From Christianity Today: What Can Drug-Addicted Doctors Teach Porn-Addicted Pastors?

I used to be a pastor, and I used to look at porn. I knew it was wrong, but all my promises to God and resolutions to stop were inconsequential as long as I remained in isolation. For over eight years, my sexual addiction grew deeper and darker as I crossed boundaries I never thought I would cross—until my marriage vows were broken and so was I.

I was the senior pastor of a large church being paid very well. Yet my ministry was running on fumes. I fought to maintain the appearance of a good pastor, but inside I was empty, walking in the flesh, bearing no spiritual fruit, and void of godly power.

Questions haunted me:

  • Would my wife divorce me?
  • Would my children hate me?
  • How would we get by if I lost my job?
  • How would everyone handle the public disgrace?
  • How much damage would I cause my staff and congregation if I confessed?
  • Do I even want to go on living?

I felt hopeless. If I were a stronger and more honorable man, I would have reached out to ask for help. But to whom can sex- and porn-addicted pastors turn without blowing up their ministries, marriages, and families?

That was over 13 years ago. Though I lost my ministry, by God’s immense grace, my marriage, family, and life have been restored. In June my wife and I will celebrate our 40th anniversary. Not all pastors who did what I did can say the same.

How can churches engage pastors like me before it is too late? What can be done to help those being drawn into sexual brokenness through pornography and other temptations?

Perhaps if these pastors could get the help they need before committing infidelity, their marriages and families could be saved from destruction. Perhaps our churches could be spared the pain and upheaval fallen leaders leave in their wake. Perhaps more shepherds could lead their churches while walking in sexual purity instead of living in shame over a serious addiction.

According to a 2016 Barna report, “Most pastors (57%) and youth pastors (64%) admit they have struggled with porn, either currently or in the past.” And, “about 12% of youth pastors and 5% of pastors say they are addicted to porn.” From my experience working with sex-addicted pastors, I believe those self-reported numbers are low.

How have things gotten this bad? All pastors have to deal with some form of sexual temptation. Some have learned to reject that temptation. Many dabble in it on occasion, maybe monthly or weekly. Others have full-blown addictions and cannot stop.

If anyone could manifest a glass of scotch or a line of cocaine for free at the snap of their fingers, far more people would be alcoholics and drug addicts. But anyone with a smartphone can go into a bathroom and pull up whatever sexual images and videos they want. They can get their fix in less than five minutes, and no other people will ever know. No alcohol on their breath. No stumbling around stoned. For a while, they may even feel relieved and calm—until the guilt and shame return.

With such an insidious temptation and life-altering consequences upon discovery, is there any way to save sex- and porn-addicted pastors?

Perhaps so, if we take our cues from those in a surprisingly similar position: drug-addicted physicians.

When Caregivers Need Care

According to a 2014 study in the Medical Student Research Journal, “Physicians abuse drugs, both controlled substances and illicit drugs, at similar rates to the general population. However, physicians abuse prescription drugs at higher rates.” Peter Grinspoon, a primary care physician in Boston and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, paints an even bleaker picture: “It’s estimated that rates of addiction among the general population run from 8% to 10%; among physicians, the rates start at 10% and rise to 15%.”

Because medical professionals live under constant stress, working long hours in emotionally charged situations with regular disappointments and frequent burnout, many turn to medication as a form of escape or release. A 2013 study in the Journal of Addiction Medicine revealed that 69 percent of the doctors interviewed for the study had abused prescription drugs, many to “manage emotional/psychiatric distress” or to “manage stressful situations.”

Does that sound familiar?

Both doctors and pastors have high-pressure jobs that demand quality handling of difficult situations. It’s common for pastors to take a first step toward sexual addiction because they need a break from the stress of their work and home life. Here’s how the wife of one sex-addicted pastor described her husband’s inner monologue leading to infidelity:

To the congregation, he intimates: “I will overwork to emotional and physical exhaustion; I will deplete myself and my family; I will be everything you expect me to be if you give me the requisite status, appreciation, and financial compensation in return.” … When these people in positions of power begin doling out helpings of criticism instead of admiration, the unwritten contract is broken. … At this juncture any addictive behavior begins to look really good. After everything he’s done for his congregation, the people-pleasing pastor gives in to the feeling that he more-than-deserves the little piece of pleasure he’s beginning to nurse on the side.

Like drug-addicted doctors, many pastors view porn or engage in extramarital sex as a form of self-medication.

Yet one factor contributes more to physicians’ high rate of addiction than any other: access. Doctors looking to manage their stress have access to and professional knowledge of many types of drugs—legal, illegal, and prescription—so they believe they can regulate their intake to avoid addiction. Grinspoon writes, “My access to prescription medications was virtually unlimited. Drug companies send doctors free samples. Patients bring in their unused painkillers for disposal. Colleagues freely write a scrip or two as a professional courtesy.”

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Source: Christianity Today