Why Pastors Fall Into Affairs

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The other day I heard that a pastor had an affair in a church attended by many people I know. Though unfamiliar with those involved in the actual incident, it certainly hit closer to home because I spent time in this church and at one point in time hoped to be on staff there.

What is it with pastors and affairs? I did a brief search through Google and found all kinds of stories about pastors having affairs with secretaries, the wives of other ministers, and who knows who else. It makes me wonder if this is just plain and simple sin that has to be dealt with, or is sin working within our system of ministry to crack people. I’m sure there are plenty of other options and combinations, but I’d like to muse on whether or not our ministry paradigm contributes to the problem.

When I think of the people who are notorious for affairs, I think of politicians and people in big business: people who carry tremendous responsibility. I’d hate to break it to you, even Martin Luther King Jr. had a well-known affair, and I don’t think it’s necessary to mention Bill Clinton or the vast majority of our Congressmen. In my opinion, pastors fall into this category to a certain extent.

We don’t expect pastors just to be nice, doctrinally sound, and excellent public speakers. We expect pastors to take care of us, to watch over our souls, to counsel us, to solve the problems we’re too cowardly to handle, and to provide us with a vision to cut through this dark land into God’s glorious kingdom. If you don’t believe me, just look at the slew of classes required for an MDiv and read between the lines on some job descriptions for pastors.

Now, take this heavily burdened pastor and look at the factors that typically lead to an affair from Focus on the Family:

Vulnerability often occurs when a person is:
- under a lot of stress
- grieving major loss
- feeling insecure and looking for affirmation
- feeling rejected and looking for validation
- going through a burnout
- experiencing boredom and looking for fun and excitement
- not aware of his/her personal weaknesses, e.g., boundary issues with persons of the opposite sex, such as, often wants to save or rescue someone.

Stress? Check. Insecure and looking for affirmation? Double check. Feeling rejected? Check some of the time. Burnout? Probably a check. Not aware of personal weaknesses? CHECK! CHECK! CHECK!

I’m not a counselor, or an expert on churches, but I’ve spent enough time in them to know about the tremendous pressure on pastors. Curiously, many pastors fall into affairs when their ministries grow. Success has a way of turning on its master.

Of course we’re not big fans of learning from our mistakes. That would explain why we’re destroying our planet and ruining sovereign nations one cruise missile at a time. I know if I started pastoring a church tomorrow I’d say to myself, “Those other guys fell, but not me. I’m going to be fine.”

I wonder if we need to start approaching ministry from the perspective of, “We know that whoever is in charge is going to screw things up in a really major way, so let’s prepare for it on the front end.” Perhaps we need less trust and more grace.

I’m not necessarily opposed to large ministries, but if we dare to try running something big, I don’t think we can expect a lot of success if we want every pastor to be like Bill Hybels. Even Uncle Bill had to step out of ministry to give himself a break.

In the end, the least we can do is reexamine our expectations of pastors. Are we setting them up for failure? Probably. Can we help them ? Definitely. Can we change our ways? We’ll see.

For further info about affairs and healing in the aftermath, visit the Marriage Restored blog.

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31 thoughts on “Why Pastors Fall Into Affairs

  1. Donnie

    Great post! Interesting take on starting with an assumption of failure and going from there. At first, I didn’t think that was the best plan. But, after thinking about it, it sort of makes sense. Strategically, it takes away so much pressure, and it makes grace a primary concept. Good thoughts.

  2. Jon

    I like these thoughts, and I appreciate the reality check. I try to remind myself often, “Self, you could cheat on your wife. Don’t do that.” Also, I love the idea of more grace and less trust. I’m just not sure how that gets rid of the above list of things that lead to vulnerability that lead to the affairs in the first place? I’d like to see more thoughts on that. Good post.

