By Mark R. Laaser
If you were Satan and wanted to bring down the church—all churches and all denominations—what would you do? Attack leadership, of course. Thanks to the Internet, Satan now has that technology, and he is using it. I call addiction to Internet pornography among pastors the tsunami that is threatening to engulf the church.
I am an ordained pastor who struggled with sexual addiction, and by the grace of God, found freedom in March 1987 when I went to an inpatient treatment program. Thanks to the intervention of the Holy Spirit and the best clinical resources available at that time, I have been “sober” for more than 25 years. During that time, I have discovered how to help others find freedom, and I have been especially concerned with my fellow pastors.
Statistics on the percentage of pastors who struggle with pornography are scant. A few nonacademic surveys have been distributed, and the empirical nature of them is limited. However, the results have fairly consistently found that 50 to 60 percent of all pastors, and 80 percent of young (35 and under) pastors admit to struggling with pornography at some point. Of those percentages, far too many pastors have looked at Internet porn in the last month.
One colleague told me if we removed all preaching pastors from the pulpit who have looked at a porn website in the last week, a large number of our pulpits would be vacant. Too histrionic? Perhaps, but we need look only at the countless cases of “fallen” pastors, including those of some of our largest churches and Christian organizations, to see it is a major problem. We need also remember that pornography addiction and the neurochemical high it produces is the portal drug to more devastating sexual sins.
This information isn’t surprising to most people. But it is both fascinating and depressing that the church for centuries has failed to come to grips with the subject of sexuality. I have counseled thousands of men over the last 25 years, and only a handful told me they have heard significant messages about sexuality from their pastors, youth leaders, teachers, or parents. Can we all agree that God’s plan for healthy sexuality is for a man and woman to experience it in the sacrament and covenant of marriage?
When Adam had sex with Eve in the garden, the Bible tells us he “knew” her. This is the Hebrew word yada that is often used in the Old Testament to refer to our “knowing” God. An act of sexuality is meant to be a spiritual knowing, and God must be in it. In Ephesians 5, Paul instructs us that a man and woman becoming one flesh is like the relationship of Christ to the church. That is the sacramental nature of it. Christ must be in it. Sex is the expression of Christ-centered knowing of each other by husband and wife.
Is this simple truth so hard to point people to? Rather than telling our parishioners what not to do, wouldn’t it be better to point people to a vision of God’s higher calling, plan, and purpose for marriage? Sadly, many pastors have not experienced this truth for themselves and in their own marriages. Instruction about this should begin in the earliest stages of pastoral preparation.
Silence: the Greatest Enemy
Here are some of my thoughts on solutions to the problem:
The greatest enemy of sexual health and fulfillment is silence. Anxiety and shame about who we really are become the twin jailers that lock us into secrecy. We are not known to our spouses, colleagues, or our closest friends. This prison isolates us. We don’t share our feelings, legitimate needs, or our honest struggles. The crisis of being discovered forces some of us into true and broken confession. The greatest challenge for the average pastor is to take risk to get honest.
I teach a class at Fuller Seminary called “Pastoral Care and Healthy Sexuality.” It’s one of my greatest joys. We need more Christian colleges and seminaries to offer such classes, as they prepare pastors for a lifetime of honesty, accountability, and transparency. This is vital for healthy ministry.
The church must be a safe place for honesty. In the church, we too often shoot our wounded, thereby not modeling the grace of God. Our superiors must be ready with plans of action and, in some cases, plans of restoration. We must be quick to offer guidance and effective counseling. If leadership can model honesty and grace, then our average attendee will be emboldened and encouraged to be honest.
Some churches host support groups for men and women who struggle with sexual infidelity. I have found that unless the pastor is willing to encourage these programs, the average attendee will feel too anxious to participate. Also, average attendees are watching how church leaders are treated when their sexual sins are exposed. We must have tested and proven programs of restoration, and we must be willing to risk doing so despite what lawyers are telling us about civil liabilities.
Pastors need to offer teaching and discussion of healthy sexuality. We need to be proactive, not reactive, about congregational needs. Historically, sexuality has been addressed from a negative manner, as in “don’t do this or that.”
In our current culture, our members are hungry for positive teaching and clear definitions about healthy sexuality. For example, most people do not know that spiritual intimacy between couples elevates biological sexuality to a higher level of fulfillment. Those who are creative and passionate about this might even think of developing materials for youth, singles, and married groups. My students at Fuller over the years have written marvelous outlines for curricula to teach various populations at church. The really courageous pastor will plan to preach a series of messages about healthy sexuality. More and more materials are being developed by various organizations to help with these efforts.
Seeking Help: the Biggest Challenge
Pastors must be honest about marital challenges and seek help. Difficult relationships must never be an excuse for sexual infidelity, but they do make us more vulnerable to sin. Pornography and sexual addiction has been shown to be an intimacy disorder. Shame and secrecy prevent the average pastor who is struggling with these issues from being honest with a spouse about it. Many spouses are not consciously aware of the double life their loved one is living. They intuitively feel estranged, and the resulting loneliness causes them to cope in unhealthy ways, such as simply withdrawing from the relationship.
The average pastor may have trouble admitting this kind of difficulty. There is so much pressure to be models as spiritual leaders, that we often hide our marital problems. Discreet help, however, is available for those honest enough to admit they need it.
The pastor struggling with pornography addiction may have other ways of coping. In one informal study of pastors who were struggling with pornography addiction, a colleague (Dr. Ralph Earl) and I discovered that 88 percent of them were also dealing with work addiction. Many of them told us they felt a need to “pay God back” for their sexual sins, meaning they would work harder for the church. Many put in exhausting days. The adrenaline of the stress of their schedules was another way they were “medicating” their stress and loneliness.
This dynamic creates a vicious cycle and leads to burnout. Pastors need to be encouraged to take their days off, to spend daily time in personal meditation and reflection, and to enjoy regular recreation.
Pastors need to be taught a much more extensive model of accountability. Dr. Nils Friberg, formerly professor of pastoral care at Bethel Theological Seminary, conducted research with me to determine what makes pastors the most vulnerable to infidelity. The answer was not found in any psychological tests. Rather, the overwhelming predictive factor was a lack of accountability.
Pastors may have many acquaintances and be recognized by people in the church, but most have few deep relationships in which they are truly known. These leaders may be very good at socializing on superficial levels, but they have no skills in being vulnerable about their honest feelings and needs.
The God of Restoration
God is merciful, slow to anger, and quick to forgive. He is also the God of restoration. If you are a pastor reading this and you are struggling, reach out for help to those who have gone before you in their own paths of healing. The words of Philippians 1:6 remain true: “He who began a good work in you will [just as he has in me] carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Mark Laaser, PhD, is an internationally known author, teacher, and speaker. Together with his wife, Debbie, they have ministered to thousands of individuals and couples who have struggled with sexual sin and the devastation of sexual betrayal. Check out their testimony and many resources at www.faithfulandtrue.com.
Mark Laaser talks with Editor Mark Taylor, Thursday, February 26, 11 a.m. Eastern. Log on to blogtalkradio.com/standardpublishing to listen live and ask your questions.