Appropriate Professional Boundaries

“The abuse of power occurs when we use power to gratify our own needs rather than to carry out God’s sacred trust. It happens when we refuse to own the responsibility of guardianship that comes with the privilege of power . . . until we understand that power is the responsibility to give, instead of the opportunity to take, we will continue to abuse it.” (Ann Smith, Alive Now, Sept./Oct. 1996)


Misconduct of a sexual nature within ministerial relations occurs when a person in a ministerial role fails to maintain appropriate professional boundaries with those whom we serve. Where there is trust, there is the potential to betray that trust. When a person in a ministerial role violates professional boundaries this betrayal of trust may become a powerful weapon of abuse.

When persons seek help during times of spiritual crisis, they entrust their vulnerable selves to a minister, who is expected to protect them and act in their best interests. Ministerial relationships are not mutual. When a pastor counsels a parishioner, for instance, it is the parishioner’s needs that are to be met – not the pastor’s needs. Every person in a ministerial role agrees, explicitly or implicitly, to protect and act in the best interest of others with whom we are in ministry. This fiduciary responsibility, to act in the best interest of the other, is a sacred trust.

Clear physical, psychological, and emotional boundaries enable the trust that is the foundation of effective ministry. A pastor, for example, must be clear about his or her role in the pastor – parishioner relationship. The pastoral role provides many services, including spiritual guidance, religious teaching, celebration of sacraments, and pastoral counseling. Sexual intimacy is NOT one of the services provided through the pastoral role.

Nearly every helping profession—including psychiatry, medicine, law, and teaching—has clear professional standards that prohibit sexually intimate relationships with clients. Professional standards for ministerial conduct are no different. This includes laypersons and other volunteers in ministerial roles. Most annual conferences now recognize this professional standard with clear policy statements prohibiting this kind of dual relationship. The pastor must find relationships outside of the congregation for meeting his or her personal needs.

If in doubt, persons in ministerial roles should ask themselves: Whose needs are being met in this relationship? If the answer is “my needs are being met” or “this relationship is mutually beneficial,” this should be a warning sign for potential misconduct and abuse.

REMEMBER: it is always the responsibility of the person in the ministerial role to maintain appropriate boundaries. If you are a clergyperson or other church leader who has encountered boundary violations or harassment by a layperson, here is a SUGGESTED PROCESS for re-asserting and maintaining appropriate professional boundaries.

Suggested Process:



Pastor perceives an advance has been made.

Pastor needs to establish professional pastoral boundaries:

  • Identify your role as the pastor:
    • “I am you pastor…” “As your pastor I….” “The United Methodist Church takes this kind of conduct very seriously and considers this behavior as sexual harassment…”
  • Identify that they are part of a community, not just “you and me” framing. “We are in relationship to a congregation, denomination, calling(s), roles, responsibilities…” Expand the awareness of your context by bringing in others you are both responsible for and in relationship.
  • “I cannot be your pastor if…”

DOCUMENT – Written and verbal (SPRC Chair).

Inform the DS.  What?  Where?  When (include date, time)?  Who?  “Advance” behavior or verbiage?  Witnesses?  What happened after clarifying boundaries?


  • Re-establish Boundaries
    • I will not meet with you privately
    • Explain that someone will be in the church if/when you meet and that confidence will be maintained.
    • Reiterate your identity/role to congregant

 DOCUMENT – written to SPRC and DS.

  • If flirtation has happened (mutual attraction/ enticement):
    • Name and confess your participation in the confusion of boundaries and your role as pastor. Name the mixed messages/signals to bring them to light.
    • Repent – Identify your role as pastor and being responsible for maintaining clear, healthy, professional relationships with all in the congregation and apologize by naming the confusion and harm your behavior has brought to your relationship with the congregant.
    • Reconcile – Identify what boundaries must be made and kept as well as what damaging or misleading behaviors must be stopped.
      • Pastors – talk with a grounded confidant and make a behavior covenant with clear accountability structures built in. Example: regular and frequent meetings with confidant reflecting on issues related to wandering over healthy, professional boundaries.


  • Call a Meeting for the purpose of clarifying communally the role and responsibility of the pastor and appropriate behavior of congregants.
  • Invite:
    • DS – certainly informing them of your purpose; who will be attending; follow-up communication plan; meeting location; etc. Ask DS if it is appropriate (or wise) to have a conversation with the annual conference Chancellor for any recommendations, suggestions; simply being put “on notice”.
    • Violator – Ask them to bring a friend or family member– someone they trust – for a conversation with others about issues related to serving as pastor. They are to bring someone who can be reflective with them. NOT a lawyer!!!
    • SPRC Chair
    • Seek resolution with CLEAR boundaries about how to behave appropriately and why the boundaries have to be maintained. Consider preparing a “Behavioral Covenant” identifying what you need as pastor and be prepared to name what behaviors need to stop by the violator. Write out the agreed “ways of being” and have everyone sign as witnesses and prayer partners.
    • If you sense it will help, plan a follow-up meeting for a “check-in” and if further clarification/information is needed – supportive accountability.
    • Follow-up with a letter to everyone involved as to purpose of the meeting; those attending; if resolution was reached, note the specifics; thank everyone and seek continued prayer for everyone.(Copy to DS).

If they refuse to sign a Behavior Covenant:

  • Be clear that the violator is making a choice about their relationship to the church and is choosing not be in contact, communication, on church property or attend any church programming until they agree and sign the behavior covenant.
  • Have everyone in attendance note and sign that they witnessed a refusal to sign by the violator.
    • Follow-up by sending a certified letter to the violator, specifying a procedure they can initiate for future participation in any church sponsored activities. (Who to contact, etc)
    • Send copies of all documentation via certified mail to the DS (and possibly the Bishop’s office). DO NOT ELECTRONICALLY SEND ANY DOCUMENTATION. DS along with the pastor should certainly review the status of things with the Chancellor at this time.
    • Consider meeting with those in leadership, stressing the need for confidentiality.
      • SPRC Chair and Committee
      • Trustees
      • Lay Leader
      • Staff
      • Custodian(s)

Make clear that professional, appropriate boundaries are taken very seriously in the UMC as well as the need for our congregants to be responsible for maintaining safe, healthy, respectful and honoring behavior to one another and those in professional leadership.

Have a “reporting/communication” plan in place IF the violator appears on church property, during church programs/services, or makes contact with church leaders.

United Methodist Communications is an agency of The United Methodist Church

©2023 United Methodist Communications. All Rights Reserved