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  5. Dominic Christison

    I liked the comment, “success has a way of turning on its master”. I think you’re right. The classic example that comes to mind is David and Bathsheba. I think it also highlights the fact that pre-produced lists that try and look for indicators of likely adultery don’t always work out. I don’t see “enjoying a successful and growing ministry” on the Focus on the Family list! The heart is deceitful….

  6. Nathan

    This whole topic has been a personal passion of mine since I was a kid. I grew up a PK (pastor’s kid) and saw first hand how stress can literally beat up, not only the pastor, but his entire family. Over time it takes its physical toll, not to mention an emotional one.

    Why do pastor’s fall? It’s simple. They’re broken people living in a broken world, just like the rest of us. I would like to shoot the person who decided that it was a good idea to place a pastor on a higher pedestal (literally and figuratively) than the rest of us. We look to them for guidance and for direction (and to an extent we should), but their position in ‘the church’ is no greater in the kingdom of God than the janitor faithfully collecting the trash or cleaning the toilets every week or the nursery worker holding a crying infant. Every person equally plays their part in the body of Christ.

    But somewhere along the line we’ve elevated the position of pastor to an unhealthy level. We’ve created “glamour roles” in the church, starting with the pastor down to the worship leader, etc. I think it’s because of this pressure and in some cases even popularity, that leads to a pastor trying to find strength in his own abilities. Over time, one mistep after another lends itself to public failure and then we all wonder how/why it happened. Pastors need accountability too. They need friendship. Constant prayer and fellowship. I’ve seen firsthand how Satan absolutely barrages a pastor and his family, in ways the average person sitting in a pew will never understand. If you want to watch the dominoes fall, it only takes one and who better than the “head”?

      1. Melissa

        He didn’t say “The Devil made them do it.” He simply acknowledged that our enemy does attack us. As a former pastor’s wife (he left his faith and left his family), I remember how so much was expected of us; but there did not seem to be anyone to minister to us when we needed help. All of those who strive to follow Christ will be attacked and tempted, but I really believe that our enemy specialized his focus on those in ministry.

  7. ed Post author

    Nathan, you have a lot of wisdom to share here that I appreciate. You’ve also confirmed my decision to not be a traditional pastor!

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  11. SurvivorGirl007

    The word “affair” is really a misnomer as far as a pastor-congregant romantic relationship is concerned. If a woman is romantically involved with her pastor, then is it an ABUSE situation. Because of the power differential between a member of the clergy and a congregant, it is never a consensual relationship. Pastors, like therapists, have a fiduciary responsibility to establish and maintain proper boundaries with members of their congregations. This is rampant in the church, and congregations need to be educated on what it really is: Clergy Sexual Abuse (CSA) and Clergy Sexual Misconduct (CSM). Please take a look at this recent Baylor University study on CSA/CSM at http://www.baylor.edu/clergysexualmisconduct/ and also check out this informative website at http://www.thehopeofsurvivors.com.

    1. ed Post author

      Abuse is an important aspect of this to keep in mind. Thanks for the links and for sharing your angle on this.

  12. Renaldo

    Thanks Ed and SurvivorGirl007. This was the case in a church I am familiar with and the pastor thinks he just says “I repent” and all is fine.

    He also had a history of this behavior. He now blames those who left the church as not having “love”.

  13. Pam Elmore

    I know I’m late to the party, but I have an alternative idea as to the “why” — could it be that the “glamour roles” Nathan mentions are actually what attracts certain people to the pastorate? I guess what I’m suggesting is to look beyond the pressure and expectation and even glamorization of the pastorate, and look at the character/personality of certain of those who are attracted to it precisely because of the elevated position it offers them. Maybe the pastorate attracts a disproportionate number of individuals with narcissistic or antisocial tendencies (I mean, in true DSM-IV-TR terms, not by popular definition).

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  15. Ken

    Thank you, Ed. I left pastoral ministry after 31 years precisely because of the pressures and expectations you describe. Thanks to God’s protecting grace and the love of a wonderful wife, we were spared the devastation of infidelity, but we paid–and continue to pay–a price for the unhealthy demands that the traditional pastor faces every day. I’d rather have had God kill me than allow me to be unfaithful, but I do understand how it can happen. Thanks for tackling this painful subject.

