Divorce is epidemic in America, scuttling nearly 50 percent of first marriages and 67 percent of second. As a pastor concerned about the general well-being of the marriage institution, I grieved when divorce visited my home. How could I not? Having been a minister for more than 20 years, I had seen firsthand the trail of tears divorce leaves behind. There are no winners, only victims. But I never imagined that one day my marriage would be numbered among its casualties. “Divorce may rear its ugly head everywhere else, but not in my home. My relation ship with my wife is too strong.” That was my assumption. How foolish! And how unwittingly arrogant! I learned the hard way that no marriage is in a fail-safe position, not even mine. All indicators suggest that the divorce rate for pastors is higher than it has ever been before. Why? There is no singular answer. Citing the book What’s Happening to Clergy Marriages, a recent article in The Christian Ministry points to four common pressures on clergy families: lack of privacy, high expectations, constant availability, and financial stress. No doubt these pressures may prove harmful at times, but it seems quite likely that the causes go beyond the particular stress points of the profession.
In the foreword of the book Clergy Families, Is Normal Life Possible? Robert L. Wilson suggests that the in creased divorce rate among clergy may be a result of the changing trends of the broader American culture. He writes: “The minister and family are caught between what an American Christian was expected to be in the late nineteenth century and the sometimes grim familial and economic realities that encompass most marriages in the late twentieth century.”
The road to recovery
Recovery from divorce is difficult even under the best of circumstances, but it is especially treacherous for a pas tor. Pastoral work is so morally sensitive that one false move can discredit a wonderful ministry in the blink of an eye. And yet the emotional, physical, and spiritual apple cart is so thoroughly up set during the recovery period that false moves of any kind, can occur with frightening ease.
Pastor and writer Jim Talley offers an interesting observation on why this is the case. He depicts a pie divided into four sections, labeled emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual. He presents each section as laying claim to 25 percent of a normal individual’s energy capacity; however, he notes that during divorce recovery that balance is radically altered. In the first six months the distribution shifts to 85 percent emotional, and 5 per cent physical, mental, and spiritual.
Elaborating on this overwhelming domination of the emotional, Talley writes: “After about one or two years you sense that you really are recovering, but the downside is that you also realize how unbalanced you really were during the depths of your alienation. After three to four years you may pass the 50 percent mark, so that less than half of your energy is used for emotions, freeing up the other half for mental (17 percent), physical (16 percent), and spiritual (17 percent), purposes. . . . The better you get, the clearer it becomes how far down you really were.”3
How long does recovery take? At least three to five years, according to most specialists, including Talley. Sound intimidating? It is! In my early months of recovery I can remember being shocked by some of the thoughts and fantasies I entertained. Not only that, but I can remember my mind working overtime in an attempt to convince itself that the scenarios I was parading across the screen of my consciousness were really no big deal. No big deal? Had I acted any one of them out, I would have destroyed my minis try, and worse still, deeply injured the Lord I love.
God is a rescuing God
The most important thing pastors can carry with them through the stormy seas of divorce recovery is the deep personal assurance that God is a rescuing God. Clearly this is the umbrella message of the Bible. As such, the Lord is driving home a point. He wants to save us, no matter the painful circumstance or its causes. This truth provides enormous comfort and confidence during the dark days, when instability reigns supreme, when the demands of pastoral life out weigh personal resources, and when hope for recovery, stability, and health seem dim.
During the divorce experience a pas tor faces enormous pressures. In the first year after my divorce I spent hours walking alone at night, trying to hush the thunderous noise within my being that these pressures created. Sometimes I walked to the point of exhaustion before the cacophony of sound quieted sufficiently for me to hear the still, reassuring voice of God that whispered confidence and strength into my soul. But hear that voice I did! Every night, without fail. God never abandoned me. He never shouted into my soul’s ear what I often found myself shouting: “You blew it, David! You’ve failed in a big way.” No, instead I heard the message of His for giving love, His unyielding encouragement, and His matchless power. In short, I heard the message that so many broken servants of the Lord have heard before me: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).* In this way, and in many others as well, the Lord rescued me.
With this knowledge firmly established in the heart and mind, I believe the stage is set for pastors to do their part to take control of the healing process. As I see it, there are four crucial steps that can and should be taken.
Four crucial steps
Seek counseling. The pastor needs to search out and submit to the assistance of a competent Christian counselor. How I wish that someone had pressed this point with me in the early stages of my divorce recovery! Sadly, it didn’t happen that way.
As a part of my graduate education I had received several years of formal training in psychology, developing a good understanding of my own intrapersonal dynamics along the way. That fact, combined with the learning that comes from more than two decades of pastoral ministry, and a disposition that is inclined to careful introspection, led me to conclude that I could “make it” without the assistance of formal counseling. Not that I was trying to be foolishly independent. Not at all. I simply underestimated the depth of my need.
