Why Pastors Have Affairs

23 Sep, 2010

I recently read and reviewed a book by a former pastor who left his wife, kids, and congregation to jump headfirst into a relationship with another woman. Though some may think that his story is a bit voyeuristic his openness of sharing his thoughts through this fling (and his return back home again) is both fascinating and revealing. If we are to understand why many religious leaders have taken this same jump, we may need to look past our hypersensitive emotions towards the fallen individuals and stop judging for a few moments in order to do some real investigation and soul searching.

Though hardly scientific, I’ll dare to suggest a few reasons that have come up in conversations with others, observations, and personal reflection. My goal is simply to get others thinking and hopefully dialoging, moving us closer to freedom.

  1. David Trotter, the author I mentioned above, suggests that his affair became a possibility in his life due to the burnout he suffered in his church ministry roles. When our pastors work endless hours and are drained spiritually and emotionally, when they are so headstrong about storing up treasure in Heaven that their own souls begin to rust down here, then they are more easily at risk to falling into emotional and physical affairs. (Author Ed Cyzewski delves into this particular reason on his blog, In.A.Mirror.Dimly)
  2. Lana Staheli, in her book, Affair-Proof Your Marriage, suggests that one of the reasons religious leaders seem to be more susceptible to having an affair is because of opportunity. As pastors usually don’t have the same time limitations or location restrictions as with most people’s jobs, they have freedom that someone working behind the counter at McDonald’s doesn’t. When you combine the ingredients of opportunity with hormones, and the power/control/mystique that a spiritual leader can sway over another person, it can lead to a recipe of infidelity.
  3. In 1998 Leadership Journal did an article on “How Common is Pastoral Indiscretion?” It has some interesting statistics, but one that stood out to me is that for those pastors who admitted that they had participated in sexually inappropriate behavior only 4 percent said their churches found out. 31 percent said they suffered no consequences from the actions at all. Apparently another reason pastors have affairs, and flirt around with other sexual indiscretions, is that they can get away with it.
  4. It was also suggested to me (indirectly from a denominational church leader) that the reason some pastors in his denomination were having affairs, and thus exploding their ministries, was that it was the only way they knew how to get out. How scarily inconceivable is that? If this is truly a reason, our denominations must invest some serious resources towards their pastors’ emotional health.
  5. I’d like to suggest that another huge reason for infidelity in the pastorate is a sense of entitlement. When a man feels that he is sacrificing so much for God and other people; that the difference he is making in the world is so significant, it’s easy to justify taking care of one’s own needs—sexually, monetarily, by controlling others, etc. I see this problem etched into the stories of many of our famous, fallen, religious leaders—and it is easy for me to pick out because entitlement is one of my life’s biggest struggles.
  6. Finally, I’d like to expound on what David Trotter began to share about ministry and burnout. As I look back on the many years I spent in the pastorate I would suggest that many of my fellow ministers and I perceived our relationship with our churches as godly, when in fact they could easily be described as adulterous. When we put our jobs over our wives, our kids, our relationships with others, and our promises—at the same time deluding ourselves that it is God’s ‘calling’ on our lives—it is an affair. We can talk good counsel to other men about their lives and their priorities but we think we have a ‘get out of jail free’ card when it comes to our own. It’s time we face up to the facts—if we are going to have full time ministry jobs, we’d better have some honest-to-God, realistic boundaries with them. It will go a whole lot further of keeping us from affairs than leaving the door cracked open when we are in counseling sessions with the opposite gender.

What do you think? Let’s dialog. Let’s move towards freedom.

46 Responses

  1. Ed Cyzewski says:

    Chad, God bless you for writing this! I've really tried to tackle this on my blog because I think it's so important. I think we place our pastors in very unhealthy positions, and they sometimes demand to be in these positions of power, isolation, and influence. There are plenty of ways that can fall to pieces.

    I saw these patterns emerging when I worked at a church, and I just couldn't do it. Most churches want Jesus to be their pastor as they trust their pastors to organize activities, counsel them, teach them, and care for them. When these human beings fail, the churches feel betrayed and turn on them.

