By Steven A. Cappa, Psy. D.
Clinical Director – Marble Retreat
Clint entered into the group counseling room of Marble Retreat like pretty much all the rest. He appeared lively if but a bit nervous. He was smiling and engaging the other members while all took a seat in the cozy group room with its fire crackling in welcoming warmth. After a 15 minute orientation and introduction by us, Clint was the first to introduce himself as the room fell silent, indicating to the participants that it was time for them to begin telling their stories. He stirred in his chair, looked down, and as his face reddened—he began to tell of his plight. Tears welling up in his eyes, his story unfolded: “I’ve lost my ministry! Three weeks ago my wife and ministry partner of 10 years suddenly and shockingly ran off with another man, a man she met in our congregation! I had no idea this was going on, or that she’d been involved with him for the past 6 months and was planning on leaving me. She’d already sought legal counsel and I was just served divorce papers two days ago! Then, the next thing I know my denomination called me to their main office and informed me that I no longer could serve in my beloved church and that I’m no longer welcome in ministry!” At this point, both Clint and the others in the room started to openly sob. “What am I going to do with my life? Ministry and serving Him is all I’ve ever known, and all that I’ve ever wanted to do.”
This stirring and sad testimony is a painfully common composite of the typical clergy person who comes to Marble Retreat seeking help. Not all who come are victims of their spouse leaving them, but most that come are or were married and most of those marriages are struggling in some form or another. As a result their ministry lives are in jeopardy. When divorce is present, and there’s “no pulse” left in the marriage, Marble Retreat welcomes individuals to attend. However, if there is even the slightest glimmer of hope for marital restoration, our longstanding policy has been to insist that the spouse come. Nonetheless, it is common for divorced individuals to arrive at our lodge front door, broken and very uncertain about God, themselves and their future. Marble Retreat (www.marbleretreat.org), a 36-year-old ministry, has a wonderful Kingdom mission: Helping to bring healing, hope and restoration to those in vocational Christian ministry and the Church at large through Christ-centered brief intensive counseling . We’ve had the great privilege of serving over 4,000 people during our existence, and most are restored to ministry life in one form or another. True enough, when divorce or some other moral failure is present, most do not return to their exact same former ministry, be it a church or some kind of missionary work. However, it is the premise of this author that ministry is, first and foremost, a calling and who one is in God. Next and in this order, ministry is what one does vocationally or otherwise! So while ministry might be necessarily and appropriately disrupted for a season, as a general assertion, one does not lose their ministry. One can choose to leave ministry, and put effort into NOT ministering in life, but it takes a fair amount of energy to do this for God continues to place people and situations in front of us in which we have the opportunity to serve Him!
So what’s it like when this catastrophe occurs? Divorce is like a kind of death. It is an insult to the very fabric of our creation. No one, not one, marries with the intent of divorcing! This is most certainly true for clergy and yet the agonizing reality is that some clergy marriages end in divorce. The causes of divorce, the contributing factors that lead to the breaking of the marriage covenant, are varied and vast—far too many to address in this short article. Moreover and just like death, it all culminates in mystery, the sad effects of our fallenness as humans. Unlike any other vocations that I know of, clergy are held to very high standards of moral conduct and uprightness. This is rightfully so as we’re called to be leaders of the Church, and of God’s people. We are expected to set examples of how we ought to live as a people and as believers and followers of Christ. It is, to be sure, a very high calling. So when the illness of divorce occurs, it is particularly messy. The Church has little or no policy for this particular issue! The painful reality of this kind of failure is that clergy are often immediately cast out from their churches, left with no means of supporting themselves and abandoned by the very people they formerly served! Historically upon the revelation of divorce, clergy would be immediately dismissed in disgrace. Out of a job, often suddenly without even housing, clergy commonly lack alternative job skills, thus making life even more difficult. Add to this the disgrace of divorce, the legal process that often snarls one’s life for a long time, the massive loss of relationship and support from family, children and one’s church—and the minister frequently finds himself with deep questions about God. It doesn’t get much worse than this! By contrast, most, if not all clergy, enter into ministry with great enthusiasm and a desire to make a difference for Christ. When divorce occurs, this dream is shattered and in dire need of repair and restoration.
So how does this occur? How does restoration and hope return? Can one actually return to full-time vocational ministry? The not-so-simple answers: Slowly, very slowly and yes to the latter question. First, do not go through this alone! Like all sin, divorce has a tendency to isolate, to leave us lonely. This is precisely the mission of evil! If ever there was one goal of sin, it is to isolate us from God, from ourselves and from one another. Loneliness and estrangement are the companions of evil and are to be vehemently battled! Like all shattered dreams and all loss, appropriate and rich grief expression is mandatory. Grief has no concrete timeline! Consider this beatitude: “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted (Mt. 5:4, NIV).” Often, basics of life become the focus—providing shelter, food and some kind of work in order to simply get by day-to-day. Frequently, divorced clergy find simpler, less demanding jobs for a season. Many who do this testify that ministry opportunities continue to emerge even through these simpler kinds of jobs. Moreover, in the interest of combating loneliness and isolation, connecting to some kind of small community of support is equally mandatory. A best friend and a loving and trusting “family” are essential to our grief process, our stability and, ultimately, to a healthier life in Christ. Many will take a complete break from church life. Some will keep a low profile for awhile and try anonymously attending a church where they might find God but not be known by anyone. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any these strategies. . . for a season of healing.
Finding a mentor, a fellow pastor, can also be a crucial component to the healing and restoration process. A mentor is one who walks alongside of us, providing rich support and challenge as we grow and in this case, one who helps us work through the great losses of divorce and ministry. Nurturing one’s physical body, eating nutritiously and exercising regularly (the basics that emerge from the healthcare world) are also essential. Then nurturing one’s soul, talking with God, studying His word, are equally important to the healing and restoration process. If one is able, regular prayer can be highly restorative and healing. However, it is equally common that folks go through a fallow season with God following such loss, so patience with this facet is required. Of course, when one is severely disabled, seeking professional and competent Christian counseling is always a good option!
There is hope! One can and does heal from such devastating losses. Clint, our case study, was able to ultimately relocate and rebuild his life and even his ministry life. He now is a small town pastor in a church in one of the plains states. He is loved by his congregation and is himself, quite happy. And yes, he is single at this time!
It remains a mystery why divorce occurs. It is not part of His plan for us and we all painfully know this. But divorce, just like all brokenness, is redemptive! There can be purpose and even good that emerges from such things. Like all suffering, the sting of divorce, the rejection of one spouse over another, the loss of vocational stability for a season, etc., can all be utilized at a later time to actually enhance one’s ministry life! Many restored clergy have testified to being far more compassionate with others, including fellow clergy when alerted to another’s divorce. Moreover, many further report they are far more capable of soul care for those facing painful losses in general as a result of having experienced their own suffering. Of course, this process of being refined and deepened via suffering, pain, and loss is close to the heart of Christ. There is ultimate kingdom purpose in our sufferings. One can take hope and be encouraged even in the throes of divorce and temporary ministry loss for there truly can be redemption in the ravages of divorce in ministry!