Male Clergy Adultery as Vocational Confusion

by Janet Fishburn

Janet Fishburn is Professor of Teaching Ministry at Drew University Theological School in Madison, New Jersey.

This article appeared in the Christian Century September 15-22, 1982, p. 922. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


For cultural and historical reasons it seems likely that clergy adultery is related to vocational confusion more often for men than for women. 1.The manhood of male clergy has been insecure for generations. 2. Religious affiliation is no longer required for social states, thus clergy, educated as professionals, find themselves the leaders of a marginal social institution.

Open Marriage: Open adultery. The smart new term not only dispenses with the sinful connotations of the traditional one but puts monogamists on the defensive [Hugh Rawson, A Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubtetalk (Crown, 1981)].


Although it has become fashionable in some quarters to suggest that open marriage is a legitimate form of self-expression for Christians, people are still shocked when the adulterous Christian is a minister. Clergy adultery, while rarely discussed in print, is no longer an unthinkable phenomenon. For cultural and historical reasons it seems likely that clergy adultery is related to vocational confusion more often for men than for women. Even though there is very little -- if any -- data available on the rate of incidence of marital infidelity on the part of clergy, this has become a troubling reality in the lives of many clergy and laity. Denominational executives and supervisors, ministerial relations committees, congregations and the families of clergy find themselves searching for an adequate response to an unfaithful pastor, clergy colleague or spouse.

Of the few writings available on the sexuality of clergy, most refer to divorce or homosexuality. The issue usually raised is whether, from a biblical perspective, divorce or homosexuality has “sinful connotations.” In a recent article about “Addictive Relationships and the Ministry” (William R. Lenters, Reformed Journal, November/December 1981), the writer avoided the question of “sinful connotations” in choosing to describe how, rather than why, “some pastors fall prey to . . intimate relationships outside of their own marriages.” The minister is rarely described as a person for whom the issues of marriage, vocation and personal identity are intimately linked to sexuality -- as for other people.

A notable exception to the general failure to connect ministry as a vocation to clergy sexuality is the portrait of Tom Marshfield drawn by novelist John Updike in A Month of Sundays (Knopf, 1975). The 41-year-old Marshfield, a minister suffering from middle-aged angst, slips into an affair with the church organist. He rapidly develops a reputation as a counselor of women with troubled marriages. “There was a smell about me now. Women sensed it. They flocked to be counseled.” Marshfield’s bishop sends him to a clergy retreat center in the desert to overcome the “distractions” to his ministry. As he reflects on what has happened to him, Marshfield is uncertain whether his condition is a sign of new life or continuing death.

Tom Marshfield is not sure that he is a success in his career. His wife and children treat him like a nonentity. He knows that opportunities to alter the career and marriage choices of young manhood are limited. When an adoring congregation of one tells him he is wonderful, it feels as though God has given him a new life and a new future. As has been observed in life-cycle literature, an affair is a common response to midlife crisis.

Although male clergy experience doubts about vocation and marriage similar to those of other men, the present situation of the church and ministry may intensify the midlife crisis for clergymen. For one thing, the manhood of male clergy has been insecure for generations, insofar as the church has been perceived as an institution better suited to the interests of women and children than to those of “real” men, men of the world (Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture [Knopf, 1978]). For another, declining church membership suggests that religious affiliation is no longer required for social status. Clergy, educated as professionals, find themselves the leaders of a marginal social institution. Unlike ether professionals -- educators, lawyers, doctors -- they do not have the society as a whole as their constituency. They lead a band of volunteers, offering “services” no longer seen as social or life necessities in North American culture.

