Ministerial Sexual Ethics

Ministerial Sexual Ethics

Sexual Ethics and Boundaries Task Force

In the fall of 2018, Bishop Taylor asked the Rev. Terry Goodman to pull together a team and plan for a Sexual Ethics and Boundaries workshop for the ministers of the annual conference in spring 2019. The initial person called onto this team was Kathy Heustess, our newly installed conference counselor. Others asked to be a member of the team were District Superintendent Lauri Jo Cranford, the Reverend Sharon Bowers, the Reverend Leah Burns, the Reverend Caleb Pitkin, the Reverend Kathie Wilson-Parker, the Rev. Diana Brown-Taylor, the Rev. Laura Plaster and the Rev. Charles Starks.

As this team began its deliberations we were guided toward Dr. Karen McClintock, a United Methodist minister, and psychologist, who eventually signed on to present a series of seven workshops to varying groups within the annual conference in late May and early April. She presented five workshops for the clergy of the annual conference. It was mandatory that each clergy person attend one of these workshops, else he or she would not be appointed at the 2019 annual conference. Dr. McClintock also conducted a workshop for the extended cabinet and one for members of CWART (Conference Wellness and Advocacy Response Team).

As we entered into conversations with Dr. McClintock, it became apparent that our annual conference had not updated its policies on sexual ethics and boundaries in quite a while. The task force, at Dr. McClintock’s urging, set about examining our current policies and bringing them up to date. As part of this process, we sent Kathy Heustess, Sharon Bowers, Leah Burns, and Caleb Pitkin to a GCOSROW event in Texas. Coming back with some great ideas, we undertook the much-needed update to our conference policies. Due to the time constraints of publication dates for the Book of Reports, the task force was only able to update the current policy. Our goal is to continue working and fully develop a policy on the use of social media and other topics relevant to this area of our common life together. Such policies will be presented at future annual conferences.

When asked the best way to present our updated policy to the annual conference, Bishop Taylor asked how we introduced the current policy for adoption. Research showed that the annual conference adopted our current policy at a previous session. We felt it best to do that with this policy. Especially, since it is a policy that would affect all the churches of our annual conference. 

The Sexual Ethics and Boundaries Task Force respectfully submits this policy to the annual conference for its consideration and adoption.




Statement of Covenant: We have been called into covenant with God and one another through the grace of Jesus Christ. This covenant, which we share together as Christ’s body, the Church, is intended by God to be a means of reconciliation, justice, faith, hope, and love. Sexual harassment and misconduct, and other like actions, disrupt the sacred covenant of God with us and are unacceptable in the community where Christ’s ministry of grace is proclaimed and experienced. Therefore, all Christians are called to identify and prevent sexual harassment and misconduct whenever, however, and wherever it is encountered.


Preamble: In light of our covenant, it is the intent of this policy to provide for an experience of grace, justice, and reconciliation for both the aggrieved, the respondent (the person being accused) and all affected parties when sexual misconduct is alleged or proven. Victims of sexual misconduct experience a devastating betrayal of trust. The victim(s) has trusted that the power and the authority entrusted to the ministry professional will be used for the well-being of persons. In turning to that ministry professional, persons become vulnerable and trust that their vulnerability will be respected and not abused. When the ministry professional uses power to abuse and disrespect the trust and vulnerability of persons, the effects are painfully traumatic. Furthermore, we understand that while grace means that we are loved by God unconditionally, it does not mean that we escape the consequences of our actions. There may come a time when we can no longer continue in ministry or employment because our personal behavior is not compatible with the sacred office of the ministry.


When incidents of sexual misconduct are alleged or proven, the greatest possible care shall be taken to assure that victims are not further victimized. When sexual misconduct occurs in a community, all are affected. When sexual misconduct has occurred, all who are hurt are encouraged to seek appropriate therapeutic assistance.  Truth-telling is risky and painful and may stir up strong feelings of fear and anger for both those who tell and those who hear. But, truth-telling has the power to release persons accused and victims from secrecy, denial, and guilt that result from sexual misconduct. Therefore, truth telling must be encouraged and truth tellers must be protected.


NOTE: The term “ministry professional” is used in this policy to include all ordained, licensed, consecrated and commissioned persons both male and female, married or single, serving in the Holston Annual Conference. This includes those ministers serving extension ministries, those who are on leaves, those who have been honorably located, and those who are retired. “Ministry professionals” also includes any person, professional or volunteer who serves in a position of leadership, power, or authority in a ministry of the Holston conference.



