“Fear is the path to the darkside. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” -Master Yoda
If you read my biography, you discover pretty quickly that I am a big Star Wars fan! Why? I’ve thought often about this question and I can think of three answers. First, Star Wars connects me to my childhood. Secondly, Star Wars does a wonderful job showing that good is not achieved without struggle. Lastly, Star Wars provides heroes in an age when our society is confused about who is good and who is bad. (I digress.) As the opening of Stars Wars: The Last Jedi nears, I desire to share a few lessons about marriage that a couple can possibly gleam from Stars Wars (and Holy Scripture, of course).
An Ancient (True) Tale
A powerful scene takes place in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Characters Rey and Finn are introduced to Han Solo and Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon. As Han Solo prepares to ditch Rey and Finn, they inform Han that they are on a mission to return BB-8 to the Resistance because BB-8 holds a map to Jedi Luke Skywalker. After hearing their mission and no-doubt being stirred by memories of his past, Han Solo tells Rey, "It is true. All of it. The Force. The Jedi. It's all true."
Up to that point, Rey and Finn had been wrestling the meaning of the map, Luke Skywalker, and their journey to return the map to the Resistance. Han Solo's words begin the process of helping Rey and Finn understand that their journey was part of a ancient tale that was still being written; a tale of good vs evil, light vs dark, the good guys vs the bad guys.
A similar scene takes place in Acts 2. After the Holy Spirit falls upon the first church, many are left asking, "What does this mean?" Peter responds with a passionate testimony that ends with these words, "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah." In essence, Peter could have responded, "It is true. All of it. Jesus' life. His death. His resurrection. It's all true."
I believe all married couples are like Rey and Finn; they must wrestle with the truth that they’re part of an ancient tale that is still being written; a tale of good vs evil, but more specifically of eternal life versus eternal death, of the Messiah versus The Accuser. Marriages shaped by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ purposely work to identify ways their marriages can share the Light of the Gospel. Such sharing could be through volunteering at a church, caring for a young college student, or even adopting a child or being foster parents. Regardless of the “how,” Christ-like marriages recognize they are part of an ancient tale that implores them to share the Light of Christ to a dark world. Don’t coast through marriage! Identify ways your marriage can make a tangible difference for the Light Side of Christ.
What If Your Marriage Turns to the Dark Side?
“Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” -Master Yoda
I believe Yoda was partly correct. Marriages that have symptoms of fear, anger, and hate are on the path to the marital Dark Side. However, I would slightly amend Yoda’s wise words to say that “fear leads to anxiety, anxiety leads to mistrust, and mistrust leads to an inability to connect, and not connecting leads to the Dark Side.” Proverbs says, “Above all else, guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life” and Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” How’s your heart regarding your marriage? Is it full of fear, anger, or hate? Are you anxious in your marriage, not feeling accepted or loved? Do you trust your spouse? Do you feel as if you and your spouse are miles apart relationally?
If you answered yes to any of the questions above, it’s time to get help. And, help might not be an Old Jedi Warrior on Dagobah, but it very well could be a marriage therapist or pastoral counselor or even an older, wiser couple to seek out for help and wisdom. Please don’t allow your marriage to be seduced by the Dark Side because you and your spouse are too stubborn to reach out for help. The fate of the galaxy is in your hands! We all need an Obi Wan Kenobi, a Yoda, or Leia Organa Solo (metaphorically speaking) to help our marriages when we are seduced by fear, anger, hate, mistrust, and disconnection.
Again, our marriages are part of a much larger, ancient tale that is still being written. As you navigate the light and dark, may the force, er, I mean may the Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and the love of the Father be with you!
Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:19)
In life, and in the life of a church, I think people often assume that if we are attempting something “new,” we are forgetting about the old. This line of thinking often misses the truth of many a “new” situation; the new can only exist because it is being built upon a solid foundation established by the “old.” In other words, “new” would not be possible if the “old” had not prepared the way for the “new.”
We see such a connection between the old and the new in Scripture. Jesus’ completion of the New Covenant was possible because the Old Covenant first served as a shadow and copy of “better” things to come. As many have been learning in the class on Hebrews, the Old Covenant wasn’t bad, it simply was incomplete, unable to truly bring about redemption for the people. Thus, God enacted a new plan with a better high priest and sacrifice through Jesus Christ.
I have heard a few in our community and even our church grumble with frustration that HBC is doing away with the “good old Living Christmas Tree.” I write the two paragraphs above to show that what HBC is doing with what was formerly called “The Living Christmas Tree” is building upon its GREAT foundation to create a new worship experience that will honor what the Living Christmas Tree was about, telling the story of Christ’s birth. Matter of fact, many of the same elements from past Living Christmas Trees will still be present; a community choir, multiple means of instrumentation, and congregational participation.
