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When pastors stray: Eastview not the only congregation to face ethics crisis

Eastview Christian Church
Eastview Christian Church
Eastview Christian Church is one of the largest churches in Bloomington-Normal.

Eastview Christian Church is far from the only congregation to have a top-level ethics crisis, even in Bloomington-Normal.

In the last several decades, at least one Twin City church had a pastor depart after a domestic violence incident. One had two separate instances of clergy sexual abuse. A congregation had an unexpected transfer, following inquiries over how a pastor treated staff. Another church split in two when a pastor was questioned about his financial dealings and took part of the congregation with him when he left the denomination. A priest was transferred to a church in Bloomington after a conviction for selling a drug that could be used in date rapes. And a couple Bloomington-Normal parishes have been stops for priests later accused of child molestation.

Now, a report on Eastview Christian Church has found it more likely than not that former Senior Pastor Mike Baker misused his leadership position in an attempt to shield his son Caleb from allegations of sexual abuse involving church members and staff. Caleb Baker also faced other allegations after his father helped find him another job at a large church in Phoenix, Arizona.

There are certainly predator pastors. But the Rev. Robert Creech, a retired professor of pastoral leadership at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary and author of the book, “Ethics for Christian Ministry: Moral Formation for 21st Century Leaders,” said there aren't so many compared with the entire population of ministers, priests, pastors, preachers, and spiritual counselors.

"I don't think most of the pastors that end up failing morally, sexually or with money or other things, set out with the idea to, 'I think I'll just go see if I can mess up my church and my life and my family,'" said Creech.

Another expert characterized most ministers who have moral failures as wanderers.

Lauren Sawyer is an editor of the new edition of “Responding to Spiritual Leader Misconduct: A Handbook” put out by the Faith Trust Institute, a multi-faith multicultural training organization. Sawyer said ministers who fail usually wander over boundaries to get their own needs met.

"All of their energy is going into serving their community and when they get tired, when they are not being supported, when there is a global pandemic, all of these things that are adding these big stressors to their lives, they are looking inside their community," said Sawyer.

There's an inherent conflict between leading an institution and having your sexual, social, emotional, and even financial needs met by the same people you serve. Sawyer said it's far better to look outside for help.

"Having friends outside their community, having a support system, having a therapist, having other pastors that they can talk to," said Sawyer.

Even a small misstep, like using a church credit card for a personal expense, can snowball into something bigger as time goes on, she said.

Creech agreed misbehavior tends to creep in over time.

"If one doesn't maintain a moral immune system, the practices that we keep in place that make it less likely that we are vulnerable at a time where something like that comes up," said Creech.

Creech said those routines include maintaining healthy friendships outside a congregation, rituals to bolster spiritual health and awareness, self-care, and paying attention to keeping your life in line with your principles. If the pastor doesn't do it, there aren't a lot of other places that discipline comes from, he said — even in denominations that have an administrative supervisory structure that requires check-ins and offers counseling resources to pastors. He said a minister is still at the top of the hierarchy of their own congregation.

"There's not much built in accountability in pastors' lives and that's a dangerous thing," said Creech.

There are some factors that can make it more likely a cleric will stumble. Loneliness is one. Pastors tend to be lonely, according to many surveys. Creech said not many people in their congregations really know them.

Unitarian Universalist minister Gail Seavey has helped two congregations recover from misconduct scandals and lectured on the topic. She said sometimes it is heedlessness that gets a minister in trouble.

"Some people are not aware ... very unself-aware at their privilege of having more power. Some people just do not think about that, to their detriment," said Seavey.

Seavey said what are called boundary issues tend to cause trouble for ministers. One boundary is what to do when a congregation member confuses the position of minister with the person. It's called transference.

"Like this person is treating me like God, a god who walks on the earth. And they might get attracted to that," said Seavey.

Projection is another theme. Creech said one common scenario is someone who is in pastoral counseling who may never have had someone listen intently to them for 45 minutes. That can spark affection or infatuation and if a pastor is in a vulnerable place, he or she may not have the resources to step back, or keep proper boundaries.

Seavey said there are warning signs for clergy who may be at risk: people who are, in general, self-involved, people with bad boundaries, and people who are charismatic.

"Those three things together doesn't mean they shouldn't be a minister or a faith, a leader of any kind, but it means they have to watch it. But they are particularly susceptible to that being thinking and being able to justify using people in their congregation who they serve, for their own needs," she said.

You might think this would be a topic in seminaries to prevent young ministers from making mistakes. But it is a relatively recent development. Creech said it was not one when he went to seminary in the 1970s.

It's present now, according to Lauren Sawyer.

"But that is not across the board. That's not all traditions and not all boundaries trainings are created equal," she said.

How it's taught matters. Sawyer said a lot of programs tend to be check-the-box efforts.

"I did the thing. I went to the lecture. I understand I'm not supposed to cross a boundary," Sawyer said.

Creech said he did a deeper dive when he taught aspiring ministers about family systems theory, the issue of moral formation, and the importance of self care in efforts to keep your life in line with your principles.

Gail Seavey said in some of the more liberal seminaries and mainline protestant denominations, students have become a lot more aware of the dynamics that could lead to them disappointing themselves and others. She said many emerging ministers have really helped change denominations. For instance, she said its much less likely someone will be transferred to another church without a word about problems than it used to be.

"There's much more understanding of where help could be given at an early stage before anything egregious happens," she said. "And if the egregious does happen, that you need to remove that person from the ministry. That doesn't mean they're terrible people, it just means ministry is not for them."

Sawyer said seminary training shouldn't end a minister's exposure to the issue.

"There are some denominations that require every three years that their ministers take a boundaries course. There are some that do require that, but that is not across the board by any means," said Sawyer.

On the flip side, Seavey, Creech, and Sawyer all said some denominations are not doing this at all. Some do not even require a college degree or a seminary graduation. Some denominations don't have a central authority that offers structure, procedure, and policy for dealing with infractions by pastors.

They have a congregational model that can allow people who have failed in one place to move on to another. That happened in the Eastview case. Both Creech and Seavey noted the practice of confidentiality in congregations has caused substantial harm to the Southern Baptist denomination.

At Eastview, investigators found it more likely than not that then-Senior Pastor Mike Baker hid information about his son Caleb during Caleb's placement in Phoenix. Seavey said family members try to protect themselves by keeping secrets.

"So it's not surprising, since the family is one of our basic institutions, that it gets played out in large institutions. And even the healthiest institution has to deal with the fact that families bring all their stuff. So if you have the leadership struggling with that as a family, then of course, it affects the whole institution," said Seavey.

Sawyer of the Faith Trust Institute said she wants to believe this is a solvable problem among ministers. She said the resources are out there and the profession has been talking about the language of misconduct and abuse of power for a very long time — and still incidents happen.

"And maybe because of MeToo and maybe because we have more language, we are seeing more cases like this. But it feels like they are not ending anytime soon," said Sawyer.

Sawyer said she wants to hold out for hope that moral failings of ministers who cross boundaries with congregation members and staff won't forever be part of what it means to be a pastor or a congregant or a human. When they do, church institutions and members of congregations are damaged. And recovery is long.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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