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 them part.
A national survey of Protestant clergy, conducted in 1993 and 1994 by the Hartford Seminary, found that 25% of clergywomen and 20% 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 that 23% of women and 22% of men had been divorced.
The study dispels a widely held belief that the pressures of the ministry and its "life in the fishbowl" lead clergy members to divorce more frequently than the public, 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%; 10,000 questionnaires were sent out.
Two-thirds of the clergywomen and 92% of the clergymen were married at the time they responded to the survey. Thirteen percent of the women and 3% of the men were divorced when they filled out their questionnaires.
The study showed that the women were more likely to have been divorced before they were ordained, while the clergymen more often 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% of the women and 44% of the men reported they had been divorced at some point. Among the conservative Southern Baptist denomination, only 4% of the men and 17% of the women said they had been divorced.
Though that 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.
And the Assemblies of God churches do not permit divorced persons 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 said.
She also noted that a significant percentage of Unitarian-Universalist ministers are gay or lesbian, and many of them had previously been married.
After the Unitarian-Universalists, Episcopalians were the most-divorced clergy. The survey showed 30% of the Episcopal female clergy and 25% of the males had been divorced.
Among Presbyterians, 25% of women and 19% of men had been divorced; among Methodists the rate was 26% for women and 19% for men; among Lutherans 19% of women and 9% of men had been divorced; the rate for American Baptists was 19% for women and 13% for men; for the Brethren, 15% of the women and 12% of the men had been divorced; among Disciples of Christ, 26% of women and 24% of men, and for the United Church of Christ, the rate was 26% of women, 20% of men.
"There hasn't been a lot of adverse reaction" since the statistics were released, said seminary president Barbara Brown Zikmund. "Actually, our findings ring true to what the world is really like."