Being in a position of spiritual leadership is a challenge. While people will admit that pastors are just as human as everyone else, the standards and visibility on them are much higher. These higher expectations can make them especially vulnerable to infidelity and pornography.
Rather than entering into this conversation as a way to condemn, the goal here is to help spiritual leaders proactively seek to prevent moral failure. After all, their potential moral failure has an even higher impact, affecting not just the pastor and their family, but their ministry and congregation as well.
So in pointing out potential weak spots and blind spots, spiritual leaders will learn how to deal with the struggles that are common to people in their position. By becoming aware of these tendencies, they can learn to defend against them and protect themselves and their ministry.
How Common Is This Problem?
Ray Carrol, a former pastor, wrote “Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World” after his own marital infidelity. In his research, he found that this issue was surprisingly common.
In an anonymous survey, 33% of pastors admitted to crossing the line with a woman not their spouse without having been caught. In another study, the respondents revealed that one in nine pastors (around 11%) had committed adultery.
Similar findings were discovered in a survey of 277 Southern Baptist pastors. 14% were involved in some inappropriate sexual activity. 10% disclosed that they had a sexual relationship with either a present or former member of the church.
Of course, our intent is not to single out the Southern Baptist denomination! But data from individual denominations can point to a systemic issue that extends beyond denominational boundaries.
Besides the problem of sexual indiscretion, pastors may also struggle with pornography and sexual addiction. Internet pom has become a significant pastime for ministers as well as church members. Christianity Today surveyed pastors and discovered that 18% of the pastors visit a pornographic site at least twice a month, with some visiting more than once a week.
Again, the point of mentioning these statistics is not to vilify or to condemn leaders, but to help leaders find healthy ways to deal with the problems common to people in their position.
What Motivates Male Infidelity?
While there are women in positions of spiritual leadership, the majority of data we have specifically addresses males. So for our female readers, we ask that you translate the data we present, as our research scarcely addressed the infidelity of female leaders.
Men who commit infidelity can be motivated by several factors: any one of these or a combination of them:
- Desire for Instant Gratification
- Lack of Discipline / Self-control
- False Feelings of Invincibility
- Delusions of Grandeur
- Corroding Family / Marital Relationships
- Justification of Selfish Choices (i.e. lack of sex)
The Burdens of Pastors or Clergy
Church leaders are a very busy group of people. They suffer from a congregational expectation (explicit or not) that the local church is their priority, even more so than family. Because of the amount of attention the church requires, it can be challenging to relax at home and make time for their family.
Their long hours usually come in the context of spiritual calling and purpose. As a result, pastors can exhaust themselves emotionally, intellectually, and physically. And because they overstretch themselves, their capacity for intimacy and connection with their spouse diminishes, leading to a fading relationship at home.
This is because they are responsible for more than the logistical concerns of the church. They are also responsible for the emotional burdens of their parishioners. As pastors, they are expected to empathize with and even solve those burdens, eating away at the emotional reserves needed to connect with their spouse.
Additionally, these emotional burdens can be confidential, not able to be shared at home. And as these intimate details are shared, the pastor might feel pressured to reciprocate with close aspects of their life to help their parishioner feel more at ease.
If the pastor does not maintain a professional position, this reciprocation can allow close emotional commitments to occur. This is a common way a pastor can find themselves in an extra-marital relationship despite not intending to do so at the start.
The Particular Challenge of Narcissism
Narcissism has gained higher visibility in recent years, and for good reason. According to Ruffing et al. (2018), there is evidence that narcissism levels have been increasing in Western society over the past few decades. This affects church leaders particularly because It is common for people with these traits or even the full-blown personality disorder to end up in positions of leadership.
Campbell and Miller state that pathological narcissism is characterized as impairment in the ability to manage and satisfy needs for validation and admiration, such that self-enhancement becomes an overriding goal in nearly all situations and may be sought in manipulative ways and in inappropriate contexts. In short, it’s an out-of-control compulsion to meet the needs of the ego.
An affair can provide an external means of validation and admiration, so one could easily see why a church leader with narcissistic tendencies would have an extramarital relationship with a church member.
This is confirmed by research into clergy populations that shows higher than average levels of narcissism. In one particular study of 210 clergy members, researchers found that 31.2% would likely have a diagnosable narcissistic personality disorder.
