I have debated quite a while about whether or not to blog on the Ashley Madison controversy. Until today I saw no benefit in it. But after coffee with a non-profit leader/friend today, I felt compelled to add one more voice to the mix. Unless you have been under a rock the last month, you know that internet hackers stole and released the names of between 32-39 million paid subscribers of the Ashley Madison website which exists to help people hook up to have sexual affairs.
And that included an unknown number of pastors/ministers.
Two weeks ago Ed Statzer of the Southern Baptist denomination said that from his conversations with different denominational leaders, he expected about 400 pastors to resign on Sunday, Aug. 30. I have not heard reports of mass resignations, but I am sure that some of it happened. At least one minister has committed suicide because his name was released as being on the Ashley Madison list.
While the naive are shocked (“Shocked, I tell you, shocked!”) by this, I am profoundly sad but not shocked nor overly surprised. Does that mean that I am cynical that lots of pastors are sexual deviants and cheaters? Not at all. I am not surprised because of the culture within the church which I have seen with my own eyes (and experienced in my own life) of relational anorexia. Anorexia is “an emotional disorder characterized by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat.” What does it have to do with relationships and sexual infidelity?
I would propose that we should not be all that shocked by the numbers of pastors who have resorted to Ashley Madison type of contacts because so many of them are starving for meaningful and intimate relationships. Ashley Madison is not primarily about sex. It is primarily about relationships. (Please note what I said…I didn’t say it isn’t about sex. It is. But for many it is primarily about relationship foremost. The sex is the packaging it comes in).
The stats have been widely quoted (I also have quoted them numerous times) regarding pastoral burnout. Included in the sad statistics are the findings that 70% of pastors reporting having NO close friends. Correspondingly 56% of pastor’s wifes–this survey erroniously presumes that all pastors are men–have no close friends.
Is it because pastors are social misfits and sociopaths? Um…no. It is because they have learned both by training as well as experience that to have close friends in the church is incredibly dangerous. Contemporary churches places pastors on a pedestal that no one can long stay on if they are completely transparent with those in the church about their heart and struggles. That doesn’t mean they are perverts. It means that they are humans. Humans who are susceptible to temptation and sin just like every other person. But to admit that susceptibility to anyone who is not totally confidential or who is in a position to affect the employment/leadership of the pastor is just too big a risk for most pastors to take.
The message of the church whether taught in seminary…as I was…or through painful experience…as I also have been…is: “If you have close friends in the church you WILL get hurt. And it will usually result in job termination.”
And so millions of pastors live in relational isolation. Even if they are close to their wives, there are intimate subjects that most men will not discuss with their wives because it is too threatening to the self-esteem of the spouse. (“I am increasingly viewing porn on the internet.” “I find myself sexually attracted to the leader of the worship team.” etc.) And so the struggle goes inward. They may even be a part of a “men’s group” or an “accountability group” or an intra-denominational support system (groups of pastors of the same denomination supporting one another or a bishop or general superintendent who is charged with “shepherding” the ministers under his/her jurisdiction.) But many ministers have found that those groups are far from confidential and far from judgment-free. Over and over again, revealing temptations or even minor slips has had negative vocational ramifications.
And so they stay isolated.
But human beings are not made that way. A reworked verse from Genesis 2 comes to mind, “It is not good for pastors to be alone.”
But most are alone, and so the prospect of finding a relationship: even a false relationship based on mutual guilt is tempting. A site promoting affairs like Ashley Madison is like the old arms race between the US and USSR: M.A.D.. Historically, both the US and the USSR had way more than enough nuclear weapons to obliterate each other off the of the face of the earth. It was, in the parlance of the 1960s and 70s, M.A.D.: Mutually Assured Destruction. If someone is having an affair with another married person there is the hope that that person won’t tell because each will, in the process of revealing the affair, destroy her/his own marriage.
As I have said in several contexts, “False intimacy feels like real intimacy, at first.” But it is not real intimacy. It feels emotionally rewarding. It feels exciting. Sexually, it feels good. But it is deadly.
So do I have a solution?
I don’t know. I suspect that the culture of the church is really too dominant to change (about that I AM cynical). And I suspect that too many ministers have been burned to suddenly (and frankly foolishly) become totally transparent with their congregation or congregational leadership.
Perhaps it looks like interdenominational pastors groups. Perhaps some interdenominational structure for support and accountability is possible. I don’t know. I would covet your thoughts on that.
However…I do want us to get past the notion that the numbers of pastors who fall into sin in places like Ashley Madison are sexual deviants and hypocritical perverts. They may be hypocritical, but it is a hypocrisy arising out of relational desperation. There is no safe place to go and so they stay isolated until they turn to illegitimate places to feel comforted, heard and even loved. It may be Ashley Madison…it may be somewhere else. I am not minimizing the sinfulness of the actions. But I think it is important to see the motivation for many that leads them into sinful relationships.
It’s not primarily about sex. It’s about meaningful, intentional, accountable and confidential relationships. Something of which there simply are not enough. When too many can’t find the real thing, they will go looking for the counterfeit. And it is destructive.
Thoughts? Disagreements? Ideas? Solutions? I would covet your input.