Yes, this year’s Christmas Worship Service will be in many ways something “new.” But, I encourage all of us to know that whatever “new” we are doing is built upon the wonderful foundation of what was “old,” a Living Christmas Tree experience that for many years stirred our community. I pray that we as a church and community can trust that God is doing a new thing, built upon the old, with our Christmas Worship Service. And, I believe that when the weekend of December 9th and 10th is over, all will walk away feeling as if they worshipped the birth of “our newborn king.” Save the date. The new, built upon the old, will uplift us all!
27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 2 Corinthians 11:27-28 (NIV)
I wish someone would have prepared my marriage for the daily difficulties of pastoral ministry. I remember being in seminary thinking that my future ministry and marriage would look like a Norman Rockwell painting; warm, full of beautiful colors, and fulfilling. At the center of that metaphorical painting would be a small little home representing a peaceful, Jesus-centered marriage.
After almost sixteen years in pastoral ministry, I can confidently say that I do not believe Normal Rockwell ever painted Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 11. Such a painting would not be colorful and warm. It would be cold, harsh, and heavy because Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 11 describe ministry with words like labor, toil, hunger, thirst, cold, naked, and pressure. Pastoral ministry can be a constant kick in the teeth. And, that’s just describing the pastor’s plight. Somewhere behind the pastor, in the background and carrying their own burden, is the pastor’s spouse.
If a pastor feels the heaviness of pastoral ministry, so does their spouse. If a pastor is sad and burdened for a church, the pastor’s spouse sees that heartache and grieves in their own way. If a pastor is trashed and humiliated by disgruntled church members, the words and snide remarks not only hurt the pastor, they deeply cut the pastor’s spouse. If a pastor feels overwhelmed from the burdens of their church to the point of burnout, the pastor’s spouse must wrestle with what it means to have a spouse who comes home every night without the emotional energy to engage.
Please hear me if you are a young minister considering marriage; pastoral ministry is not a Norman Rockwell painting. Pastoral ministry will test the very bonds of your covenant marriage many, many times. When you as a pastor feel burdened, know that your spouse is feeling the same burden, sometimes in heavier ways. When you are emotionally exhausted at the end of the day and have nothing left to give to your spouse, know that they are often left feeling lonely. When you as a pastor “face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches,” know that you will often be tempted to not care for the one person for whom you should care the most; your beautiful, strong, loving, and caring sacrificial spouse.
So, if you are a pastor entering marriage and ministry, know that Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians are just as meaningful and weighty to your spouse as they are to you. Do whatever is necessary to start your pastoral ministry at home. If you feel as if you have been neglecting your spouse, move heaven and earth to re-establish a healthy Biblical rhythm of life that allows you to put your marriage first. After all, pastoral marriage and ministry may not produce a Norman Rockwell painting, but a healthy marriage could possibly be the most powerful testimony of a successful ministry. So, love and care for your spouse and, in the process, paint well.
Whether it be physical health or mental health, I encourage my family, friends, and co-workers to always, ALWAYS, go in for a check-up at least once a year. Most often, the best health care is preventive health care.
I believe the same is true regarding the health of a church; preventive health care is the best healthcare. So, just like taking a blood count and a blood pressure reading at a medical check-up, I would like for us to take a mid-year reading of some of our metrics and ask, “What do the numbers mean about the health of our church?
Sunday School Attendance
Diagnosis: We are moving closer to the goal of 115 in Bible Study established at the beginning of the year, but there’s still work to do
Wednesday Bible Study Attendance (HBC Kids, HBC Youth, & Adults)
Diagnosis: With Wednesday Night Bible Study figured in, HBC is very close to reaching the goal of 115 people in Bible Study
Diagnosis: Worship attendance has grown, but next steps must be established to help attendees engage in Bible study & service
Diagnosis: We celebrate HBC’s new members and pray that they continually invest in HBC’s 5 Values
Diagnosis: I would love to see this number increase as more people accept Christ
What do all the above measurements mean? It means that God is doing a good work in our congregation, but that there is still work left to do. As we start the second half of 2017, I pray that we see Bible Study numbers grow along with the numbers of those investing in relationships at HBC. You’ll be hearing more from me shortly regarding Bible Study. Until then, please continue to pray for our church.
Love God. Love Neighbor. Love Self.