1. Sexual Misconduct: Is a chargeable offense for ministry professionals and lay people in the United Methodist Church. Chargeable offenses include: child abuse, sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, use of pornography, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, crime and immorality. Sexual misconduct is an abuse of power through sexual harassment, contact, or activity (not limited to sexual intercourse) in which the ministry professional violates the free choice or abuses the vulnerability of a parishioner (including children), client, church staff person, colleague or any other person who acknowledge the authority of the ministry professional; or causes or allows the parishioner, client, church staff person, or colleague to engage in inappropriate sexual behavior with the ministry professional. For a fuller definition of sexual misconduct see Book of Resolutions 2016, Resolution 2044. It is an act not just against a single person, but against all members in a local church, the wider Church, fellow ministry professionals and God.


At the core of this definition of sexual misconduct is the abuse of power that occurs when a person initiates or allows sexual behavior with or from someone who is in a position of trust and dependence in the relationship. Sexual misconduct breaks a sacred trust. Any such sexual misconduct is a violation by the ministry professional who then bears the responsibility for his or her behavior. Each written and signed complaint of sexual misconduct requires an investigation and response that is in line with procedures outlined below in section B When Sexual Misconduct is Alleged.


2. Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is a sin. The United Methodist Church defines sexual harassment in The 2016 Book of Discipline, ¶161.J as “any unwanted sexual comment, advance, or demand, either verbal or physical, that is reasonably perceived by the recipient as demeaning, intimidating, or coercive.  Sexual harassment must be understood as an exploitation of a power relationship rather than as an exclusively sexual issue.  Sexual harassment includes but is not limited to, the creation of a hostile or abusive working environment resulting from discrimination on the basis of gender.” The 2016 Book of Resolutions, Resolution 2045 further clarifies, “It creates a hostile, offensive environment that can include unwanted inappropriate sexual jokes, repeated advances, touching, displays, or comments that insult, degrade or sexually exploit women, men, elders, children or youth.” Furthermore, sexual harassment can include inappropriate questions or comments about sexual behavior or preference, inappropriate comments about clothing or physical appearance, and/or repeated requests for social engagements.


3. Sexual Abuse: Sexual abuse is a form of sexual misconduct. When a ministry professional engages in sexualized behavior or conduct with a parishioner, employee, student, coworker, subordinate, client, or volunteer the ministry professional is engaging in sexual abuse. It can include coerced or forced sexual contact, intercourse or contact with children or youth, and sexual exhibitionism or display of sexual images or pornography.


4. Pornography: Is defined in the 2016 Book of Discipline ¶161.Q. It is “sexually explicit material that portrays violence, abuse, coercion, domination, humiliation, or degradation for the purpose of sexual arousal.  Pornography sexually exploits and objectifies both women and men.  Any sexually explicit material that depicts children is abhorrent and victimizes children.” The Book of Resolutions 2016, Resolution 2081 further clarifies our stance on pornography. To summarize this resolution at it simplest form, “We oppose all forms of pornography.” While sex and sexuality are Gods gifts to us pornography has the capacity to teach and encourage unhealthy, unrealistic and exploitive views of sex and sexuality particularly in the young. The church should be a place where heathy sexuality is encouraged and taught.




It is the purpose of this policy to encourage proper standards of behavior and, thus, the disclosure of sexual misconduct. Therefore, it is important to protect those persons who truthfully disclose such misconduct. When an allegation of Sexual Misconduct is made to any ministerial professional, it should promptly be reported to the relevant District Superintendent or the Bishop. However, no action can be taken until the Bishop receives a written and signed complaint. Any allegation of sexual misconduct involving a minor or any other person covered by State Mandatory reporting laws should also be reported to appropriate governmental authorities. The list of names of District Superintendents and the Bishop and their contact information can be found at or by calling (865) 690-4080.


When a complainant (the person reporting the incident) contacts the District Superintendent or Bishop, they should be given a clear understanding of what it means to file a formal complaint. Explanations and examples can be found at


Upon receipt of a written and signed complaint to the Bishop, a prompt and thorough investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct against any ministry professional will be conducted and, if needed, appropriate corrective action will be taken. Each investigation will vary in scope by the nature of the complaint and the related circumstances. When involving ministry professionals, the procedure may be governed by paragraphs ¶362, ¶2701-¶2719 and any other relevant paragraphs of the current Book of Discipline. All investigations will be handled with as much discretion as the circumstances permit to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.


All persons having filed a written and signed complaint of suspected sexual misconduct should refrain from contacting the person suspected of such conduct. Likewise, the persons suspected of such conduct shall refrain from contacting the complainant or alleged victim. All persons serving as witnesses in the investigation should refrain contacting the complainant or the respondent, in order to preserve the integrity and confidentiality of the investigation.


