John Freeman’s more than 35 years of experience in helping pastors and church leaders comes through in his advice to one pastor who discovers sexual sin among his own church leadership.
Click here to read John’s accompanying article, “Pastors: Don’t Be Afraid to Take the Lid Off.”
07 Jun 2017
The pastor on the other end of the phone call was nervous. The uneasy tone in his voice told me that he was both uncomfortable and distressed. He had called seeking advice because he didn’t know what to do. “I think pornography use among the men in my church is at an epidemic level. But, frankly, I’m afraid to take the lid off it and address the pornography struggle openly.” He then related that, over the previous months, several men had shared with him about their secret, lifelong pornography struggles and recent failures with Internet porn.
I congratulated him on being someone who others obviously felt was approachable with this very sensitive and shaming issue. He went on to tell me what perplexed and paralyzed him the most. “You don’t understand, John. Some of these men are leaders in my church—a Sunday school teacher and a deacon. It could be a major disruption for me to address these issues straightforwardly.” He also told me his foremost fear: If this was happening amongst his leadership, how pervasive might this be with other guys in the church?
That’s when I pushed into his fears and unbelief—his fear about how it would all turn out and his unbelief that God could do something powerful in the lives of the men in his church
The situation was too overwhelming to him, hence his hesitancy to boldly dive in. This was evident to me when he shared, “There’s a part of me which would just rather not know.” That’s when I pushed into his fears and unbelief—his fear about how it would all turn out and his unbelief that God could do something powerful in the lives of the men in his church. I talked to him about what it seemed like the Lord was doing and could now do even more through his involvement. I also bluntly told him that the obstacle to growth and change for these men was not just their sin, it was now him. (Not sure he liked me saying that.)
In reality, he was so caught up in his own fear that he didn’t see this: The confessions made by these leaders were orchestrated by God. When our eyes are on ourselves—our fears, our inabilities—don’t we often miss the big picture of how God is working? This situation was a golden opportunity for him. I tried to encourage this pastor and also challenge him. “Obviously, for this to begin to come to light among some of your men—well, this is nothing less than a movement of the Spirit. How can you not pursue your leadership in a more wide-scale and intentional way?” I asked.
Yes, in the short-term, moving into these men’s lives might be messy. He might find out things he’d rather not know. Patterns of temptation, strongholds, and other sin tendencies would be uncovered and might be deeper and more complex than feared.
However, I also helped him to see that his involvement could be transformative for these men. I urged him to take the long view and picture the outcome down the line of helping these men turn from porn to Christ. He could have men more appreciative of God’s mercy, more engaged with their wives and families, and more active in the church. They could move to a new understanding of Jesus as one who meets us in the midst of the chaos of our lives to show us our deep-seated idols and replace them with his grace-filled presence. Walking alongside these strugglers might have far-reaching consequences and could be dramatically redemptive for those who had confessed.
I shared the example of Stan, a former participant in one of our support groups at Harvest USA. Although a church leader, Stan had been caught up in a web of pornography for years. Finally, he began to attend one of our groups. About a year later, he told me one night, “I’m starting to see that Jesus just isn’t a self-improvement program. As painful as it is, he’s doing radical surgery on my heart in ways I never imagined.”
Stan saw his whole being transformed as he became aware of the ways he had robbed his family (time, energy, and involvement), others (showing up for church but not much more), and the Lord (failing to tithe for years due to the hundreds of dollars a month he spent on online subscriptions to porn websites). Stan began to develop a godly sorrow for his sin, along with a joy-filled understanding of the gospel. As a result, his repentance was like Zacchaeus; he began to give back his time, energy, and resources to his family and local church as if they were not his own, but the Lord’s.
I finished our conversation telling this pastor that whatever mess he might uncover would be well worth it. I think he started to get the picture.
P.S.: Check out my article that speaks to church leaders, “Sex and the Silence of the Church, Why it is Crippling God’s People.”
You can watch John talking some more about this on his video, Pastors: Don’t Be Afraid to Take the Lid Off. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
07 Sep 2016
In our first post in this two-part blog series (insert link), we examined the potential problem of your pastor¹ struggling to be a friend and to have true, honest friendships with others. This can occur because they are often expected to constantly give and shepherd more than they receive, they fear what will happen if they reveal deep struggles and sins, and they worry about the damage that their reputations and families will incur. Nowhere are the consequences higher than when a pastor is struggling with sexual issues and sins.
“I stood in that pulpit week in and week out. I looked into the eyes of a hundred people every week, people who really didn’t know me at all. And I wanted to shout out to them, ‘I’m dying up here!,’ but I just couldn’t.”
But Scripture speaks of the necessity of real, heart-depth friends and friendships as a way out of these problems.
So, what can you do to help? Here are four ways you can help your pastor find the kind of support and friendship that he needs.
