A Hotel Room in Baltimore
I was in a hotel room in Baltimore. I had just walked into my room after a late night flight and I was turning on the television to catch the news. I saw something I was not prepared to see. I was unaware that the hotel I was staying in had a subscription to the television channel Cinemax. And, Cinemax late at night shows pornographic movies. That night, flipping through the channels, I found myself drawn deeply to a pornographic movie that I had no idea would be on the television screen. I knew that watching the movie was wrong, but their was such a strong emotional desire to keep watching, it felt like I was on a drug induced high. Everything about what I saw was so paralyzing, I almost felt numb. I somehow found a way to turn the television off and when I did, I threw my remote down on the floor. I was so strongly tempted to turn the television on again over the course of the night that I left the hotel and walked around a local Target. I was not prepared for the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual battle that had just occurred and continued to occur. Once I returned home from the conference, I immediately confessed to my wife what had happened.
1 Peter 5:8 states, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Sadly, yet not surprisingly, the devil has made pornographic material a primary weapon in his attack against pastors. A January 2016 article from christianitytoday.com cited a Barna Research Group study that indicated approximately 21% of youth pastors and 14% of senior/lead pastors struggle with on-going pornography use. I encourage you to think about the harsh reality of those statistics; close to 1 in 5 youth pastors and 1 in 10 senior/lead pastors struggle with pornography usage. That means approximately 1 in 5 churches have a youth pastor that battles pornography usage and 1 in 10 churches have a senior pastor that battles pornography usage. Do the math: whether you live in a large city or small town, you most likely have a pastor in your immediate area that struggles with viewing pornography.
How should a church respond if they find one of their pastors using pornography? The Barna study cited above goes into great detail on views regarding how a church should respond. The answers range from firing to no action. When pastoral pornography use or any sexual indiscretion is made public, the congregational response is normally intense with large amounts of anger, sadness, disappointment, and disbelief. And, the following phrase is often heard, “I never would have imagined the Pastor doing such a thing.” The sad truth is that the Pastor is just as susceptible to sin as Adam and Eve were susceptible to sin. The most dangerous thing a pastor can say is, “That would never happen to me.”
What if our churches and congregational systems are approaching the pornographic struggles of pastors incorrectly? It is time to be stop being reactionary to pastoral porn use and instead, be proactive in preventing such use from occurring. A proactive approach to reducing the use of porn by pastors would need to include a holistic approach that not only addresses a pastor's personal walk with Jesus, but also their emotional, mental, physical, and social health. And, such an approach would start with the reality that serving as a pastor means playing a part in spiritual warfare.
Pastors and Soldiers
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 11% to 20% of soldiers who have fought in the United States of America's most recent wars develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). (Notice that the percentage of soldiers suffering from PTSD is similar to the number of pastors that Barna indicates struggles with pornography use.) The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs also indicates that these soldiers are tempted to medicate their PTSD with a Substance Use Disorder (SUD). According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, "people develop substance abuse problems in an attempt to manage distress associated with the effects of trauma exposure and traumatic stress symptoms." In other words, trauma survivors, like soldiers, develop SUD in order to medicate the emotional and mental pain of experienced trauma.
Most people don't look down on a soldier who has been mentally and emotionally wounded while fighting for their country. And, most people have a great deal of compassion for those soldiers whose pain is so great that they feel the need to want to medicate through substance abuse. Our nation desires to help these soldiers recover from SUD through addiction recovery programs.
What if pastors, like soldiers, turn to substance abuse, especially the use of pornography, in order to medicate the pain they experience while dealing with the traumas of spiritual warfare? I once heard a wonderful therapist, Diane Langberg, say that, as a pastor or counselor, one cannot expect to go untouched by the constant sin and death that surround us in our professions. In essence, Langberg strongly indicated that we will be stained and wounded because we walk along side and with the stained and wounded. A singular, personal fight against the evil one is tough. But to also partner as a pastor, with so many in their fights against the evil one? Talk about exhaustion and fatigue. Mountains and valleys. Think Elijah on Mt. Carmel and then Elijah after Mt. Carmel. Pastoring is extremely hard work. Pastors can quickly burnout and experience exhaustion or spiritual battle fatigue.
So, what are pastors, who are burnout and exhausted, tempted to do? Shutdown. Medicate. Escape. They will drink. They will develop a gambling addiction. They will be tempted to engage in an extra-marital relationship. They will power up and bully in order to avoid having to be vulnerable and sensitive. They will watch hours of endless and meaningless television. They will do whatever is necessary to dress the emotional wounds and cover the emotional stains that develop from both their own battle with the evil one and with all the other battles they share with their parishioners. Dressing the emotional wounds and covering emotional stains will also include the use of pornography.
