When Servants Of God Get Divorced If The Marriage Of A Member Of The Clergy Is Put Asunder, What's The Church To Do? More And More, The Answer Has Become, Simply: Forgive.

Posted: April 23, 1989

The marriage limped to its end with the dreary sameness of thousands of other failed unions: Husband and wife grew apart, separated, divorced.

But in one important respect, the breakup wasn't like most other divorces. The husband was an Episcopal priest. The wife was a member of the congregation, well-known to the other parishioners.

The separation cost the priest his job in a small town in the Northeastern United States. He was hustled out of the parish by his rector and was told by his bishop that he could not move to another parish until the divorce was final.

"It was very difficult," said the priest, who asked not to be identified.

Disillusioned and needing work, he moved to Philadelphia to take a secular job. But Bishop Lyman C. Ogilby, then head of the Episcopal Church in southeastern Pennsylvania, welcomed him warmly and gave him part-time church work. Eventually, he was asked to become rector of a church.

That was a decade ago.

Today, divorce is a lot less likely to be a one-way ticket out of the pulpit, a change from when clergy were expected to be more successful than the general population in living up to the vow "till death do us part."

Just as divorce has become more frequent in society, "there is more clergy divorce than there used to be, and it is more acceptable than it used to be," said the Rev. James Lowery, an Episcopal priest who directs Enablement Inc., a Boston group that assists churches in ministry development.

"A goodly number of pastors can stay in the church they're in" after being divorced, said the Rev. Charles Hammond, chief administrative officer of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Nobody tried to evict the Rev. Stephen R. Billings from his church in West Philadelphia when he separated from his wife in 1986 after 20 years of marriage. Father Billings, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles and the Mediator at 51st and Spruce Streets, has stayed in his pulpit during the divorce process, which he said is nearly complete. His job has not been threatened, he said.

Father Billings had been rector for 11 years when he and his wife separated. The congregation - a racially mixed group that includes university

families and a high percentage of divorced and single members - has been supportive, he said.


If the day comes when he wants to remarry and stay on as pastor, he hopes the congregation will not object.

"Given how supportive and understanding they have been, I would be surprised if they were not accepting of the idea of remarriage," he said.

Helen Allen, a member of the parish vestry, said parishioners "felt like they would feel about a very good friend" when they learned that Father Billings' marriage was ending. "You're sad, but things like that do happen . . . even in the clergy," she said. ". . . We were just saddened like we would be for any good friend."

Not so long ago, Father Billings would have had trouble staying in his pulpit, no matter how popular he was.

"Thirty years ago, if you wanted to get a divorce, that was it - your career was wiped out," said Pastor Roy M. Oswald, a Lutheran minister and senior consultant at the Alban Institute, an interdenominational research oranization in Washington.

Then "the church began to ask why the clergy should be measured by a different standard from the laity," said Bishop Allen L. Bartlett Jr., head of the Episcopal church in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Some leaders say it is wise for churches to acknowledge that clergy can fail in marriage. "Personally, I think it is healthier for the church to see the brokenness of divorce as one of many kinds of brokenness," said the Rev. Harley D. Hunt, executive director of the Ministers Council of the American Baptist Churches, based in Valley Forge.

"Learning to deal more openly and redemptively with all kinds of brokenness will strengthen the ministry of Christ, and not weaken it."


Church officials and sociologists estimate that 15 to 20 percent of the clergy in mainstream Protestant denominations - which include Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, American Baptists and members of the United Church of Christ - have been divorced. That is still far lower than the divorce rate in the general population; the general estimate is that half of all marriages end in divorce.

Church officials and researchers say that, in part, the percentage of Protestant clergy with a divorce in their background has gone up in tandem with the number of clergy who entered the ministry as a second career. Many, especially women, come to ordination already divorced, according to a recent Episcopal study. One such woman is Barbara Harris, recently consecrated the first female bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Among conservative Protestant denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, divorce still is usually a major blow to a clergy career.

