Pastoral Psychology

, Volume 66, Issue 4, pp 437–460 | Cite as

“Learning to Have a Voice”: The Spouse’s Experience of Clergy Sexual Misconduct

  • Fiona B. Kurtz
  • Samuel B. Rennebohm
  • Heather L. Lucas
  • Jessica A. Carlile
  • John W. Thoburn


The present qualitative study aimed to explore the systemic experience of spouses of clergy members who engaged in sexual misconduct in order to gain a holistic picture and therefore inform clinical practice and research for this specific population. Seven clergy spouses, five females and two males, participated in semi-structured interviews that utilized narrative inquiry. A consensual, team-based approach to analyzing patterns across the interview transcripts revealed two simultaneous organizing structures—relational (intrapersonal, dyadic, and contextual) and temporal (pre-misconduct, during misconduct, and post-misconduct)—both of which are derived from an ecosystemic approach to viewing participant experiences. The resulting structure highlights challenges faced by participants, couples, and congregations as well as factors influencing the recovery process. Specifically, findings suggest the need to increase awareness of systemic risk factors for sexual misconduct and to utilize clinical interventions that extend beyond the individual to address marital, familial, and communal distress. The results also point to the need for further research examining the means through which sexual misconduct impacts other individuals, relationships, and communities and for a more thorough and encompassing understanding of the overall impact of sexual misconduct by religious leaders.


Clergy Clergy spouse Clergy sexual misconduct Family relations Ecosystemic theory Resilience 