First, pray for your pastor. This may seem like a non-starter. Isn’t that something a church member would do automatically? Well, yes —but many people don’t. Many people only pray in general or duty-specific ways for their pastors and other leaders: “Help Pastor Kevin to preach faithfully.” I’m encouraging you to intercede specifically and frequently for your pastor.
How will you know how to pray specifically for your pastor? Ask him. Believe me, there are precious few church members who ask that simple question of the men who shepherd them. You’ll not only learn how to pray, but you’ll encourage the heart of your pastor and perhaps even build a foundation on which a friendship might grow.
Jesus instructed Peter, James, and John to pray specifically that they would not enter into temptation in particular ways (Matthew 26:41). James instructs us to pray powerfully and specifically for each other, for the Spirit to intervene in particular ways in particular circumstances (James 5:13-16). We should pray likewise for our pastors—that the Spirit would make them wise to recognize and stand firm against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:11). We should pray that the Lord would preserve them particularly from sexual temptation and sin, which are common to all people (1 Corinthians 10:13). Pray that the Lord would lead them into deep friendships and make those friendships effective for his purposes.
Second, show hospitality to your pastor. Invite him (and his family) into your home for dinner—not for a pastoral visit, but for pure and simple fellowship. Tell him that’s the purpose of the visit: He has a night off just to enjoy your hospitality and for you to get to know him (and his family²) in order to care for him better.
Another way to show hospitality is to invite your pastor out to breakfast, lunch, or coffee, and for you to pay.³ Use this as an opportunity for you to “pastor” your pastor: Ask him how he’s doing, how you might pray for him in ministry, and how he’s dealing with the temptations, stresses, and fears that anyone in the church might have. Your pastor is a fallen human being just like you. A theological degree should not be confused with sinlessness or perfect faith. Your pastor needs someone to talk to, someone with whom to be honest, someone who is going to have his back and the backs of his family members. There are few pastors who aren’t under spiritual attack in some way. As their brothers (and sisters), we are called to join in his battle—to lay down our lives for him (1 John 3:16). Again, this is a way for you to build a foundation of trust and friendship, which will be a blessing to your pastor.
Third, tell your pastor about Harvest USA. Tell them about the ministry, particularly our ministry to pastors who struggle sexually. Ask your pastor to visit harvestusa.org and to look under the “Connect” tab, then click on the “Help for Pastors” option. Harvest USA offers confidential and biblical help at no cost to pastors who are struggling with pornography, lust, or same-sex attraction.
Fourth, encourage your pastor to be involved with others for friendship, accountability, and encouragement. Ask your pastor if he has a friend with whom he can speak candidly, a friend who knows him and loves him well enough to bear the secrets he would never tell anyone else. Unless your pastor is extraordinary, the answer is probably “no.” Exhort your pastor to pray for such a friend and to pray for the humility and grace to open up to this friend. Commit to pray along with your pastor for this kind of friendship to develop. It could be that you might become that very friend.
In summary, pastors need friends as much as anyone else, but they may be less likely to already possess, or to develop those friendships, on their own.
I recall one pastor who came to Harvest USA for help about fifteen years ago. He came to us only after his twenty-five-year string of affairs with women in the churches he served was exposed, and he lost his ministry and his marriage. He told me, “I stood in that pulpit week in and week out. I looked into the eyes of a hundred people every week, people who really didn’t know me at all. And I wanted to shout out to them, ‘I’m dying up here!,’ but I just couldn’t.”
That pastor’s story is more common than you know. Be a part of making a significant difference in the life of one man—your pastor—so that he can stand with confidence in the Lord Jesus and shepherd you and Christ’s church well.
¹ This article is written with male pastors in mind, but the same principles could be applied to women leaders in the church as well. In my experience, women leaders are just as isolated as men in leadership, and in just as great a danger to fall into hopelessness and sin.
² Pastor’s wives and children need care and prayer as well. Hospitality affords a unique opportunity for women to pursue and encourage a pastor’s wife, and for one’s children to befriend a pastor’s children.
³Propriety would dictate that only men would invite male pastors out to exclusive meetings of this sort to avoid the appearance of impropriety and to prevent any potentially tempting situations.
31 Aug 2016
That might seem like a strange idea: pastors¹ needing a friend or friends. After all, a church’s pastor is the one person who generally knows everyone else in the church. He spends his days talking with people, counseling them, conferring with other pastors, devoting time to prayer and Bible study. He’s the most plugged-in person in the church. How much more connected does he need to be? Doesn’t he already have a lot of friends? What’s the concern here?
The concern here is helping a pastor be who he is on the outside with who he is on the inside. And nowhere does that split occur more than in the area of sexual integrity. In a job filled with stress and built-in isolation, and living in a world that promotes sensuality and sexuality as the “stuff” of life, that combination can be a flashpoint of real danger.
