Stroll along the Tampa Bay marinas, and you will become aware of the push-pull pressure exerted on the boats riding anchor. Tides attempt to woo them out into the deep while the anchor commands the opposite. This seems also to be the case with the subject of clergy divorces. A great deal of ambivalence became strongly evident as research on this article was begun.

My intention here is not to cast stones at others’ glass houses, or to put pressure on the family of the ordained pastor. Scripture says, “Let us reason together.”

Robert Sinks gets directly to the heart of the matter. Writing in Christian Century (Apr. 20, 1977), he says, “The phenomenon of divorce has long been an embarrassment to the Christian church. At best, it has been regarded as a reluctant concession to human frailty, a painful reminder of our failure to fulfill the exalted standards which God holds for marriage.”

Lyle Schaller believes the divorce rate for ministers has at least quadrupled since 1960. G. Lloyd Rediger’s statistics point out that 37 percent of the clergy with whom his organization works are seriously considering divorce; based on precedent, 15 percent will dissolve their relationship. Over 60 percent of his population deal with problems serious enough to make divorce a distinct possibility. David and Vera Mace bring the current situation into perspective when they write: “The clergy has remained in a state of supposedly blissful obscurity … until now … broken clergy marriages have … become an issue to be reckoned with, and ecclesiastical officials are addressing themselves to the perplexing task of formulating policies for appropriate action.”

There appears to be little doubt that there has been a recent trend toward divorce among clergy of all denominations. Like it or not, we have a tiger by the tail. There may be a strong desire to “let go” or to ignore it, but it is obvious the problem will not just go away. It should command the attention of the church; it cries out for workable solutions.

Why The Upward Trend?

It would be simple to wrap this situation up in a neat little package, saying: “Causal factors in clergy marriage dissolutions are no different from those outside the profession.” There are similarities, differences, and overlap. Some of them apply especially to clergy families.

1. A synod president believes the reasons to be twofold: (1) the greater acceptance of clergy as people—the stigma previously associated with divorce is no longer a threat; and (2) the tension and pressure of today’s society exerted on the life of the pastor, his wife, and family.

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A pastor in the Western United States recently became involved with a married woman in his congregation. Both divorced their spouses and were married in the church of which he was the minister. The congregation turned out en masse for the wedding, giving open support. The generally more tolerant attitude of society toward divorce may make it a more readily available option than in the past.

2. A statement from “Guidelines for Dealing with Marital Crisis, Separation, Divorce and Remarriage of American Lutheran Church Clergy,” Exhibit D, reinforces the above:

“In our day societal pressures are adding to the dilemma so many experience in regard to the marriage relationship. One factor is the increasing expectation people have for satisfaction in all of their relationships and activities. This often becomes a self-centered search for immediate personal gratification. Another factor is the decreasing social pressure they feel to continue less-than-satisfactory marriages. The result is that husbands and wives are giving up on their marriages in tragically increasing numbers.”

Howard Clinebell, writing of “parent-child marriages” in The Christian Ministry (July 1971), theorizes that some pastors’ wives marry out of a need for a daddy figure, while he marries from a need for a wife who desires him in that role. In the cold light of the dawn of reality, a spouse may see her clergyman-hubby as less than perfect as husband, father, lover, provider, and community leader, and a sense of “being had” may set in. There are about as few wing-buds as halos around these days, and the turned collar does not guarantee either sainthood or perfection. This “sword,” of course, has two edges, cutting against wife as well as husband.

3. Another problem, which demands considerable study, is that of the women of today. It is true that the pastor receives a ministry’s official call. It is also a fact that because of this, many wives have been relegated to basking in their husband’s (or today, wife’s) shadow. Clinebell, among others, believes the changing role of women is probably the most profound of the multiple revolutions our society is experiencing. Women’s lib has, and will undoubtedly continue to have, earthquake-force power on relationships.

Formal education for both sexes exists in proportions not known just a few years ago. Since World War II, females are coming into their own, and they believe, and often act on the premise, that they are equal partners with their mates. The message of the centuries that men are to be at the forefront of leadership and control is just not being “bought” by today’s bright, assertive, educated women.

