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.
The good boy-who-would-be-pastor, so respectable and humble, was living a double life. Struggling with same-sex attraction and dealing with it in ungodly ways, he didn’t care what anyone thought. What mattered most was finding what he felt he needed. But deep inside he feared greatly what those in the church might think.
What did he fear from the church? From his family? Mainly, he feared their anger and rejection. He had so few relational anchors that he didn’t dare risk these. It would be devastating if he failed in their eyes. So, he was careful to live a flawless life, at least the part they could see. But the pain just kept increasing.
The person above was me, more than 20 years ago, before I sought help at Harvest USA. It took a long time to make that decision. But what might have made me seek help sooner was if my church had said that the body of Christ was a safe place to get help.
I didn’t hear that message. What I heard spoken about sexual sin was that it was the worst kind of sin. That made me more determined not to confess to anyone how desperate and despairing I was, how trapped and hopeless I felt, living in constant fear of exposure.
One major passion we have at Harvest USA is to partner with churches to help sexual strugglers, to help churches become safe places for sexual strugglers. One way to do that is by speaking openly about the reality that everyone struggles to live faithfully in these sin-broken bodies. To say that God is not shocked by our sins, but that he sent his Son to cover our shame, forgive us of our guilt, and begin the amazing grace-fueled process of growing and changing. As the psalmist says, “God is. . . a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1, ESV).
When church leaders admit the truth that Christians struggle with sex, then the church starts the journey toward helping strugglers. It becomes a “one-anothering, we’re in this together” community. As the main article in our Spring 2016 issue of the Harvest USA magazine (“Living Faithfully with our Bodies: It Still Matters, But the Church Must Help”) says, “A healthy church is not one without problems; it’s one where problems are addressed openly, with the gospel.”
The Lord has put us together to walk with one another in learning how to obey him and live lives worthy of him. Not to look good, but rather to be honest about our struggles and sin, while believing the gospel that God loves us in spite of who we are. When we live this way, experiencing his power that works in and through our weaknesses, we grow, we change, and we find increasing freedom to live joyfully.
Harvest USA can help your church learn how to help sexual strugglers. We have developed a great program to help churches do ministry to sexual strugglers. We’d love to partner with your church to do so. Here is a brief description of our Partner Ministries, and how we can help get your church up and running for this kind of vital ministry.