Narcissistic tendencies can leave a church leader particularly vulnerable to an affair.
Narcissism and Empathy
Zondag (2007) points out an interesting connection. In clergy, pathological narcissism is connected to empathic perspective-taking.
For example, a pastor might offer a parishioner a great deal of empathy. In response to this empathy, the parishioner might respond with gratitude, maybe saying something like, “Pastor, you are so helpful, I don’t know how I could make it through this without you.”
As a result, narcissistic clergymen can be exceptionally good at empathizing, as this feeds into their need for affirmation.
Of course it’s not wrong to give empathy. It’s not wrong to express gratitude and appreciation for help. But you can see how it can feed narcissism, which is why you see clergymen having higher than average levels.
Narcissism and Low Self-Esteem
Another interesting connection is a sense of low self-worth. When someone associates their value with their accomplishments or performance, they look for external sources of validation. And when they also have low self-esteem, they are less likely to expose any vulnerability to the people closest to them, fearing that if they do so, they will be rejected.
Instead of deepening their close relationships, which requires vulnerability, they can search for approval in a new relationship. For pastors, a member of their congregation could be an easier source of validation because they appear to be less threatening or demanding.
It’s frightening, but someone with narcissism might be more comfortable being in a relationship with someone they don’t know. They can present an idealized form of themselves to that person that is praised and adored.
Narcissism is certainly a struggle that affects some pastors, but it doesn’t affect all of them. There are other factors.
Affair Prevention Boundaries
This worksheet will help you discuss with your spouse some boundaries to protect your marriage while doing ministry work. It’s crucial to set expectations on both sides to help preserve both your marriage and the legacy of your ministry. You can get access to this worksheet by supporting us on Patreon.
Adjustment and Intimacy
1. Lack of Personal Adjustment
When someone feels unsuccessful in living up to their calling, sexuality can become a way to compensate. It can be a means to attempt to feel more powerful, or to project a powerful self-image.
If a pastor struggled with feeling pain, loneliness, or vulnerability, they might try to deal with these difficult emotions in unhelpful ways. They might overcompensate and actively seek out affirmations of success or competence. They could try to numb the feelings through the intense pleasure and feeling of specialness they find in an affair or in pornography.
When a person in spiritual leadership seeks out these things, it indicates that they have deeper wounds that have not yet been healed. It’s important for leaders to identify and discuss these issues with competent counsel.
Without healthy personal adjustment, they are vulnerable to infidelity and pornography.
2. Lack of Marital Adjustment
No one has a perfect marriage, much less a pastor. The heavy burdens of this vocation place additional strain on the marriage. When every member is looking to their pastor for guidance and leadership, when the health of the church requires more and more time, pastors find little to no extra time to spend with their spouse.
This marital strain can lead to marital distress.
According to Leadership Magazine, in a survey of 300 pastors who admitted to sexual infidelity, 41% cited marital dissatisfaction as the second most frequent factor leading to extramarital relationships.
This is not saying that it was the spouse’s fault, though perhaps some of the men might have said as much. This statistic highlights that nearly half felt enough dissatisfaction in their marriage to be vulnerable to the kind of thinking that justifies an affair.
In order to properly care for the church, one must first care for their own relationships at home. Not the other way around.
3. Lack of Intimacy
Related to marital adjustment, another risk factor is not feeling emotionally or physically close to your spouse. Pastors would want their spouses to be interested in their work. They seek connection on an intellectual and emotional level, to be able to share their experiences and get affirmation, encouragement, and support.
However, building intimacy with your spouse takes intentionality and effort, which can already be a struggle for marriages. For a pastor and their spouse, they can face additional challenges and barriers to intimacy, so they need to work harder to remain consistently intimate in their marriage.
4. Dysfunctional Family Background
Like many people who are in professions that seek to help others, pastors often come from dysfunctional families. As a result, they often have attachment and nurturing needs that are left unmet.
This kind of background in pastors is heavily correlated with marital infidelity:
- 91% of cheating pastors came from chronic dysfunctional families.
- 83% of the families had chronic emotional disorders.
- 66% had experienced substance abuse.
- 58% of families were involved in affairs that resulted in having illegitimate children.
- 50% had episodes of physical violence.
- 25% were troubled with incest.
- 8% had problems with chronic gambling.