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4. Stemming from the above, one often hears this comment: “I’ve had it with the role of Mrs. Pastor! I just want a more normal life for myself and family.”

“Normal” may mean just attending church and/or church school—period. It may mean “doing my own things,” which may evidence itself in actively supporting the pastor and congregation, or not doing so. With privilege comes responsibility. If the role of a pastor’s wife is to be fulfilled and fulfilling, certain responsibilities beyond those of the majority of parsonage wives must be assumed. Spouses’ ability to communicate this to one another and to work out a mutually satisfying solution is vitally important.

5. Diversity of backgrounds is a further reason for the accelerated splitting up of parsonage families. An experienced synodical president shared his thoughts: “I have a hunch that the diversity of backgrounds … of many ministers and their spouses may also contribute to an increase in divorce. We are no longer dealing with a minister and spouse who come from solid, stable homes with good models of marriage relationships or from congregations in which effective models for minister and spouse have been lived out and observed. I seem to sense an increasing number of couples in which at least one partner comes from a single-parent family in which one or both partners have had little vital contact with live pastoral ministry.”

If the pastor’s wife has been at best a nominal or fringe member of her congregation, she may have only an inkling of what it takes in terms of personal sacrifices on everyone’s part for the work of the Lord to be effective. There are probably few factors with as much potential to destroy or seriously hamper a leader’s work as the push-pull of personal allegiances. There is just no way a pastor can be at his or her peak if there is a running battle going on at home. If he is torn between his inner convictions and strong demands of family, the results may be chaos, conflict, and possible breakdown.

6. Rediger speaks of the problem of the dual career phenomenon as another cause of divorce. The day when the husband’s job dictates where a family lives may be on the wane. Wives have increased potential to make as much or more money than husbands, and with it, more bargaining power or control. Males have been conditioned to believe their paycheck should always be a notch above that of the female. When this is not the case, the ramifications may be potentially traumatic.

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7. Another contributing factor is infidelity. There is little doubt that there is a percentage of women who consider the sexual conquest of a pastor a goal worth pursuing. The minister may appear distant or unapproachable, above such behavior, and is thus a challenge. Pastors have relatively easy access to the homes of a vast number of people, including distraught, “helpless,” and dissatisfied women. Playing on his ego over a period of time many finally succeed in the seduction. If a member of the opposite sex perceives a minister’s marriage as shaky and that person is also experiencing unhappiness, there is a certain kinship. Commiseration may lead to conquest.

8. Eighty-five percent of married couples are estimated by Herbert Otto to have failed to utilize their God-given sexual potential. About 62 percent of couples who present themselves for therapy do so because of problems centering on sexual dissatisfaction. There is no 100 percent guarantee that a graduate degree in theology bestows a “lover cum laude” on the minister and his or her spouse. Hang-ups, inhibitions, myths, maybes, half-truths, past experiences, sexual training, attitudes, a desire to experiment, to sow wild oats, all contribute to the number-two problem area in marital relationships.

9. The inability to love is a sort of umbrella, encompassing many of the preceding problems. Leo Buscagelia believes so strongly that one of the common problems of our society is nonloving that he has initiated a college course on love. His findings, along with others’, reinforce the belief that love is a process taught in interaction with our “persons of significance.” There is a positive correlation between one’s ability to love, and self-esteem and self-concept. Our Lord gave us a commandment, often played down or ignored: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

When a clergyman says to his spouse, “I am no longer in love with you,” that may be true. It may also be that there is a battle within that person to accept himself. It is not necessarily true that we see others in transactional analysis terms of “I’m okay, you’re okay.” My definition of love is simple and easily understood: it is active, willing, caring. Overtly showing affection is a primary ingredient in enriched and growing relationships. However, the secret of making the formula work is willingness. As each spouse asks, “What can I do to bring greater happiness to my wife [or husband]?” and then acts upon it gladly and willingly, love has the soil in which growth is likely to take place.

