Unfaithful pastors I’ve counseled have said things like, “The affair was like a run-away-train,” or “It’s like I was temporarily insane.” Even the pastors who are restored to God and their families take a circuitous route, taking jobs as teachers, train engineers, taxi cab drivers, car salesmen, and many other kinds of valuable jobs. But these circuitous routes aren’t refreshing springs for these pastors whose giftings lie in different areas, and other careers are endured as God’s discipline.
We all reap what we sow, but pastors have an even greater accountability, as they are depended upon for inspiration and to model lives worthy of being imitated. Truly, as scripture says, “As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor” (Ecclesiastes 10:1). When a pastor falls into sin, the ripple effect on the lives of others is often immeasurable.
We know that adultery was one of the sins for which God had Eli's sons killed. We know that King David paid serious “dues” for his immorality with Bathsheba. Other biblical characters were personally disciplined by God for the sin of adultery. Prophets have denounced adultery; and idolatry and sexual immorality were so intertwined in biblical times that each was a synonym for the other. And a ‘spiritual’ relationship with a member of the congregation that morphs into immorality is, perhaps, the grossest form of idolatry.
How common is adultery among clerics? About 15 years ago I read an interesting study that concluded the following: 10% of all psychologists have had an affair with a client; and 30% of all pastors have had an affair with a member of the congregation.
I think we can account for the difference between the 10% and the 30% in this way: Psychologists have to take a course in ethics, which includes teachings on how to draw boundaries with clients, how to seek counseling for themselves in order to understand their how to gain victory over personal flaws, how to avoid temptations in the office, how to make appropriate referrals, learning professional consequences of inappropriate behavior (losing one's license), grasping the importance of "doing no harm" to a client, learning about the requirement to report another psychologist that you hear about that's having an affair, and other important ethical and legal teachings.
I’ve had two years of seminary and three years of Bible College, and I never took such a course. If seminaries and Bible Colleges presently provide such a course, I'm not aware of this.
Also, pastors are frequently alone with women, alone in an office without a window, and sometimes even go to a woman's house alone. Pastors are also "targets" for some women who idealize them, some of whom are extremely needy and flirtatious and who are sometimes mentally ill and without treatment. My father, a Methodist minister, was plagued by a mentally ill woman who thought that he was the Messiah. My father was able to refer her to a psychiatrist friend at Butler University. Of course, this didn’t stop her from visiting my father’s church when we moved from Indianapolis to Columbus, Ohio. I don’t know what became of her, but I remember that my father well documented all interactions and stayed far away from even the appearance of evil.
Basically, many pastors are “sitting ducks.” Of course, their protection against immorality should be their deep and personal commitment to and relationship with Christ. How sad that this is not enough. Why isn’t it enough? Before answering these questions, let’s look at a few more statistics:
I just read of four recent surveys of pastors (source is cited below). 14-18% of pastors admitted to an affair and an additional 18% admitted to an emotional affair. But because 14% of the pastors admitted that they lied on the survey, we can assume the rate of either physical or emotional infidelity among pastors is at about 40%. This is probably shocking to some of you. It was to me!
What are the risk factors for pastoral infidelity? Not dealing with these factors explains why reliance on Christ isn’t enough. They aren’t relying on Christ with their whole beings, but with only the part that is capable of spiritual maturity.
In the four recent surveys, three family risk factors emerged:
- Family history of infidelity
- Single parent/blended family history
- Physically abusive/chronically conflicted family history
Such families usually have a lack of adequate nurturing and there are often attachment disturbances that need to be faced and resolved. Sex can become a great comfort to pastors who haven’t learned to receive nurturing from the right sources, or who haven’t resolved marital conflicts. Distance from a father can influence a son to "sexualize" his world, not having a close relationship with someone who models true masculinity. The world's definition becomes all the more alluring: That "manhood" equals sexual appeal.
Here are three high risk personal factors:
- Sexual molestation
- Adolescent promiscuity
- Learning disabilities/ADHD
Such experiences or limitations often engender a focus on the pleasure of sexual gratification. Adolescents are often picked on because of their limitations and sexual gratification can become a copying mechanism. Also, most children who are sexually molested feel guilty. Hence, a negative self-image becomes something to be unconsciously reinforced. This is sometimes an "invisible loyalty" to the perpetrator who may have even threatened the one who was molested.
Here are two high risk seasons of life:
1. Times of loss
2. Times of life transitions
Whether it’s the loss of health, a spouse, a career a dream, a family member or even a pet, these losses create vulnerabilities to inappropriate comfort, including the attentions of others with whom alliances can be dangerous. The greatest risk factor may be the two years surrounding pregnancy and infancy of a child. At such times, there’s more focus on the baby, hormonal changes, and other changes, including restrictions on sexual activity. I've know people who have had an affair right after a loved one died. The vacuum in the heart can be so great that any pleasurable stimulation can be a source of craving and can be falsely justified.