  1. Bernal, G., & Sáez-Santiago, E. (2006). Culturally centered psychosocial interventions. Journal of Community Psychology, 34(2), 121–132. doi: 10.1002/jcop.20096.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Blanton, P. W. (1992). Stress in clergy families: Managing work and family demands. Family Perspective, 26, 315–330.Google Scholar
  3. Bronfenbrenner, U. (1992). Ecological systems theory. In R. Vasta & R. Vasta (Eds.), Six theories of child development: Revised formulations and current issues (pp. 187–249). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.Google Scholar
  4. Capps, D. (1993). Sex in the parish: Social-scientific explanations for why it occurs. The Journal of Pastoral Care, 47, 350–361. Retrieved from Scholar
  5. Carnes, P. (1991). Don’t call it love: Recovery from sexual addiction. New York: Bantam.Google Scholar
  6. Chaves, M., & Garland, D. (2009). The prevalence of clergy sexual advances toward adults in their congregations. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 48, 817–824. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01482.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, M. (2004). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  8. Creswell, J. W., Hanson, W. E., Clark, V., & Morales, A. (2007). Qualitative research designs: Selection and implementation. The Counseling Psychologist, 35(2), 236–264. doi: 10.1177/0011000006287390.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Darling, C., Hill, E., & McWey, L. M. (2004). Understanding stress and quality of life for clergy and clergy spouses. Stress and Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 20, 261–277. doi: 10.1002/smi.1031.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dewhirst, M. M., & Littrell, C. C. (2011). Clergy liability for sexual misconduct. In J. W. Thoburn & R. Baker (Eds.), Clergy sexual misconduct: A systems approach to prevention, intervention and oversight (pp. 125–150). Carefree: Gentle Path Press.Google Scholar
  11. Flynn, K. A. (2003). The sexual abuse of women by members of the clergy. Jefferson: McFarland & Co..Google Scholar
  12. Friberg, N. C., & Laaser, M. R. (1998). Before the fall: Preventing pastoral sexual abuse. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press.Google Scholar
  13. Garland, D. R. (2006). When wolves wear shepherds’ clothing: Helping women survive clergy sexual abuse. Social Work and Christianity, 33, 1–35.Google Scholar
  14. Garland, D. (2011). Clergy sexual misconduct: Awareness and prevention. Baylor University.
  15. Garland, D. R., & Argueta, C. (2010). How clergy sexual misconduct happens: A qualitative study of first-hand accounts. Social Work & Christianity, 37, 1–27. Retrieved from Scholar
  16. Gilgun, J. F. (2009). Qualitative research and family psychology. In J. H. Bray & M. Stanton (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of family psychology (pp. 85–99). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hill, C. E. (Ed.). (2012). Consensual qualitative research: A practical resource for investigating social science phenomenon. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
  18. Hobfoll, S. E. (1988). The ecology of stress. Washington, DC: Hemisphere.Google Scholar
  19. Horowitz, M. (1976). Stress response syndromes. Northvale: Jason Aronson.Google Scholar
  20. Hsieh, T. T., & Rugg, E. F. (1983). Coping patterns of ministers’ wives. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 2, 73–82. Retrieved from
  21. Johnston, J. E. (1996). Predictive factors regarding extra-marital relationships in ministers. Manhattan: Kansas State University. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation.Google Scholar
  22. Joseph, S., Yule, W., Williams, R., & Andrews, B. (1993). Crisis support in the aftermath of disaster: A longitudinal perspective. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 32, 177–185. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8260.1993.tb01042.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Kagawa-Singer, M., & Chung, R. C. (1994). A paradigm for culturally based care in ethnic minority populations. Journal of Community Psychology, 22, 192–208. doi: 10.1002/1520-6629(199404)22:2 < 192::AID-JCOP2290220213 > 3.0.CO;2-H.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kennedy, M. (2003). Sexual abuse of women by priests and ministers to whom they go for pastoral care and support. Feminist Theology: The Journal of the Britain & Ireland School of Feminist Theology, 11, 226–236. Retrieved from Scholar
  25. King, S. (2003). The impact of compulsive sexual behaviors on clergy marriages: Perspectives and concerns of the pastor’s wife. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 10, 193–199. doi: 10.1080/107201603902306307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lee, C. (1995). Rethinking boundary ambiguity from an ecological perspective: Stress in Protestant clergy families. Family Process, 34, 75–86. doi: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.1995.00075.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Lee, C. (2007). Patterns of stress and support among Adventist clergy: Do pastors and their spouses differ? Pastoral Psychology, 55, 761–771. doi: 10.1007/s11089-007-0086-x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lee, C., & Balswick, J. O. (1989). Life in a glass house: The minister’s family in its unique social setting. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.Google Scholar
  29. Lieblich, A., Tuval-Mashiach, R., & Zilber, T. (1998). Narrative research: Reading, analysis, and interpretation. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. McMinn, M. R., Lish, R. A., Trice, P. D., Root, A. M., Gilbert, N., & Yap, A. (2005). Care for pastors: Learning from clergy and their spouses. Pastoral Psychology, 53, 563–581. doi: 10.1007/s11089-005-4821-y.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. McMinn, M. R., Kerrick, S. P., Duma, S. J., Campbell, E. R., & Jung, J. B. (2008). Positive coping among wives of male Christian clergy. Pastoral Psychology, 56, 445–457. doi: 10.1007/s11089-008-0122-5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Moos, R. H., & Schaefer, J. A. (1993). Coping resources and processes: Current concepts and measures. In L. Goldberger & S. Breznitz (Eds.), Handbook of stress: Theoretical and clinical aspects (2nd ed., pp. 234–257). New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  33. Morris, M. L., & Blanton, P. W. (1994). The influence of work-related stressors on clergy husbands and their wives. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 43, 189–195. doi: 10.2307/585322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Morrow, S. L. (2005). Quality and trustworthiness in qualitative research in counseling psychology. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52, 250–260. doi: 10.1037/0022-0167.52.2.250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Moy, S., & Malony, H. N. (1987). An empirical study of ministers’ children and families. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 6(1), 52–64. Retrieved from Scholar
  36. Noy, C. (2008). Sampling knowledge: The hermeneutics of snowball sampling in qualitative research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology: Theory & Practice, 11, 327–344. doi: 10.1080/13645570701401305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Ostrander, D. L., Henry, C. S., & Fournier, D. G. (1994). Stress, family resources, coping, and adaptation in ministers’ families. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 13, 50–67.Google Scholar
  38. Roberts, F. M. (2011). Evil as a pastor sees it. In J. H. Ellens (Ed.), Explaining evil, Vols. 1-3: Definitions and development; History, global views, and events; Approaches, responses, solutions (pp. 93–108). Santa Barbara: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.Google Scholar
  39. Schlosser, L. Z., Dewey, J. J. H., & Hill, C. E. (2012). Auditing. In C. E. Hill (Ed.), Consensual qualitative research: A practical resource for investigating social science phenomena (pp. 135–144). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
  40. (2014). privacy policy. Retrieved from
  41. Stanton, M. (2009). The systemic epistemology of the specialty of family psychology. In J. H. Bray, M. Stanton, J. H. Bray, & M. Stanton (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of family psychology (pp. 5–20). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. doi: 10.1002/9781444310238.ch1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Stanton, M., & Welsh, R. (2012). Systemic thinking in couple and family psychology research and practice. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 1(1), 14–30. doi: 10.1037/a002746.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Steinke, P. L. (2006). Healthy congregations: A systems approach. Herndon: The Alban Institute.Google Scholar
  44. Thoburn, J. W., & Baker, R. (Eds.). (2011). Clergy sexual misconduct: A systems approach to prevention, intervention and oversight. Carefree: Gentle Path Press.Google Scholar
  45. Thoburn, J. W., & Balswick, J. O. (1998). Demographic data on extra-marital sexual behavior in the ministry. Pastoral Psychology, 46(6), 447–457. doi: 10.1023/A:1,023,002,321,344.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Thoburn, J. W., & Sexton, T. L. (2016). Family psychology: Theory, research, and practice. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.Google Scholar
  47. Thoburn, J., & Whitman, D. M. (2004). Clergy affairs: Emotional investment, longevity of relationship and affair partners. Pastoral Psychology, 52, 491–506. doi: 10.1023/B:PASP.0000031528.62048.8b.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Vivino, B. L., Thompson, B. J., & Hill, C. E. (2012). The research team. In C. E. Hill (Ed.), Consensual qualitative research: A practical resource for investigating social science phenomena (pp. 47–58). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
  49. Warner, J., & Carter, J. D. (1984). Loneliness, marital adjustment and burnout in pastoral and lay persons. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 12, 125–131.Google Scholar
  50. Wilson, M. T., & Hoffmann, B. (2007). Preventing ministry failure: A Shepherd Care guide for pastors, ministers and other caregivers. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Fiona B. Kurtz
    • 1
  • Samuel B. Rennebohm
    • 1
  • Heather L. Lucas
    • 1
  • Jessica A. Carlile
    • 2
  • John W. Thoburn
    • 1
  1. 1.Seattle Pacific UniversitySeattleUSA
  2. 2.VA Puget Sound Health Care System, Seattle DivisionSeattleUSA

Personalised recommendations