No support system, as splendid as it may be, is a suitable substitute for the kind of “freeing up” that emerges in a structured counseling setting. I learned this the hard way. Several years after my divorce I awakened one morning to a level of anxiety and sadness that I never dreamed was lurking ominously in the inner recesses of my brain, waiting for the right moment to pounce on my conscious mind. “Where did this come from?” I asked myself as I sought to restrain the panic that accompanied these unexpected and undesirable guests. What I soon learned is that despite my having been surrounded by loving and caring persons who were wonderfully supportive all through my divorce process, there were feelings of grief that went far deeper than any of these supporters could reach.
Enter the counselor. Over the next several weeks tears flowed—in abundance. I asked for, and was lovingly granted, a two-month leave of absence from my work. For the first time in my ministry I needed to step back from my pastoral tasks to resolve disturbing emotions that for too long I had unwittingly put on the back burner.
I now have committed myself to a proper season of Christian counseling, something I should have done when my former wife uttered the words “I want a divorce.” The outcome? Freedom! With each passing day a new lightness comes to my mental step. Gone, or at least going, is the hidden burden of unresolved pain. In its place is a real and lasting sense of peace.
Find friends. Another crucial step is the cultivation of same-sex, mature Christian friendships. Gordon Mac- Donald, pastor, and author of numerous books and articles on the experience and expression of Christian faith, cites six kinds of friends that are necessary to ensure a believer’s spiritual vitality during crisis situations. They include: the sponsor, the affirmer, the rebuker, the intercessor, the partner, and the pastor.4
In my experience I found that each of these different kinds of friendships was important, but my need for an affirming friend was the greatest of all. Divorce hurt me deeply. Failure hung like a heavy fog around my whole being. I desperately needed an ally whose affirming love would help lift it away. One man in particular accomplished this for me. He came alongside me from the very beginning, speaking, sometimes shouting, encouragement into my ears. “You can do it!” was his constant mes sage, not always expressed in words, but always communicated in spirit.
Join a recovery support group. A third crucial step in the divorce recovery process is for pastors to search out and participate in a divorce recovery support group.
Each experienced participant in a support community for separated and divorced persons has been there, and is often in a position to guide them by sharing knowledge that is informational in content and inspirational in effect.
Such information includes one’s intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics. In addition, listening carefully to the thoughts and feelings of the opposite sex also provides significant learning. Sound ludicrous? It’s not. Very often marriages, including pastors’ marriages, break down because one or both par ties has never learned how the other person thinks, feels, and problem solves. Divorce recovery groups allow for a “safe” give and take between men and women, a process that teaches much about some less-than-obvious real differences between the sexes.
The inspiration that the support group provides is simple—hope! Being with and learning from other men and women who have been where you are, and who are now feeling better, is a wonderful hope-infusing experience. On the evening after my first meeting with my recovery community, I received a telephone call. “Hello, David? This is Brace.” After a brief moment of trying to identify the caller, I discovered I was speaking with one of the group’s coleaders. “David, I listened carefully to what you had to say last night, and I would like to get together with you to hear more about your situation.”
Pastors are often unaccustomed to being cared for like this. I agreed to meet him the following evening. I poured out my soul to him, and with each comment, each tear, I could feel a measure of hope slowly pressing itself into my being. Bruce had traveled through the dark tunnel of divorce a few years before, and now he was beginning to see the light at the other end. I needed to see that.
Three suggestions. One, meet with a recovery group in a place outside your pastoral district. “Opening up” is a lot easier when there is confidence that the personal details presented is not likely to wend its way back to the flock. Two, if possible, select a sup port community that is Christ-centered. Christians look at things like the sanctity of marriage, the importance of confidentiality, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit in a very different light than most nonbelievers. Three, make a pact with yourself and the Lord that you will not date another group member, and stick to it. This is critical! Most people (and pastors are no exception) who are still at the support group stage of divorce recovery are far too vulnerable to begin dating. What may seem like love will likely be nothing more than unmet need, feeling the sudden rush of much-needed affection.
Put your experience to constructive use. The fourth step in taking control of the recovery process is to put one’s own experience to constructive use in ministry. Says Paul: “Comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we our selves have received from God” (2 Cor. 1:4). The apostle affirms that one of the best ways to cope with suffering is to use it as an instrument to convey God’s love to others. When that happens, a most amazing thing takes place: both the recipient and the giver experience healing.
How does this happen? How does a person recover fully? I don’t have the faintest notion, but I know it hap pens. It has happened to me. The dynamics of the kingdom of God make that possible.
David Wesley Reid, D.Min., is the pastor of the First Baptist Church, Reading, Massachusetts.
This article originally appeared here: https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1995/11/healing-for-the-divorced-pastor