Manipulating Truth

May 29, 2007

In a recent entry on Christianity Today’s popular blog, “Out of Ur”, the author quoted a popular Emerging Church leader Darrin Patrick from a message he gave at Marc Driscoll’s Re-Emergence conference held in Seattle. In that message, Patrick quotes a number of statistics that he has supposedly gleaned from Focus on the Family and Barna Research Groups concerning divorces among pastors. The startling result he claims is that 50% of all pastoral marriages end in divorce. This is now the fourth time I have read that statistic in the past few months and at least I know where he got it from.

As far as I can tell by exhaustive research, he made it up!

I first heard about the stat from a message on Driscoll’s podcast site. When I originally heard it I intinctively knew it wasn’t true. I know a lot of pastors and I have sat on committees where we helped struggling pastors with their marriages. The numbers did not even come close to half the pastors I know. Then, in the next few weeks, I saw the same stat show up on a couple of pastor’s wives websites which are dedicated to helping the pastoral marriage. I decided to do some research.

I contacted the websites of the pastor’s wives circle and they directed me back to Driscoll for the stat. I contacted their office, but they couldn’t tell me where he got the stat. I then read something by Barna, where he says that he doesn’t believe the long-held stat about all marriages ending in divorce at a 50% clip is even close to true. He goes through the evidence and shows that the numbers are skewed, but we can believe more accurately in a figure of 25%. His research team has done the statistics on this and concluded that church-going people have an even lower level of divorce, not exceeding twenty per cent. This is what Barna says in public, so I was really skeptical now.

If the average church attender divorces twenty per cent of the time, are we to believe that pastors do it more than twice as often?

Then I checked out the site where Christianity Today got the information from Darrin Patrick. Patrick refers the readers to Marc Driscoll’s site, who then refers the readers to Darrin Patrick’s site. If you’re confused, let me end the confusion. From all I can figure, either Driscoll or Patrick made up this statistic. I know why they would do it. Their subject at the conference was the pastor’s family and all the stresses laid upon it. They were trying to show how much we need to have support as pastors for one another. I won’t call someone a liar, but someone at that conference gave “evangelastically” improved statistics.

It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened, I venture, even from the pulpit. So what is wrong with stating such wayward stats? Just this: they tend to become reality the more you use them. Barna warns that the inaccurate measurement of divorce statistics for society in general may have made divorce more palatable to the ones who read the statistics. It is amazing how much better we feel about something if we read that everyone else is doing it. Our mothers asked us that age-old question: “If all your friends jumped off the bridge, would you jump off too?” We all know the answer to that, don’t we? We might.

I believe that if this misguided figure of 50% pastoral marriage failure keeps getting put out there for public consumption, some poor pastor and his wife might consider it as an option where they might not have thought of it before.

Scary what misinformation can do, isn’t it?

UPDATE: in reviewing the comments here, I have spent several more hours checking out sites that you, the readers, have sent me. In over 40 contact points, the information still comes out the same: Someone has made these statistics up. It may not have been Driscoll or Patrick, but no one has yet shown a set of original research stats that can definitively say pastoral marriages end in divorce at a 50% clip. I am not even sure how they would be able to measure that. They can’t do it through census data. And when people marry, they are not required to announce their profession. At last check, our denominational headquarters has never been asked for the statistics on divorces within our group of pastors – and we are the ninth largest organization of pastors in America. I doubt anyone has done the study. It would take years and be exhaustive and everyone in the pastoral profession would have heard something about it. Believe me, we are a very clandestine group – everything gets around very quickly when it’s really happening. In 1985, Leadership magazine began doing a survey about pastors and inappropriate sexual activity. Though I was never interviewed, I heard from at least a dozen guys they were doing it. The results also surprised a lot of non-pastors, but none of the pastors. And this was on a subject that most people would have had to answer anonymously (a much harder statistic to collect by the way).

The long and short of this discussion is that I would like someone to show me where this study was done which shows pastoral marriages ending at a 50% rate. Then I will go quietly into the night and start a ministry to help save pastoral marriages (or at least start a country-wide prayer meeting to pray for pastors).



