An editorial note: Over the years one of my blog’s most popular posts is “Why Pastors Fall Into Affairs.” Search engines send folks my way every day because of that post, which tells me that a lot of people are asking questions about pastors and affairs. I’m not an expert on this subject, but I think I’ve seen a few trends that should shed some light on this subject.
Once upon a time I was prepared to enter pastoral ministry. However, while working at a church I not only decided that pastoral ministry wasn’t for me, I also realized that the traditional church is not a good place for me to be. In addition,I learned that I had all of the gifts for just that work! At least, that’s what a couple of tests showed me.
Being on the outside of church culture with all of the gifts such a culture desired sent me into a tailspin for about five years. I’m sure my friends didn’t know what to make of me. It was rough. I envied my friends who were pastors, praying earnestly that God would send me to a ministry. The answer was always no. When some friends prayed with me about it, they assured me that God had something for me one day and that he was preparing me for it. Just the thought of it made me double over sobbing.
So this is where I’m coming from. I have a pastoral heart, but God has called me to a very unconventional place with those gifts. I won’t get into all of that right now because I want to talk about the heart of a pastor and what that has to do with affairs.
Pastors are the kind of people who care for others. I can really relate to the words of Paul when he says,
And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.
Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? 2Cor 11:28-29 (RSV)
Such is the cry of a pastor’s heart. When they see someone falling from the faith they want to answer questions. When they see someone in need they want to supply help. When they find conflict, they want to resolve it.
While praying about what God may have for me in pastoral ministry, God revealed something very clearly to me: Since pastors care for people, the dark side of this very noble calling is sexual lust, unhealthy emotional attachment to others, impurity, and even affairs. Ever since that prayer I have paid prayerful attention to how I relate to others, ensured that I have a number of friends I can e-mail immediately if I need them, and kept honest and open lines of communication with my wife.
The trouble is that pastors are given a lot of lee way in their high-emotion, high-stakes work. When we combine caring gifts with long hours at work, a lack of oversight, and steep expectations there converges a mix of pressure, emotions, and secrecy that can become deadly. Toss an attractive person in the mix who needs pastoral care and you’ve got a one-way ticket to an affair.
I’m not saying that affairs can’t happen in other ways or that pastors have to be gifted in a certain way. However, given what we know of pastors and expect of them, I am saying that we shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve created the perfect environment for these kinds of people to have affairs. Such ministry environments that isolate leaders in high-stakes, high emotion roles are part of my reason for never entering into pastoral ministry. It’s a rough place to be, and when a pastor loses his connection with God’s power, temptation can creep in gradually and begin its destructive work.
A pastor who isn’t living in the power of the risen Christ and a strong accountability structure is at high risk for an affair. The more we expect of them relationally, the more secrecy we provide, and the longer hours they work apart from their families could all exacerbate such problems.
While every church needs to address this issue in its own way, I think a few obvious things could go across the board. For starters, elders need to talk openly about ways they can keep their leaders from falling. They need to end all talk along the lines of “Oh, our pastor would never fall into that kind of sin.” Let’s resolve to have these conversations, and then decide how we need to structure pastoral hours, counseling, and accountability.
This also brings up the need for mutual accountability. As much as a church may feel a need for its pastor, pastors also need the support of their fellow believers and even other pastors. I think titles such as “lead” or “head” pastor are a bit silly to begin with, but in light of affairs and the need for accountability, a little bit of leadership structure flattening may be in order.
Even if there is an equality among a few leaders without one standing out, we may be in a much better position to prevent affairs by keeping lines of prayer and communication open. Once we realize that many of the people called to pastoral ministry could be the very same people susceptible to an affair, I think we can move toward more constructive conversations and take preventative measures.