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10. With the emphasis on things, the “good life,” and the accumulation of material possessions, it is easy to get hooked on the Madison Avenue merry-go-round. A reporter once asked the elder Rockefeller, “How much money does it take to satisfy a person?” The billionaire snapped back, “Always a little more!” If a pastor’s family operates in a milieu where affluence is evident and he is just “not in the running,” jealousy may insidiously creep into the relationship to disrupt and destroy.

The Other Half Of The Story

For many families, and especially for the wife, the parish experience is a goldfish-bowl existence. Spats or problems within the parsonage seem often to be more public than private information. One pastor’s wife put it: “As Caesar’s wife, I had to be beyond reproach.” Living behind this façade can grate on the family’s personality, and the strain, real or imagined, can contribute to a wife’s basic dissatisfaction.

Unless a woman is familiar with the irregular hours of the profession, she may be ill prepared for the demands placed on her husband. Nor may playing a “behind the scenes” role or basking in the shadow of her spouse be quite “good enough” for the educated, more assertive parsonage wife. Nan Andrews wrote recently, “Many ministers’ wives are well educated and talented in their own right, but are getting their ‘goodies’ primarily or only through their husbands’ work. They have not felt free or been encouraged to pursue their own careers if they wished.”

The church may get so large, duties (real or felt) so demanding, community- and hierarchy-motivated programs so time consuming that the family is squeezed out or relegated to positions of seemingly secondary importance.

A Texas minister’s wife spoke from personal experience: “The congregation may turn to the pastor for counseling, but where do we go for help? The shoemaker’s children go barefoot; what happens to the clergy family?”

A potpourri of clergy wives’ concerns/complaints include too little personal time together; less freedom than the majority of families to move or stay in the community of their choice; less remuneration than other professions with similar educational requirements. (“Perks” such as car allowances; rent-free, church-owned housing; and occasional discounts narrow the gap. But a sense of dissatisfaction may still permeate parsonage families.)

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Some Solutions

So far we have spoken of reasons for the rising incidence of clergy divorces. If it is true that there is a causal factor for everything, then can we not say that if walls are built between two people then these same people can cooperatively break them down? The UNESCO preamble reads: “If wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that peace must be constructed.” I believe this applies to couples and families as well as to nations.

A recent article appeared in the Lutheran Church of America’s Lutheran, “1980’s: Groping or Coping?” I believe this is the challenge facing those who want to improve parsonage relationships. It will require some of the keenest minds of Christendom—minds open to what key people in the fields of human relations and theology have to say. It will take agonizing and soul searching as well as decision making as humbly, perhaps hesitantly, we seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The following may add to the contribution already made.

1. I have long advocated that there be one or more pastor’s pastors in every synod or similar division. Though seemingly this has fallen on deaf ears, perhaps some day it will happen. Some say the synod president is a pastor to pastors, and I agree to a point. One of his prime responsibilities (this applies, of course, to a bishop or district superintendent) is to place the most qualified and effective person in a given parish. But regardless of how fair, open, or non-prejudicial a leader may be, is it not logical that he may hesitate to recommend someone to a congregation if he is aware of the individual’s personal or family problems? Leaders tend to operate out of a considerable number of “shoulds” and “oughts.”

I believe church leaders should provide someone with experience in the active ministry, skilled as a counselor and trained in the behavioral sciences, who would travel about the territory without clout or official representation. He or she could be a friend to the minister, listening, counseling, supporting, and reporting numbers, not names, to the leaders. This would apply to clergy in “tent-making” ministries. Reinforcing my conviction, Howard Clinebell comments: “Denominations ought to make it easier for ministers and their families to receive competent counseling, non-ecclesiastically related. Such counseling should be confidential and should not be reported to those in the ecclesiastical power structure.”

