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Emotional Affairs with Pastors: Forgiveness is Not a Neat Little Package

My friend Jennifer recently shared about her emotional affair with a former pastor.

She shares bravely concerning the stomping on and healing of her heart.  There is always an element of spiritual abuse when a pastor is involved and on behalf of any kind of pastor, I apologize.  If you have been in any type of affair this will be a good read but especially good for those of you involved with clergy.

Below is Jennifer's post.  

For those of you who may not know this about me, I want to reveal that I was involved in an emotional affair with the pastor of our former church. Until now, I have only hinted at what had happened at our former church. Today, I have chosen to share all of this in much more detail than I ever have before with the desire that the Lord use it to help any woman who may have found herself in a similar situation.

There may be a woman reading this who is out of such a situation and yet still struggles with the guilt associated with such a traumatic event.

I pray that even now, the Lord will supply me with the right words to share.

Our former church and its people had good intentions that went horribly awry as the narcissistic man who called himself pastor wanted to control rather than lead those people under his care. What began as a dream to equip the saints as per Ephesians 4:12 became a place where legalism ruled the day.

At the time Andy and I began attending, our only desire was to serve the Lord and to grow in knowledge and wisdom. We threw ourselves into every aspect of service. We cleaned the church, we helped other members when the opportunity arose, and we prayed for the pastor and his family often and sought to bless them in both physical and financial ways. The more we served the more we were called upon to serve. It was that service to others that became the measuring stick for how well you were “walking the walk".

I was so excited about a study I was planning for myself that I brought the books with me to a fellowship dinner and showed them to my friend who had initially invited us to the church. When the pastor saw the books at the fellowship he said, “This is just what the women need” and asked me to lead a Bible study for the women. While I had no experience leading a study group, and I was anxious at the prospect of leading anything, I was excited that the Lord would use me in such a way, and began to plan my lessons. Each week, as I prepared to teach the Lord, spoke to me through the material we studied. The first study we embarked on, written by a woman named Virginia Fugate was “The Other Side of the Garden.” Admittedly, I had no idea what I was doing but felt I was doing the Lord’s work and so I plowed on.

We (the women) later completed some very meaty (and some not so meaty) bible studies. The knowledge the Lord granted to me during that time has become priceless to me. I now believe He had a much bigger lesson for me to learn, and perhaps for some of the women who were in that group as well.

There came a time when I felt the study questions we were answering did not ask some of those hard questions that tap into the depth of the study. I did not feel the questions were challenging enough and did not want the women simply “plugging in” an answer. I mentioned it. The pastor asked if I could develop some additional questions for the women to answer. My being uncomfortable with teaching anyway, my pastor soothed my troubled heart by assuring me he would guide me every step of the way. I found comfort in the knowledge that the pastor would guide my unsteady steps.

I should preface this by saying I had an erroneous view of biblical submission.

Submission was esteemed at the church as one of the marks of a godly woman.

The type of submission esteemed was and is unbiblical. It is a submission that requires the one submitting do so without the question does this line up with scripture and with no thought about the consequences of submitting to requests that could be contrary to the scriptures. It was a mindless submission.

So began the process of writing additional study questions that would be reviewed by the pastor, which threw us into a closer relationship than I bargained for. As he got to know me better, he decided that I needed to become a certified N.A.N.C. counselor. Not long after that proclamation, I began to attend the N.A.N.C. conferences. I only attended two N.A.N.C conferences. It was at the second of these conferences, while I was far from home that his intentions toward me and our relationship became painfully clear in a hotel room far away from my husband and family.

We were invited out to dinner with a couple from the church and he accepted the invitation on our behalf. When the dinner hour approached though, I could not get him to answer his cell phone nor his room phone. I patiently waited in my room. I had no way to contact this couple, no way to drive to the church. I was stranded and all I could do was wait until I heard from him. Finally, when the hour approached for the evening meetings I tried again and that is when he came to my room. It is a night I will not soon forget. The blinders I wore for years were removed finally during the course of that evening.

