Members of the clergy are just as likely to get divorced as the men and women who stand before them at the altar and solemnly promise to stay together until death do they part.
A national survey of Protestant clergy, conducted in 1993 and 1994 by the Hartford Seminary, found that 25 percent of clergywomen and 20 percent of clergymen have been divorced at least once.
The Census Bureau's most recent survey on the national divorce rate, conducted 10 years ago, reported 23 percent of the women and 22 percent of the men had been divorced.
"Our study dispels the widely held belief that because of intense job pressures and life in the fish bowl, clergy are twice as likely to be divorced as laity," said Adair Lummis, a researcher on the project.
The study, by the seminary's Center for Social and Religious Research, is based on the responses of 2,458 clergywomen and 2,086 clergymen in 15 denominations across the country. The response rate was nearly 50 percent; 10,000 questionnaires were sent out.
Barbara Brown Zikmund, the seminary president, said researchers had to go to the individual clergy for information because most denominations don't track divorce.
Two-thirds of the clergywomen and 92 percent of the clergymen were married at the time they responded to the survey. Thirteen percent of the women, and 3 percent of the men, were divorced when they filled out their questionnaires.
The study showed that clergywomen are more likely to have been divorced before they were ordained and that clergymen are more likely to have split from their spouses after taking the pulpit.
The researchers covered the Protestant spectrum, from liberal Unitarian-Universalists to conservative Southern Baptists.
Among the Unitarian-Universalists, 47 percent of the women and 44 percent of the men reported they had been divorced at some point. Among the Southern Baptists, 4 percent of the men and 17 percent of the women said they had been divorced.
Though the church has no official policy, Southern Baptists seldom permit divorced ministers to fill senior pastoral positions, said the Rev. H. B. London, an official with Focus on Family, an evangelical Christian organization in Colorado Springs, Colo.
And the Assemblies of God do not permit divorced people to be pastors, except in very rare cases, Lummis noted.
The Rev. Diane Miller, director of ministry for the Boston-based Unitarian-Universalists, said she does not think her ministers are less serious about marriage than those in other denominations.
"It is not that we take marriage any less seriously than other people do, but perhaps when problems arise, our ministers are less likely to stay with problematic marriages," Miller told the Hartford Courant.
She also noted that a significant percentage of Unitarian-Universalist ministers are gay or lesbian.
"And, frankly, most of them have been married. In fact, I can't think of a gay or lesbian minister who hadn't been married," she said.
After the Unitarian-Universalists, Episcopalians were the most divorced clergy. The survey showed 30 percent of the Episcopal female clergy and 25 percent of the males had been divorced.
Among American Baptists, 19 percent of the women and 13 percent of the men were divorced.
For the Brethren, 15 percent of the women and 12 percent of the men had been divorced; Disciples of Christ, 26 percent of women, 24 percent of men; Lutheran (ELCA), 19 percent of women, 9 percent of men; Presbyterian, 25 percent of women, 19 percent of men; United Methodist, 26 percent of women, 19 percent of men; United Church of Christ, 26 percent of women, 20 percent of men.
The results of the study were first presented in August at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in Los Angeles, Zikmund said.
"There hasn't been a lot of adverse reaction," she said. "Actually, our findings ring true to what the world is really like."