All persons having received notification of a written complaint of sexual misconduct, including anyone specifically engaged to serve as an advocate or investigate such reports, shall keep all reports confidential, except as required by The Book of Discipline, where applicable, or necessary to investigate and resolve such matters, and/or to respond to any related legal or administrative proceedings. All allegations of sexual misconduct with minors or vulnerable adults occurring in the Holston Conference will be reported to the appropriate governmental agencies, as required by mandatory reporting laws of each State in the Holston Conference.



1.  Ministry professionals related to the Holston Annual Conference are always accountable for the ways they respond to persons who ask for their ministerial assistance and over whom they have authority. Any breach of this ministerial relationship, ministerial responsibility, and ministerial authority is abusive and unethical. All those within the covenant of the church are encouraged to discern when particular collegial support, therapy, or other assistance should be sought for ministry professionals with regard to both clergy to clergy and clergy to lay relationships.


2. Ministerial self-discipline requires self-awareness. Personal integrity and mature professional conduct are a part of every ministerial relationship. This prohibits any sexual behaviors with a parishioner or client entrusted to his or her sacred care. Since the balance of power is always on the side of the ministry professional, it is the ministry professional who is always responsible for keeping the relationship free from sexualized behavior. This power difference makes consent impossible in the relationship.


3. All ministry professionals have the responsibility for developing healthy and ethical relationships with other persons. Married ministry professionals have covenanted to nurture and maintain a faithful marital relationship. The covenant also reminds single ministry professionals that dating relationships must maintain full attention to sexual conduct as understood in our Christian teaching, outlined in ¶330.5.c (3) and ¶335.c (3) of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2016.


These standards apply to all ministry professionals as defined in this policy.


D. Social Media Guidelines

Social Media is the ever-expanding array of web-based and mobile technologies used for both public and private communications. Examples include texting, emailing, video chat, picture/video sharing services and applications. Social Media can be a useful and increasingly necessary way of developing relationships and growing community. However, as useful as Social Media can be there are also potential pitfalls.


Interactions on Social Media can seem much more private than they really are. Content may also remain accessible, even after it seems to have been deleted. The words and images we use need to be selected with care. The meaning and tone of words can be lost or misconstrued when removed from tone, body language and other context clues. Images of parishioners should not be posted without the consent of the people in them or of children without the consent of parents. Other images may be copywritten and we may not legally be able to post them. Therefore, care must be taken to exercise wisdom and discretion about what is posted, what sites are visited, messages that are sent and to whom.


Messages and posts that contain words or images that can reasonably be seen as sexually explicit, offensive, profane, racist, sexist, demeaning, libelous, threatening, offensive and the like, even if no hurt or harm was intended, are inappropriate. Anyone who uses social media in ways that constitute misconduct is subject to discipline.


Social media and its best practices may represent a shifting goal. There are some areas in which best practices do exist. The first best practice is to remember that you are a ministry professional even when you are on Social Media. Therefore, think that for the person reading a post it is in the voice of the Pastor, District Superintendent, Bishop, Church leader or other Ministry Professional that is being heard.


When communicating with parishioners, the ministry professional should not delete those communications. Ministry professionals should seek and receive permission from parents/guardians before communicating with minors on social media; and all communications should be saved. Disappearing message applications and services should not be used by ministry professionals to communicate with parishioners, clients, youth or about church business or professional matters. As technology changes, our guiding principle of social media use must be: “Does this further the work of the Church and does it meet the high ethical standards of our calling?”



Because the Church is a place for healing and justice, it must recognize, prevent, and stop sexual misconduct and harassment. As a part of the covenant community of faith, all ministry professionals and laity bear sacred responsibility to address sexual misconduct and harassment as they become aware of such behavior. Both laity and ministry professionals bear responsibility for confronting one another with knowledge of sexual misconduct and harassment. Ministry professionals in particular are called not only to confront one another but to report sexual misconduct and harassment to the district superintendent and/or the Bishop.  Relevant State Mandatory reporting laws should also be followed. Every written and signed complaint will be taken seriously. When the covenant of trust has been broken by instances of sexual misconduct or harassment, there is pain and disruption throughout the covenant community. In those instances, the whole community is called to encourage and support an aggrieved person, care for one committing the offense and initiate complaint procedures as outlined in ¶361 and ¶2701 through ¶2719 in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2016.


F. Availability of Policy This policy shall be printed annually in the Journal of the Holston Annual Conference. Further, it shall be posted at continuously. It should be made available in at least one common area of every church in the Holston Annual Conference and kept on file in each church office. It is also strongly recommended that each church place a copy of the General Commission on the Role and Status of Women Flyer found here somewhere in their church.


If any provision of this policy is in conflict with the current edition of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, the current Book of Discipline shall prevail.  Such conflict shall not be grounds for invalidating this policy.