Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Moral Responsibilities of Pastors and Psychiatrists

A recent New York Times article reports accusations of "inappropriate" sexual behavior on the part of Reverend Bill Hybels. The article describes Hybels as a "superstar pastor" who initiated the megachurch era by founding the Willow Creek Community Church.

In 1985, feeling lost after her divorce, Pat Baranowski felt that God had spoken to her when Reverend Hybels reached out to her, drew her into the church, gave her a job, and ultimately invited her to live with him and his wife and children. She alleges that Reverend Hybels drew her into a relationship that included oral sex. She ultimately ended the relationship, but was plagued with guilt, shame and a feeling that God's servant had betrayed her.

Ms. Baranowski kept her story to herself until other women brought forward allegations of their own. Reverend Hybels vigorously denies all of the allegations, calling them a mix of "misinterpretations" and "outright lies." The church elders investigated the allegations against Reverend Hybels and concluded that they were not believable. But a day after the New York Times article, Reverend Hybels resigned from his leadership role in the church.

The Hybels/Baranowski story illustrates in dramatic fashion the tinder-box nature of pastoral and psychiatric relationships. A vulnerable person feels uniquely understood by a trusted caretaker who is invested with the charisma that comes from being seen as a pastor serving God or a physician serving the healing profession. The pastor or physician receives love, gratitude and idealization. Used skillfully and responsibly, this "transference" can promote healthy development. But as Ms. Baranowski and other members of the Willow Creek congregation allege, the relationship of trust can be exploited, with potentially devastating consequences for the congregant or patient.

As is so often the case, this is a "he said/she said" situation. Reverend Hybels presents himself as a victim, not an exploiter/sinner. There is a continuum of possibilities. At one extreme, he could be the victim of a combination of misunderstandings, fantasies, and malicious accusations. At the other he could be an exploiter who is fully aware of his duplicity and issues denials he knows to be false. In between is a range of misunderstandings and human frailties on the part of all parties to the relationships.

Pastors and psychiatrists have distinctive ethical obligations associated with their roles in society. These obligations go beyond ordinary morality. Whatever religion they follow, pastors present themselves as servants of gods, devoted to the salvation of their congregants. Psychiatrists and other physicians present themselves as servants of medicine, devoted to serving their patients' health and well-being. In return for these commitments, society grants pastors and physicians distinctive forms of respect and privilege.

Whatever the truth is about the Willow Creek Church situation, it's a tragedy. #metoo will see one more example of male exploitation. Some of the faithful Willow Creek congregants will see misunderstanding, maliciousness, or even the devil instigating false accusations. An anthropologist from Mars will not claim certainty about the truth of the situation, but will see it as an inevitable hazard created by our human needs, vulnerabilities and limitations.

(For posts that discuss the power of transference in the pastoral and psychiatric relationships, see here and here.)

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