Kriss: Pastors and scandals

Sep 24, 2018 by

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For Mennonite pastors, conversations about boundaries can be difficult. Recent cases of boundary violations have rocked theological and institutional understandings of ourselves.

Stephen Kriss


In Pennsylvania, the public nature of failures to protect children in our largest religious system (Catholicism) and largest university (Penn State) have offered serious points of reflection on roles of leaders and communities to protect the vulnerable. These are wakeup calls for us to consider what it means to be healthy pastoral leaders and how to promote human flourishing rather than degradation.

Mennonite communities have multiplicities of roles that complicate awareness of appropriate boundaries. Our understanding of leadership as service can distort the power that comes with the pastoral role. Pastors are set apart with privilege and responsibility. Faith-Trust Institute calls it a “sacred trust.”

As a young pastor, I was called to serve in the church where I was baptized at age 12. This is not uncommon in many Mennonite settings. Some in the congregation were my family. Others were friends of my parents. Some had been like grandparents, were my Sunday school teachers and helped nurture both my faith and sense of vocational call. The relational overlaps were both complicating and essential to my early ministry leadership flourishing.

Pastoring “when I’m just one of us” can be challenging, in terms of grasping the power and privilege granted by the role. My pastoral identity permeates me no matter how I am engaged. At times that thought can be exhausting.

Relationships outside my pastoral role, beyond the community I serve, keep me healthy and grounded. As my work in the church has become more encompassing, I’ve increasingly valued those spaces, protecting those relationships fiercely.

I also consider sacred the spaces that allow me to be a complete person with questions, capacities, gifts and foibles. For Mennonite pastors, family members often cannot serve this function well if they are integrated into the same congregational web of faith and community life. Pastors need pastor friends but also friends whose lives require us to have conversations about life beyond that singular responsibility.

While the high stakes of boundary crossing and violation have meant we often only attend to legal and ethical breaches, pastors need to nurture their own sense of health and wellness consistently. It’s part of the call and part of our work.

At the same time, congregations can cultivate a healthy environment for pastors with practices such as Sabbath, support for spiritual directors, coaches or therapists, space for professional development and recommendations for physical wellness like gym memberships, yoga or massage. This must be handled graciously, recognizing that pastors can determine the best ways to cultivate their life and leadership wellness. Not every recommendation will work for everyone.

With so much at stake for the health of our communities and our world, the work and support for credentialed leaders is ongoing and changing. The situation will evolve as the culture shifts. We need to ask new questions and find different postures. We will continue to need healthy encounters with truth and grace, along with relationships that invite us toward honesty, integrity and a life that is worthy of our shared calling as representatives of Christ.

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus in Philadelphia.

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