How to affair-proof your marriage and protect ministry relationships
At the end of a recent counselling session, a client told me that her pastor is on leave from the church ministry. I was thinking the pastor must be on some sort of medical leave, but my client further informed me that her pastor was involved in an affair with a ministry worker from another congregation. My heart sank when I heard the news, and I was angry because the evil one has once again successfully brought down a servant of God who appeared to have a vibrant ministry. The work of a pastor, by nature, is very stressful and demanding. Nowadays I believe many pastors are facing increasing pressure to grow the church and to bring in the numbers and results. The intense job pressure could make a person vulnerable and at risk crossing personal and ministry boundaries.
An affair does not happen out of the blue; it evolves in a very predictable pattern. An affair usually begins when a person is unaware of or ignores his/her vulnerability, and at the same time not practicing proper boundaries in relationships. When a person is vulnerable, his/her mind, body, and spirit are looking for pain relief. The affair process further evolves when the pain relief comes from a person of the opposite sex and who is not the spouse, and that person acts like a high-performing, addictive drug that provides a sense of comfort, validation, and affirmation, as well as a listening ear, emotional attachment, escape and rescue. The affair is consummated when sexual intercourse is involved, and the addiction to one another turns into high gear. The affair continues and sustains itself by mutual rationalization of true love and needing one another. An affair is not about love; it is about an unhealthy, addictive relationship. As one Christian woman puts it, when she got caught again by her husband, she felt like she was an alcoholic addicted to booze. Except her liquor was the youth pastor she had the affair with.
The pathology of an affair: A four-step destructive process
Vulnerability means there is added risk, not added value, in a person’s life. Vulnerability often occurs when a person is:
- under a lot of stress
- grieving major losses
- feeling insecure and looking for affirmation
- feeling rejected and looking for validation
- going through a burnout
- experiencing boredom and looking for fun and excitement
- not aware of his/her personal weaknesses, e.g., boundary issues with persons of the opposite sex, such as, often wants to save or rescue someone
- having unfulfilled expectations and unexpressed needs in marriage.
In his book Torn Asunder, Dave Carder wrote:
“When we are vulnerable, we are emotionally run down, our defenses are down, our perspective on things is clouded, we are not able to make judgment based on truth, and everything is seen through an emotional filter. Pain is intensified. Therefore, the pursuit of relief from pain is also intensified. When you are vulnerable, a situation that might otherwise be safe may now be unsafe.”
2. Emotional, non-physical involvement
In the pathology of an affair, the gray area is where much game playing occurs. Don’t worry, we are just doing ministry together.
Because people tend to say that nothing is going on when there is no physical contact, they feel safe because they think they are still walking within a boundary – when they are really crossing the line. This innocent “playing around” can lead to the next destructive step in the process: physical contact.
Emotional involvement and violation of a boundary occur when a man and a woman who are not married to one another:
- share intimate information about their past
- share intimate information about personal struggles
- share intimate information about marital problems
- want to support, rescue and protect a wounded soul.
The following story of a woman illustrates the danger of emotional involvement:
“I and Ralph became friends after meeting at work. We began consolling each other over each of our failing marriages. Put it this way, because we are leaning on each other for support, things between me and Ralph ended up getting heavy … maybe four or five times me and Ralph got into some pretty heavy petting, you know, touchy feely, and then intercourse on just one occasion.”
3. Physical involvement
Once an affair gets physical, it is hard to get out. It is like a full-blown addiction to the relationship.
4. Rationalizations for continuing the affair
- “Just one more time”
- “If my wife only met my needs, I wouldn’t do this”
- “I understand her so much better than her husband does”
- “She needs me”
- “We do ministry together”
- “It won’t happen again”
- “I’m just too weak”
- “If only God would give me the strength to stop”
- “God knows that I need this”
- “King David was doing it; it can’t be that bad”
- “No one else knows, so what’s the harm”
- “God will forgive us”
- “There are worse sins”
- “God loves us no matter what we do”
How to protect ministry relationships
Set and maintain appropriate boundaries with persons who are not your spouse:
- Do not disclose and share intimate information and personal struggles with a person who is not your spouse on a one-to-one basis. If someone of the opposite sex bares his/her soul with you, encourage the person to seek professional help. Do not play the rescuer role. Do not engage in hugs and embraces in private moments.
- When you are meeting a person of the opposite sex in your office, if possible, keep your office door fully or half opened. If possible, construct or choose offices with a glass window in order to create some transparency for the actions within.
- The prayer experience is an extremely intimate matter. Except with your marriage partner, do not make a habit praying with persons of the opposite sex in a closed door, private setting. Choose a room with a glass window or leave your door half open.
- When you are counselling persons of the opposite sex, do not extend your session beyond the appointed time. Avoid meeting the person alone, especially in the evenings, when nobody is around in the church. When you pray with the person during the counselling, avoid physical touch.
- When you are travelling with co-workers on ministry trips, such as attending a conference, do not meet with someone of the opposite sex alone in your hotel room. Meet in the public or in a meeting room with people around.
- If possible, avoid visiting someone of the opposite sex alone in his or her home. This applies to the “Handy Man.” You are handy and have the gift of helping others. A recently separated single parent needs some repair in her bathroom, and your spouse sends you there to help. Bring your spouse or kids with you. Do not create a situation in which you are alone with someone who is potentially vulnerable.
Seek healthy ways to relieve pain
- Identify your pain: fear, insecurity, rejection, betrayal, failure, feeling not good enough, getting no respect in the marriage, etc.
- Do not internalize your pain, externalize it. Ask God for the courage to share your pain with your spouse, and/or with someone of the same gender whom you trust. This is a difficult practice for pastors and church leaders because they are supposed to have answers and solutions. It has taken me a long time to willingly share my own insecurity with my wife. If necessary, seek professional counselling yourself.
- Decrease vulnerability by practicing healthy self care. Regularly exercise. Have good communication with your spouse and children. Your life is bigger than your church and ministry. Self care is not equal to selfishness.
- Remember, in defining ministry success, it is not how big your church is; it is how big your church behaves in Kingdom business.
Dr. Simon Sheh is a Christian psychologist in private practice in Edmonton, Alberta. Dr. Sheh is the creator of the Godly Men, Ungodly Thoughts and Leadership and Sexual Integrity seminars. Dr. Sheh and his family attend Beulah Alliance Church in Edmonton. For more information on Dr. Sheh’s services and his upcoming seminars, please go to DrSimonSheh.com.
Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.