    I could see myself crumbling in one way or another in that position, and so I write and speak when I can. I've had to find other ways to use my pastoral gifts outside of traditional pastoral ministry. I know there are some exceptions to what I've outlined, but there are so many well-meaning and naive seminary graduates who are stepping into the grind of pastoral ministry without a clue of what is waiting for them.

  2. Cindy Leavi says:

    Chad, Great review and thanks for sharing other sources as well. I had very similar experience when in a small leadership role. I felt such conflict. Our family should be our first ministry. I can only imagine the pulls within a pastors role. It certainly makes me ask myself – Is today's cultural role of a pastor a bit askew?
    Very well said!

  3. Thanks for writing this, Chad. I don't know how the rate of marital infidelity among ministry leaders compares to church attenders as a group or to the general population. It seems appropriate that we have a zero-tolerance attitude towards affairs, whilst also recognizing that in reality there will be failure among those God has chosen to use. Someone told me early on in the ministry journey that no one else was going to take care of my boundaries or manage my priorities for me. It was up to me to point out when my compensation was inadequate to the expectations, or the hours unreasonable to my priorities. After 20 years as a vocational minister I may not have the professional esteem of my peers that I once desired, but I do have my witness intact with my wife & kids, and my integrity in front of everyone I have served.
    May He increase and I decrease!

  4. joetheflow says:

    Great stuff Chad. Having seen nearly a dozen pastors make this choice, over the past 5 years, this helps shed some light on the 'whys'.

  5. I think another big issue was brought up in a book I read and reviewed earlier this year called "Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions" that explores cross-gendered friendships. I can't speak for all Christians everywhere or all ministers, but I know that I was taught by the church that men and women couldn't really be friends, that there was too much sexual tension there. Thankfully I ignored that and had a lot of friends that were girls growing up, but I knew a lot of guys who just didn't know how to be friends with a girl- every interaction was potentially romantic or could only lead to some kind of sexual encounter. That was it. No option for a healthy friendship, because that was "playing with fire" since it could only go to "that place." I'm no developmental specialist, by any means, but I would think that has to have some kind of implication for future interactions with women, if you are made to believe relationships with them can only lead to one thing.

  6. kat coe says:

    This is interesting. I feel like you're missing one component: the Savior complex. I've seen, time and again, "pastors" who lecture on the need for Jesus to be your only savior, completely counteract that notion in their behavior. Meaning, the message tends to be – Jesus is your savior, but I'm the one he's gonna use to "help" you figure everything out. This leaves a pastor – male or female – open to the wooing song of the enemy – "you will be like God…" Though I think he makes more clever arguments, these days, particularly in the "Christian community" – he pins us down by helping us to get all of our priorities backwards – and then to call it good.

  7. cwilliams59 says:

    My second comment is about infedelity in particular. I think that some ministers, who actually have have very good intensions to begin within can slip up if they do not constantly check themselves. I have spoken with several ministers who have gotten in trouble when couseling females. To a man, they tell the same story – productive sessions, good communication, an exchange of hopes and dreams, an emotional connection, a phyical touch, a loss of control. One may think that this sounds like ministers who were looking for this connection already but in at least a couple of the cases the ministers already had this type of relationship functioning with their spouses. The nature of the job sometimes puts ministers in a postion for them to confuse roles in people's lives and in a reflection of the emotion being shared with them a minister can lose themselves. Now this is not the same thing as those ministers who always seem to be "counseling" their good-looking flock all the time :) I know some of those as well :)

  8. Gina says:

    Hmm –the question may as well include lying, stealing, incest, molestation, pedifilia, or any other imperfection. Pastors and Bishops will sin. Some stir up emotions more than others. It is healthy to validate feelings – but what next? The issue is not the issue – but how we react to the issue IS the issue. This becomes the choice point when self help ends and obedience begins.

    Whenever I shift my expectation away from God I experience disappointment. And since I’ve had enough disappointment for this lifetime, I’m less willing to spend effort on judgment, evaluation or contemplation of another’s performance without the filter of God’s scandalous grace.

