Ministry Today | Serving and empowering church leaders

When Pastors Divorce

We must find better ways to handle the issue of divorce among Christian leaders.

Even though God created mankind to enjoy an eternal, intimate relationship with Him, He also saw fit that during man's time on earth, he should not be alone. Because none of the created order was sufficient to meet man's need for companionship, God took out of Adam's side that "bone of man's bone" and "flesh of man's flesh" to create the one called woman. The intimate relationship between the two was meant to last until they were parted by death.

When a man and a woman are joined together in holy matrimony, the two become one in spirit, soul and body. An intertwining of the two parties takes place in the sacredness of the wedding vows. All of Adam's hopes and fears, love and lust, faith and phobias, strengths and dysfunctions are, in a moment in time, fused to the same in his Eve.

That is why divorce is always a great tragedy. It is not only the ripping apart of the fabric of two lives once intricately woven together, but it also is the dissolving of the relationship that--next to one's relationship with God--was intended to be the most intimate. God hates divorce because it damages His creation at its deepest emotional and spiritual core.

Unfortunately, in our society and in our churches, men and women are becoming one and then ripping that one into two at an increasing rate. Some of our Christian leaders, our co-laborers--including many who may be reading this--have, for one reason or another, ended a marriage.

While as a church we have largely moved beyond our judgment of divorce as the unforgivable sin among the laity, we are becoming increasingly embarrassed and uncomfortable with divorce among our most prominent leaders. It is also conjectured that the lowering of our moral standards as a church can be further evidenced by the laity still patronizing ministers who are divorced.

I fear we are in danger of confusing our love for the standards of God with a love for the people of God.

I don't know what it is like for you to come home at night. I can chasten you for the sin of divorce but never fathom what led to the failure of your marriage. I believe that although we must hate divorce and actively fight to save every marriage we can, we must also love and heal every broken person from the relationships we were unable to salvage.

The need for healthy marriages in leadership. We all know what the books say about how we as ministers should maintain a healthy marriage. We need to spend quality time together. We must be certain that we are married to our spouses and not our ministries.

Our marriages should not be seen as a tool to help us in our ministry pursuits. We must not be afraid to get into the sticky issues that come up in our marriages. Remember, when you were joined together, you linked two people who, even if advanced in maturity, carry a certain amount of baggage.

When marriages are unhealthy. Many have quoted statistics indicating that divorce among Christians is at the same or higher rate than the world. I am not really surprised.

As a church, we are embarrassed by divorce and would rather have our leaders stay together to look good. Many stay together to keep things looking good even though they are miserable. As a result, we create a system where dysfunctional people, who happen to wear clerical collars, have nowhere to go for help.

Are we really saying they can never sing or teach again because they failed in some area of their life? Who then can teach or sing or lead God's people? We all have failed and fallen short of God's glory.

The statements we make about divorce and how we handle leaders and laity send a message as to who we are. Do we believe that, even though it is not God's will, there is life after divorce?

In my church, we have put up a sign saying, "Bring me your wounded and bleeding." The church at large communicates the same message. Consequently, we have a disproportionate number of people who come to the church as a last and final attempt to restore what is often a terminal relationship.

Technically they are Christians, but they are wrestling with unresolved issues that we tend to sweep with the wide broom of salvation, telling them that if they just accept Christ, everything will be all right. The reality is that after we accept Christ, the work is just beginning.

Dealing with the complex issues. The issues of marriage are intricate, and it is those in the trenches with the bleeding who alone can understand the depth of human depravity.

Do we force a heterosexual mate to remain with someone who has chosen to live out a non-heterosexual identity? These and other secrets are the scissors ripping homes apart. I know for many of us it is difficult to believe these problems exist in our marriages. The reality is that people come into the church deeply troubled but hide their issues because the church is often more image conscious than rehabilitative.

How about the relationship in which years of emotional or physical abuse have been tolerated because we hate divorce more than the wounds inflicted on a human spirit or the scars on a tender body?

Recently, an angry judge approached me with alarming statistics of women who were being physically beaten. Every 15 seconds a woman is beaten to death by someone who says he loves her. When these women come to their priests or pastors, we too often advise them to stay in their marriages and to pray through it. The judge was irate because many of those women are literally being killed by our advice.

I have known men who, before they came to Christ or before they were called to pastor, were married to a woman who didn't want to be married to a minister. These men have been pulled apart by the conflict between their call and their companion. Should such a man be cursed to celibacy because the other person wants to be divorced?

These issues are very complex. Although the church should not be soft on divorce, I am begging us to finally realize that marriage is not as simple as saying, "Just pray, and God will bless you."

When divorce occurs. When someone does finally let go of the rope of marriage, and we read about it or hear all the gossip that always erupts after it, let's withhold our criticism and bathe him or her in prayer. Psychologists teach that divorce is more invasive on the emotions than death. Now add to that the rejection of the only spiritual place of recovery--the church--and you have some sad consequences for hearts that are hemorrhaging.

Some have foolishly jumped into other relationships either because of infidelity or the fear of fornication. If it is the latter case, they are swapping the devil for the witch. If it is the former, they are in serious trouble and need counseling on a personal level.

Those in the pulpit are not immune from dysfunctions in marriage. For the church to remain pastoral, it needs to be supportive rather than critical.

We must allow the blood that flows throughout the body of Christ to flow to the leadership head. Currently, I fear the head is being denied the blood that flows through the body. We don't want divorce to be a fire escape. But when all else fails, we must not alienate those who are divorced.

I also do not believe that when there is infidelity and divorce in the life of a minister that they owe us an explanation of every detail before we hear them again. Each one of us, as ministers, should be accountable to someone--but not to everyone.

Every pastor needs a pastor, someone with whom they are accountable and who will know all the details. But congregants, print media and Web sites do not need all the details. Should it be required that people go public with every detail of their divorce to get validation from the church or from a person buying their tapes? I say, no!

We need to put helping and counseling systems in place for dysfunctional clergy and their wives. The church is in denial--often unwilling to provide assistance--and often teems with criticism when things finally fall apart.

Pastoring the wounded. Personally, I will not reject anyone who has experienced the tragedy of divorce or who has caused the tragedy and repented. Nor will I criticize sheep who feed under a divorced shepherd. How can I do so when I read a Bible that was written by, among others, repentant murderers such as Moses, perpetrators of hate crimes such as Paul and assailants such as Peter?

Why do we still buy and read the Bible? It is because God continues to feed His people through the mouths of ravens. The raven is not the bird most of us would have chosen, but God sent the bread that gave life and restoration to Elijah--who himself was a suicidal preacher--through this vile messenger.

Let's give bread to wounded pastors. If we do, they will impact us and, at the very least, teach us what went wrong so we can break this terrible blight that continues to infiltrate our ranks. *

T.D. Jakes bases his ministry in Dallas, where he pastors The Potter's House church. His most recent book is The Great Investment: Faith, Family, Finances (Putnam).

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