When Divorce Is a Moral Imperative ~ Part 1

 

Image by Jon Katz. Used with permission.

It has been 10 years since my divorce. I was married to a pastor. Our marriage ended after 24 years. I am no longer my ex-husband’s wife. He has another wife and he also has another church. But this does not disqualify me from knowing the truth of what it takes to be married to pastor and why so many of these marriages fall apart in time.

I am discovering that whenever I write or blog about the intractable dilemma of a Christian marriage ending in divorce, or — more to the point — a clergy marriage ending in divorce, the response is as robust as it is wrenching. This is a real problem. I don’t presume to know how to solve it. I don’t have answers for every Christian person whose marriage is in jeopardy. I have only one thing: my story. It is a devastating, harrowing, and hard-earned story, and most of all — it is true. I believe the time has come for me to begin an open discussion about what is at stake in the “divorce issue” for Christians who are pressured, regardless of circumstance, to save the marriage. I get that. Yet sometimes there is more at stake than “the Christian marriage” and believing people need to be willing to look at this squarely.

I will be posting several installments about my reflections on divorce and marriage, hopefully, in fairly contiguous sequence. My posts may be interrupted if other urgencies arise to be written about. I hope to hear from readers and interact respectfully and honestly as I take them, with me, into this hard terrain.

I begin the series with a few posts of a personal nature that tell my particular story. I posted this narrative a few years ago on a personal blog (that no longer exists) and re-post it here to help readers understand the ground upon which I stand when I write about this sad and disturbing issue.

~

There was a time when I thought the divorce of a pastor from his wife would have been been catastrophic for a church. Actually, it’s not. At least it wasn’t in my case. In fact the church my husband served not only did not help me when I asked for it four years prior to our divorce, but went happily onward with Christmas cantatas and VBS after our marriage ended. Things at the church were “better than ever,” as my ex-husband put it in a conversation we had six months after the divorce. So while having my marriage disintegrate was a nightmare for me, it was not a nightmare for these people. It was a blip. It did not have an impact. They managed fine without me because their pastor stayed with the flock.

This is one indication (in part) why many clergy marriages fall apart. As the late Princess Diana said of her doomed marriage, “There were three of us in this marriage and it was a bit crowded.” It has been ten years. I’ve gotten past the outrage. I have not remarried. I have not had a date since the day in December 2002 I said good-bye to my life as I knew it. This, in part, is because I believe in marriage and it oughtn’t to come or go casually.

~

The overseers of my ex-husband’s congregation, including the pastor (my husband), did not deem my solicitation for help with our marriage, registered desperately four years prior to the divorce, as warranting redress. I called the chair of the board very late on a particular distressing evening and asked for the church’s help. I never heard again from that deacon, or any deacon, regarding this crisis-driven call for help.

In turn, I became isolated. Isolation is a typical state in which countless pastors’ wives find themselves. You may be asking, Isolated in what way? This involves the unfortunate reality that in my marriage and I dare say in numerous other clergy marriages there existed serious, sometime incapacitating, relational flaws that could not be overcome without third-party intervention, which is what I was asking for from the leaders of my husband’s church. When they ignored me, it left me no place to turn, seeing as I did not have a pastor. (Attempts at marital counseling will be addressed in due course.)

In the meantime, the pathologies in the marriage continued unabated. In fact, they were now compounded by my anger at having been ignored by the very people whose lives my husband regularly mended. In this isolation your mind takes you places where you feel you ought not go. You think about running away. You wonder how much you can pack into two suitcases and how much toll money you will need.  But then you awaken and soundly reproach yourself.  You can’t run away because the salvation of every soul in the church depends upon the work of your husband, and his good standing depends upon you. He is to them like a savior. If you run away people would lose their salvation. If his wife up-and-leaves him, it would look bad and, and whatever the cost, it cannot look bad. That is the hopeless and twisted logic that overtakes the wife of a pastor living under duress. That is the distorting effect of isolation.

A few years ago, when I lived in Italy, I traveled to southern Switzerland to visit my niece. She was staying with a friend whose father, it turns out, is an Anglican priest and has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He and I were discussing marital counseling in volatile marriages and he shocked me with his unstinting conviction that if a marriage is in serious trouble it often does more harm than good for the spouses to be in counseling together. Immediately I understood why.