    1. ed Post author

      Thanks Ken for sharing your story. I’m sorry the system was so rough on you, but I’m glad you got out while you could. I also appreciate your understanding here, as we’ll definitely need a lot of that for this topic!

    2. Dianne

      My husband was a pastor for 22 years been married for 34 years he pastor a church for 13 years rezine because of the pressure that he had on him been out of pastor for almost 2 years and Feb. 17 2013 he walk out on me and his family for another woman that work with him which we have 2 boys and 3 grandbabies that he love so much one of our sons is a pastor and the other is a deacon I have tried to get him to work this out he just says he’s not happy anymore I don’t understand how he could preach time after time on affairs and then go and do it can he just quite loving me and his family that ment so much to him for another woman Our family needs the prayers & what is the odds that he will ask GOD to forgive him & come home I just need answers I guess & I know know one can tell me just remember our family

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  17. Kate

    Nobody “falls” into an affair. We all have choices. And as an above poster mentioned quite awhile ago; it would not be an affair (I am a mental health professional), but a situation of abuse…I am quoting the above poster:

    The word “affair” is really a misnomer as far as a pastor-congregant romantic relationship is concerned. If a woman is romantically involved with her pastor, then is it an ABUSE situation. Because of the power differential between a member of the clergy and a congregant, it is never a consensual relationship. Pastors, like therapists, have a fiduciary responsibility to establish and maintain proper boundaries with members of their congregations. This is rampant in the church, and congregations need to be educated on what it really is: Clergy Sexual Abuse (CSA) and Clergy Sexual Misconduct (CSM). Please take a look at this recent Baylor University study on CSA/CSM at http://www.baylor.edu

  18. Leah

    I think pastors have affairs because of the overwhelming stress of their positions. Loneliness also may play a role. Remember that pastors are human just like all of us.

    I disagree with the abuse angle. I believe that if the mistress didn’t want to be a part of the affair she wouldn’t. Therefore, the affair is consensual negating any form of abuse.

    1. ed Post author

      It’s a different kind of abuse, but it’s still a matter of someone with power using a position to gain influence over someone. Also, I think some pastors are so implicitly trusted and honored with power that sexual abuse can become far more likely.

    2. Alice

      (Leah): If you do your research you will see it isn’t consensual. Sex in the Forbidden Zone by Peter Rutter explains it perfectly.

  19. Alice

    Sex in the Forbidden Zone by Peter Rutter sums it all up. WHen men in positions of power: Therapists, doctors, pastors, etc., etc……abuse their power. Very psychological in nature,

    No one “falls” into anything; it is all a choie.

  20. Alice

    oh, Please…pastors aren’t any different than anyone else. THey fall into affairs (choose to have an affair) just like anyone else. Everyone has stresses and issues in their lives. It is a choice just like everything else in life.

  21. Melissa

    “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

    Be careful before condemning others. I do think there needs to be a distinction made between a time of weakness when bad choices are made and a history of immoral behavior. The former just proves that we are human. Admittedly, that person’s sin may not be what type of temptation you are susceptible to, but I am sure you can immediately call to mind what your personal vice is. (If you think you are the exception, then your particular transgression is likely “pride.”)

    A history of unrepentant sin proves a character flaw and a hardened conscience. Matthew chapter 18 provides a blueprint of how to properly handle such a situation. All reproof is do be done with humility and for the end goal of restoration of fellowship with God, even if relational ties must be severed.

  22. Darrell

    The problem with pastors is that they place stress and pressures and expectations on themselves. I do not know of one instance where a parishioner has insisted that a pastor take on a 60 hour work week. I know many pastors and come from a pastor rich family and the ones who have struggled with stress have brought it on themselves. I hear them complain how busy they are, but I always tell them “no one is holding a gun to your head except you.”

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