“I know personally of twenty-nine alumni whose marriages are on the rocks because of affairs with women in their churches, and California heads the list of trouble spots.” This unnerving bit of information was handed me by one of my seminary professors five years ago as I traveled to California to take a new church assignment. Although I came through those five years in California with my marriage intact, it was not without a greater appreciation for a major problem that confronts pastors in every denomination—the problem of “the other woman.”

This problem has not gone unnoticed. Every pastoral ministry course in seminary includes a lecture on the pastor’s relations with women in the church. He is instructed not to touch them, not to visit them at home unless accompanied by his wife or another suitable person, never to counsel a woman privately with his study door closed. But one dimension of the problem has not been adequately considered. It is the pastor’s need for what the other woman has to offer.

Men are attracted to the ministry not only for spiritual reasons but also for the emotional fulfillment it offers. Men I have known who have gotten involved with women in the church are what Timothy Leary, Everett Shostrom, and others call maladaptive “top-dog” personalities. Leary, in his Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality (Ronald, 1957), puts three personalities in this category: the narcissist, the autocrat, and the overgenerous person. (Leary wrote this before achieving his drug-related notoriety, and his theories continue to be widely recognized.)

According to Leary, the narcissist holds down anxiety and promotes a feeling of self-worth by impressing others with his competence and attractiveness. He does this by muscle flexing, boasting, and engaging in seductive and flirtatious maneuvers. He “pushes” the message “I’m wonderful,” and this behavior “pulls” dependence and admiration from others. The narcissist enjoys compliments on his attractiveness from men, women, and even children. And because of this he will disclaim particular gratification over compliments from women. Nevertheless, he is particularly pleased at being noticed by women.

In the church this interpersonal “push-pull” can be dynamite. Here is a man who needs to be told he is strong, competent, and attractive. In his congregation there are likely to be one or more women who feel dependent. Such women often feel unloved, and they may have weak, unattractive husbands. They find in such a pastor their ideal of a man. And because he is a spiritual man he is even more attractive. It does not take much verbal or nonverbal exchange for two people like this to become locked into a very fulfilling complementary relationship. He receives from her admiration and dependence, and she receives from him loving, protective care through his pastoral ministry—which can easily degenerate into a very personal and intimate interest.

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Meanwhile, back at the parsonage, the pastor’s wife is troubled over her husband’s response to the admiring women of the congregation. She wonders about his feelings for her. If he were satisfied with her, why would he bask in the attention of other women? Resentment, distrust, and withdrawal follow. He gets the nonverbal message from his wife, “I don’t think you’re so great,” which makes him all the more vulnerable to the admiring words and looks of the women in his congregation.

The tragedy of the compulsive narcissist is that his security operation is designed to cover up real feelings of inadequacy. Rather than face these tormenting feelings and deal with them, he uses his narcissistic façade to pull from people the message that he is not as inadequate as he feels.

I am currently doing research to determine what personality types enter the ministry, and I expect to corroborate my observation that the narcissistic-competitive personality is the most common personality type among ministers. The ministry is an especially suitable profession for this sort of person. Not only is he given an opportunity for public display and competition; he also has an opportunity to indulge self-righteous tendencies.

Leary describes this personality as a “self-righteous moralist.” He says:

The most outstanding characteristic of the self-righteous moralist, as exemplified by these patients, is the need to be right or to show up the other fellow as wrong, particularly when some moral issue is involved which impinges on his own system of value [Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality, p. 337].

It may seem strange that a “self-righteous moralist” should be especially vulnerable to sexual misconduct. Yet his great capacity for self-justification covers a multitude of sins. When he does get involved with a woman in his congregation, he rarely seems excessively troubled by the immorality of it. He appears more troubled by what his behavior has done to threaten his status as a leader. If he is removed from his post, he either seeks quick reinstatement as a leader or writes off the religious community with typical self-justification.

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I recall, for example, a pastor who had left the ministry because of involvement with a woman in his church. He was reinstated after a few years and given another church. All the members of his new congregation agreed that he was just the man for the job. He then began to see his old girlfriend again, visiting her at home. Once he took her out to dinner, and they were seen by someone in the congregation.

Although he was chided by his fellow pastors for his behavior, he maintained he was innocent of any wrongdoing. His deacons supported his plea of innocence. Then, one Wednesday evening, after what was reported to be an excellent Bible study and prayer meeting, he announced to the church that he was leaving his wife to live with this other woman. His behavior was totally justified in his eyes.

