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NATION Clergy divorce often raises doubt for church, family

Monday, August 4, 2003

Though some congregations are accepting of divorce, others do not believe in it.
The Rev. John Upham did everything right, and still it wasn't easy. There was, for instance, the woman who confronted the Anglican priest shortly after learning he was getting a divorce.
"One of the matrons of the church came up to me and said, 'Oh, we're going to lose so many members because of this,'" recalls the Rev. Mr. Upham, 44.
It has been about eight months since his divorce was final. Sitting in his office at St. George's Anglican Church in Raleigh, N.C., Mr. Upham now understands more clearly the process he describes as "walking down your own personal corridor of hell."
Divorce for many is a slice of hell, but when you're a member of the clergy, the pressure can be overwhelming.
Once unheard of, and still a major shame in conservative denominations, divorce among clergy has increased with the nation's overall rising divorce rates. Newsweek magazine in the late '90s reported that the divorce rate among Protestant clergy had risen to match that of the general population. Barna Research, a California firm that tracks cultural trends and the Christian church, found that in 2001, 12 percent of Christian pastors had divorced.
Clergy divorce can be a painful and frightening event that can shake their faith in the church and in the institution of marriage.
Mr. Upham considers himself lucky. "I've been very fortunate. This church is very supportive," he says.
Mr. Upham's wife, who lives in Florida, was a well-liked member of St. George's choir. When they split, Mr. Upham knew he had to break the news gently, so he told members of the church's vestry, then let the news filter out slowly.
"I never stood up before the congregation and made an announcement," he says.
Difficult times
He had good instincts, says Greg Jones, dean of Duke University's divinity school.
Jones divides divorce into two categories: There are "tragic" divorces brought on by the many and varied stresses and circumstances of life, and there are "scandal" cases, where issues such as adultery or abuse are involved.
Mr. Upham's was a tragic case. But there's still fallout.
While congregations often take years to recover from a scandalous divorce, in a tragic case they often fear "there's another shoe to drop," Jones says.
"There is a sense that the clergy ought to be exemplary," he says. "In general, it tends to be easier in more progressive churches. A lot also hinges on what kind of credibility and respect both the pastor and spouse have."
Jones points to one situation where both the pastor and spouse told the congregation they had struggled and prayed over their disintegrating marriage a long time and determined that divorce was the best course. They asked for the congregation's prayers, and members were touched by their honesty.
"It really in many ways brought the church together because they saw this could be any of them," Jones says.
Losing sight of faith
Then there was the case of a Presbyterian minister forced to resign his post after a nasty divorce, including a bitter ex-wife who fed the church gossip mill.
Christians, in the face of disappointment and hurt, Jones says, too quickly forget that forgiveness and reconciliation are central tenets of their faith.
"Unfortunately there are too many churches that are not well-practiced in the central message," he says.
While Christian churches have a variety of response to clergy divorce -- with conservative denominations generally taking it worst -- other faiths approach the issue differently.
"There is no stigma attached to rabbinical divorce," says Kalman Bland, director of Judaic studies at Duke University.
In much of Judaism, he says, divorce is seen as an acceptable legal remedy to a failed marriage for both lay peoples and rabbis.
In Islam, clergy do not occupy a separate category from lay people. All followers are equal, and divorce is permissible for men and women.
"It doesn't have the same kind of moral overtones and also the blame that's found in some branches of Judaism and in a lot of Christianity," says Bruce Lawrence, professor of Islamic studies at Duke University.
In any case, in a society where divorce is common, there can be a benefit for a clergy member who has been though it personally.
As Mr. Upham puts it: "The good thing about this is, now I can reach out to people who are going through the same thing."