Divorced persons "are almost disqualified" from ordained ministry in Southern Baptist churches, according to Bruce Grubbs, manager of pastoral leadership for the Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville.

Even in more liberal denominations, divorce can still disrupt a clergy career, especially in rural areas and small towns.

In the Episcopal Church, there are "still plenty of bishops around" who believe that "the day a priest is divorced, he's out of that parish," said the Rev. Thomas Blackmon, president of the National Network of Episcopal Clergy Associations.

And it is not always easy for divorced clergy - especially those who have remarried - to find new pulpits.

Father Blackmon, now director of ministries for adults at a large Episcopal parish in Dallas, said his divorce and remarriage made it hard for him to find a new job in the early 1980s. In some interviews, he said, "you could feel an unspoken hesitancy or skepticism."

The status of divorced clergy has been a less painful issue for Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians than it has been for Protestants.

A rabbi's career is rarely affected by divorce, said Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, which represents Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist Jews. Although divorce is viewed as sad, "the tradition has always allowed for it," he said.

In the Greek Orthodox Church, priests may be divorced in a civil court and continue to function as priests but may not receive a church divorce without leaving the priesthood, said the Rev. Milton B. Efthimiou, executive director of the Department of Church and Society for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America.

That position is "pretty standard" among Orthodox churches, although some Orthodox groups allow divorced priests to remarry and stay in the priesthood, he said.


Even in liberal Protestant congregations where a minister's job is not at stake, "any kind of divorce in a diocese . . . rocks the diocese," said Christine Folwell, co-author of a study of divorce by the Episcopal Family Network.

Church leaders say that in recent years they have tried to make counseling more easily available and help clergy learn how to handle the stresses that can pull a marriage apart. Those stresses include the constant emotional demands that often leave little time or energy for a pastor's family, and the difficulty of living up to expectations. "Clergy are supposed to have perfect marriages," said Pastor Oswald.

But clergy are often reluctant to talk about their marital problems.

Often, by the time the church learns of a failing relationship, "the condition of the marriage is so bad that it's very difficult to address it," said Bishop Lawrence L. Hand, head of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Spouses suffer, too. Church leaders concede that their institutions still have not learned to deal fairly with the ex-wives.

"Members of the congregation don't know what to say" to the ex-spouse, Bishop Hand said.

A 1984 study of clergy divorce by the Alban Institute found that the ex- wives of divorced clergymen "were really done in by the divorce," said Pastor Oswald. Half of 40 divorced wives of clergy interviewed for the study were so disillusioned by their divorce that they ended up leaving organized religion, he said.

The church offers "almost nothing in terms of reaching out," according to Pastor Oswald. Other clergy see the ex-wife as "a pariah," he said.

One ex-spouse from Cherry Hill, who did not want to be identified, said in an interview that her former husband's congregation "just dumped me" after the couple separated. "Not one member . . . called me to see what was wrong," she said.

As for congregation members, many don't expect their pastor's marriage to fail, Pastor Oswald said. When it does, "they are in a state of denial and disbelief," he said. Some congregants end up quitting the church. "They just cannot accept it."

Some, like Father Billings' congregation, "can end up being very supportive," he said.

Even a congregation that initially has trouble accepting the pastor's divorce will end up being supportive if there are no aggravating circumstances such as an affair, said the Rev. Sandra Forrester Dufresne, chairwoman of the Board of Ordained Ministries for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.

But whether they will accept it or not, the pastor who is divorcing has to face up to the painful and risky task of breaking the news to the congregation.

One divorced minister from the Philadelphia area said that standing up in the pulpit and telling the congregation that she was divorcing was "hard to do."

But the congregation took the news well and has been "very supportive," she said.

"It let them know that I was a human being who had problems just like them," she said. ". . . They know that I'm a human now. . . . I personally think that's a plus."

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