As the relationship developed, I became trapped in a web spun by a master manipulator. He recognized my felt needs and sought to meet them. He gathered information about my past, my present and my childhood and used that information to his advantage while he lured me deeper and deeper into a relationship that was unbiblical and ungodly. The main players in this relationship were the pastor, his wife, and I. The relationship on both sides became hyper-dependent on each other rather than God who is the All-Sufficient One.

Both the pastor and his wife constantly undermined my husband to me and it was then that I began to look at my husband through their eyes. I was taught that I was to submit to my husband, and if he was found to be in sin, then the elders (in this case that one man) was to act as my authority and protection until my husband was no longer in sin. My husband’s sin was his failure to lead his family in the elder prescribed manner, thus rendering him ineffective as my leader and protector, leaving me without biblical cover at which point the pastor stepped in to act on my husband’s behalf until my husband saw the light.

Scriptures were taken out of context and twisted in order to meet the desires of a narcissistic man. Looking back, I can see how my mind became poisoned against my husband, and how I eagerly submitted to anyone and anything in my quest to please God. I now know that nothing I can do will please God. His grace alone sustains me.

However, I know I am not without fault. I have since admitted my guilt and my sin to all those involved. I allowed myself to be duped because wrapped around the duping was a hard, shiny candy shell that was food for my flesh. The heart, which is deceitfully wicked, fooled me into believing I was doing good when in fact I was doing evil.

Over time and with prompting from his wife and myself the pastor appointed men to co-lead with him. It was through these appointments that the emotional infidelity came out of the darkness and into the light. I was terrified the revelation would destroy my family as well as the church body. This man warned me many times that if our special relationship were exposed it would destroy my family as well as destroy the ministry he had so carefully constructed. By now, the relationship had become so suffocating and so controlling that I dared not make a move without his approval, all the while desperately longing to be free of his control and yet I still refused to expose the relationship until, quite by accident, the cat escaped from its bag. Fear and shame controlled me.

During this time, the pastor would call me repeatedly and if I did not answer my phone, he would call until I finally answered. Upon answering my phone, I would be bombarded with questions such as, “Who are you with?” “Where are you?” “Why aren’t you answering your phone?” It was an emotionally draining time.

When folks became aware that there was something amiss, it was quite by accident. I had been slowly backing out of the relationship with the pastor and his wife and seeking other acquaintances within the church when it became obvious that mine was not a normal pastor/ congregant relationship. I was helping to plan a surprise birthday party for another elder’s wife. He and I were shopping for party hats and favors when my phone began to ring repeatedly. The elder looked at me, clearly confused as to why I was refusing to answer my phone. I fumbled about trying to switch my loud ring tone for a silent one; all the while, this elder wore a puzzled expression. After multiple calls, and an unsuccessful attempt to silence my phone the elder asked me who it was who had called so many times. I, with downcast eyes, spoke the caller’s name. The elder gently requested that I answer the phone if it should ring again. It did, and I answered to a barrage of questions. As I answered each question, trying to remain calm as panic welled up inside of me, the other elder looked at me intently as the thirty-second call seemed to last an eternity. Finally, the pastor grew angry as he suspected someone was there with me and he hung up loudly. I recoiled as if I had been shot. Seeing that I was visibly shaken, the elder began to ask me very pointed questions. Within minutes, the truth was out.

About this same time, I had been reading a book written by a woman who had suffered what she called clergy abuse. In her book, the scenario was very similar to what was happening to me with this pastor; in fact there were times as I read it I often had a sense of deja vu. However, she lay all of the blame squarely upon her pastor. The elders in her church supported the pastor and he remained in office while she and her family left the church in shame.

I did not agree with her assessment of blame. I felt and still feel that my former pastor, bears the crux of the blame, given the position of authority he held. However, I, too, had my own sins to acknowledge. Among those sins were my wrong view of God and my people pleasing ways that led to a huge fear of man. There were times I felt very close to the Lord, during all of this but there were many times I felt like I was not the Christian I claimed to be. I am grateful for the support those other elders showed our family during that dark time. To this day, they valiantly protect my identity from those who would be overly critical of my involvement.