Unfortunately, many churches immediately judge pastors for their pornography use with condemnation and dismissal. Do we judge soldiers with condemnation who struggle with PTSD due to mental and emotional wounds caused by war? No, we try to get soldiers help. What if churches, instead of reactively condemning pastors for pornography use, worked to "gently restore" their pastor by getting them help? What if churches proactively mandated their pastors take a course in addiction prevention?
Pornography use is a sin. But, what if the greater sin is a church turning its back on a pastor who, while suffering from the traumas of spiritual warfare, turned to a substance to medicate their pain? Pornography use or any other SUD is not acceptable. But, neither is a church who does not help its pastor or pretend its pastor does not suffer trauma from fighting a spiritual war.
What Are Churches to Do?
Again, I believe it is time that churches stop expressing reactive surprise when their leaders fall and, instead, proactively prepare their leaders to avoid the temptation that occurs due to exhaustion and burning out. Below are a few suggestions I have for congregations who wish to avoid the heartache of pastor failure.
1. Hold your pastor accountable regarding their walk with Jesus. And, start by asking about their practice of Sabbath. I have yet to meet an older, wiser pastor who did not practice sabbath on a consistent basis. If your pastor does not practice Sabbath, take away their church keys for a day (seriously)! A great resource for pastors who struggle with Sabbath is a book titled, “Sabbath Keeping” by Lynne M. Baab or “Sacred Rhythms” by Ruth Haley Barton. I have used both to help me shape a doable rhythm of life and ministry. A pastor who is unable to step away from doing ministry is a red flag.
2. Make sure your pastor focuses more time on their family than on their role as pastor. Celebrate the times you hear of your pastor turning off their phone in order to focus on their family. Honor those times when your pastor says that they will be away from work. (Yes, all pastors know that they are needed in times of emergency. But, make sure you are contacting your pastor during a true emergency.) Offer to watch the kids in case your pastor needs some time with their spouse. Like their family’s pictures on Facebook. Show your pastor that you understand that their family is first.
3. Create safe places of confession and forgiveness for your pastor. I can imagine that in all the lives of the pastors who developed pornography addictions, there had been moments where they felt like they needed to seek help, but did not for fear of exposure. After all, how can a successful pastor actually admit that they need help? Creating environments where pastors feel as if they cannot be human and ask for help and forgiveness is dangerous and unbiblical. Pastors need safe places like a therapist’s office or a friend’s back porch where they can be honest about their own struggles without having to worry about repercussions or judgements. (Side note: If affordable, I like to mandate to my staff that they either receive life coaching or counseling at least once per year. If they refuse to do so, that’s a red flag.) If a pastor confesses a serious moral failure that affects their ability to do ministry, do what is best for the church, but also make sure the pastor gets the help they need to be redeemed.
4. Work to educate your congregation of the burdens of pastoral work. Pastoral work is not easy because it's waging in the greatest war; good vs. evil, dark vs. light, Jesus Christ vs. the devil. Congregations that understand pastoral burdens are much more likely to care for and support their pastors.
5. Make sure your pastor understands the burdens of ministry. The most dangerous thing a pastor can say, "That'll never happen to me." It can happen and it will happen if a pastor does not stay sober and vigilant in their fight against the evil one and his ability use pornography to control a pastor's life.
These are only a few suggestions, but I believe they are foundational to helping a pastor survive and even thrive in their fight and their congregation’s fight with the evil one. Please pray for your pastor on a daily basis and together, you guys can help your city, town, or local setting look more like the Kingdom of Heaven.
Lee, Morgan. "Here's How 770 Pastors Describe Their Struggle with Porn." Gleanings | ChristianityToday.com. Christianity Today, 26 Jan. 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
"Making the Connection: Trauma and Substance Abuse." Nctsn.org. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, June 2008. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
"PTSD: National Center for PTSD." How Common Is PTSD? - PTSD: National Center for PTSD. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 3 Oct. 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Paul is the husband to Tara, father to Natalie and Isaac, has an average jump shot, and enjoys running. His secret wish is to one day become a Jedi Knight. Paul holds a doctorate in marriage and family counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and currently serves as senior pastor of Harrodsburg Baptist Church. Paul desires to help young couples navigate the early crucibles of marriage, especially when one or both of the spouses are engaged in vocational ministry.