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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — When Things Fall Apart

A couple in my church have been married more than 30 years. This past Christmas the wife discovered that the husband was cheating on her with another married woman. Despite her best efforts and 3 months of therapy, it turns out he is still cheating (even as they are in marriage counseling) and he wants to end their marriage. The wife, obviously, is devastated, in spite of the fact that they haven't really been happy for most of their marriage.

The wife has called on me for extensive pastoral care, which I have gladly provided. Is it possible now for me to be a pastor to the husband? Does that responsibility fall to the (male) senior pastor? How can we care for this family without taking sides? Also, the husband and I are both musicians who have been working on a piece to offer in worship in July--I'm not sure how that can continue to work either without one or both of us feeling extremely awkward, especially because he plans to continue to live in the house, and she refuses to give up her home, until things are fully decided and finalized — so there must be some communication going on about what's happening at church, right? Ack! Help!

From our matriarchs:

“AWKWARD.” “ACK! is right!” “Messy!”
…and, perhaps most importantly, “Pray!”

Each of the matriarchs had a somewhat different (but overlapping) perspective, so I’ll let each of them speak in turn. Overwhelmingly, they say don’t take sides, don’t bite off more than you can chew, don’t take on roles you’re not qualified for.

They also say that there are some factors that can vary wildly but are very important to consider—how much the congregation has become involved (voluntarily or no), whether there are children involved (even grown).

Some said it was imperative to step back and be neutral. Others said that the husband’s behavior made it impossible not to, and regardless of your own ability to be a pastor to both, you don’t want to seem like you approve of what he’s doing.

From Abi:
It doesn't sound like he has asked you up to this point to be a Pastor for him. And he may not. It may be up to you, if at all, to just go ask him, “What do you need from me as your Pastor, how do you want me to be for you as your Pastor?”

You may discuss the matter with your Senior Pastor, so you all can be clear on your Pastoral roles in this situation. It sounds like you have become empathetic with her to the point you have joined with her and don't feel you can Pastor him and perhaps can't even play this musical piece with him. However, that can cause a big triangle of Man the Persecutor, Woman the victim, and you the Rescuer. Then you are no longer the Pastor.

The taking sides thing happens in divorce, and particularly at church. One spouse usually ends up losing the church. I know it’s hard for you, but your job as Pastor is to not take sides. It may be harder yet in that the woman has called on you so much and it sounds like you have begun to identify with her. This man still needs God in his life, even though his behavior says otherwise.

You can offer Pastoral Care with limits for this woman, but it sounds like she is at a point she needs her own therapist and perhaps resources on how to handle the end of a marriage; you may be able to point her toward such resources. Pay attention to your own feelings. Have someone you are debriefing with, and processing with. Keep the Senior informed and in tune with what you have done or doing. Get permission to talk with their Counselor and find out what the counselor thinks is the best way you all can offer Pastoral Care, and that you all can be working with the therapist and visa versa. Both of you Pastors may want to make a Pastoral call to help them with this process as Pastors and church members.

From Ann:
My first concern is about giving extensive pastoral care to one party. In the Episcopal Church, after three sessions you bundle them off to a professional. Talk to the man and find out if this music piece can be worked on and performed in a professional manner. Being a pastor is different from being a pastoral care person who is involved in marriage counseling. Pastoring IMO is setting boundaries on your relationship with each partner and not getting enmeshed with their marriage issues at this point. Offering equal care is important. Letting each know they are still valued members whether married or divorced. Be a welcoming place for them in this time.

As to taking sides, stay out of that morass, keep your thoughts to yourself about what they should do. Another important thing to consider is that if they get back together, they will not be mad at you for having taken sides. Plus, modeling not taking sides is good for the congregation to see.

Singing Owl:
There are always two sides to the story, but it appears that the husband is (at the very least) being unethical. There's quite a list, obviously. Adultery, deceit, continuing the affair even during counseling—which indicates a lack of desire to change. I think it would be difficult, if not impossible, for you to really be a pastor to the husband. Does the senior pastor know what is happening?

I think for the husband to move on in the church as if nothing is amiss is not reasonable nor realistic, and someone needs to have a very frank talk with him. This makes me think of I Corinthians where Paul chastises the church for continuing in fellowship with a man engaging in what is clearly sinful behavior as if nothing is wrong. He gets pretty harsh about it. The church is doing the husband no favor in the long run if he is not confronted with his need to repent for the adultery, if nothing else. He adds insult to injury for the wife by cheating on her repeatedly and then not having enough understanding or compassion to spare her his presence in their house.

Can he just live in his home, continue the affair, play music, come to church and move on? I think not, but that is another reason the senior pastor needs to be involved. This is not, let's face it, Christian behavior. There are a boat load of issues, no doubt, but the first one is his relationship to God.

I hope the "other married woman" and her husband are not also in the congregation! At times we have to be pastor to both and must do so with the the clearest of boundaries and integrity. Regardless of who gives pastoral care to the husband, it is important for you and the senior pastor to communicate about the situation. It is important to avoid any sense of one of the pastors supporting the wife and the other supporting the husband. That, in and of itself, can leave the impression that the two of you (pastors) are taking sides.

