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Is Clergy Sexual Infidelity Rare?

steamy romance
Pastor Bob shows Church Member Felicia How Much Jesus Loves Her

Repost from 2015. Edited, rewritten, and corrected.

In October 2013, Doug Phillips, president of the now-defunct Vision Forum Ministries, confessed to church leaders that he had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a woman who is not his wife. Defenders of Phillips took to their blogs, websites, Twitter, and Facebook accounts to do damage control on the behalf of Phillips and the patriarchal movement. One such defender was Independent Baptist pastor Voddie Baucham, a man who is widely viewed as the African-American version of Doug Phillips.

A Christian woman by the name of Julie Anne posted an article on the Spiritual Sounding Board blog about the Doug Phillips scandal. Her post mentioned the following quote by Voddie Baucham:

Dennis, You ask, “How many times do we see this in Christian leadership?” The answer may surprise you, but it is actually quite rare. There are hundreds of thousands of churches in America. We hear of these types of things on a national basis when they happen to high profile people. However, considering the number of people in Christian leadership, the numbers are quite small. As to your other point, most men who go through something like this never recover. Of course, there are exceptions. Moreover, there are some circles wherein things like this, and much worse, are merely swept under the rug. However, in circles where leadership is taken seriously, it is very difficult for a man to come back from things like this. People have long memories, and tend to be rather unforgiving. (emphasis mine)

Baucham repeats the oft-told lie that clergy sexual misconduct is quite rare. I have heard this line more times than I can count. It is an attempt to prop up the notion that clergy are more moral and ethical than most people; that they are pillars of virtue and morality. Such claims are patently false.

In 2007, Dr. R.J. Krejcir of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute, wrote a post detailing his study of clergy infidelity. Krejcir stated:

  • Of the one thousand fifty (1,050 or 100%) pastors we surveyed, every one of them had a close associate or seminary buddy who had left the ministry because of burnout, conflict in their church, or from a moral failure.
  • Three hundred ninety-nine (399 or 38%) of pastors said they were divorced or currently in a divorce process.
  • Three hundred fifteen (315 or 30%) said they had either been in an ongoing affair or a one-time sexual encounter with a parishioner.

So much for clergy sexual infidelity being rare.

Numerous studies have been conducted concerning sexual infidelity among married people. The percentage varies widely, but it is safe to say that between ten and twenty percent of married people have been sexually unfaithful to their spouses. The percentage is higher for men than it is women.

We know that men of the cloth are not morally or ethically superior. In the United States and Canada, there are approximately 600,000 clerics. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion and Research, this total includes active clergy and “retired clergy, chaplains in hospitals, prisons and the military, denominational executives, and ordained faculty at divinity schools and seminaries.” This number does not include clergy who are affiliated with independent churches. If between ten and twenty percent of married people commit adultery, and clergy are no different morally from non-clergy, then this means that between 60,000 and 120,000 clerics have committed adultery.  Again, so much for clergy sexual infidelity being rare.

Keep in mind, this is only the number of CONSENSUAL sexual relationships. Each month, the Freedom from Religion Foundation newsletter publishes dozens of reports of clergy misconduct on their Black Collar Crime Blotter page. I also publish for this site the Black Collar Crime series, featuring preachers who have been accused, arrested, charged, convicted, sued, or imprisoned for criminal acts, many of which are sexual in nature.  As we know from cases such as Bill Wininger, Bob Gray, and David Hyles, predatory clerics can and do prey on children, teens, and women for decades before they are caught.

Voddie Baucham’s suggestion that there is not a problem with clergy infidelity is a denial of the facts on the matter. As with the Catholic church, Protestant and Evangelical churches have their own sex scandals. Evangelicals love to point to the Catholic church’s sex scandals, all the while ignoring their own increasing problems with sexual infidelity, sexual abuse, and predatory clergy.

Most clerics are faithful to their spouses, and most of them are not sexual abusers or predators. That said, there are tens of thousands of preachers who can’t keep their pants zipped up, and there are thousands of pastors who use their position of authority to abuse and prey on those who trust them. No amount of deflection or misdirection will change this fact.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    It does not seem unusual at all to me that men of the cloth stray from their ongoing affair with Christ. The church is designed to assault decent human boundaries. It tells children they have evil hearts and it shames and blames and then does the one true mind-fuck of salvation. When all decent respect for human boundaries is Biblically demolished (via the local meathead pastor) then why should it be a surprise that people stray? My goodness, they stray especially perhaps in the church because the church insists on it from the beginning: For all have sinned… and will again! And if it makes you angry, then a ‘soft answer turneth away wrath..’. More bullshit to shut you down and harm yourself.
    Hurray for Ireland telling the Church to go fuck-off with their ignorant preaching about same sex marriage. YES Ireland!

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      Brian, thanks for your reply. I guess it takes a lot longer to get the church and its ways out of us, than actually physically leaving. It is only a starting point on a journey to find our own way. I find myself reviewing a lot of what I was taught as a child, including the concept of hell and such and the physical distance from it all helps to see more clearly. Not only does the church blatantly disregard boundaries, like you say, it also creates so much fear between hell and original sin…

      Just the mere possibility that some or maybe even all of it, isn’t true, creates some space to make up my own mind. Lately I’ve begun to become much less afraid and in happily being so, I also grieve for having been so afraid for much of my life. I do have many good memories of church and Christian activities, but sadly I think that, for me personally, the bad does outweigh the good. Wishing you well.

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    “Baptists and Evangelicals tend to prefer teen girls and vulnerable women.” Definitely true in our church; basically preying on teen girls and women who didn’t dare to disagree or object. Even more so because he was the charismatic leader whom everyone loved and adored, ensuring their silence for an awfully long time….

