By Sue Magrath, MC
Many clergy have shared issues on this page that require a great deal of courage and vulnerability, revealing struggles with depression, anxiety, addiction, parenting problems, and even self-doubts about their prayer life. The one topic that has not come up is marriage. This may be the last bastion of secrecy among clergy. It appears that no one is prepared to acknowledge, maybe even to themselves, that their marriage might be in trouble. Yet ministry creates an incredible stress on marital relationships. An article published by the Francis Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership reports that 77 percent of clergy did not rate their marriages positively. Even more alarming, 30 percent reported either a one-time sexual encounter with a parishioner or an ongoing affair. This is approximately twice the rate of infidelity than the general population.
It’s not hard to come up with a number of contributing factors—60-hour workweeks, missed family events due to church emergencies, fatigue, unmet expectations, et cetera. All of these eat into any time that might be used for communication, mutual activities, and intimacy. And when the marital relationship starts going south—increased conflict, reduced communication, lack of quality time—the pastor is vulnerable to seeking positive attention and affirmation elsewhere. And it’s not hard to find. A warm and caring pastor is often the object of parishioner “crushes.” This is a phenomenon familiar to psychotherapists. Whether doing therapy or providing pastoral care, helping professionals often adopt a persona that is totally focused on the person in front of them. Their own issues are not a part of the conversation, and the patient/parishioner receives 100 percent of their compassionate attention. It’s pretty easy to “fall in love” with someone who gives you that kind of unconditional positive regard. What clergy need to remember when this happens is that the parishioner is not infatuated with the real you, the one with flaws and foibles, the one who loses his or her temper at times, and isn’t always as loving and kind as this person is experiencing you in the church setting. Still, it’s hard not to get caught up in someone’s adoration of you if things aren’t going well at home.
A former pastor of mine was serving a new church start when a young widow who had recently joined the church expressed interest in entering the ministry. The pastor began mentoring her as she discerned her call, and, since the church was renting space in a school for Sunday worship, they met in the pastor’s home while his wife was at work. Inevitably, the intimacy of such a relationship and the privacy of their meeting place led to a sexual relationship. Eventually, the affair was discovered, and the pastor lost his job.
Of course, for most who are reading this, the alarm bells are already going off. However, it is easy to look at this story and believe that it couldn’t happen to you, that you would have managed that situation very differently. But it is precisely the sense that you would never fall prey to such a relationship that is the biggest contributor to actually doing so. When you deny the possibility, you fail to be alert to any feelings of attraction you have toward a person other than your spouse or partner. And when you deny those feelings, which are normal and natural, you fail to do anything about them. However, when you acknowledge your attraction, you can address it head-on. Are these feelings arising because there are problems in your marriage? Then it is time to act to resolve the issues close to home rather than acting on the attraction.
Often, affairs, whether emotional or sexual, begin with a lowering of boundaries. If you notice that you are sharing more personal information with someone than you normally would, consider this a warning light going off in your head. At the same time that this opening of a door is happening, there is also often the closing of a door between you and your spouse. You may find yourself shutting down, sharing less, or turning away from intimacy. And once the door to the other is open to emotional intimacy, physical intimacy may not be far behind. Before that happens, it is important to reverse the direction of sharing from this person to whom you are attracted and direct it back toward your spouse.
Whether you think your marriage relationship is fine, leaves something to be desired, or is already at the point of contemplating divorce or an affair, the following are some thoughts for making it better. Begin to truly work on your marriage. This means scheduling quality time—date nights, lunch dates (even if that means peanut butter sandwiches in the park), pillow talk, play activities, or pretty much anything that enhances emotional and physical intimacy. But if I were to name the single most important factor in keeping a marriage vital, it would be communication. Talk to each other! When things are hard, hash it out. When talking leads to fighting, seek marital counseling. When it feels like there’s an abyss between you, reach out. Find something that unites you. Rekindle the bond of earlier times. Talk about your pain, not just what the other is doing that drives you crazy. Be vulnerable with each other. Most of all, remember what you love about each other.
Excerpted and adapted from My Burden is Light: A Primer for Clergy Wellness by Sue Magrath.
Sue Magrath is a spiritual director and the author of several books. Her previous career spanned fourteen years in the mental health field, where many of her clients were victims/survivors of child sexual abuse and/or sexual assault.