    What comes from the heart is taken to heart. What is their subsequent journey of faith? – the messier the better. With a journey as messy as mine, I am grateful for raw testimonies of how God doesn’t always pick the best – not does He ever abandon us. And when the journey becomes forlorn, I cling to: "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some undersand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance."

    My reaction is an opportunity to return me to a state of awe in what God can do with a puff of fading dust like me.

  9. Been there says:

    How much do you want me to really say about this? It is easy to comment about this topic from the side lines. However, when you are caught in the middle of this type of destruction, the perspective is very different. Burn out? I am burned out on my occupation. It is the type of occupation that has me in touch with many people in a very direct and personal fashion. I don't use my opportunities to sin because I know better. I know well enough that it isn't a temptation. Thank God for that.

    10 years ago, I was a minister, full time, on staff at a church. I had been there less than a year when the head pastor had an affair with my, then, wife. It was destructive to me, my family, his family, and the local church as a whole. After admitting to the affair, it was denied, the denomination helped to cover it up and support the denial, she filed the divorce, he divorced his wife and they married in less than a years time from when they admitted to their affairs. (but it was not an affair).

    I don't want to come across as bitter because I really am not. However, I am not going to make a level playing ground for pastors here. Pastors are held up to higher standards in many ways. I believe that this arena is one that should be held sacred; pastor or not.

  10. "many of my fellow ministers and I perceived our relationship with our churches as godly, when in fact they could easily be described as adulterous… "

    Adulterous – idolatrous – its not an issue reserved for pastors, or even for those in ministry. Any time we take our value from something other than God we are idolatrous. Have you ever met someone who hasn't at some time in their life, post conversion, lived in idolatry? I haven't. It is no less common in business leaders to be "married" to their work. I think we have to look a bit deeper with all this.

  11. Chad Estes says:

    Brandon, though I'm glad you get to work with your wife in this way, not all ministry spouses have this opportunity. Also, there are many who wouldn't want to.

  12. Chad Estes says:

    So true. Entitlement is a huge issue in ministry. Mine didn't lead to an affair either, but it certainly was destructive in other relationships.

  13. trinafisher says:

    It's interesting how this topic took me right back to 5th grade, emotionally, & how the pastor @ the big church my family went to got caught by his secretary. It caused so much damage in the church, in the family, though ironically the family moved away & the couple stayed married in the end. For me, in the end, I lost my wednesday night group (juniors for Jesus), the group of kids I'd done sunday school with, gone to camp with, cried with & laughed with, because like a lot of other people, our family left that church in the end to go elsewhere. I'm crying as I think about that group ending.

  14. Mindi W. says:

    I just finished Trotter's book yesterday. I think that more people should read it. It helped me to see that part of burnout is always putting ministry first and not taking care of ourselves or our families. I am sorry that he was unable to make the needed changes in his life until he had nearly destroyed his family. The book has helped me to rearrange my priorities, without feeling guilty, and I am not a pastor. I have put ministry above my family at times, and I am just now finding out some of the destructive effects it had on my family.

  15. amy says:

    Burnout is not an excuse. Ever. EVER.

  16. brianjeansonne says:

    I love your thoughts on reason #6. One's job can become their mistress or their addiction. (It's not just in ministry, but certainly seems to be common (or even expected) in ministry 'positions'. I think that emotional health becomes so critically important as well as boundaries and clear expectations. May we never allow ourselves to work in a place where we are expected (spoken or unspoken) to place the job (or ministry) ahead of our wives and kids. I don't think it makes for a good story.

  17. cwilliams59 says:

    You are so right about this. Pastors need people checking up on them too and somewhere to go when they need an emotional release. Our church group has presbrytors (sorry for the spelling). for each district. It is part of their job to check on and counsil with the pastors and be a resource for them. But when I spoke to our presbrytor about his job I was surprised to hear just how many pastor never took advantage of his help of their our accord. I personally counsel 3 pastors at this point, and am the sounding board for our pastor, so I know a good bit about what they go through, and you are correct – one of the worst things a church can do to their pastor is assign superhuman traits to them. That's for the great comments.