I mentioned above the isolation I felt and that clergy wives generally feel if things are not going well in their marriages.  Being married to the only free counselor in town, it disqualifies you from finding help from a pastor.  I took control of my own situation and began private counseling sessions.

In time it became obvious to my counselor that much of my turmoil related to my marriage. Therefore, after several months of  weekly sessions, he indicated there was no more we could do without my husband’s willingness to engage and enter the conversation. He did, to his credit. But, as noted by the Anglican psychologist, it only made matters worse.

Counseling is very uncomfortable. A good counselor intuitively probes where he or she perceives there may be underlying “issues.” This is standard counseling protocol and there is nothing conspiratorial about it. However, because I had been seeing this counselor for several months prior to the entrance of my husband’s participation; and because of the discomfort of some of this standard probing, my husband after one early session, while still in the car on the way home, cast all manner of accusations against me, saying, among other things, that the counselor and I had conspired to assault him.  

The pain in the aftermath of that session forfeited for me any hope of possible benefit from future sessions. After that painful episode I shut down completely in the few remaining counseling sessions we conducted. I said things like, ‘it’s much better’ and  ‘no big deal.’  I was lying, of course. But I did not want anymore post-session drama in the car going home. It was evident that my husband did not intend to be probed. (He would tell me later, “I don’t do counseling.”) It was a waste of (a lot of) money. My bland demeanor during the final few sessions was simply my attempt to wrap things up tastefully.

Two points of ongoing struggle afflicted me at this juncture:  First, though by his own admission my husband said he didn’t “do” counseling, he clearly did. He counseled his parishioners all the time. He worked very hard to put back together their broken marriages. Church people would call him at home–my home–during family hours and he would speak at length with them with sympathy. He gave his time liberally and tenderly addressing their needs while sabotaging attempts to address destructive problems that existed within his own home.

Second, the absence of hope of forward movement through counseling ultimately left me with the feeling that I had no place to turn. I realized I had to figure this out on my own,  and I felt (wrongly) that the Kingdom of God was at stake.

(To be continued.)

About Wendy Murray

Wendy Murray is a veteran and award-winning journalist. She served as associate editor and Senior Writer at Christianity Today magazine and has written extensively for other publications such as Books & Culture and The Christian Century. She has written 11 books.

  • mhelbert

    Wendy,
    Thank you for your vulnerability. I can’t begin to know how you feel/felt or what you went thru. Yeah, I’ve seen Christian marriages fail. Mine almost did. As hard as it is, your story is one that needs to be told. Harder still, it’s one that needs to be heard. Again, thank you.

    • Wendy Murray

      Thanks for reading.

  • Lourdes Meza

    Thank you for sharing Wendy, I will be passing this on to my mom. Just last week she told me she was reading one of the books you gave her when she came to visit in Boston. Even after so many years, what she is going through now still brings back memories of the story you shared with her. Thank you.

    • Wendy Murray

      Thanks for writing, Lulu. Stay in touch.

  • Alecia

    While I believe that many marriages can be saved that often aren’t for a variety of reasons… beyond that I can completely agree and commiserate with you that there is a complete sense of isolation built up for people in ministry. When my marriage was failing I didn’t feel I could go anywhere, to anyone…I mean, how can you go tell leadership in the church your husband pastor’s at that there is a problem in your marriage? But, I eventually went. One pastor fluffed it off, the other tried to help but my husband wasn’t in a place where he was wiling to get it. He hadn’t hit “bottom” yet. Fast forward, we are almost 4 years into an online ministry for marriage and infidelity and our marriage is better than it ever was, thankfully, but it took both of us being willing to change what wasn’t working in order to get here. Thanks for being so transparent in your story. Looking forward to the rest of it.

    • Wendy Murray

      Thanks for reading. I’m glad your situation found its way to a positive resolution

  • Dave Swartz

    I’ll be looking for more of this. Posted this at Geezer 1 on Facebook.

    • Wendy Murray

      Thanks for reading and for sharing.

  • branchl666

    Thanks for sharing. Your bravery in sharing will help many to know their experience is not unique. You sepped out of the box and trusted Jesus instead of the traditions of humans.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

    So glad you’re writing about this. My divorce is 5 years old, and I cannot yet write about it.

    • Wendy Murray

      Thanks for reading. I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Thank you. How very brave of you to relive this in writing. It took me 40 years to be able to face my own story. Now my son won’t speak to me for “outing” his father’s contribution to our divorce.


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