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2. I am also concerned to see top quality premarital counseling provided. While in seminary, I was also a member of the faculty who tested “pre-theos” and theological students for “fitness for ministry.” Why not include another category: “fitness for family life?” Preventive medicine seems to be a logical response to the marital difficulties of our day. A leader in pastoral education writes: “I personally think our judicatores have a responsibility to provide actively for the care of clergy families in emotional and marital concerns as we do in the medical programs commonly provided.”

3. Dr. Clinebell advocates the personal involvement of seminarians and those in the parish in growth groups. Responding to a question asked by Christian Ministry’s interviewer, who inquired after “the positive, therapeutic things that can and should be done for minister marriages,” he said, “Many discover they are really fighting old battles, that they are prisoners of their own past … this can sabotage their own effectiveness.”

4. Ministers need to recognize their need for counseling. A leading writer and counselor said to me, “Ministers seem to be the last ones to seek help.” The ex-wife of a pastor wrote: “… ministers are often the last ones to feel or admit a need for counseling. They counsel other people. Frequently a minister’s ego makes it extremely hard for him to seek help until it is too late.” Others concur. Statistics stored in denominational headquarters are so well guarded that it is not possible to report the percentage or numbers of ministers seeking therapy. It appears, however, that younger, counseling-oriented ministers tend to seek assistance more freely than others whose training did not include this orientation.

Reasons for the minister’s reluctance to enter into a therapeutic relationship are varied. Reuel Howe submits one that says, “Helping others serves to contribute to the formation of illusions about our own adequacy. Such attitudes are in part reinforced by unreal expectations of us (the pastor) on the part of others.” A second reason may be fear of acknowledging we are unable to control our lives. To admit that we need to reach out to another professional may be so unpalatable that counseling is refused. We need to rid ourselves of the “halo effect.” Those who are ordained are neither perfect nor infallible. To admit this and reach out to God and man in time of need is a sign of strength, not weakness.

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5. Congregations need education in the area of realistic expectations for the pastor and his family. Due to demands (overt or covert) of members, applied pressures, and selfish, controlling tactics, the clergy and their families often are caught in a crossfire or a push-pull of loyalities. In a fairly recent cross-denominational survey, the interviewers asked wives, “How many days have you had alone with your husband in the last month?” Over 50 percent of them said, “Not one.” Only 2 percent had as many as one a week, and only 16 percent had as many as two days alone with their husbands in the month prior to the survey!

6. The minister needs to practice what he preaches. The gospel of love is still alive and well. So is the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is still a channel between God and his creation, and the Word still offers guidance for our lives. Resources within the church and secular community are available. Their competent people are trained not only in counseling, but in keeping confidences.

7. Participation in marriage encounter, marriage/family enrichment, family checkup/family strengths seminars, S.O.S. seminars (Self-Awareness, Self-Understanding, Others [communication], and Sexuality), and similar programs can be undertaken before the divorce lawyer is engaged. The S.O.S. and checkups/strengths seminars have proven helpful to many over the past several years.

The End Result

From various denominational headquarters, including Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Presbyterian, have come some positive responses to the need. Action is being taken: a pastor to pastors has been established by one large denomination; committees are being formed to take a closer look at the divorce problem on an ongoing basis; guidelines are being written; clergy and laity are sharing ideas, agonizing over an issue that refuses to keep silent.

Robert Sinks speaks of a “theology of fulfillment.” This stems from John 10:10 and the human potentials movement. He writes: “Applying this divine order to divorce and marriage, we come to realize that faithfulness to the intention of marriage is the best pathway to human fulfillment and joy. The goal that marriage is lifelong is to be taken with full seriousness; for only as couples commit themselves to the process and discipline can they hope to create the fidelity and mutuality out of which the highest joy of marriage can issue.”

The pathway to more enriching and fulfilling marriages will not be an easy one; applying Band-Aids or simple prescriptions will not suffice. A great deal of cooperation is needed, but it will result, I believe, in helping to stem the tide of divorce and alienation, and foster enriched, fulfilled marriages and families where there is support and love for one another.

Robert J. Stout is professor of psychology/marriage and the family at Saint Petersburg College, Florida. He also has a private counseling practice.

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