require excessive amounts of time. If the counselee requires that kind of attention, refer him or her to a professional or a counselor of the same sex.
The Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology and Counseling suggests that the technique of “co-counseling” is often necessary in situations where a counselee could develop an unhealthy attachment to the counselor. It explains that therapists can reduce the transference of affection and emotional dependence coming from a counselee by the use of co-therapists. Using two counselors reduces the intensity of the patient’s attachment by dispersing it among the two.11 As much as possible, ministers should use the same approach by referring counselees of the opposite sex to his or her spouse, board member, or staff member.
Don’t be intimidated by someone’s neediness. Some people may try to manipulate you into investing more time and energy than you should. But being a pastor does not obligate you to being someone’s personal counselor 24 hours a day, 7 days a week—especially with the opposite sex. A woman once complained to her pastor, “I need you to be there for me more often. I need you to check on me. I need to know I’m not alone.” Wisely, he said, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to do that. If you need some help, or advice, you can pick up the phone and call the office. I’m there, as well as other staff members. But don’t expect me to meet all your needs.”