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Divorced pastors form network to help others facing crisis

RICHMOND, Ky. (BP)–Impacted by harsh reactions to their divorces, four Southern Baptist ministers in Kentucky have formed a support network for divorced pastors and their families.
Paul Sowders, pastor of Gilead Baptist Church near Richmond, remained in the pulpit after taking a six-month leave of absence following his 1994 divorce. While crediting his church with loving support, he said the reaction of other Christians was far less graceful.
“I had ministers tell me God didn’t love me anymore,” said Sowders, a bivocational minister who is a mail carrier in Lexington. “Some came within a hair of telling me I was bound for hell.”
To counteract these kind of judgmental experiences, he and the other pastors have organized “Hope Net.” The group offers counseling and other assistance to divorced pastors and their families, including several women who meet with ex-wives of clergy. Hope Net hopes to sponsor a divorce recovery workshop later this year.
“I’m dreaming someday of having a fund to help them out financially,” said Sowders, who fields phone inquiries (606-623-7086). “We also would like to identify some churches that might be willing to take a divorced pastor in as an associate. That would allow him to stay in ministry, but with less demands.”
He believes divorced persons should continue in ministry, referring to Romans 11:29, which says God’s gifts and calling are irrevocable. But another founder said the most important thing is restoring their spirit.
“If they’re eventually going to be brought back to a healthy life, it’s through a right relationship with God,” said Eric Fruge, minister of singles at Calvary Baptist Church in Lexington. “What happens after that is up to God.”
Formerly a Foreign Mission Board appointee in France, Fruge’s marriage crumbled six years ago after he and his wife returned to the States. He moved back to his hometown of Owensboro, Ky., where he lived with his parents and worked minimum-wage, part-time jobs before Calvary offered him a position.
Many people think a divorced minister can simply go sell insurance or do other things to earn a living, but it isn’t that simple to escape the stigma, Fruge said.
“Hopefully we will be a voice of compassion,” he said. “It needs to be there for ministers and wives — someone who can say, ‘God still loves you.’ I’m going to encourage them to aim high and shoot for the best.”
While Hope Net’s efforts will focus on Kentucky, it is part of a growing movement to support pastors in various ways, according to Bert Moore, president of PastorCare Network, based in Raleigh, N.C. Divorce support is one of a range of services offered by these ministries, he said.
“There are literally thousands across the country,” said Moore, who founded his referral network two years ago. “Every week we hear of several more.”
PastorCare tries to link hurting pastors and families with resources close to home, he said, so they don’t have to spend a lot of money on travel and other expenses when they need help. And though the group assists ministers with such needs as medical insurance, jobs and legal advice, many of its pleas for help concern strained marriages.
“We got a call recently from a pastor who came home and found his wife and furniture gone,” said Moore, formerly a Presbyterian minister. “He was afraid to call his denomination.”
In Southern Baptist circles, pastors are more likely to fear their congregation’s reaction, said the author of the Baptist Sunday School Board’s divorce-recovery material.
Harold Ivan Smith, who wrote the adult study guide, “A Time for Healing,” knows hundreds of pastors whose churches displayed little grace in their time of distress.
“Many have great pain and anger for what happened to them,” said the former director of singles ministry for the Church of the Nazarene. “I talked to a guy (recently) who is over his divorce but can’t get over the fact his church hurt him.
“There are some divorces where pastors make bad decisions,” said Smith, who never remarried after his divorce. “But there are some where it’s not black and white. It’s not that simple.”
Many Baptist churches are losing a precious resource because they quickly expel pastors without knowing all the facts, Smith added.
He cited a case where the wife of the pastor of a large SBC church discovered he was having homosexual affairs and refused to stop. She left him, but the reason never became public knowledge.
“The public reasons for divorce and the private reasons aren’t always the same,” Smith said.
Sowders said a pastor who is blatantly wrong (in an affair, for example) should be confronted within biblical guidelines and possibly expelled. “Other than that, they’re simply condoning the sin,” he said.
But divorce alone should not be grounds for dismissal, Sowders said. “God hates divorce. I will even go so far as saying divorce is a sin,” said Sowders, who preached on divorce his second Sunday back at Gilead. “But God forgives all sin. God can use divorced people as well as he can use any other sinner.” Even a pastor expelled from a church for his sin, if truly repentant, can be used by God again, Sowders said. “When Peter denied Jesus three times, he spiritually divorced him,” the pastor said, adding that Jesus nevertheless was not done with Peter.

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  • Ken Walker