The divorced pastor

I’m a pastor, and I’m divorced.

As I’ve learned in the last year of separation and finally divorce, there are a lot of pastors who know what this feels like or are struggling to avoid joining the ranks of the divorced clergy. What there is not as much of is open talk about it. No one likes to talk about their marriage and family falling apart. Pastors, I’ve been learning, have to deal not only with the shame and pain that are common to everyone in such situations, but also a special kind of fear — fear that they will lose their vocation, fear that they will be seen as frauds, fear that they will lose the ability to preach or teach without being accused of hypocrisy. And so there is silence.

I’ve not learned all there is to learn about these things, and I’m not anywhere near perfect, but I wanted to share some of my perspective on this and perhaps a few words for my brothers and sisters in the clergy who have walked or are walking this road.

First, I want to say that I believe that God’s intention for marriage is that it last until death. In other words, I don’t think God intends us to divorce or desires that we divorce. This is the point of those words in Genesis 2 that are part of most Christian wedding services: the two become one flesh. But Genesis 3 happened and happens. We are fallen, sinful, and damaged creatures. When we get married, we do not plan on divorcing. God does wish for marriages to end in divorce. But we hurt and betray each other. Marriages fail, bonds break, and people divorce. We separate what God has brought together. Sometimes for the safety and health of one or both of the people in the marriage, divorce is necessary, but it is never a cause for celebration. It is a failure.

With that in mind, here are a few words for my brothers and sisters.

Jesus still loves you. I find as a pastor that I am no less prone to bad thinking than others. I fall easily into thinking that Jesus only loves me when I am living up to the right standard and carrying out my vocation with excellence. I confuse praise from people with the approval of God. And so, in the midst of a public and personal failure, it is easy to feel like we are beyond the pale. Jesus Christ came for the sick not the healthy. He loves you even when it your feel like you’ve betrayed him and failed. He loves you especially at those times.

It is okay to struggle to hold on. You made a vow to remain married until parted by death. You did not know when you made that vow what it would require. None of us do. It is okay that you want to hang on and hope for a way forward. You may have people around you encouraging you give up and get out. It is okay to look for those who help you and challenge you to hope and struggle for reconciliation.

It is sometimes necessary to let go. There may come a moment when you have to come face-to-face with a hard truth. Your marriage has failed beyond repair. It is dead. Legal fiction makes it appear to still live, the same way machines can keep a dead body alive in a hospital. The only thing keeping it breathing is the plug that no one has the courage to pull. Yes, with God all things are possible, but sometimes resurrection only comes after death. We want to hold on so hard to hope — and fear so much what will happen if we let go — that we become trapped in a never-ending limbo or deepening cycle of destruction. Unless a thing dies, new life cannot come. Grieve it. Mourn it. Let go what you cannot save.

Fear is normal. Divorce shatters us. It breaks apart our families. It makes us question our own judgment and choices. It strips away a central part of our very identity. It exposes our flaws and sins. And if we are clergy, it raises the possibility that we might lose our calling. When the pain and dysfunction and sin that has remained hidden in our family and in ourselves becomes known by others, there is always the chance someone will look at us and decide we do not meet the standards for pastoral ministry. The prospect that might end up with no spouse, no family, no calling, no job, and no place to live scares us. What you are feeling is normal.

You need someone to talk to. Find a therapist. Go. Keep going.

You need God. Spend time in prayer, with Scripture, and alone with God. There may be some yelling involved. There will be some crying. You’ll have to confess some things. You will discover how much you are willing to trust God’s promises.

This should change you. If you repair your marriage, it will be because you both have changed. If you divorce, you will be different. In either case, don’t go through this without learning and growing. God can use all things to bring about good. The good for you may be discovering some hard truths about yourself and growing from that knowledge.

There is grace even here. The most curious thing about my last year has been the number of people who have shared with me their stories of divorce. These are people who never would have talked to me about this topic before I was one going through this. I won’t lie. Those moments do not help much in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep and your heart feels like it has fed through a trash compactor. But God is with you, working to bring healing and life out of our sin and death. Be open and on the watch for signs of God’s grace.

I don’t pretend this is everything there is to say about divorce. I have much more to learn, and I pray God will give me the time I need to learn it all. But I hope some of these words are helpful to some. We have become travelling companions on a road none of us originally intended to walk. Perhaps we can help each along the way.