Ever heard the phrase, "It's like putting an alcoholic in a bar?" I found myself sharing those words a few months ago when a mentor asked me what my experience has been like as a senior pastor. I said, "It's like putting an alcoholic in a bar." He looked at me in a caring, confused, and curious way. I responded to his curious look with these words...
"I struggle with anxiety. And, I was unprepared for just how difficult, challenging, and anxiety-inducing pastoral work can be."
"Anxiety-inducing pastoral work."
Hi. My name is Paul and I struggle with anxiety.
Being a pastor who struggles with an anxiety disorder is like being an alcoholic in a bar. Why? Because, the temptation to drink for an alcoholic is similar to the temptation of a pastor to allow others' anxieties to trigger their own anxiety. Pastoring is anxiety-inducing work. In any given week, a pastor could be called on to do deal with the following anxieties which other people express...
I wish, I beg, I plead often with God that he would take away my anxiety. Walking the floor at 2 o'clock in the morning because I cannot sleep, having a tight chest and fearing I am having a heart attack, wanting my mind to slow down but cannot get it to do so, have all led to times where I have cried out to God in a very raw, angry, sad, and vulnerable way. "God, I cannot do this...".
I feel like a slave sometimes to anxiety, like it owns me. I am controlled by it. I hate it. I hate feeling like I cannot escape it. I feel so overwhelmed and helpless. The anxiety may not kill me now, but I wonder if it will kill me later.
In a weird twisted way, I sometimes see anxiety as a gift. A gift that causes me to not only read the words of 2 Corinthians 12, but to actually digest and mediate upon and wrestle with the deeply hopeful words of Christ, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." When I am up at 2 o'clock in the morning pacing the floor, when I find my mind and heart racing, when I cry out to God in mental pain, I realize that I am a very, very weak individual. And then, I cling to God's promise, "My power is made perfect in weakness."
"My power is made perfect in your anxiety."
To quote St. Paul, "Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me." Anxiety sucks. I mean it really really sucks. But, if it causes me to be more dependent upon Jesus Christ, then I see it not only as a burden, but as a gift.
The above words are not some pie-in-the-sky theology or philosophy. Again, I often find myself most angry at and sad towards God when I am experiencing an anxiety attack. But, from the depth of my being, the above words are true. I have a richer, strong, and more honest prayer life because of my anxiety.
Back to the bar analogy...I think churches often forget that their pastors are human beings who struggle with their own struggles. And if your pastor struggles with anxiety, please see them as human and ask yourself, "Does my pastor really need to know this today?" Every time a church member walks up to a pastor and casts their anxiety upon him or her, that church member is doing two things; not casting their anxiety upon Christ and metaphorically giving their anxious-ridden pastor an anxious drink. If your pastor politely turns and walks away, don't be offended. We encourage alcoholics who walk away from bars. Let's encourage anxious-ridden pastors who walk away from anxiety.
“Cast all your anxiety on him (God) because he cares for you.”
1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)
We were up one with eight seconds left on the clock. Our small forward had just knocked down two free throws to take the lead. The other team inbounded the ball, advanced it to half-court, and called time out. As the opposing coach drew up her desired play, our staff decided to stay in man-to-man defense, but to switch every screen. We emphasized over and over during that sixty second time out for our players to TALK and make sure they knew who they were guarding and to TALK through switching every screen. I even asked each player to say the number of the player they were guarding before we broke the huddle. Every player identified an opponent she would defend. As our players walked out to half court, I felt hopeful. If we could defend for one more possession, we would win a hard fought game.
I watched as the official handed the inbounder the ball and quickly turned to watch the opponent’s offensive play develop. It was a “screen the screener” play, one which we had reviewed the day before in practice. We should have been ok, but, two of our players failed to TALK through a switch that should have occurred on a screen. As a result of not TALKING through the switch and to my disappointment, a girl on the opposing team curled towards the corner of the floor and got off a wide open seventeen foot jump shot. Nothing but net.
We lost because we did not TALK through the play.
I was attending the practice of a Division One women's basketball program when I heard a very irate head coach abruptly stop a drill. She shouted, “Ladies! I am going to tell our staff to not recruit anyone who doesn’t TALK on the floor! I’m tired of you all NOT TALKING. We cannot win if we do not TALK to one another.”
“We cannot win if we do not TALK to one another.”
Most of the time when I am on the practice floor instructing my team to talk, I think about prayer because prayer is simply talking to God. I agree with the coach who said, “We cannot win if we do not talk to one another.” I would paraphrase her words this way, “We cannot win in life if we do not talk to God.” James, the brother of Jesus, said, “You have not because you ask not.” Jesus said, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Jesus, the creator of the Cosmos, has given us an open invitation to TALK to him and tell him what we need.
