Pastors in Glass Houses

Every month, 1,300 U.S. pastors are fired or forced to resign.

Nearly 30 percent of ministers have been terminated at least once. In a decade, 40 percent of today's pastors will be in another line of work. Seventy percent say they have no close friends.

The numbers don't improve at home. The divorce rate for U.S. pastors is up at least 65 percent in 25 years. More than a third admit to "inappropriate sexual behavior" with church members. Eighty percent say their work has a negative impact at home. One in three goes even further, saying the pastorate has been a "hazard" to their families.

"In other words, they wish somebody had stuck a warning label on the bottom of their seminary diploma," said Simon J. Dahlman, editor of a new bimonthly magazine called "Pastor's Family."

It's been said many times: the pastorate is a high calling but can be a hellish job. Also, most parsonages have glass walls. In one revealing 1992 statistic, 94 percent of ministers said they feel pressured to have an "ideal family."

"When you hear that you have to ask, `OK, what is an `ideal family' for a pastor?' We'll need to do a story on that," said Dahlman, who has been both a pastor and a journalist. "But it's not enough to ask some ministers, `What is an `ideal family?' We'll have to ask lay people, `What do YOU mean when you say your pastor should have an `ideal family?'"

Thousands of families live somewhere between these high expectations and the realities of their lives. The team at Focus on the Family that created "Pastor's Family" seriously considered using a more aggressive name, "Sanctuary," with its implications that clergy families literally need a place to hide. "Balance" also has become a key word.

"We keep hearing people talking about how hard it is ... to find a healthy balance between what they owe the church and what they owe their families," said Dahlman. "It's like they're up on a wire and they keep falling off."

Pastors' families face all of the problems faced by others -- everything from adultery to problem children, workaholism to tight finances. But the fact that church staff members also "work for God" brings unique pressures. God may issue "divine callings," but human beings sign paychecks and do job evaluations.

Meanwhile, church trends keep rewriting the job descriptions of ministers and those who work for them. Many pastors never expected to serve as chief executive officers and lack the skills to do so. Small-church pastors face higher expectations as their flocks ask to receive the same variety of services as megachurches. It's a buyer's market.

Excellent journals already exist to help clergy improve their preaching and administrative skills, said Dahlman. "Pastor's Family" will stick to marriage, parenting, time management, home finances and other domestic issues. Instead of a technical article on preaching, it might offer advice on how to preach during a family crisis or whether to tell family stories in the pulpit. A cartoon in the first "Better Homes & Parsons" page shows a couple in bed. He says, "I hope you didn't mind me telling that funny little anecdote about you in my sermon," while she is poised to smack him in the head.

But more serious issues lurk everywhere. Another cartoon shows a preacher reading a scribbled note that says: "Dear Dad, I Aksidantly Burnt Your Surman, Love Sana." The caption: "At 11:25 a.m. Sunday, June 30, Pastor Smedes discovers that he has been neglecting his youngest daughter."

Ministers aren't perfect and they don't have the option of living in a perfect world or working with perfect churches, said Dahlman. Some of that pain and sin will come home with them.

"Pastors see it all. They see humanity at its best and at its worst," he said. "That's going to affect their families, one way or another. If we're going to try to help pastors' families, we'd better put out a magazine that's honest and forthright. If not, they're going to laugh us off the face of the earth."