A few weeks ago, every pastor in the New Jersey synod received a letter from Bishop Tracie Bartholomew strongly "encouraging" us to attend a very specific workshop. The tone of the letter made it difficult for any of us to say "no." So on Tuesday, the Lutheran pastors in Northern New Jersey met our bishop in the main ballroom of the Lutheran retirement community at Crane's Mill. We were each given a folder, a pencil, and a pad of paper. And after putting on our names tags, we assembled in groups of eight around large round tables. The chaplain at Crane's Mill began the session by sharing with us a little bit about the facility, where to find refills for our coffee, and where the nearest bathrooms were. After the welcome, the Bishop asked her to lead us in prayer. When the prayer was over and after we all said "amen," the Bishop took over. And she led us in an all-day workshop on how pastors and deacons should maintain proper boundaries with everyone in their congregation.

This kind of boundary training (focusing on adult-to-adult situations) is something all pastors in our denomination go through every 5 years. It's not fun and it usually disrupts the plans we've already made for the day. But the workshop is important because it reminds us that the relationship between a pastor and the people they serve is something sacred. The pastor's commitment to serving God and God's people is built on a trust we are given to protect and nourish. But since pastors are people and live their lives as saint-and-sinner (like we all do), his sacred trust is sometimes broken. This usually happens when a pastor fails to stay mindful of their own spiritual, emotional, and mental health needs. Instead of caring for their congregation, the congregation ends up filling a void the pastor is missing in their life. This unhealthy behavior can seem small - like favoring one group of people over others. But it can also grow into something more problematic such as sexual harassment. In fact, over the last few years, there have been incidents in our synod where pastors broke their martial vows with members of their own congregations. This boundary crossing is unacceptable and is not tolerated in our synod. When a pastor does this, they are removed from the place they serve, and they are no longer a pastor in the Lutheran church. Yet, their removal from a congregation does not end the suffering within the congregation. A violation of sacred trust can reverberate in a community even decades later.

One thing the Bishop wanted us to share with you is a document of the Synod's guidelines pertaining to this kind of boundary crossing. Copies are available in the church office and these guidelines do not have a statute of limitations because there's no time-limit when it comes to trauma. As a church, we are our most faithful when we are honest about the harm we've caused. And since we all are members of the body of Christ, any violation in any church in any Christian denomination impacts us all. If a clergy person in your life has harmed you or if you have been part of a community where a clergy person has broken that sacred trust: I am sorry. We see you. We believe you. And may the Spirit guide every clergy person and leader in the church to hold fast to the sacred trust that keeps us all working together as God's servants.