Let me suggest that there is generally a vast difference between the quantity of relationships a person has and the quality of those relationships. In other words, it’s possible for someone to know many people, but for the nature of those relationships to be uni-directional (one-way).
Pastors are uniquely positioned to be in such one-way relationships. I call them “one-way” because of the power differential that exists between the pastor and those attending a church. What I mean is this: Regardless of how you or your denomination sees your pastor, you still see him in some way as the leader, the guy in charge. He’s your shepherd. As a result, the nature of the relationships a pastor has with the members of his church are generally focused around him fulfilling that role. He preaches, he teaches, he counsels, he administrates, he shows unfailing love, compassion, and strength in your worst and most desperate times. But rare indeed is the instance in which a pastor receives that kind of care, leadership, and shepherding from someone else in his church, even an elder or other leader.
That power differential also creates something of a barrier in your pastor’s ability to share honestly and openly with others. Because he is the “authority” in the local church, the one who is called to bear the burdens of others, the one who is supposed to have all of the answers, the super-Christian who never does anything particularly egregious, your pastor is less likely to share with anyone else the doubts, fears, shameful thoughts and attitudes, and the sin in his own heart and life. After all, what would all who have turned to him in the past think? The potential damage to his reputation, to his family, to the church, to his career is too great a risk.
Even a pastor’s peers can seem unsafe as potential friends. Other men in full-time ministry might seem likely candidates for the kind of close, intimate friendships that foster confession of sin and unbelief. Unfortunately, the isolated lives of pastors often lead them to feel so wary of being real with others that they intentionally and unintentionally wall themselves off, allowing no one to see past the façade of piety and professionalism.
This is a very dangerous place to be. Scripture speaks to the necessity of real, heart-depth friends and friendships. Paul says in Ephesians 4:11-16 that individual Christians grow in faith and freedom from the power of sin through friends who “speak the truth in love” with each other. In Galatians 6:1-2, we are exhorted to “bear one another’s burdens” of temptation and sin. Likewise, we are to restore each other to the body of Christ and to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). The person who has only superficial and polite friendships has no access to these ordinary means of spiritual growth and sanctification.
Looking at the same issue from another perspective, the writer of Proverbs says in 18:1-2 that the person who isolates himself from others denies godly wisdom and understanding. The “preacher” in Ecclesiastes warns that it is spiritually and physically dangerous to be friendless (4:9-12). There are many, many other exhortations in Scripture to pursue deep, life-affirming, sanctifying friendships and to flee from isolation into community.
I do want to be clear that not every pastor struggles with pornography or sin of a sexual nature. But, as do all people, all pastors struggle with something that marginalizes the Gospel in their hearts, lives, and ministries. And many pastors do struggle sexually, the vast majority of them in secret for the reasons outlined above. The damage to their own faith, their families, and their churches is substantial.
Whether the struggle is relatively small or great, most pastors fear being real with others. The risk seems simply too significant. Unless they cultivate real friendships, they’ll remain isolated in the midst of people all around them.
What can we do for them?
¹This article is written with male pastors in mind, but the same principles could be applied to women leaders in the church as well. In my experience, many who lead women are just as isolated and in just as great a danger to fall into hopelessness and sin.
29 Aug 2012
Read the article below in Leadership Magazine.
It’s a story by a pastor who struggles, along with his leadership team, with allowing a lesbian couple and family into his church. His reflections on what it means to reach out to those who do not follow Christ, but show evidence of perhaps wanting to do so, is excellent. Read his four convictions; they should be guidelines for every church, every follower of Christ, who is serious about introducing people to Jesus Christ.
I love his first conviction: God is here. In other words, if someone like this couple shows up in church, we should think first that God is up to something in the matter, regardless of where the situation ends up eventually. In other words, don’t let your initial thought be, “Why is this (type of) person here?” Believe that God is still drawing people to himself, and those (types of) people will challenge you to act like Jesus did to “sinners and tax collectors.”
At Harvest USA, we have developed some guidelines for youth groups to approach a same-sex attracted youth either coming out or wanting to come to youth group at church. If the church is the place where God is, then accepting the mess of people’s lives is par for our gospel work. So let them in, in whatever stage of “uncleanness” they are, and see what God is up to. It may be very confusing at first, and for some time, but we need to allow God to bring clarity along the way. This doesn’t mean we abandon biblical standards and doctrine, but if we allow our minds to first go to all the potential difficulties that might (will?) ensue if this couple, for example, wants to join the church, then we will hold back from loving them at the beginning of their entry. We will allow our fear to control our welcome.
Isn’t that how he wooed us into his arms? Weren’t we all messes at one time? Don’t we still have some mess still sticking to us?