As a parish pastor, there were numerous situations in which a couple came to talk with me after one spouse had cheated at an out of town retreat or conference or meeting. Sometimes the extra-marital relationships had lasted for years. Sometimes they had been one-time liaisons.
Church people might be surprised (and profoundly disappointed) to hear that it’s also common in the lives of clergy.
We professional ministers attend annual meetings, assemblies, conferences, training sessions, and retreats – all opportunities to hook up with someone new regardless of our marital situation. I was comparing Dork Notes with a colleague over the weekend about the fact that we couldn’t figure out exactly How This Works.
When I was a fresh-out-of-seminary twenty-something pastor, I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about preaching Stewardship Sermons and so – for my very first Clergy Continuing Education event – I signed up for Preaching on Stewardship with James Forbes in a lovely retreat center in the NY mountains.
I arrived on a Sunday night for the three day conference, and at the first meal that night, I met the friend of one of my colleagues. We sat next to each other at dinner and he showed me pictures of his pregnant wife and their two daughters. It was the only time we ever spoke during the whole event . . . until the last day, as I was carrying my bags to the car.
Pastor With Pregnant Wife: So, I’m glad I got to see you again before you left. It was good talking with you the other night.
Me: Nice to meet you too.
PWPW: I was thinking that maybe we could go skiing sometime this winter.
Me: (faraway look on my face)
PWPW: What do you think?
Me: I’m trying to figure out who I could bring (because in my head I’m assuming he’ll bring his wife after the baby is born and I’ll need to find a date.)
PWPW: No. (with a chuckle) I meant you and I could go skiing.
Me: (still clueless) I’m not really a good skier.
PWPW: No. (Now smiling with cute – but now oddly disgusting – dimples). We probably wouldn’t be skiing much.
So, here’s my question: Does this actually work for people? You meet someone over meat loaf at a stewardship retreat and two days later you invite her for a winter ski weekend where there wouldn’t be much skiing?
Honestly, this kind of thing happens all the time, I’m sorry to say. There are certain conferences that are especially popular hook up events. Gentle Readers in the PCUSA: you know what I’m talking about. Again, it makes me feel old and dorky to write these words.
I’m a big fan of keeping promises – especially to the person with whom we’ve made vows before God and all the people we love most. But – now with my Professional Hat on – can I just remind you, sisters and brothers, that I currently do your executive job references as a Middle Judicatory staffer? Our denominations are like small towns and if you hook up with an old or new friend at a meeting, I will often hear about it.
Yes, these issues are as old as Genesis. And no, this post won’t change the incidence of adultery and other sexual misconduct among our clergy and other leaders. But please know that when you “inappropriately connect” your actions introduce layers of pain that will take many years to heal. The pain ripples out from your inappropriate relationship to all your other relationships, including the congregations you serve.
Please seek counseling to try to figure out what’s going on in your mind and soul. Please take a break from your ministry until you figure things out, so that your congregation will not be damaged beyond what’s already happened. Please stop lying to yourself. Please stop imagining that your actions aren’t hurting people.