Very often divorcing couples are not able to continue worshiping and serving comfortably in the same congregation. It will be interesting to see if they are still doing so by July. I would discuss the music situation openly with the husband.

St. Casserole:
You are not an attorney who takes sides in a case. As pastor you are responsible for all those in your care. You may not like them or feel sympathetic but you are a pastor. You are an advocate for the health of both the wife's and husband's soul.

If your senior pastor wishes to be the primary pastoral care person for the husband, this is fine.

If you let the husband know that you think he is a stinker, then where is the mercy? You can't take away his adulterous history but you may be able to offer a good word about a faithful future. He deserves ministry, too.

Having said all this, when you are surrounded with rotten church people who you love as Christ's own but who make you feel nauseated, try not to fuss at yourself. Not all of Christ's own are appealing people. Go for a brisk walk. Find a tree stump and hit the stump with a hammer. Scrub out your refrigerator. Do something to get the anger out then return to work asking God to show you the blessing.

One person can almost never be pastor to two divorcing parties, especially in the type of situation you are describing. In a team setting like yours, it would be natural for each of them to gravitate toward one of the two of you. You don't have to take sides publicly, but these individuals will be best served if they are not both relying on you for pastoral care.

Nearly every situation like this that I have ever seen has resulted in one or the other (or both) spouse leaving the congregation and finding another place to worship. This is not because I as the pastor suggested it: it simply became uncomfortable for both of them to remain in the same community of faith. It is hard for the rest of the community to know how to care for them.

I don't know about the nature of your faith community, but were this to happen in the one I serve, working with the husband on a joint music piece in July might be construed by some as your tacit approval of his actions. You may not intend to communicate that by your musical collaboration, but I would be surprised if the wife didn't see it that way.

How about you? Have you ever had this happen in your ministry? How did you handle it? Any happy endings?


  1. Lots of good thoughts here--thanks matriarchs!!

  2. Abi, I loved this, "This man still needs God in his life, even though his behavior says otherwise." I sounded a bit like I wanted to slap him, perhaps. :-) Didn't meant to sound that way if I did. I am about to face something similar at my place. :-(

  3. Has the wife disclosed to anyone (especially the husband) that she has called on you for pastoral care? If not, you can not be the one to disclose it either overtly or covertly. There are times when you must go on as if you know nothing in order to maintain the confidentiality.

  4. great answers Matriarchs ...

    when all's said and done I do think that to allow him to play in a concert or whatever is to be seen to condone his adulterous behavour. Whether or not he is really needed is irrelevent - his behaviour is so seriously out of line with Christian norms that I believe he would have to be disciplined and part of that discipline would be withdrawing his name from the list of performers. Do do otherwise is to fail as a church to help him to repentence.

    I would love to hear the matriarch's response to the vicar of H's point on confidentiality.

    similiarly how does this play into the fact of his playing. It his adultery known (other than through the wife's telling you the pastor)

    I think this is a topic I'd like to hear the matriarchs say more on. I mean if the pastor knows of the adultery through one partner - how can a pastor / church admoinish the man(or woman) and bring them to repentence (and hopefully changed life style). Interesting !

  5. my husband (himself divorced) often talks about, in these sorts of cases "who gets custody of the church." Although I have seen cases where both parties have been able to remain at the same church.

    well, yes, we offer mercy, but I'm interested in what people have to say about Lorna's concerns, too.

  6. Vicar of H has a great point. To confront the husband without his admitting to the affair is to breach the trust of his wife. She is the first person who came to your for care and therefore the primary concern. The good news is having the colleague to share not only the care but the burden of knowledge. Those of us who work without colleagues must find that support elsewhere, and carefully.
    As far as admonishing the husband goes, doesn't that depend on the community norms? Some versions of church do call people to accountability, while others keep the behavior private, for good or for ill. What is the chance of reconciliation if the husband is "called out?" And is that even a good outcome?
    I hope the questioner can work with his/her Senior Pastor to get some clarity about the church's response, and I would echo the encouragement from the Matriarchs to pass the wife along to a therapist at this point.

  7. Well, said all of you.

    And singing owl, I rewrote my thing several times. Can't tell you how many times I felt like you did, but decided to put it aside. I can only imagine how this person who is the Pastor feels.

    And thanks for mentioning the confidentiality thing vicar. I guess it was one of the unspoken things.

    I like what stcasserole said about the man's soul. Everybody's soul is involved here.

  8. Well, it was six months into our 31st year of marriage when my ex told me he wanted a divorce. I was at seminary at the time, took just enough time to talk to my rector and bishop and then hit the road back to school. When I went home in late March for spring break and "exit" counseling, no one at church knew a thing!
    Yes, confidentiality is the first thing a priest owes the person coming for counseling. If my husband, still today a part of that congregation, didn't see fit to tell our friends that we were divorcing, why on earth would the rector?
    All the wisdom was spang on, particularly the part about not counseling for more than three sessions (although I thought it was five). Having a list of good local counselors is essential to anyone in our line of work.

  9. Wow! Thanks, V of H, for bringing up the confidentiality issue! That is a big piece...

    Whoever asked this question, just want you to know I'm praying for you.


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