I once had a parishioner tell me, “I feel like God doesn’t exist and if he did, he wouldn’t listen to me.” I asked the parishioner, “Well, have you tried talking to him lately?” His reply was, “No.” (I immediately went back to that last second play when my team did not talk through the switch. We won not, because we talked not.) I looked at him and said, “You have not because you ask not. Give God a chance and TALK to him again. You never know what his response might be.”
Sometimes God answers our prayers with a “yes,” sometimes with a “no,” and sometimes with a “not yet.” I often grow frustrated when I feel as if his timing is off. When I pray or TALK to God, I sometimes focus on the answer over God. It doesn’t matter. No matter how often I pray or TALK to God, no matter my level of frustration or faith, and even when I struggle with focus, God still calls out to me, “Come. Pray. TALK to me.”
We have not because we ask not.
We have not because we pray not.
We have not because we talk not.
Ask, pray, and talk to the one who cries out, “Come to me.”
"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." 2 Timothy 2:15
I was a young high school assistant coach tasked with creating the scouting report against the best team in the region. Our program was on the rise, but we still needed to notch a marque win verses a higher ranked opponent. Our next game was our first chance to show area teams that we were for real and it was my job to let our team know how to stop and attack the best team in the region. So, I set about watching film and looking for tendencies.
I also received a certain gift as I developed my scouting report. Another coach contacted me and said, "I have a gift for you." And then they sent me our opponent's FULL PLAYBOOK. "Where'd you get this," I asked. He replied, "From no one. I've been scouting them all year and this is what I've discovered." I was amazed that he had put in that much work, excited that there was so much detail in the scouting report, and thankful that he'd made my job easier.
I still watched tape on our upcoming team to make sure that I agreed with what the other coach had given me. I did agree with that coach, made a few slight adjustments, and set out creating a practice plan that would prepare our team to exploit the other team's tendencies. We had a great two days of practice leading up to the game and our team spent a significant amount of team studying the other team's playbook. Our staff was both nervous and excited. We felt we had a chance to beat the best team in the region.
Every time the opposing team's coach called a play, our girls were extremely prepared. They were so prepared that they would beat the opposing team's players to their offensive spots. I will always remember one play where a girl from the opposing team made a basket cut, but our power forward jumped to the exact spot of the cut, and stole the pass as if she was the offensive player who was supposed to receive it. She "beat the player to the spot" and disrupted the offense. We scored off that turnover and went on to beat the best team in the region by 15. It was a great night for our program!
Scripture tells us to study to show ourselves approved by correctly handling the word of truth. The only way we can correctly handle the word of truth is by studying God's playbook like our team and the other coach studied our opponent's playbook. When we study God's playbook, we know how to attack the opponent.
I think of how Jesus confronted his opponent, Satan, in the wilderness. Every time Satan tried to tempt Jesus, Jesus quoted Scriptural truth back to Satan. How different would our lives be if every time we were confronted by evil and temptation, we were able to "correctly handle the word of truth" in that moment of temptation? What if God's playbook truly became the lamp to our feet and a light to our path, guiding our way through life?
"You missed her! She was wide open! Pass the ball!" The incensed father yelled from the stands at what I assumed was his daughter. At the same time the father was yelling at his daughter, the coach was trying to get her attention. The coach was waving his arms wildly, shouting her name. I felt bad for the girl. She was a very talented high school point guard, but the competing voices were keeping her from playing within the rhythm of the game. There was a look of confusion and frustration on her face. She couldn't get a break. Her dad was embarrassing her.
I wish I could say that I've only seen such an incident once. Sadly, I've seen it multiple times as an athletic director, coach, parent, and pastor; a parent or family member yelling at their child to do something better, whether it be pass, shoot, dribble, or play defense. And, almost always, I see a look of confusion and embarrassment on the face of the athlete. They're confused because there are competing voices vying for their attention and they feel torn. "Should I listen to my dad or my coach?" And, they're embarrassed because it feels like everyone is looking at them as their parent or family member yells at them.
My dad was both to me; a father and a coach. Ironically, he was never my coach because he coached girls basketball at another school. Yet, he was my coach in the fact that he would always attend my games when his team wasn't playing and he would always provide critiques after watching me play. (Sometimes very difficult critiques that made me wish he hadn't seen me play.) But, it's what he didn't do that I still remember and hold dear to this day; my dad, the coach, never ever spoke while watching me play. Never. Not once. My dad never yelled from the stands, never criticized, never encouraged. He simply sat there and watched. When I asked him why he was so quiet in the stands, he replied, "I want to give you space to play the game. I'm not your coach. You need to be listening to him."