Finally, here are two high risk personal behaviors:
- Opposite sex friendships
- Conjoint volunteer activities
In the cited studies, 50% of the pastors who were unfaithful said that they had a history of close relationships with members of the opposite sex. Temptations to talk about personal matters evolve, and exchanging details always breeds intimacy. When these interactions are kept secret from the pastor’s spouse, distance between the pastor and his wife sets in, and the pastor’s vulnerability increases. The researchers suggest that common ministry passions between the pastor and the affairee, which are not shared between the pastor and his/her spouse, is the biggest personal risk factor, after pregnancy.
Younger pastors who never “sowed their wild oats” are the most vulnerable; more highly educated pastors are also more vulnerable, being more of a “target” for a parishioner, and perhaps developing more of a “gray area” between right and wrong.
Also, keep in mind that, according to the researchers, pastors who struggle with immorality don't generally attend conferences. Continual learning and fellowship with other pastors can be a big help in avoiding inappropriate or sinful relationships. Also, keep in mind that “sin doesn’t make sense,” and it doesn’t have to. Pastors should simply run from sin!
I’ve been a Christian-based counselor for over 30 years, primarily serving in a large church or in a Christian-based counseling agency. As a young counselor, a seasoned pastor told me in his office something that he had observed throughout his whole life: People that fall into immorality are usually the most legalistic among us. Over the years of my career, I’ve noticed that this is true; and from a psychological perspective, this makes sense. When we focus on rules and regulations, rather than enjoying our life in Christ and following the “royal law of love,” we provide a “target rich environment” for attacks of the enemy. Therefore, the answer is to develop our relationship with the Lord through a proper understanding of the scriptures, the message of grace, and to maintain an atmosphere of grace in our homes with spouses and family members. We must seek out appropriate ways to stimulate our senses, living the “abundant life” that Christ wants His children to enjoy.
These risk factors should not be used to rule out pastoral candidates. In the counseling profession, having faults is never a measure of risk; but rather insight into these faults is all important. When counselors – and pastors – understand their vulnerabilities, seek help, maintain openness and honesty with God and their spouses, these vulnerabilities can be managed and often eliminated.
What to do? I would encourage all educators to include these issues in their courses on pastoral ethics, if they have such courses. If they don’t have such courses, they should create them. I would encourage pastors to simply be honest with God, themselves, and their spouses about their vulnerabilities and often seek counseling. Our senior pastor has an accountability partner that he meets with weekly. So an accountability partner can help greatly to eliminate this heinous sin that is afflicting those who should be the most influential leaders of our culture.
To encourage us all, one of my favorite scriptures is that God works all things together for good to those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). The playwright, Edward Albee, said that “sometimes we have to go a long distance out of our way to go a short distance correctly.” Another clever and more profound way to express the same truth is echoed in a Portuguese proverb: “God draws straight with crooked lines.” One of our best biblical examples of this comes from the life of King David. His affair with Bathsheba was, indeed, a “crooked line” that led to much personal suffering and suffering by an untold number of family members and Israelites. Yet King Solomon was eventually born from that ungodly union, and Christ is descended from David and Bathsheba. God’s grace is always available to those who will humble themselves.
Nevertheless, if we “discern what is best” (Philippians 1:10), it’s best to lead lives that continually glorify God. I’ve also counseled many pastors who were tempted, but wanted to solve their family and personal problems before they initiated an affair (people don’t “fall into” anything, not love, not affairs, not anything!). These pastors have been strong influences to advance the kingdom of God. Because God meets all of us right where we're at and loves us unconditionally, may we all purpose to glorify him daily, whether through repentance and discipline, or through steadfast resistance of sin and temptation. I suggest that all of us continue personal discipleship and ministry that builds God's kingdom here on earth. As the spires of great cathedrals point toward an infinite God, may our lives continually point toward our magnificent Creator.
“Through the Looking Glass: Adultery’s Window,” by Dr. Julie Barrier
“High Risk Factors in Pastoral Infidelity,” by Carder, D., Christian Counseling Connection, 2007, Publication of the American Christian Counseling Association.
In addition to the conclusions of the researchers who analyzed the four surveys, Dr. Weld added his own experiences, conclusions, and perspectives which are supportive of the conclusions that the researchers have made.
Dr. Chet Weld is the Director of Pastoral Counseling and the Pastoral Care Dept. of Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. He has authored three journal articles, a book chapter, and his dissertation on client expectations of prayer in Christian counseling is available through ProQuest (under his full name, Devereaux Chester Weld). He is available to speak on a variety of subjects, including biblical subjects, marriage issues, relationship issues such as codependency, conflict resolution, victory over stress, and adolescent brain development. To contact Dr. Weld: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publication date: December 26, 2011