  18. Kimberly says:

    Perhaps it was mentioned above, still I want to post my concern that in my experience in church circles, healthy mixed gender relationships haven't been modeled. at. all. It was always assumed that a man and woman who weren't married to each other couldn't be in the same room or car together without having sex. With those expectations put before us, how do we learn to behave differently? I long for my daughter to have strong healthy friendships with boys because that is what she sees the adults in her life modeling for her. If everyone is freaked out about having coffee with someone of the opposite sex, how can she expect anything more in her friendships, how can we? I understand the whole protective measures, but I think it is sad they even have to be in place to begin with. I'm just now beginning to form and enjoy normal equal healthy relationships with men, coming out of a church culture that didn't provide a space for that, ever. It has been a learning process that I hope will be different for my girls.

  19. societyvs says:

    Another thing could be the move within Western cultures to 'oversexualization'. Society, in general, seems to view sex as something so intrinsic to one's life it appears everywhere and anywhere – there is no avoiding it. With that barrage keeping us continually thinking about such things, is it any wonder why men (or women) are cheating? From ad's, to tv, to music videos, to the internet, sexuality is the selling point…even pastor's are subject to this barrage from society. Maybe he crumbled at what seemed like an obvious option for 'happiness'?

    I also think as men we are pretty hardwired with a sexual appetite. Including all the stresses this person was already feeling – he did have urges that may have not been met? That coupled with his authority (which many women find attractive) and opportunity – he pretty much saw openings left and right and took one – maybe at first to de-stress but also to get out of his whole life which seemed to be heading nowhere.

  20. SurvivorGirl007 says:

    Having an "affair" with your pastor/priest is a misnomer; it is ABUSE. Because of the power differential between a member of the clergy and his congregant, it is never a consensual relationship. The pastor has a fiduciary responsibility to his congregants to establish and maintain boundaries — it's not the other way around. Even if a woman throws herself at her pastor – repeatedly – it is always 100% the pastor's responsibility to maintain a boundary. Clergy Sexual Abuse (CSA) and Clergy Sexual Misconduct (CSM) are rampant in the church. The only way to stop it is to educate congregations, many of whom have never even heard of it. People in the church hear the word "affair" and immediately place blame on the woman, but in reality, she is a victim of pastoral abuse. For more information, please check out this study by a sociologist at Baylor University at http://www.baylor.edu/clergysexualmisconduct/ and also read up on CSA/CSM at http://www.thehopeofsurvivors.com.

  21. Stop Fake wheat says:

    Has anyone considered that a large portion of them may be like Eli's sons in the bible who slept with the women who served at the Temple of God in the Old Testament? In other words the serial adulterer may not be saved at all! They might be reprobates and tares with an assignment to hurt the Lord's sheep!

  22. Josiah says:

    One bit of advice that helped me think about how to treat my family is this: treat them like they are ANY OTHER family in the church. If you saw a wife with a workaholic husband, and children raised basically by a single mom because the dad was always off at work, wouldn't that bother you? Wouldn't you want to step in and tell that man to man up and get back to his family and stop working so hard and to … oh, wait. That's YOUR family! Okay, better save that sermon for YOURSELF and go back there and be the man you need to be!

    If ministry is like kick-boxing, our family is like our core-muscles. We will only be as strong as our marriages are. We can spend all the time we want on exegesis, counseling expertise, leadership training, etc., etc., but if our marriage is weak, we will fold like a pop-can at the first sign of real opposition.

    That is my perspective, at any rate.


  23. whenapastorfalls says:

    I have stories of several pastors who have fallen on my blog. Their reasons are many, but they all admit to a vulnerability and, as you mentioned, a burnout with their wife, their ministry, or just with the load they carry. That's no excuse, but it's theirs. I do wish we could stop the flood of men falling, but I don't think, with our culture sexually driven as it is, that this will slow down any time soon. Great post, thanks. Mike @ whenapastorfalls.com

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.