Divorce: When It Strikes Your Pastor

by: Larry Davies | Feb 6, 2010

“Pastor Kills Wife and Himself!” was the shocking headline of a newspaper article. “A pastor fatally shot his estranged wife yesterday before turning the gun on himself, authorities said.” The article mentioned frequent arguments and the pastor’s unwillingness to accept the divorce. I noticed one comment by a church member: “They were such good people. I don’t know what went wrong.”

No one is immune to the tragedy of marital distress and divorce… not even the men and women who devote their livelihood to serving God. The same pastor who is depended upon to provide God’s loving grace during a crisis often has no place to turn when the family experiencing calamity is his/her own. This is especially true when the predicament involves separation or divorce. I know! I’ve been there!

“I’m leaving you. I don’t like this town or this life and I don’t love you!” The conversation took longer but it was what she meant. Within a few days, my wife of fifteen years had packed her clothes, half of our furniture and many of our memories in a borrowed pickup truck and moved away to start over. Left behind were two crying children, an emotionally wrecked husband and a confused church community.

So many questions come to mind during an experience like this and I remember asking them all. “Why is she leaving me? Am I really that hard to live with? How will I care for my children? Will she come back? What if I lost weight? What if I changed my attitude? Oh Lord… why me?”

I also had to deal with questions about my career. “How can I stand in front of my congregation and admit being a failure? Will they let me continue as their pastor? Do I even want to continue? Is this what God had in mind when I changed careers to serve the church? Again, Oh Lord… why me?”

A Newsweek article states: “In recent years the divorce rate for protestant clergy has risen to match the general population.” In other words, clergy and their families are not immune to the human tragedies that infect us all. The Bible explicitly describes how pastors should treat their families: “You must manage your own family well, with children who respect and obey you. For if you cannot manage your own household, how can you take care of God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:4-5) Good question!

Keith Madsen examines the problem in: Fallen Images: Experiencing Divorce in the Ministry. “One view is that a minister cannot show any major flaw or failure. The minister has to project the image of a person who has been strong enough to resist the evils with which others struggle.” Perfection is an impossible image to live up to and attempts can lead to serious trouble.

Divorce explodes the perfect pastoral image. In addition to the excruciating personal pain of a marital break-up there is also the public humiliation of having your leadership abilities challenged before the church and community. So clergy divorce becomes a dual tragedy, personally and professionally, causing severe emotional damage to the pastor and his/her family.

What about the former husband or wife of a pastor? Because most ministers live in church housing the spouse is always forced to move. What happens to the children? Where do they go? Who do they turn too? The church that was once a source of emotional and financial support is now unavailable.

And the news gets worse… clergy divorce also divides the church. Some members will rally around the pastor offering sympathy and encouragement. Others will demand an investigation and maybe a resignation. Most church members will quietly grieve for the family. Some will say, “I told you so!” Meanwhile, much of the ministry and work of the church grinds to a screeching halt.

God says it best, “For I hate divorce…” (Malachi 2:16)

What should the church do? Consider clergy divorce a private matter and quietly offer family counseling? Should church authorities automatically require divorcing pastors to resign?

Next week I’ll try to give you reasonable and Biblical answers. Meanwhile, let your pastor know how much you love him or her and offer support and prayers. They really need it. Don’t we all.

Are you… or do you know a pastor who has been divorced.


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