  1. Why would something like a statistic make you believe that it’s ok to do that? If statistics say that 50% of all marriages end in divorce, why does that make it palatable for me to do that as well? Wouldn’t there need to be a more compelling reason?

  2. What a statistic does it break down some of the barriers to divorce. The statistic doesn’t cause people to divorce, but if they were already considering divorce, reading that divorce is very common takes away the pressure to make it work. For instance, what if the opposite misleading statistic were given. What if people believed that only 1% of all marriages ended in divorce. Don’t you think it would add further pressure to a troubled marriage to stick it out?

    I believe that too many people today are willing to scrap a marriage for reasons that don’t even come close to being valid. These faulty statistics make those reasons seem even more appetizing.

  3. How sad.

  4. Unfortunately this outlines what I learned 16 years ago during a summer missions trip about the difference between Ethics and Morality.

    Morality is static and unchanging from a visual perspective, as if written on a piece of stone. Ethics are fluid and change with the culture, from a visual perspective, as if written on a piece of cloth.

    What that means is that the ethics of a society change and morph overtime, some might even say, Evolve (see a few blog post ago). While the acceptable behavior within a society changes, the morality of God is constant and unwavering. And so it is to that morality of God to which we must hold ourselves accountable, not the acceptable ethics of our society.

    Unfortunately as humans we are all too easily swayed by the acceptable ethics of our peers than the morality of our God.

  5. And of course, the real problem here is that the ethics of the majority aren’t even in question here. It is the statistical agenda of society (and inaccurate statistics at that) which may affect society. That makes ethical decisions separated from a relationship with God that much more difficult.

  6. I think I found at least one of the sources that these guys might of used

  7. Anon, that web site is an interesting reference point for statistics. But go down to the bottom of the page and notice that they don’t actually say where they get each statistic from. They give about a half dozen sources and one of them is “Focus on the Family” whose website has nothing whatsoever on pastoral divorces.

    What I am getting across in this essay is the tendency, even in Christian journalism, of using derivative sources for information instead of reliable sources. As I have spent several months attempting to track down the origins of the statistics, all I can really conclude is that someone must have made them up.

    This would not be without precedent either. In 1983, a man by the name of Mitch Snyder made a claim that there were over 3 million homeless people in America and that 45 homeless people die every second. (Do the math on that one btw.).

    He made these statements at a public forum in Washington. Within a year, the statistic of 3 million homeless people was so widespread that congressmen were using it in their newsletters to constituents. At last count, four bills in the house and two in the Senate were put forward using those figures.

    In 1987, Ted Koppel on Nightline has Snyder on and he asked him where the statistic came from. After quoting a half dozen articles, that Koppel pointed out were just quoting him, he admitted “I made up the number. How in the hell could anyone know how many homeless people there are? I just wanted to see how long a statistic like that would be out there before someone would challenge it”. Apparently 4 years.

    I have challenged this statistic on pastoral divorce in many different websites and at least two major magazines, and not one person has been able to show the source of their information. I am still waiting.

  8. I hear ya on the lack of jounalistic integrity. My point is that it doesn’t seem like Driscoll or Patrick “made it up” as you stated. They got bad information and didn’t check their sources, but didn’t seem to make it up to prove a point

  9. Except that Driscoll and Patrick both claim that they got it from each other and on his website, Patrick claims he got it from Focus on the Family and The Barna Group. It is possible that they are quoting people who are quoting people. It is also possible we may never find who made up the statistics. But my point is that someone probably made them up. Both FOTF and Barna claim that these did not come from them. Yet there are people with large public ministries who are claiming they do come from them. When challenged, they point the finger at each other. Someone is not telling the whole truth and that does not give glory to God.

    At last count, I have made over 40 inquiries to different websites that use this statistic asking them for their original source. Some have not answered me, but the ones who do usually say something like “we were just quoting so-and-so, you should ask them”. No one will take responsibility for this inaccuracy.

    So what is the problem? As I stated, this is a serious statistic if it is true. It may shape the future of the church in America if it is true. It may be the last straw for some weak pastoral marriages if they believe it is true.

    It is time to debunk this false statistic…or to start a serious prayer meeting across the country if it can be shown to be anywhere near true.

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