I want to give you space to play.
I'm not your coach.
You need to be listening to him.
Dad knew that it was important for me to focus on playing and listening to my coach. He didn't want to be another competing voice in the midst of a game. His silence empowered me and simplified my responsibilities on the court.
Play the game. Listen to your coach.
Play the game.
Listen to your coach.
Now that I have a daughter who is a competitive gymnast, I find myself attending her competitions and being tempted to coach her through critique and praise. But you know what I do? I simply sit and watch. Don't get me wrong. I'm squirming inside with excitement and trepidation. But I do not speak because I want my daughter to focus on two things...
Play the game. Listen to your coach.
My daughter and I debrief her competitions, but I want to continue to practice the discipline of being quite while she is competing. I don't want to be a source of confusion or shame for her. I want to give her the space to play and listen to her coach.
My goal is the same for my children when it comes to the game of life. I want to give them the space to be who God created them to be and so that they can listen to Him, their true coach. Yes, God has placed parents on this earth to raise children in the proper way, but doing so means that we train them to ultimately listen to Him. That means that we sometimes must remain quiet and encourage our kids to listen to God when they are faced with a tough decision or circumstance.
I am not saying we abandon our kids during difficult moments. Are you kidding me? It would take the U.S. Army to take me away from my children in crisis. Nor am I saying that we withhold praise. I've always believed people, especially kids, respond better to praise than criticism. However, the sobering reality is that we, as parents, will not always be around when our children face crisis. We prepare them for those crisis by teaching them now how to listen to and spend time with God. So, please be teaching your children how to take a break from the world, pray to God, and listen to him. Teach them how to simply live life while listening to God. In essence, teach them to...
Play the game.
Listen to your coach.
"And in despair I bowed my head: 'There is no peace on earth,' I said, 'For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.'
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 'God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.'"
It has taken me a while to understand why the words above move me so deeply. I've always felt drawn to this song, but have never been able to identify why. This year, I am starting to understand why these words stir me so.
Yesterday, I sat down at our extended Christmas table and had an amazing dinner with extended family. It felt perfect, wonderful, and...peaceful. Everything felt right in my world. Yet, as I bowed my head to say grace, it occurred to me that I have friends whose worlds are not at peace.
I have a friend whose mother is battling cancer.
I have friends whose little toddler is battling pediatric heart disease.
Cancer. Pediatric heart disease.
Cancer. Pediatric heart disease.
I get it now. When I reflect upon a world that has a place for cancer and pediatric heart disease, I want to sing the first stanza quoted above, "And in despair I bowed my head, 'There is no peace on earth,' I said, 'For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.'"
Hate is strong...and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.
Cancer is strong...and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.
Pediatric heart is disease is strong...and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.
Are the words pronounced by the angel in Luke 2 even true, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men?" How can God's good will be resting on a family whose less than one year old child is battling heart disease? How can God's good will be resting on a family whose mother has had to battle multiple past cancers and is once again fighting for her life?
"There is no peace on earth," I said.
If the story ends with cancer and pediatric heart disease, I'm out.
But then, I am reminded of what the little baby in a manger was/is all about...God with us. To quote the angel that appeared unto Joseph and the Old Testament prophet, "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is God with us."
God With Us.
That little baby that was laid in a feeding trough would grow up and quote the following words from the Old Testament:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord."
"He hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted," including less-than-one-year-olds whose physical heart is literally broken.
"He hath sent me to set at liberty them that are bruised," including those bruised from IVs and chemo lines.
"He hath sent me to preach the acceptable year of the Lord."
That little baby was not just a little baby. That little baby was Emmanuel, God-with-us.
God with the parents whose little baby is sick.
God with the children whose parent is sick.
A God-With-Us is not dead nor doth he sleep. A God-with-us will make sure that the wrong shall fail and the right prevail, and that there will be a day when there will once again be complete peace on earth, good will to men.
We may grieve and ache and hurt until that day. But we anxiously wait, just like the prophets of old waited for the promise of Emmanuel to be fulfilled. We wait until that day when the following words will be true...
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people (Emmanuel), and he will dwell with them (Emmanuel). They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God (Emmanuel). ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”” (Revelation 21:3-4 NIV)
God will once again be Emmanuel and there will be no more death, no more crying, no more pain, no more little children battling pediatric heart disease, no more moms fighting cancer. The old order of things will pass away and that same gift and promise we celebrate today will be once again, God-With-Us.
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 Hardinsburg 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.