by an anonymous pastor in recovery
I am a pastor. And I am a sex addict. Like all sex addicts, I resisted any kind of recovery for a long time. I was too ashamed and too afraid. I knew that entering recovery would mean telling someone the truth about my struggles, about my failures and about me. It just seemed too risky. I had known for some time that online pornography was in charge of my life. It was in charge of my schedule. Thinking about it, anticipating it, covering it up, feeling the shame afterward these things filled my life. Occasionally I was able to acknowledge to myself that I was hooked. Constantly I sought God’s forgiveness. I begged God to take the desire away. I experienced the full weight of Paul’s lament in Romans 7 “But what I hate I do.”
I could feel guilty. I could promise never again. I could ask for forgiveness. I could pray. I could weep. But I could not stop. I could not get myself to seek the help I needed.
Then I was caught. In spite of all my efforts, I was caught. Though both my marriage and my vocation would survive the initial trauma, I was forced to face my need for serious help. I could no longer pretend, hide, avoid or escape the truth about the secret life I was leading. But where could I turn? Where do pastors get help? I found some intensives to be helpful, and meeting with a therapist has also been helpful. But I knew and just about everyone I talked to agreed that regular participation in a Twelve Step group was essential for successful long-term sobriety. How does a pastor who is a sex addict find a Twelve Step group that is safe, anonymous and supportive? How can a public person be anonymous?
The need for anonymity is part of the reason I choose a secular recovery group. I was just too afraid. I was fearful that Christian acquaintances or church members might show up at a Christian recovery group and that my secret life would be exposed. I was afraid that the custom of “sharing prayer concerns” would quickly decay into gossip at the irresistible tidbit: “Guess who I saw going into the recovery meeting last night?” In a secular group there was much less chance of my identity being discovered. And that was both important to me and profoundly helpful to my early recovery.
I showed up at my first not-specifically-Christian recovery group meeting loaded down with fear and shame. And that was at a place where no one knew me or my vocation. If I had been welcomed by people who knew I was a pastor, the shame would have been immobilizing. The first meeting was humbling, encouraging and helpful. I was able to say, “My name is _________ and I am a sex addict.” And I experienced what it was like to be viewed as nothing more than a fellow struggler. Being just-another-guy-needing-help had an amazing impact on my life. Most of the members of my home group still don’t know that I am a pastor, although my sponsor does. Avoiding Christian groups out of fear, I discovered God’s gracious design for my healing in a “secular” group. And I will be forever grateful to God for that.
Sexual sobriety is now the norm in my life. My shame and fear have been confronted. I have joyfully uncovered a number of reasons why this “secular” sex addiction recovery group has been the perfect place for me to be. God has used this wonderful group to help me as a person and as a pastor. Here are the reasons why I as a minister found such a group to be so healing, so worth attending and so necessary:
- For decades, Christian/biblical terminology has been an integral part of my personal growth. I have talked about “sanctification”, “being filled with the Spirit”, and “God’s will”. I learned to talk skillfully about the spiritual disciplines even when they didn’t work in my own life. I needed a context where spiritualizing my problems and avoiding the truth by using Christian code words was not welcome.
- As a pastor I was used to being placed on a pedestal. At church the pastor is often assumed to be the godly guru, is shown deference, is expected to be holy and is indulged. I liked this special status and the special treatment I received when people viewed me as someone on the lofty clerical perch. But nothing about this special status was helpful to my recovery. I did not need special treatment, but acceptance as just another struggling human being. My narcissism and grandiosity are part of my addiction, and I did not need people feeding these character defects.
- My ministerial usefulness hindered my ability to see myself as I really was. I semiconsciously reasoned, “If I can be so obviously helpful to others, won’t I soon put this problem behind me?” Success in ministry to others made me less aware of the power and progression of my own addiction. I needed a place where my usefulness to others was not a relevant issue.
- The congregation expected more of me. And I expected more of me. I thought pastors should be better than everyone else at avoiding problems. So I felt extra shame when I failed. This extra level of shame added significantly to the problem. It made rigorous honesty more difficult, even with fellow sex addicts.
- As a pastor I am paid to give and am expected to give more than the average person does. I am a giver of answers, support, spiritual advice and hope. But I needed a place where I could be on the receiving end. I did not want to be expected to be more of a giver than any other addict in the room.
- Though it may seem a subtle difference if you have not experienced it personally, I needed a safe place to learn that I was an addicted human, not an addicted pastor. I needed the advantage of working on my recovery as a person, not as someone filling a role.
- My personal irresponsibility could not be appropriately addressed while I felt preoccupied by responsibility for others. The meetings were for me, the hurting, sobbing, lost, fearful and ashamed me. I needed a place to be God’s child, not his representative.
- I needed a place where I was not expected to be the spiritual one. In the context of a Twelve Step group, my spirituality immediately began to grow from what was real, instead of from what was expected. I could now grow spiritually from the inside out, instead of just trying to make the outside look better.
- Inside myself I had mixed the pastor-man and the personal-man, and as a result, I had a confused personal identity. My vocation was entwined so tightly with my view of myself that I needed a place where my profession did not exist. I needed a place where I could develop an accurate view of myself apart from my line of work. As I faced my failure openly and recovered my sobriety I gained an appropriate and genuine sense of self that now supports my leadership role.
- Trying to appear better than I really was at any given moment has been an integral part of my experience as a religious professional. Getting “up for the people” each Sunday, to deliver the message often meant pretending. My acceptance as a pastor depended on my ability to perform. I really wanted to be a “good” pastor. So I did a lot of pretending. I quickly found that recovery groups don’t honor pretense. They saw the real ugliness of my life, but they also loved me. They loved me at my transparent worst. Being good, which is considerably more demanding than looking good, is honored in the group, and my trying to look good was viewed negatively. I needed this transforming reality.
My participation in a “secular” recovery group has been life changing. Recovery works when you work it even if you are a pastor. I made some particularly joyful discoveries in this most unlikely place:
Faith endured. At first I was afraid (I was afraid of everything) that because it was a “secular” group my faith would be endangered. But faith is not likely destroyed in a group where everyone is seeking to believe. Most of the men in the “secular” groups I have attended actually believe in the God of the Bible.
Spirituality awakened. After years of trying to be spiritual by doing more (more prayer, more Bible study, more ministry and so on) I have found a very different kind of spiritual sensitivity, and my relationship with God seems surprisingly fresh now.
Grace abounded. Amazing grace blossoms among really broken people. As nothing more than a broken addict, I have been able to take in grace as never before.
Emotions stabilized. The fear and shame and self-loathing that consumed me at the beginning of my recovery did not last forever. I am feeling better about myself as a person. Joy is replacing numb dread.
Recovery works. Nothing I tried worked. Praying harder. Feeling guilty. Making promises. But this simple, humble one-day-at-a-time path works for me. The sexual sobriety it has brought to my life is a gift of grace that is richer than anything else I have experienced in life.
Pastors can recover. Just like everyone else. Recovery is not easy. Not for us. Not for our spouses. Not for our ministries. But it is possible. As we say, if you work the program it will work for you! To take the next hopeful step click here.