Defusing Temptations in Ministry
Don't miss any stories. Follow AG News!
Superintendent Doug Clay last fall asked Donald A. Lichi, vice president of EMERGE Counseling Services, to chair a committee to develop such assistance. Licensed counselors and psychologists at EMERGE, based in Akron, Ohio, furnishes confidential, biblically based mental health care to ministry leaders.
Lichi says the 10-member committee, which has met four times so far, has a dual intent.
“The first purpose is to provide help, support, resources, and safe places for our credential holders to receive spiritual and emotional support,” Lichi says. “We will provide easily accessible resources and confidential help as needed for prevention as well as remediation.”
In addition, Lichi says the 21-member AG Executive Presbytery is hoping to make it easier for AG clergy to have resources available for appropriate referrals when they do counseling themselves.
“We have an amazingly talented and dedicated team from across the country who are providing input to the process,” says Lichi, 66. “We are doing research for best practices to provide for the needs of our credential holders. We want healthy pastors to lead healthy churches.”
“The committee includes a great team of wonderful providers from around the nation,” says AG General Secretary Donna L. Barrett. Barrett, whose role includes credentialing and decertifying ministers, is a member of the committee.
“Overall, one in five ministers battles mental health issues,” says Barrett, 59. “Leaders need to be aware of what propensities they have toward weakness and vulnerabilities; they need to intentionally set up safeguards in advance for protection.”
“Ministry is incredibly stressful,” Lichi says. “It can be a perilous profession. A pastor who is too lonely, anxious, bored, angry or depressed is at risk.”
Struggles ministers battle in isolation include ongoing depression, porn addiction, and social media obsession. An improper relationship can develop with a female who provides a listening ear. On occasion, a hug can be interpreted as a sexual advance.
“The fact is, whether a leader intends it or not, the wrong situation with the wrong person at the wrong time can result in an allegation that sullies a reputation and greatly diminishes the effectiveness of God’s kingdom,” says Lichi. “Why take that chance?”
ARMOR BEARER MODEL
For a quarter century, Lichi has worked at EMERGE. In nearly three decades as a licensed psychologist and therapist, he has counseled hundreds of pastors after a moral failure. A lack of taking precautionary measures or accountability often results in sexual infidelity in one form or another. As such, last fall Lichi implemented a personal “armor bearer” plan whenever he travels to speak without being accompanied by his wife, Marcie. The Lichis have been married 48 years and have three children and seven grandchildren.
As a stipulation for accepting ministry speaking engagements, Lichi requests the inviting body to select a godly and trusted man to serve as an “armor bearer.” The assistant’s role is to ensure the minister isn’t left unaccompanied or vulnerable to attack.
The plan is designed to both help the ministry leader avoid temptation and to prevent false accusations. In the Me Too movement of the past couple of years, various pastors across denominational lines have faced allegations of sexual harassment and sexual abuse. Lichi says an accusation, even if later proven untrue, can damage a ministry leader’s credibility to the point of rendering him ineffectual.
While “armor bearer” is an Old Testament concept, Lichi notes that New Testament ministry leaders typically traveled in pairs. Lichi believes the idea makes sense today as a safeguard for the individual as well as the ministry represented.
It is a reworking of what has been called “the Billy Graham rule” for more than 70 years. The renowned evangelist made it a practice of not being alone with an unrelated woman, both as a sign of integrity in avoiding the appearance of impropriety as well as to reduce sexual temptation.
“In every moral failure, there is a place of compromise, where the person could have caught the situation and prevented it from escalating,” Barrett says.
Lichi says the response to the armor bearer proposal has been uniformly positive, from those on staff at EMERGE plus from the ministries where he has spoken.
“The armor bearer is not a servant to carry my bags,” Lichi explains. “He is someone just to be with me, especially in a public setting.” Lichi says time and again he has counseled a pastor who traces the genesis of a fall to a one-on-one encounter with a woman who approached him after a sermon. Lichi advocates for other pastoral staff or board members to be present rather than leaving a pastor alone on the platform in such a situation.
In the covenant agreement Lichi uses, the armor bearer picks him up at an airport, transports him to a hotel, eats meals with him, and is inconspicuously nearby before, during, and after a speaking engagement. While the assistant doesn’t sit in on a counseling session, he is in the vicinity if needed. The armor bearer is responsible for intervening in any situation deemed compromising.
“We’re not talking about legalism,” Lichi says. “Rather, this arrangement adds another layer of protection that allows a pastor to live above reproach. It’s better to build preventative fences at the top of the hill rather than calling ambulances at the bottom.”
A LifeWay Research study published in May shows that 10 percent of Protestant churchgoers under the age of 35 have left a church because they perceived a lack of serious attention to the matter of sexual misconduct. In March, the National Association of Evangelicals, of which the Assemblies of God is a member, approved a resolution calling for church leaders to establish practices to prevent sexual misconduct and to address accusations thoroughly.
While the U.S. certainly is in the throes of unprecedented sexual temptation, gender confusion and murky sexual mores also play a role. Lichi has come to realize that women sometimes view men who think they are displaying an appreciative sign of affection by hugging instead as inappropriately invading their space.
“Regardless of the intention, a man must keep in mind how it is received,” Lichi says. “If someone has been wounded before, a frontal hug may be hurtful.”
Barrett says it’s always incumbent on the person in a higher authority in a power differential situation — pastor to counselee, youth pastor to student, or boss to subordinate — to act responsibly and with integrity. She also says the two-adult supervisory rule in place in many churches when it comes to children and youth works well with adults, too.
“In the dynamic of today’s culture where people can make things up or have a confused experience they in their mind may legitimately think is true, it’s best to have a scenario where two adults are present to refute a false accusation,” Barrett says.
In addition to Lichi and Barrett, other members on the ad hoc committee are Ryan P. Darrow, Jonathan D. Durst, George D. Fessler, Barbara L. Gilliam, Marty Harris, Jonathan Mussett, Leslie E. Welk, and Krista Kirk.