If a pastor knows that they grew up in a dysfunctional family, it is crucial that they seek therapeutic help in order to find healthy ways to cope with them.
Pressures on the Pastor’s Wife
The position of pastor doesn’t just place pressure on just the pastor. It places pressure on their spouse as well. The close scrutiny and expectations the congregation can place on the pastor’s spouse can affect their faith, morals, and love for God. Because of their proximity to the pastor, they are highly visible but rarely known.
Another issue they face is the need to work outside the home to help supplement income. One survey showed that this is true for as many as 60% of pastor’s wives. This, combined with the pressures of their husband’s position, puts them in a place where cheating becomes more likely.
Not that women should stay at home, but the situation could very easily lead to the double life of infidelity.
How To Buffer Your Marriage Against Infidelity
Now that you know where and how to identify blind spots facing church leaders, here is a list of recommendations that can help preserve a healthy boundary between responsibilities at home and in ministry. Many might sound familiar, but hopefully there will be some that you might not have considered in this context:
- Focus on Spiritual Health. Stay strong in your relationship with the Lord. Don’t just focus on your congregation’s spiritual health.
- Cultivate Healthy Relationships at Home. Take every chance you have to build full-person intimacy with your spouse.
- Seek Help. Marriage struggles are nothing to be ashamed of and are best dealt with as early as possible. If you need more privacy, consider going to another town or going online for counseling.
- Work with Your Congregation. If they understand that your home life is the foundation of healthy ministry, they will help you make time for your family.
- Place Safeguards. Work with your spouse to set healthy boundaries around your interactions with people in the church.
- Find a Mentor/Counselor. Having someone you can debrief with regularly in confidentiality will help you bear the emotional load of pastorhood.
- Keep Your Marriage Private. While sharing your struggles can be good, try to avoid sharing specific and personal challenges about your marriage with others.
- Emotional Inventory. Review your emotional state regularly. Specifically review and evaluate how you are being intimate or close with others.
- Examine Yourself Critically. If you recognize narcissistic traits, mother hunger, or emotional vulnerabilities like these in yourself: pursue healing.
These are ways to help safeguard yourself, your family, and your ministry. While these tips are generally helpful to most marriages, the challenges and demands of pastoral ministry make them even more important.
Ball, R. Glenn, Darrell Puls, and Steven J. Sandage. Let Us Prey: The Plague of Narcissist Pastors and What We Can Do about It. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2017.
Benyei, Candace Reed. Understanding Clergy Misconduct in Religious Systems: Scapegoating, Family Secrets, and the Abuse of Power. New York: Haworth Pastoral Press, 1998.
Campbell, W. Keith, and Joshua D. Miller. The Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118093108.
Carnes, Patrick, and Patrick Carnes. Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction. 3rd ed. Center City, MN: Hazelden Information & Edu, 2001.
Carroll, Ray. Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World. Folsom, CA: Civitas Press, 2011.
Darling, Carol Anderson, E. Wayne Hill, and Lenore M. McWey. “Understanding Stress and Quality of Life for Clergy and Clergy Spouses.” Stress and Health 20, no. 5 (December 2004): 261–77. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.1031.
Keener, Ronald. “Pastor’s Wives under Pressure in Husbands’ Ministries.” Church Executive, 2011.
Koster, Steven. “Why Pastors Have Affairs.” FamilyFire, 2017. https://familyfire.reframemedia.com/articles/why-pastors-have-affairs.
Lee, Kim. “The Relationship between Narcissism and Clergy Functioning.” Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering 65, no. 3-B (2004): 1552.
Ruffing, Elizabeth G., David R. Paine, Nancy G. Devor, and Steven J. Sandage. “Humility and Narcissism in Clergy: A Relational Spirituality Framework.” Pastoral Psychology 67, no. 5 (October 2018): 525–45. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11089-018-0830-4.
Thoburn, John W., and Jack O. Balswick. “An Evaluation of Infidelity among Male Protestant Clergy.” Pastoral Psychology 42, no. 4 (March 1994): 285–94. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01789516.Zondag, Hessel J. “Unconditional Giving and Unconditional Taking: Empathy and Narcissism among Pastors.” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling: Advancing Theory and Professional Practice through Scholarly and Reflective Publications 61, no. 1–2 (March 2007): 85–97.