There have been more than a few Christians who have offered their opinion on what I could have or should have done differently. It is easy for someone who has the benefit of hindsight to offer solutions in a neat little package as to how I should have behaved, or how they would have behaved in a similar situation. Such answers belie the truths God intended me to glean from this dark time in my life. A darkness that I felt may overtake me. That darkness still tries to wrap its tentacles around my spirit and drag me to the slough of despond. There was something beyond the darkness though, something God had just for me. Something God wanted me to fully grasp and understand.

He wanted me to understand His grace.

I now understand it in a way I could never have known had I not gone through this experience. It has proven to me repeatedly that the “all things” in Romans 8:28 truly encompasses all things. It has taken many years and sadly more heartache for me to understand the depth of His grace for me.

It is an unfathomable grace that has no end.

They were hard lessons that I do not wish to repeat, harder than Katrina was, which He used to strip away what remained of my dependence on myself.

I share this in its entirety because my husband and I have received a letter from this man, and in it, he claims that he would like to reconcile the situation. I am thankful that the Lord has worked so in his heart. We have no objection to his wanting to make things right with us and the many other members of the church he led that were hurt and confused by his behavior. We rejoice that the Lord opened his heart to the grievousness of his sin and that in the years that have passed (four and a half) he has finally come to an understanding of the damage he caused by his own sins.

The problem we do have is that he requested a face-to-face meeting.

Initially, I felt guilty, because my gut response was, “No”.

I have no desire ever to lay eyes on either one of them again. I understand I must forgive them, and I am ready to do so, in fact, I have already forgiven his wife. (Her letter came in July of this year) I just do not understand their need to do this in person. We have sought counsel on this matter and everyone we have spoken to says there is no reason for a face-to-face meeting.

A friend of ours said to us, “Sometimes, Christians think everything has to be wrapped up with a bow on top and it just isn't so.”

Forgiveness is not about the bow on the top of the package or the neat little check list whose items are carefully marked off with perfect little checks. Forgiveness is a matter of the heart, for the glory of the One who opened that heart to its own wickedness and His amazing grace. It is my acknowledgment that I am a sinner too, and as such, I understand grace. A grace that has been so richly poured out in my own life that I know and understand the need for forgiveness and would never refuse another heart’s cry who seeks it from me.

It is the story of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 that opened my heart to true forgiveness. How could I, whose great debt has been paid, refuse to do the same for one whose debt to me pales in comparison?

The questions remain though, what debts do I then owe to the one who seeks forgiveness? Do I owe them a face-to face meeting?

I do not believe that I do.

The hurt that was caused to my family, as well as many others, is reason enough to remain cautious. Therefore, we approach this time carefully, prayerfully and with many counselors as we seek to please Him who loved us first in all things, even this thing, especially this thing.

We also realize that these things happened for the single purpose of making us more like Him Who called us and made us His own. If perchance there is a woman reading this that has been through a similar situation and is burdened with guilt, who is confused and grieving, please know there are many other women (and men) who have been in a similar situation. For the Scriptures say that no temptation has overtaken you except what is common to man. As you seek to find answers to your deepest hurts you will discover that His grace is indeed sufficient for the pain you suffer, and indeed your sin is more common than you think.

We have all turned away, we have all sought our own way, but the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. There is healing in the balm of Gilead. Allow the Father of light to apply that balm to your hurting spirit and experience a grace you never knew.

Finally, I want to encourage you, if you are that woman, to pray for those who have hurt you, pray for those who have despitefully used you, for those who have caused you to sin, because it is in prayer you will realize you are no different. You will discover that you are a sinner too, and suddenly you will recognize the Pharisee in you and you will fall before your Maker prostrate and cry out “Lord! Have mercy on ME the sinner!”