Clergy adultery is a sign of confusion about the professional role and status of ministers. It is related to a history of sexually split metaphors for ministry. According to the Victorian view of the world, religion, love, friendship, aesthetic taste and intuitive knowledge were associated with the feminine dimensions of life. From this perspective, the church was viewed as the unworldly, private sphere of women and children. By virtue of their relationship to a “feminine” institution, male clergy found themselves likened to Victorian women, who were thought to be more moral than men because they were thought to experience less sexual desire. Like the woman in the home, the clergyman in the church was expected to inspire more worldly men of the public sphere to virtue. The role of a clergyman was like that of a mother. Like the home, the church was seen by many as a “haven in a heartless world.” Both were institutions of the private sphere.

Many Victorian men experienced a conflict between two prevailing models for manhood -- that of the “male achiever ethos” associated with the wealth of a captain of industry, and that of “the Christian gentleman,” associated with the less successful but moral achievement of a good family man and churchman. Although the Christian gentleman role had connotations of the self-sacrificing moral hero, the image also implied that such a man was less successful because he was less aggressive and virile in the work world of “real” men. While the captain of industry was suspected of being self-serving, egotistic, violent and immoral in his personal relationships, he was nevertheless idolized as embodying the masculine virtues of force, rationality and the business acumen needed to succeed in the world. For Victorian clergy, these contradictory values created the dilemma of trying to be both manly and moral in the eyes of a world that characterized the church as feminine and marginal (Janet Forsythe Fishburn, The Fatherhood of God and the Victorian Family [Fortress, 1982]).

Given these persistent attitudes about the church and ministers, laypeople have not easily granted to white male clergy authority as men who possess good judgment in the worldly domain of business or polities. Because laity have implicitly believed in the moral superiority of clergy, they have tended to relate clergy status to moral authority in the world of church and family. Laity have also granted clergy a special power over God’s Word by virtue of either education or spiritual intuition. It is therefore not surprising that some male clergy, from the Victorian period to the present, have had a high need to display signs of masculine power, authority and success. And it is not surprising that some of them have chosen the symbols of the male achiever ethos: bureaucratic power, acquisition of property, accumulation of wealth and the company of attractive women.

The attitudes of the laity aside, clergy seem to identify their own authority with particular aspects of their education as professionals in ministry. Current clergy role orientation reveals a continuing sexual bifurcation. In a pastoral-care model, the minister is like an accepting parent authorized to keep peace in the congregation. The reward of a good pastor is a growing congregation of trusting and appreciative members. This relatively passive form of leadership, in which pastoral authority depends on good relationships and powers of persuasion, reduces the extent to which a pastor might engage in either the critical or the prophetic aspects of ministry.

On the other hand, the image of the pastor as “chief of staff” resists a passive view of clergy authority. This metaphor, popularized by the church-growth movement, promises the leader growing congregations in return for executive efficiency and business acumen applied to “church management.” A similar model for ministry is that of the minister as agent of change in society. In either case, power and authority are related to a command of the science and technology of the business world and at most automatically exclude the spiritual integrity and authenticity of the pastoral model.

While these traditionally sexually split models for ministry are, admittedly overdrawn, a history of culturally derived confusion about the source of clergy power and authority has been intensified in recent years by women’s entrance into ministry. Shifting sexual roles in contemporary culture further confuse the vocational identity of male clergy already uneasy about their place in the world of men. Given the vocational quagmire in which male clergy presently find themselves, the name of Updike’s confused protagonist -- Thomas Marshfield -- is apt.

Those who counsel male clergy report that many genuinely believe that the “other woman” is a gift of God. In a culture in which the success ethos has infected all vocational expectations, including those of clergy, the other woman may seem a consolation for vocational or marital disappointment, sent by an extremely gracious God. Tom Marshfield’s sense that his adultery freed him from his moralistic past was slowly transformed into the insight that adultery is the American plague, a dance of death. Observing that Americans have mistaken adultery for “the exterior sign of internal grace,” he concludes that he is “a poor WASP stung by the new work ethic of sufficient sex.”

