Does having an affair disqualify a person from ministry? According to a new survey of 1,000 U.S. Protestant pastors, most say an extramarital affair warrants time away from ministry—but not necessarily a permanent exit.
“Pastors’ Views on Moral Failures,” conducted by Nashville-based LifeWay Research, provides “a good barometer for opinions across churches,” says executive director Scott McConnell. “There is widespread disagreement from pastors across denominations, church size, age, race, and education levels to quickly restoring pastors who commit adultery to public ministry positions.”
‘Not sure’ Is the Top Answer
Almost one-third (31 percent) of pastors say they’re “not sure” how long a church leader should be away from ministry after committing adultery. The next most-common answer, given by 27 percent of pastors, is “permanently” disqualified. Eighteen percent say an unfaithful pastor should withdraw from ministry between two and 10 years, 16 percent say “at least one year,” and six percent say “less than one year.” Only two percent say no break from ministry is necessary.
Demographically, survey responses vary by denomination, church size, ethnicity, and educational levels. Pentecostal pastors are most likely to favor staying out of ministry for at least a year but least likely to favor permanent withdrawal. Pastors of smaller churches (with weekly attendance of fewer than 100 people) are more likely than pastors of larger churches to advocate for permanent disqualification from ministry.
In terms of ethnicity, African-American pastors are least likely to say a moral failure requires an exit from ministry altogether. And from an educational standpoint, pastors with a bachelor’s degree are more likely than those with additional degrees to favor permanent withdrawal.
Uncertainty Is on the Rise
In a similar LifeWay survey in 2016, one-quarter (25 percent) of church leaders were uncertain about the appropriate ministry break for adulterers. In today’s “Me Too” era, that’s now up to 31 percent. Four years ago, 21 percent of pastors responded that “at least one year” away was appropriate, compared to 16 percent in 2020.
“There has been much attention given to calling American leaders to account for sexual misconduct since 2016,” says LifeWay’s McConnell. “It is not surprising that fewer pastors believe public ministry should be restored in a year.”
From a biblical standpoint, McConnell points out that “Scripture doesn’t mince words about adultery.” He says, “From the Ten Commandments, to the Apostle Paul’s lists of wicked things, to the qualifications for elders listed in 1 Timothy, adultery is not appropriate for a follower of Christ nor a leader of a local church.”
That doesn’t mean restoration isn’t possible, however. “While the Bible is clear that this behavior does not fit a pastor or elder of a church,” McConnell says, “there is much debate over how long this act would disqualify someone from pastoral ministry.”
Most church leaders agree that every circumstance is different and must be assessed separately. Some recommend that a pastor’s return to ministry occur at a different church; others say proof of repentance and life change are key.