For the last two weeks, I’ve described the heartbreak of clergy divorce. In addition to the excruciating personal pain of a marital break-up there is also the public humiliation of having your leadership skills and even your spirituality challenged before the church and community. Recent statistics show the divorce rate for clergy has risen to match that of the general population. It’s a serious problem. What should we do? Nothing? Ask the pastor to resign? What about the spouse… the children?
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? What should we do?
Offer Love – Not Silence: Within a few hours after my wife of fifteen years walked out, I was surrounded by friends, church members, other pastors and relatives. No one knew what to say but it didn’t matter. They quietly brought food and offered reassurance that I was loved. Their gestures touched me in ways I still cherish. A neighbor came over late one night and sat quietly while I talked and cried and rambled and even cursed. He lovingly allowed me the opportunity to be angry… to say stupid things… to be human… to release years of pent-up frustration… to grieve. Thank you my friend!
This sounds so simple but hundreds of divorced people said the only response they received from friends and even from their church was… silence: no phone calls, no food, no compassionate listening ear… just numbing cold silence. Why? There is a fear of what to say: A fear of taking sides between two fighting friends. But for those experiencing divorce the silence is interpreted as rejection. It hurts!
Investigate Quickly and Respond Openly: Within days, I met with three ministerial supervisors to investigate the circumstances involved in my potential divorce. For two hours they questioned and prodded and offered possible options for saving my marriage. They concluded I was doing all that could be done and even if it ended in divorce I should learn from my experience and continue my role as minister of the church. A committee at church soon agreed: A needed boost to my self-esteem.
A quick and responsible investigation is vital for the pastor as well as the church. For a minister it could mean the difference between growing stronger or leaving the ministry in disgrace. For the church it could mean the difference between being in compassionate ministry to a fallen leader or becoming involved in a disastrous church split. An investigation clears the air and squelches gossip.
What if the pastor is guilty of adultery, abuse or forcing the divorce? This also needs to be handled quickly and openly. Without revealing details, church officials can help the pastor face the consequences of his or her wrongdoing. An attitude of love and forgiveness from the congregation is important but a minister should resign or at least take a leave of absence for the sake of the church.
Because most ministers live in church owned housing: What happens to the spouse and the children? In the midst of the dilemma surrounding the pastor, their physical and emotional needs are often ignored. It is so important that authorities and church members remember and reach out to them.
Look for Signs of Growth: Over the next few months, I was encouraged to seek out others facing similar difficulties. Eventually we formed a divorce support group and began meeting twice a month. We all needed a chance to talk freely in the company of those who understood the unique problems of separation and divorce. One session would be about anger, then a Bible study on divorce or possibly a discussion on how to raise children as single parents. I soon began writing about those experiences.
As I became involved in helping the divorced renew their relationship with God, my faith strengthened. “God comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others.” (2 Cor. 1:4) The love, patience and gentle guidance given by a church family enabled my recovery and helped me discover a new ministry. Does this mean I make it easier for other couples to get a divorce? Absolutely not! Divorce is a horrible tragedy and a sin to the sacredness of marriage. Yet it was in the midst of my sin that I discovered God’s truly amazing grace. As a renewed Christian and pastor, I am ever thankful.