Doubting Thomas sees that he began his time of self-examination in a desert preoccupation with his mediocre marriage. He leaves the retreat center ready to face an uncertain future, with a renewed commitment to a wife whose silence accuses him and to a congregation shocked by his infidelity. Taking responsibility for his “slip into adultery,” he returns to the world. Having wrestled with God in the wilderness, he confesses that “we have not accidentally fallen, we have been placed.”

The pastor as unfaithful shepherd is not a new concept, or unique to the Christian tradition. Jeremiah described the covenant people as “lost sheep” because “their shepherds have led them astray. . . . they have forgotten their fold” (Jer. 50:6). There is reason to believe that unbridled sensuality was a problem for early Christians as they tried to balance the influences of Greek culture with Jewish fidelity to law in defining faithfulness to Jesus Christ. The uneasy relationship of sexuality to ministry has not been settled since, either by Catholic vows of celibacy or the Protestant preference for married clergy. Both celibate and married clergy have been known to pursue the worldly enticements of wine, women and song.

The pursuit of spiritual union with God can be confused with the sexual union that gives rise to some of the most vivid metaphors for spiritual ecstasy. The fine line between spirituality and sexuality has been blurred whenever the special charisms of ministry are used in pursuit of private spirituality or pleasure instead of given in faithful devotion toward the upbuilding of the whole body of Christ. It is not difficult to see the connection between the sacramental leader who intones, “This is my body . . . for you” and the temptation to seek out or give private form and consummation to a public rite intended to give life and hope to the whole congregation. Instead of setting an example for the flock in seeking out the lost sheep, the minister in such cases leads the flock astray, one by one.

Clearly the clerical task is a difficult one. In its third or fourth generation, the early church began to set limits and muster resources that might make the task more manageable. One of the texts often used in ordination sermons admonishes clergy to train themselves to “godliness.” This does not mean merely the self-control achieved by rigorous training and self-restraint, like the discipline of an athlete. Rather, it means reliance on “the gifts you have given to you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you” (I Tim. 4:14). The writer counsels the young Timothy not to be intimidated by his youth or inexperience, but to preach and teach with the confidence that his authority and status as a leader in the church come from God. Since the assurance that ministers are validated by gifts of the Spirit follows a rejection of the false asceticisms of celibacy and food abstinence, it seems likely that the gifts bestowed grant power, love and self-control to married ministers (II Tim. 1:7).

On the basis of the charisms bestowed by the Spirit, Timothy is advised to “set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” as he leads them. As in discussions of the gospel of Jesus, it is assumed that spiritual integrity encompasses both the life and the word of the pastoral leader. The sheep recognize the voice of faithful shepherds because their lives bear witness to their words. “Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (I Tim. 4:16).

The Protestant polemic against priestly celibacy was related to the recovery of a more biblical perspective on the role of clergy to equip the laity for ministry. At the time of the Reformation, the doctrine of vocation meant that all Christians were called to identify their charisms and to devote them in service to God through the church. The special gifts of clergy were given so that they could guide and lead the ministry of the laity.

In the transition from the celibate priesthood to the life of married clergy, the home and wife replaced the rectory or monastery in the life of Protestant clergy. Ever since Martin Luther acknowledged the difficulty of writing theology while surrounded by diapers and crying children, it should have been obvious that the wife of a clergyman stood in a different relationship to her husband than that of priests to one another. Priests living in a rectory have in common only their commitment to ministry and can expect to find in each other mutual support and understanding about fidelity to that Vocation. While they are not always supportive of each other, they do not experience the emotional complication that the clergy spouse does who is not ordained to the same vocation, yet who is called as a Christian to make it possible for her spouse to exercise his calling. In the Protestant parsonage, the tone and tempo of life and the practice of devotion to God have, of necessity, differed from the kind of spirituality that undergirds the priestly vocation.

