Saturday, September 8, 2012

Clergy Divorce

A recent report in the LA Times stated that 25% of clergywomen and 20% of clergymen have been divorced at least once.  In my Tuesday morning breakfast group, the rate is much higher, perhaps because our first marriages terminated in an earlier time when the national divorce rate was around 35%.  The 2008 US divorce rate was 28.5.  In addition, that same article reported that 80% of the clergy think that ministry has negatively affected their marriages.

Colby Phillips, eHow contributor, wrote this about the reasons for clergy divorce.  Clergy report feeling stressed out and over committed, burdens that have been shown to take a frequent toll on marriage.  Factors that increase the risk of marital problems include lack of social support, frequent moves and breached boundaries between professional and home life.  Mitigating these risk factors are resources such as psychological, financial, family support and career services.  Additionally, clergy who are engaged in active pursuits outside the ministry, such as hobbies, personal devotion and the arts, fare better.

The Episcopal Church is good at providing important mental and wellness benefits to its clergy.  While I found it helpful to join a clergy support group, it didn't help my first marriage.  Support groups, spiritual directors and a "soul friend" helps the morale of the priest, but they cannot help a severely broken relationship.  Phillips also mentions that congregations can provide support of varying kinds, but neither to they rescue a marriage in critical care.  It support of clergy marriage, however, congregations can support a marriage by honoring days off (don't call except in an emergency), providing sabbaticals, and not calling the home at night unless there is an emergency.

Clergy marriages thrive best when specific boundaries are set.  If you make yourselves available all the time and can't say no, it is a certainty that your marriage will endure a great amount of stress.  Those who are continually available and work tons of hours are perceived by their spouses as "not being there for them," and this can strain a marriage to the breaking point. Its also a good idea to not bring work problems home for marital discussion.  Take these up with your spiritual director or best friend.  And watch out for the kind of violated boundaries that lead to sexual misconduct.  Some good friends I've known over the years crashed and burned because of this, and they lost their jobs.  Each member of the clergy needs to know when to draw the line when a parish relationship takes on the aura of indiscreet intimacy.

There is nothing worse for a marriage that a level six conflict in the parish.  The potential for burnout is very high under these circumstances.  When this happens, the priest may be faced with a choice between their marriage and staying in a highly conflicted situation.  My advice:  CHOOSE YOUR MARRIAGE.  There is nothing wrong with bailing out by intentionally looking for another job.

Some clergy marriages suffer from what I call the spouses' idealization of the clergy spouse.  Some people marry clergy because they are dependent and want to be taken care of by "god."  They enter the marriage with the expectation that their clergy spouse will be more than human, a kind of divine parent that will pastor their spouse and thereby fulfill a severe dependency need.  Once this gets insidiously close to toxic, the marriage is bound the falter.  Unless the couple works through this issue with intense therapy, they won't make it.  The priest is human after all, and wants to be treated as such by their spouses.

When a divorce happens, a spiritual crisis of a great magnitude invades the priest's consciousness, and suddenly we are living only in Good Friday.  For a time there is no Holy Saturday and no Easter Day.  We are bathed in our own crucifixion and it hurts really, really bad.  Even in our therapeutic culture, we lose that Prayer Book statement that marriage "signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church."  Most divorced clergy I know took their marriage vows very, very seriously, and some feel like they have broken this solemn vow.

It does take time to heal.  But if the couple doesn't get along, and if they fall victim to the demands of the church and society, then the choice to divorce is OK.  On the other hand, my prayer would be that the couple reignite a sense of the mystical presence of God in their lives, get lots and lots of therapy, relearn what it is like to love one another, and thereby stay together.  In either case, thank God that the church is more compassionate and accepting of the reality of divorce, and that many clergy continue to stay in their jobs after a failed marriage.  When I was a young priest, that just didn't happen.

Fortunately for me, I met and married a wonderful woman who has been my partner and spouse for 23 years.  This is good news for every priest who is going through  divorce.  You can find a great partner and friend the second time around.

6 comments:

  1. Bob, thank you. I know from experience much of what you write and the value of your counsel.

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  2. Turnip Ghost is a shallow thinker who has no idea about the deeper reality inherent in humankind's search for meaning in the Divine.

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  3. Robert Terrill claims to know what no human being can possibly know. Unlike him, I don't claim to know what nobody can possibly be sure of.
    If humanity were truly searching, more and more people would be going to churches instead of shaking their heads and drifting away.

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  4. Sir:
    How do you square divorce with Christ's admonition that anyone one who divorces a woman and marries another is guilty of adultery with that woman? I am not condemning only asking your opinion. The gospel seems pretty clear that divorce for any grounds other than adultery is not permitted. Does a man who marries after a divorce commit adultery with his new wife so long as he is married to her?

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  5. "When a divorce happens, a spiritual crisis of a great magnitude invades the priest's consciousness, and suddenly we are living only in Good Friday. For a time there is no Holy Saturday and no Easter Day. We are bathed in our own crucifixion and it hurts really, really bad. Even in our therapeutic culture, we lose that Prayer Book statement that marriage "signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church." Most divorced clergy I know took their marriage vows very, very seriously, and some feel like they have broken this solemn vow." Been there. Thanks for the article! As for remarriage, divorce and adultery; I constantly carry that as my cross - there Cana and Golgotha meet for me.

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