Restorative Dialogue in the Realm of Church Abuse and Boundary Setting: The Challenges and Opportunities (Part 1)

by Duncan Smith (Denver, Colorado)

(Note: Ultimately, restorative practices in a church setting would lean primarily into the prevention realm for the sake of building up healthier congregations and preventing harm all together. But when patterns of harm or hidden behaviors unfold without good supports or accountability, it is necessary to have interventions that are equally restorative in nature. Traditional interventions, like HR processes that protect institutions and alienate people from each other, can themselves add secondary harms to a church’s family system. What follows now addresses constructive intervention.)

Read more about PREVENTION with respect to clergy issues.

When ministerial abuse and misconduct occurs, it is important to act swiftly in cases where people could be at harm. In these cases, the minister will need to be suspended or put on leave. There will need to be separation from the congregation in many cases, as well. Like all interventions, no matter what happens, the process is messy. 

It is also important for local congregations to have quick support and assistance from the area conference or body. Any decision of the separation of a leader from their congregation will be met with confusion, anger, as well as potential relief. Most congregants will be unaware that there is anything amiss. This is very difficult for many local congregations to handle. 

There is a lot of stress when a misconduct accusation arises. Having an agreed upon policy and procedure ready in hand is important. In my denomination we are working on 2.0 of our ministerial misconduct policy and procedure. The Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedure for Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) outlines some steps for initial intervention through an investigation and outcomes. Check your faith group, denomination, or organization to see what their policy and procedure for ministerial abuse and misconduct. 

Being clear-eyed about what any intervention regarding misconduct is about is important. Some denominations have ministerial handbooks that may give some guidelines around ministerial ethics. For example, MC USA’s Shared Understandings of Ministerial Leadership has a section on use of power by leaders. This section also includes specific lists of sexual and non-sexual misconduct. Examples of non-sexual misconduct are “violations of confidentiality” and “intentional deceptions or dishonesty, including misrepresentation of self in training or past records.” Check out resources with the denomination you relate to.  

These processes relate specifically to church leaders. When the situation involves lay leadership then processes are less clear. Developing these types of interventions for lay-related cases is being talked about more deeply with the expectation of working out new processes in the future.

Finally, there is the  adjacent matter of impact to congregational members. This too is a frontier area that is being worked out here and there in various cases. Read more about Post-Incident Healing Models.


The Restorative Church website aspires to list comprehensive resources and supports for all layers of healing and resolution implied above. For now, here is a listing of sources you may find helpful:

Mennonite Church USA Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedure – Resource for systematic response to misconduct and abuse in the church

Faith Trust Institute – Resource for Boundary Training for faith institutions

Dove’s Nest – Resources for faith communities keeping youth and children safe

Shared Understanding of Ministerial Leadership (MC USA) – Ministerial Guidelines, including ethics.

Please consider contact R Ch to recommend additional listings of resources on this page.


You can recognize survivors of abuse by their courage. When silence is so very inviting, they step forward and share their truth so others know they aren’t alone.
― Jeanne McElvaney