The Victorian division of everything human into feminine and masculine spheres and characteristics distorted the doctrine of vocation in a way that had special ramifications for the clergy marriage. Wives of clergy gradually became unofficial associate pastors, expected by congregations to carry out the more “feminine” tasks of teaching, visiting and pastoral care while their husbands carried out the more “masculine” tasks of preaching and administration. So long as the cultural ethos supported women’s vocation to the private sphere, and men’s to the public sphere, this sense of complementarity may have blunted the conflict between fidelity to marriage and fidelity to ministry felt by clergy today.

Like the resentful, sighing wife of Tom Marshfield, many wives of clergy find themselves caught in unwanted role expectations imposed by laity, yet unable to validate their own need to be independent individuals. The presence of more women in ministry may gradually resolve the clergy wife dilemma. The ordination of both men and women challenges all sexually stereotyped metaphors for ministry and all attempts to define husbands and wives in relation to their clergy spouse’s calling.

All Christians are called to discern their vocations. There are no vocations that are primarily masculine or feminine in nature. Although two people called to ministry may marry, clergy wife or clergy husband is not a vocation in its own right. Unless one seeks ordination, one should not be expected to perform the tasks of ministry in a way that differs from the ministry of any layperson. There is no such thing as an associate vocation.

Christians who marry are expected to support spouses in their vocational commitments. But this duty to support does not mean that the spouse is or can be the sole source of emotional or vocational empathy. Those who marry clergy should be aware of the paradox of ministry as a vocation. While ministry requires the same arduous process of education and professional validation as other professions, ministers cannot expect to enjoy the same kinds of rewards, status or authority granted by the culture to other professionals. Financial problems are a major strain leading to divorce in clergy marriages (William B. Pressnell, “The Minister’s Own Marriage,” Pastoral Psychology [Summer 1977]). Insofar as standard of living is an index of success, inadequate salaries can also contribute to the nagging sense of inadequacy that sends clergy seeking solace into the arms of someone other than the marriage partner.

The graces of power, love and self-control promised to Timothy suggest that the minister can enjoy both ministry and marriage. The pleasure promised, however, is the satisfaction of guiding others in the life of faith. The combination of power, love and self-control -- the special gifts given to pastors to serve the well-being of the congregation -- includes both personal characteristics considered masculine and some considered feminine. If applied to men and women clergy without differentiation, the gifts for ministry represent a spiritual maturity capable of transcending the demands of the culture to prove successful manhood or womanhood. This is not to say that clergy should not be paid well. It is to say that clergy “success” is not measured by the same standards of achievement applied to other professionals.

The combination of power, love and self-control also transcends all sexually stereotyped metaphors for ministry. These characteristics incorporate the loving concern and acceptance of the pastor with the power, force and self-control necessary to the manager. Given the circumstances of the contemporary church, the characteristics of both are needed by those who would be “faithful shepherds” of the flock.

Clergy cannot be expected to maintain integrity as spiritual leaders in a vacuum. Their families should not be expected to provide their only structure of support and personal accountability. Their congregations cannot provide them with an objective perspective on themselves as spiritual leaders or a context in which they are led in worship. Clergy need the same spiritual nourishment through self-examination, confession and celebration that they give to others. Thus, they need someone to offer that kind of caring ministry to them. Those who ordain and supervise pastors should provide them ongoing opportunities for worship, a network of spiritual accountability and prayerful support -- a ministry to and for ministers.

In a time when all the norms have gone awry, denominational executives and supervisors will have to assume responsibility as those who minister to clergy. Far too often denominational representatives have demanded evidence of success and further exacerbated the pressures that lead to clergy adultery or clergy divorce. It is not enough to provide support groups for divorced clergy, or to plead for equal rights for clergy who divorce.

If the church is to be the body of Christ in servant ministry to the world, those who lead the church at every level will have to examine their metaphors for ministry. Vocational confusion is not limited only to clergy in the parish. The gifts of the Spirit always available to those called out to lead the flock will have to be claimed as the only legitimate source of power and authority for all clergy. If those who ordain and supervise pastors neglect a ministry to them, it will be at great cost to the unity and integrity of the church.