By Charles H. Chandler, D Min
During church conflict and forced terminations, ministers’ spouses usually experience more pain, have more anger, and recover more slowly from the trauma than the minister. After nearly two decades of working with ministers and their families, I have seen the pain and the traumatizing effect too many times. It is not unusual for the minister or the minister’s spouse, in particular, to find it difficult to trust church leaders again.
A minister’s spouse sobbed as she recounted the horror of her husband being forced from his church ministry position. He received a phone call from the chair of the church staff relations committee telling him that the committee wished to meet with him that same night. They told him that he was awful at most everything he did, and they strongly suggested be begin looking for a new position, though they admitted that he was a person of outstanding character and high moral standards. The minister’s wife stated, “We were very upset by all that took place so quickly. For many nights we cried and could not sleep.”
After the minister and his spouse returned from a week of much needed vacation, they were blindsided again when the staff relations committee informed her husband that they wanted him gone within a month.
The depth of pain can be seen in a letter the above spouse wrote a few weeks later. “I could barely attend church because I felt everyone was talking behind our backs. I would become physically sick on Sunday mornings and slip into the sanctuary just before worship began and hurriedly depart once it was over. I found it almost impossible to talk with anyone in the church because I was so hurt. I was there only to support my husband. He had no one to go to and felt no support for his ministry. It struck me that he was like Daniel in the lions’ den. It is sad when the church is unwilling to comfort its own.”
The spouse further wrote, “My husband read his letter of resignation on the Sunday after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Two weeks later he had to leave after 25 years of ministry. Imagine what it must have felt like for my husband. I have watched him grieve his loss. And while he still cares for the people he served so faithfully I have distanced myself from them. It hurts too much to face them.”
A military officer wrote concerning the forced termination of his clergy spouse, “It was one of the most difficult, trying, hurtful, and agonizing events of our marriage. It was difficult to stand by and not be able to help, even though my spouse had not done anything wrong. I was silenced by words and actions of both the lay leaders of the church and the Bishop who came to “mediate” on behalf of my spouse. I was told that I could attend the meeting but was not allowed to provide input, question, or participate in the discussion.”
He further wrote, “After the session, when I questioned the Bishop about violations of my spouse’s contract, our civil rights and personal safety, and stated that I thought we should seek the advice of an attorney, we were told by the Bishop that he had no doubts that we had adequate grounds for a law suit.” “If you do, however, you will be done in this denomination.”
Concerning his feelings during this experience, the minister’s spouse wrote “Not only did we feel the pain of a forced termination by a very few vocal members of the congregation, we also felt abandoned by the person who was supposed to be an advocate and who had the power, and authority, to say, “STOP, what you are doing is wrong and will not be tolerated in this church.” It was so difficult to explain to our children that they had to leave their school, friends, and activities even though we had no place to go.
I have observed four reasons that I believe illustrates why ministers’ spouses experience more pain and anger, and recover more slowly from the trauma inflicted upon them:
The minister’s spouse seldom has anyone to talk with except his or her clergy spouse who is the one person they are trying to protect. As a result the spouse is likely to internalize his or her feelings. Ministers’ spouses who have their own career often emerge healthier because they have a social support system other than the church.
The spouse experiences a “double whammy.” It is one thing to be rejected and vilified, but it is another thing to see someone you love being treated unjustly. The spouse is well aware of the long hours, the depth of agony, and the commitment involved in the clergy spouse’s fulfilling the pastoral ministry role.
The deep feeling of betrayal, coupled with the feelings of injustice and helplessness, becomes a heavy burden to carry, especially when suffering alone and in silence.
Another factor is the minister’s spouse’s need to help nurture his or her clergy spouse. Because of the overwhelming injustice done to someone they love, they may put their own healing on hold while they reach out in love and compassion to their clergy spouse. Later, after the clergy spouse begins to heal, they may discover they are still suffering because their anger is still buried deep within.
It is critical that both clergy and clergy spouses have a therapist to walk with them through the lonely and difficult times. Every clergy and spouse needs friends outside the church with whom they are free to openly talk. Friends can provide an atmosphere of genuine fellowship and acceptance. A therapist can help transform the trauma into an experience of growth. Friends, therapists, and wellness retreats like those sponsored by the Ministering to Ministers Foundation (MTM) can be powerful spiritual resources.
Traumatic experiences like forced termination have the potential to destroy individuals and marriages. Traumatic experiences shared with God and others can open the door to healing and preparation for future experiences in life and ministry. It’s called “growing strong at the broken places.”
Charles H. Chandler founded Ministering to Ministers Foundation in 1994 after experiencing a forced termination. He spent the next 23 years caring for ministers in all faith groups who also experienced conflict and/or forced termination. We owe a debt a gratitude for Charles’ devotion to ministers and their spouses.