Every pastor sins. Not every sin a pastor commits has to be proclaimed from the pulpit. We're called to let the Light of the gospel shine, not to use the platform as a confessional or personal therapy session. Pastors in the pulpit are to be translucent (letting the light through) while being appropriately transparent (revealing their inner life). So when a pastor struggles with addictive behavior, where should that be revealed? We asked Jerry Law, a pastoral counselor who himself is in recovery from addiction, how transparent a pastor can be.
Dave opened his eyes and was immediately hit with that sinking feeling in the gut. He was lying in his own bed and the lights were on, but he had absolutely no recollection of how he got there or what time it was. The clock said 3:00, but was that a.m. or p.m.?
He glanced at the window, and it was dark outside. It must be a.m. Where was his family? The last thing he remembered was having dinner with them. What happened to the last nine hours?
Dear God, I've had another blackout and this time it must have been bad, he thought.
Over the next several hours, Dave's secret world unraveled. Pastor of a respected church, Dave was known to drink only socially and in moderate amounts. He had done a masterful job of hiding his secret drinking. Over the years he had taken to drinking, alone, until he felt the comforting buzz. He had managed this secret for years. No one suspected he was addicted. Friends, family, congregation, even his wife, had all been duped.
The awful truth emerged in the form of an alcohol blackout. After his bizarre behavior, his wife had taken the kids and spent the night in a nearby hotel. The image he had so elaborately constructed and protected collapsed in a heap due to that "one last drink" he had taken in secret that was supposed to carry him through the evening.
In three days Dave would have to stand in the pulpit and preach. How could he do so while experiencing the cascade of guilt and shame that came from his family discovering his alcohol addiction?
Should he stand up at church on Sunday and blurt it all out? He didn't know how the elders would respond. It could cost him his job, not to mention public embarrassment for his family. How could he support his family and pay for his treatment if he was unemployed?
On the other hand, would it be right for a pastor who preaches on the importance of truth to keep this a secret? How could he get the help he needs without revealing his problem? Now that his family knew, would they respect him if he did not face this head-on?
This is the dilemma faced by many ministers as they confront their addictions, whether to alcohol, prescription pain medication, pornography, gambling, or other escapist behaviors. The issue of disclosure, and how broadly to disclose, is unavoidable as a leader begins pursuing steps of recovery and restoration.
Dave's first step was to see a professional addictions counselor. He also made a frightening call to Alcoholics Anonymous for meeting locations, and he attended an AA meeting the day after his blackout.
He did not tell anyone at church immediately, but he did take a brief leave (a one-week "vacation") while he worked out the initial steps of an accountability plan with his counselor and newfound sponsor. Dave also used this time to begin making amends to his wife and children for his deception and betrayal.