Helping professionals like pastors, chaplains, counsellors, and medical professionals are all at heightened risk of sexual impropriety with those they’re helping.
It sure is an education to re-read myself into the possibility of falling into something inappropriate — an affair with a woman whose personality is probably hysterical in nature, who is typecast as the chief protagonist for transference behaviours onto her therapist. It is healthy to see ourselves falling into such a mess with catastrophic relational consequences, where families (plural) are implicated and, at times, destroyed.
What is possible becomes more likely if we don’t recognise the warning signs.
But, first, let’s acknowledge the basic principle here; a dividing line:
“Sexual responsiveness is fundamentally instinctual. The basic attraction to others should not concern us. What we do with the attraction is what is important.”
— Archibald Hart
We are fools if we deny or repress our vulnerabilities. This is why the wounded healer type of minister is favoured because of their inherent knowledge of their own brokenness — without excusing same. A person who makes themself aware, and keeps themself aware, is much likelier to recognise the warning signs, where they become truly most vulnerable.
The truthful person will acknowledge attractiveness in others. The diligently prudent person will guard those feelings and uphold an unerring professionalism, taking good care to communicate with respect as if God were in the room — for he is. The caring person will see the need to protect all parties to a potential inappropriate relational venturing.
The most dangerous situation in a male-female scenario, in the present context, is the prevalence of transference and counter-transference. Transference occurs when the person being helped — the one with least power — projects unmet feelings and desires onto the relationship; feelings and desires that belong somewhere else. It is counter-transference when the person in the power position projects unmet feelings and desires onto the relationship; feelings and desires that belong somewhere else.
The pastor or counsellor, in managing the space in the room, in holding and containing the material of the person they are helping, must hold acute self- and social-awareness. There is a dualist mode of awareness needed; to be with, yet be within. To ‘be with’ is to be fully attendant with the person being helped. To ‘be within’ is to constantly be asking questions regarding our own emotional status, what we are thinking, what’s going on in the space, what is needed next, etc. This dualist mode of awareness is not a hard thing to do once it’s practiced and assimilated into the pastor’s counselling modus operandi. It’s a delight to counsel when we have such an ability.
If this dualist mode of awareness is in use, and there is a high programming for morality, for sure and certain, warning signals will be picked up. Transference and counter-transference will be out in the light in no time.
Then we simply check the issue with tact and promptness and creativity, always intending to protect parties in the room as well as those many others who are not in the room. We are a steward for many persons and relationships; not just those in the room.
All sexual affairs begin in a benign way. There is time to stop the rot, but those who run headlong into disaster flirt with it. The apostle Paul reminds us that we are responsible to understand our bodies and control our urges and drives.
We are most vulnerable when we feel safest — where pride breeds ignorance. We are safest when we are cogently aware of the possibility of acting on attractions.
© 2015 Steve Wickham.
More information available from the book, Mastering Pastoral Counseling, by Archibald Hart, pp. 150 onwards.