StarTribune.com

Churches that have been there anticipate what Grace is about to endure

October 19, 2002

Anger. Guilt. Sadness. Grief. Division. Financial strain.

Grace Church of Eden Prairie could experience those problems and more in the wake of news that their popular and charismatic leader, the Rev. John Eagen, resigned after admitting to marital infidelity, according to people who have been through similar ordeals.

Eagen is not alone among spiritual leaders in falling to sexual temptations. Sexual impropriety goes back at least to King David's affair with Bathsheba, became notorious with Jim Bakker's affair with Jessica Hahn, and continues with ongoing accusations of sexual impropriety against Catholic priests nationwide.

Two studies in the mid-1980s reported that about 12 percent of ministers had engaged in sexual intercourse with church members, and 38 percent had acknowledged sexually improper behavior. A 1991 Star Tribune survey found that 21 percent of responding Catholic priests said they violated their vow of celibacy, and 15 percent of Protestant pastors had had an extramarital affair.

Unlike other professions or vocations, where the injury of such an affair is comparably limited, a spiritual leader who strays causes widespread and often long-lasting damage to those not directly involved.

In the Twin Cities area, several congregations have experienced the trauma of dealing with the sexual improprieties of their spiritual leader, and the issue seems spread across many denominations.

In June, the Rev. Richard Jeub resigned from St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Roseville after it was reported he had had relationships with several women.

In April, the Rev. Mose B. Henney resigned as pastor of the Lutheran Church of Peace in Platteville, Wis., after acknowledging improper sexual contact with three women of congregations he served.

Joel Gibson, former dean of St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis, renounced his vows as a priest rather than face an investigation of an allegation made against him two years ago.

In 1997, Westminster Presbyterian Church's pastor Gordon Stewart and associate pastor Kay Slaikeu announced to the congregation that they were divorcing their spouses to marry each other. Both resigned.

Stephen Cornils resigned as pastor at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis in 1993 after admitting he had sexual relationships with three of his female parishioners a decade earlier in California. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's policy mandates that any pastor who admits to sexual misconduct must resign. (Cornils has since returned to the pulpit, preaching at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis.)

Not all denominations mandate resignation after extramarital affairs, but offenders usually quit after the improprieties are uncovered. In 1991, for example, Stephen Pinsky left as senior rabbi of Temple Israel in Minneapolis after disclosing he had had an extramarital homosexual affair.

Jerry Waldman, now chief executive officer for Jewish Family and Children's Service of Minneapolis, was one counselor called in to help staff members and volunteers cope.

"The role of what's expected of a pastor or rabbi is very different than in the rest of society," Waldman said. "It's not like it's the CEO of 3M. There is disgust, sadness, anger, every emotion you can name. It comes up in board meetings, in open congregation meetings, everywhere. Some are loyal to the person who left; they've been married by him or counseled by him. Others are hostile towards him. The wounds are very deep."

The Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen has seen those wounds, too, and says they should not be ignored or buried. He took over at Westminster Presbyterian after Stewart and Slaikeu quit. As soon as word of Grace's loss got to Westminster, someone from there called the church to offer help and advice gained from experience. Hart-Andersen said the situation is so common, there is even a name given to the person who takes over after a fall: The "After-pastor."

"Grace is putting an optimistic face on it, as they should," Hart-Andersen said. "But they are going to find that as much as they hope it's not going to occupy them for some time, it will," he said.

Being a nondenominational church with its own governing body has benefits, but the absence of an oversight body could make Grace's recovery more difficult, Hart-Andersen said. Those in charge of helping the congregation move on likely have long histories with Eagen, and "there is always a real possibility of a split," he said.

Westminster also was in a similar situation as Grace financially. Westminster was in the midst of a $12 million capital campaign; Grace recently completed Phase I of a planned $100 million campus.

Hart-Andersen said that when the Stewart-Slaikeu affair was discovered, church officials immediately called major donors to see whether they might change their minds. "Several chose to do so, but they increased their donations and said their commitment was to the church, not to the person in the pulpit."

Yet, Hart-Andersen said, the loss of a popular leader usually has negative financial consequences. "The leader usually visits the largest donors, and they trust him," he said. "They reality is [Grace] might be hard-pressed to meet their financial obligations; I wouldn't be surprised to find that their first phase isn't their last phase for a while."

Hart-Andersen said he hopes Grace leaders will take their time finding a replacement, and that they first attend to families, children and staff members with counseling and assistance.

"They've got a lot of work ahead," he said. "And it's not just the money or the building or the vision. They've got to work through the pain and anger, and reach a place of healing. This can be a cathartic moment for the church or a tragic moment. I hope that a few years from now they can look back and see this as a catalyst for new kinds of leadership and an honest assessment of who we are."

-- Jon Tevlin is at jtevlin@startribune.com.