In writing as I do about the narcissist I do not mean to sound deterministic. The narcissist is by no means the victim of a personality flaw that is irremediable. He is a man who refuses to give up his narcissistic behavior because he finds security in it. It is fear of being exposed as inadequate that makes him hang on! And it is exactly this fear that keeps him from letting the Husbandman of the Vine prune him (John 15:1).

When he resists spiritual growth, he experiences ultimately what every child of the Father experiences—chastening. The history of Israel was written to warn us against resisting changes that God wants to bring about in us (1 Cor. 10:6). Fear of change is a neurotic block that the Bible calls sin—a block that God sometimes breaks up by a sound spanking.

Why does the narcissist prefer the admiration of women other than his wife when, after all, she was once his greatest admirer? The answer lies in the nature of maladaptive narcissism. The maladaptive narcissist is so hungry for admiration that one woman’s is not enough. He needs many admirers to keep his faltering ego built up.

It is my contention that the minister who errs sexually does not start out with sexual encounter on his mind. He starts out to build his ego on the admiration of all the people in his congregation—men, women, and children. The women of the congregation provide ego satisfaction for his doubts about his masculinity. These doubts are allayed by messages from the women that he is an attractive male. He then finds himself with the opportunity to check out these messages more fully.

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The wiles of the devil are extremely subtle. Every man starts his ministry knowing full well the dangers of involvement with women in the church. It is through a circuitous route that Satan traps the man. The trap is deadly because the bait is not sex. The bait is ego satisfaction, a normal human need; this leads to an opportunity for sexual involvement.

Another “top-dog” type especially vulnerable to involvement with women in his congregation is what Leary calls the “hypernormal” personality. He is just as dominant as the narcissist, but he is more tender and affiliative. Says Leary:

He strives to be close to others—to help, counsel, support and sympathize. He wants to be seen as tender with his intimates, reasonable and responsible with his acquaintances [Ibid., p. 315].

He holds down anxiety and promotes self-worth by being involved in tender, protective relations with others. This mode of adjustment, being close to our cultural ideal, is especially suitable for the ministry. But used in an extreme way it can be a problem to the minister, his wife, and his congregation.

This personality pulls dependence and respect from others. In the extreme it tends to pull extreme forms of dependence, the kind offered by the clinging vine who likes to be taken care of.

The “hypernormal” minister is a special burden to his wife because he sees himself fulfilling the ideal of the ministry. He sees himself as kind and reassuring, tender and soft-hearted, giving freely of self. But he does not see that he goes too far in his affiliative behavior. He is often oversympathetic, overprotective, too willing to give to others—especially to his admiring women.

Once again, this extreme behavior is a security operation designed to hold down anxiety and promote feelings of self-worth. He craves the response of the clinging vine to satisfy his ego. She lets him know that he is a kind, tender, warm, loving, and strong man. He must be told this by others because he, like the narcissist, has a deep feeling of self-doubt.

A third “top-dog” type is the “autocratic” personality. In Leary’s scheme of interpersonal behavior he falls between the narcissist and the hypernormal. He is not as hostile as the narcissist or as loving as the hypernormal. But he is as power oriented as the other two, if not more so. He pulls a docile following who will obey, respect, and flatter him. Because he has a need to be flattered, the autocrat sets himself up for a fall, especially if he thrives on the flattery of women in his congregation. The push-pull phenomenon of interpersonal behavior is again at work. The weak, dependent woman seeks a strong, powerful man. She thrives on his strength, and he thrives on her flattery. And complications with his wife are the same as they are for the narcissist and hypernormal.

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The narcissist needs women to tell him he is attractive. The autocrat needs women to tell him he’s strong. The hypernormal man needs women to tell him he’s warm, tender, and giving. And it is likely that some women in the congregation of each will comply! This is the dynamic of interpersonal behavior, and the attraction is as compelling as opposite sides of pole magnets. I should add, however, that this attraction can be minimized by the man who is aware of his vulnerability.

The less extreme forms of these personalities are adaptive and less vulnerable. They do not have as great a neurotic need to be told they are wonderful because they are properly satisfied with themselves. It is the extreme “top-dog” type of minister, given the opportunity to feed his need, who often winds up in an affair.

What can be done for the extreme forms of these personality types? It is good that the “top-tog” ministerial student or pastor be cautioned about his comportment with women. But more important is that he get in touch with the emotional needs that make him push the message, “I’m wonderful,” and pull the message from women, “You certainly are—and I’d like to tell you just how wonderful!”

