Should Tullian Tchividjian Be Back in Ministry After Sex Scandal?

Tullian Tchividjian preaches at The Sanctuary on Aug. 25, 2019, in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Video screengrab

Tullian Tchividjian doesn’t hesitate to admit he has not lived up to the standards of his famous grandfather, Billy Graham.

Graham, of course, made history with his 1948 rule that he would never meet alone with a woman who was not his wife. Often referred to as “the Billy Graham Rule,” the directive has become popular among many evangelical pastors and made headlines again two years ago when Vice President Mike Pence said he swore by it.

In contrast, Tchividjian, the son of Graham’s eldest child, Gigi, was forced to resign as senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in northern Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2015 after acknowledging that he cheated on his wife. The couple later divorced.

A year later, he was fired from an administrative job at Willow Creek Presbyterian Church in Winter Springs, Florida, after leaders there became aware of another, earlier sexual tryst.

Now, saying he is rehabilitated, the 47-year-old Tchividjian has started a new, nondenominational church called The Sanctuary that meets each Sunday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

The church is not shy about Tchividjian’s past — in fact, his bio on the site chronicles not only his own moral failing but the troubled history of his second wife, Stacie, whom he married in August 2016. The bio leads with a quote from Tchividjian’s 2013 book, “One Way Love,” that insists “Christianity is not about good people getting better. If anything, it is good news for bad people coping with their failure to be good.” The congregation is planning a formal launch later this month.

But the pressing question for Tchividjian is not so much about his infidelity — an admittedly grave moral failing in the evangelical world from which he springs.

The more complicated problem is that he had at least one sexual relationship with a congregant — a transgression that is increasingly understood, in the language of the #MeToo era, as an asymmetrical power dynamic. Because the pastor has significant moral authority over congregants, in other words, it is difficult to establish whether genuine consent has been given.

Tchividjian, who declined an interview with Religion News Service, has strenuously denied that his sexual relationship with a Coral Ridge member was an abuse of power.

“I don’t care what role a person has, a consensual relationship between two adults is not abuse,” Tchividjian told The Palm Beach Post in August. “And some of these people will try to make the case that, ‘Well, because you’re in a position of authority, it is abuse.’ And I’ll go, ‘OK, I can see how that has been and can be used by people in those positions.’ … (But) that just was not true for me. I was not abusing my authoritative role to try and find women.”

The woman with whom he had the relationship told The Palm Beach Post that Tchividjian groomed her and abused his position of power over her.

Many counselors who work or study congregations where pastors have been accused of sexual misconduct agree with her.

“To say ‘it was two consenting adults and my marriage wasn’t working’ seems to me like a cheap rationalization,” said Ross Peterson, the former executive director of Midwest Ministry Development, a nonprofit that works with troubled pastors, speaking generally about such cases.

“It doesn’t explore in depth why the pastor made that choice and it ignores the fact that the relationship between a pastor and congregant are never on an even playing field.”

Midwest Ministry Development, which works with mainline denominations to determine if pastors accused of sexual misconduct can be rehabilitated, has found that errant ministers fall into two camps. There are those who are emotionally depleted and “drift into misconduct to fulfill their emptiness,” and then there are “predatory ministers” who seek out vulnerable people.

The latter, it finds, typically have narcissistic personalities and a false sense of entitlement. The nonprofit contends the former can be rehabilitated, the latter cannot. For pastors willing to go through the hard work, the group recommends a series of steps for rehabilitation.

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Source: Religion News Service