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      “Definitely true in our church” I am curious, why are you still there? I am sorry if I sound judgmental or maybe I am mistaken that this is still your church?

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        I’m certainly no longer there, haven’t been for ages. I just meant that I recognize the pattern, that’s all. It all happened when I was eleven or so. He was relieved of his duties afterwards.

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          I can see how it might look confusing, though… I guess I still think of it as my church as it was the only one I’ve attended for a long time, my entire childhood and most of my teen/young adult life too. It wasn’t until after we had left as a family that I began to realize more and more what a negative influence some of the messages have had. Even though I’ve visited a few churches since, as a guest, I haven’t joined a new one, and it’s becoming quite likely that I never will.

          Like I said, it was a big scandal at the time, the leader was relieved of his duties, but he won the court-case nevertheless (he said, she said). Once I started learning about purity culture and such, it became clear that these teachings have quite a large influence in setting the stage for these kind of situations; i.e. the women being blamed for lack of modesty, men with far too much power and authority, etc.

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            Melody, thank-you for speaking out and sharing. There is no shame in your saying our church. You have been honest and true. It is ‘our church’ indeed and you have survived it. Don’t feel cowed by challenge, only grateful for questions and your freedom to feel. There is no church more holy than the human heart, the mortal heart. Purity culture is the mind-fuck that leaves victims all along its way. Your voice is the way out of being a victim. I appreciate what you have said here. We have so far to go but we are free to be.

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    I’ve had that page bookmarked for a long time. The one finding that always stood out to me was, “Almost forty percent polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.” Notice first that we’re talking about Evangelical ministers, not the average Christian. Secondly, they didn’t have these affairs before “finding Jesus,” but, “since beginning their ministry.” Thirdly, these are just the ministers who admitted to this kind of behavior. Surely, it’s really a bit more common than that.

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    When DH was a pastor he had a strict rule that he NEVER visited a woman alone, be she 18 or 80. He would have done the same if he’d been any sort of official – policeman for example. Gossip starts from nowhere. We were always surprised that all clergy didn’t have this rule, one laughed at the suggestion that anyone would misinterpret his motives for a pastoral visit to a vulnerable woman. DH rightly said we ALL have weak moments, an arm round a distressed, sad, needy female, though he was sure he would always want to resist, why put yourself in that position for both their sakes. (He’s very good-looking IMO!!!!! -and we’ve been married for 49 years!)

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    Really it seems this should be a BIG part of seminary training. Even a pastor with the best of intentions could get pulled down into the rabbit hole of infidelity if he isn’t careful. He is ministering to people in all stages of life and all its emotions, which can cause things to get dicey in private situations. Many office romances start with people working late together, then next thing you know…They shouldn’t hide behind the idea that they are somehow more moral than the rest of us and therefore immune to sexual temptation. (This is not said to blame the victim; obviously there are pastors who are actually predatory.)

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    Okay. So if the men of the clothe are culpable, what does it say about the laity? What say ye bruce if a marriage is on the rocks? Will you default to a xian worldview and say divorce…. never? I’m glad you and poly are together. What if one partner has totally abandoned their ‘FAITH’ and the other hasn’t and a remains the a control freak? Is there room for separation in an atheistic world view? Even divorce esp if there has been infidelity?

    I’m in that position. Yes. I should be stoned.

      • Avatar
        Bruce Gerencser

        It is my response to the claim that clergy sexual infidelity is rare. It’s not, as I prove in this post.

        Every time a big name Evangelical preacher gets his dick caught in a vice, other preachers rush in to defend God’s and Evangelicalism’s honor. These defenders say that so an so’s “indiscretion” is an outlier. However such claims are not true.

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      Michael Mock

      I’m not entirely sure why you’re asking this here, but assuming that I’m not misreading you and that it’s a serious question, then I’d say that:

      1. Divorce is never a good thing. It’s painful, ugly, and often seems to bring out the worst in people; it’s something that anyone with any sense should really want to avoid.

      2. It is also sometimes better than the alternative.

      So, yeah: there’s room for divorce in an atheistic world view. Specifically, there’s room for it in mine.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Marriage, at the most fundamental level, is a contract between two people. Of course, marriage is far more complex than say buying a car, but the principles remain the same. When a couple marries they contractually agree to certain things. Monogamy may or may not be a part of the contract. I pastored one couple where the wife had zero interest in sex and the husband was free to get it elsewhere. She just didn’t want to know about it. People can marry for all sorts of reasons: money, power, sex, family, companionship, and love.

      There is no atheist position on marriage and divorce. For me personally, humanism provides the moral and ethical framework by which I govern my life.

      Mixed marriages — believer and unbeliever — can and do work. However, there are many challenges that must be overcome for them to work. I know numerous couples who are or were in mixed marriages. Some are still happily married, or at least satisfied with how things are. Others divorced. If both people in a marriage were believers at the time they said I do, and one is now an unbeliever, the terms of the contract have been fundamentally altered. It is up to the couple to, if they so desire, to renegotiate their contract. Sadly, in some instances renegotiation is impossible and the couple divorces. I have corresponded with enough mixed marriage couples that I think I can safely say that for many couples the believer loves Jesus more than they do their spouse. If there are no children, such marriages often end in divorce. Children, of course, complicate things.

      Michael stated in his comment “Divorce is never a good thing. It’s painful, ugly, and often seems to bring out the worst in people; it’s something that anyone with any sense should really want to avoid.” As a general rule, this is great advice. My parents divorced when I was 14. I know how ugly and painful divorce can be. That said, there are times when it is impossible to salvage a marriage. And it is for this reason we allow for divorce.

  7. Avatar

    It’s very strange to see how easily evangelicals blow off the realities of sexual misconduct by the clergy. They are simply too invested in the narratives of Christian moralism to deal with the reality of consistent moral failure.

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