I suggest that at least three steps be taken. First, I suggest a greater use of psychological testing in seminary admission procedures, especially testing designed to measure interpersonal responses. The Interpersonal Check List is a good tool. It should be given not only to the applicant but also to his wife or, if he is not married, to some significant woman in his life, such as his girlfriend or mother. The woman taking the test would describe how she sees the man. He, of course, would describe himself. An analysis of the ICL would give valuable information about the applicant’s personality type and the degree to which his personality is expressed—whether adaptively or maladaptively. Comparing the applicant’s test results with those of the woman would of course show whether the applicant sees himself as this significant woman in his life sees him. Major discrepancies between the two profiles might mean there should be further testing and analysis.

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Interpersonal behavior is where the action is in the ministry. Psychological testing must include this if the man’s chances of success are to be measured adequately.

Another test that may be of considerable help in the screening process is the Willoughby Schedule. This is a test for neuroticism, which is defined as “persistent unadaptive anxiety reactions.” The questionnaire deals mainly with common types of social situations. Again, the emphasis is placed on interpersonal behavior.

A second suggestion is aimed at men already in seminary or already in the ministry, though the man considering the ministry must also take this into account. He must take a hard look at this marriage. The Apostle Paul advocated marriage to avoid fornication, and if a marriage is to serve this purpose, it needs to be well-adjusted sexually. But there is more to marriage than the bed. Other satisfactions must accrue from the marriage if the relationship is to be satisfying. Is anything lacking in this man’s relation with his wife that makes him respond inappropriately to other women?

Everett L. Shostrom, director of the Institute of Therapeutic Psychology in Santa Ana, California, maintains that successful marriage involves five types of love, all essential to a fulfilling marital relationship: affection, which he defines as a helping, nurturing form of love involving unconditional giving and acceptance of the kind that characterizes the love of a parent for a child; friendship, a peer love based on appreciation of common interests and respect for each other’s equality; eros, a possessive, romantic form of love, including such features as inquisitiveness, jealousy, and exclusiveness; empathy, a deep feeling for the other as another unique human being, including such features as compassion, appreciation, and tolerance. The fifth type of love is self-love, which is the ability to accept one’s weaknesses in the relationship with the spouse as well as to appreciate one’s own unique sense of personal worth. It includes the acceptance of one’s full range of positive and negative feelings toward one’s spouse.

Shostrom has devised a test called The Caring Relationship Inventory, which is designed to measure the degree to which these elements exist with the real spouse and with an ideal spouse. The difference between the real and ideal is very revealing and provides a forum for the husband and wife to tell each other what they would like to get out of their relationship. Church leaders who are charged with the oversight of pastors would do well to sponsor marriage-enrichment workshops or retreats for their pastors and wives, using the CRI as an evaluation tool. This evaluation could be handled so that the pastor and his wife could keep the information to themselves if they wanted to.

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A third suggestion is that pastors and their wives set aside some time, either at home when they will be undisturbed by children or away from home, in which they open the lines of communication about the things that bother them. They should plan at least one hour for this exercise. They start by writing about their feelings for ten minutes. Then they exchange papers, and each goes off alone to read what the other has said. After fifteen minutes they return to discuss what was written. They are to observe three rules in the discussion: (1) They cannot defend the behavior the other finds objectionable. (2) They cannot verbally attack the other. (3) They cannot argue about the factuality of what is said. They must agree that the spouse has registered true feelings. This discussion should last at least thirty-five minutes. It is likely to go on for hours! This is why a chunk of time must be set aside for this exercise.

Psychiatrist-clergyman Paul Qualben offered a few more suggestions to pastors and wives gathered at Luther Seminary in St. Paul: (1) Learn how to argue constructively. (2) Do all you can to identify problems and react properly. (3) Don’t be afraid of regression. A pastor can’t be a hero or man of iron all the time. He can’t always be a mature sophisticate.

Those who are concerned about the problem of the other woman in the minister’s life should not look first for a seductress in the congregation. They ought first to concern themselves with the “top-dog” minister who grasps at every opportunity to fortify his faltering ego.


After the German of Friedrich Rückert

(1788–1866), “Kehr’ ein bei mir!”

You are my rest

And perfect peace;

Love’s longing blest

In its surcease.

To You I bring

Joy, pain, the whole


My eyes and soul.

Stay now with me

And fasten sure

(Ah, quietly!)

The open door.

Leave grief no part

Within this breast;

Stilled be my heart

But with Your rest.

So may Your Light

Fill every space:

O stay! Make bright

This dwelling place.


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