When Spiritual Leaders Are Stuck in Addiction
Why ñfalling from graceî is an insufficient picture of whatÍs really going on in ministry addictions.
God’s disciple sits in front of his computer. It’s early afternoon, and already the familiar pangs begin to set in as they did yesterday. Waves of guilt followed by a moment of peaceful justification preface the sins about to unfold over the next hour—maybe two. The pastor thinks, “God, help me,” but the urge wins again.
The most common addiction among spiritual leaders is pornography, although substance abuse is just as gripping in its occurrences. According to a frequently quoted Christianity Today survey, 40 percent of evangelical Protestant leaders in the U.S. struggle with pornography. Whatever the substance, the nature of addiction is relatively universal in how it develops, takes control and bears consequences.
Addiction among pastors is rarely seen or heard of, but when it does get out, it rouses shock and anger in loved ones. Fear and shame drive the addiction into secrecy where it festers and thrives. In this hidden vault of guilt, addiction is preserved until a catalyst forces it out.
But it’s a problem far larger than the individual. Pastor Mike Wilkerson of Mars Hill Church in Seattle says it best: “Shame is often both the consequence of giving in to an addiction the last time, as well as the precondition for giving in to it next time, resulting in more shame.”
Shame, defined by personal and collective expectations, pushes addiction to seemingly hopeless depths. It’s this psychology—assumed by both pastors and their community—that must be critically examined to unravel addiction’s tight coils.
Addiction comes in many forms: pills, liquids, powders and pixels. But one doesn’t simply fall victim once these things rear their ugly heads—one accepts them as small seeds and hates them once they grow larger than the afflicted imagines they ever would. Eventually, an addicted person realizes they’re no longer in control—that their ability to resist is gone despite their deepest desires to rid themselves of this routine sin.
We can understand when addiction arises from medicinal drugs, creating a dependency. But why can’t people just quit watching porn?
This part is difficult to understand, so let’s begin with some biological facts. The addictive “high” is produced by four chemicals: serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and norepinephrine. Many drugs artificially induce the release of these chemicals, and your brain develops tolerance with extended use. And as tolerance is increased, the brain begins to believe it needs more to create the same initial effect. Pornography stimulates similar euphoric reactions, but the addiction itself is largely psychological.
For many, the preconditions for addiction begin early—a childhood trauma or an early start with pornography often resonates into adulthood. Maturation, marriage, family and work can straighten out bad habits, but the urges may already be hardwired at this point and harder to resist.
Because porn taps into physical and emotional desires, spiritual leaders are surprisingly susceptible.
The media is quick to publicize pastors caught in a moment of hypocrisy. Names like Ted Haggard and Eddie Long lend ammunition to anti-religious groups and shame Christians worldwide. And perhaps the pastors who struggle with pornography are afraid they’re no better.
Should pastors who struggle with addictions be compared to these sensational figures? Absolutely not—but public reaction to Christian hypocrisy certainly doesn’t help pastors admit their wrongs and seek recovery. Fear of losing their position as a pastor, disgracing the Christian faith and endangering family life drive addiction into secrecy.
A 2003 study by Mark Laaser and Louis Gregoire examined some daily circumstances that factor into a pastor’s pornography use, although some conditions could surely cultivate other addictions as well:
- Pastors may spend their entire workday alone in front of a computer with easy access to Internet pornography. Porn can also artificially cater to the emotional needs of those with little connectivity with others.
- Spiritual leaders with low salaries can still access affordable or free Internet porn.
- Internet porn is anonymous. You don’t need to set foot in a store anymore, and history can be deleted in a single click.
- Like most substance addictions, pornography becomes a “mood medicine.” The neurochemicals induce temporary euphoria and relaxation, but the vicious cycle of shifting moods is carried on by an aftermath of guilt.
The real trap, however, is the inability to escape this cycle. Pastor Wilkerson, who is open about his previous addiction, describes it: “Seeking comfort in a chemical substance, for example, results in both physical and spiritual consequences. Now, suppose I continue in a pattern of going to this source of comfort again and again. The consequences compound and influence future states and desires of the heart and body.”
This cycle alone can be very difficult to overcome—but throw in an extra load of shame, guilt, fear and blame, and you’ve got a problem that’s not going to go away without bold intervention.
So, what’s to be done?
Addictions among clergy often remain unresolved due to intense feelings of disgrace. They often feel, I’ve disgraced myself, my family, my church and God. But “disgrace” is terrible word choice likely installed by society’s strong reactions to the hypocritical mistakes of spiritual leaders. This notion of disgrace–a falling from grace—is exactly what keeps addiction in the dark where it flourishes.
Pastors who have bravely and honestly disclosed their struggle with addiction advise others to do the same. Hushing the issue, especially one as covert as pornography, only pushes the addiction deeper into unseen corners.
Yet when we learn of the prevalence of addiction among our spiritual leaders, we shouldn’t raise our eyebrows—we should respond with compassion and support.
This is not acquitting leaders of their sins—it is lifting our brothers from depths impossible to climb out on your own. And although the consequences must be confronted, addiction is an enemy no one should have to fight alone.
Those who conquer addiction go on to be shining examples of God’s grace, and those who walk beside him are blessed to be partners in recovery.
Christ’s example of unconditional forgiveness has been set before us, and Pastor Wilkerson urges us to follow it: “We stand on good Christian ground when we show compassion to sinning-sufferers, suffering-sinners and outright victims alike … God shows us mercy despite our sin, forgiving, cleansing and transforming sinners like me and the tax collector who cried ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’ (Luke 18:13).”