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Leadership Journal

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The Transparent Pastor

The Transparent Pastor

When a pastor struggles with an addiction, who needs to know?

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?

Honesty and integrity are the first casualties of an addiction.

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.

Interestingly, he did not tell his new AA friends that he was a pastor for nearly a year. No one asked, and, somewhat to his surprise, once he revealed this information, no one fell out of their chair! They just loved him.

While Dave got help primarily in the foreign world often referred to as the recovery community, thousands of other ministers continue to struggle secretly with addictions.

What does it take to experience healing and restoration? There's not a tidy answer, but there is a clear path to recovery. It begins by rejecting the lifestyle of lies and self-deception.

Obstacles to transparency

One of the realities of addictive behaviors is that those affected quickly master "the art of deception." They become good at hiding their behavior, masked behind denial, half-truths, and covering their tracks. They preserve the false assumptions others have about them. Honesty and integrity are the first casualties of an addiction.

In Dave's case, deception came easy. His position granted him a remarkable amount of trust, little accountability, and a flexible schedule. The little "miniatures" of vodka, like those served by airlines, are readily available and easy to conceal. He had numerous hiding places in his automobile, garage, and office.

Covering the faint smell of vodka with a healthy dose of mouthwash was simple. After all, no one is surprised when a pastor goes out of his way to have pleasant breath. No one suspected their pastor of alcoholism.

A second reality for Christian leaders is the misapplication of the belief that "God's grace is sufficient" and "all that's necessary to be delivered from an addiction is to pray." When most Christians initially recognize a sinful pattern of behavior that they wish to stop, they will pray a private prayer of confession, hoping that will make the addiction go away.

While confession is important and may produce immediate forgiveness, the lingering patterns of addiction may not immediately disappear. Even after confession, the compulsion remains powerful.

At first, Dave prayed fervently for deliverance from the craving for alcohol. When release did not come, he found his willingness to pray at all was greatly compromised.

He deemed himself the ultimate hypocrite and ceased praying except in public in his pastoral role. As a result, Dave's relationship with God became stale and lifeless. The role of pastor became one of bondage rather than joy.

His relationship with his wife and children had become strained due to the guilt and shame Dave felt. Even relationships with those unaware of the addiction were weakened. Dave's self-respect all but disappeared.

For many this becomes a crisis of faith ("what's wrong with my soul that I still desire this even after praying?"). When leaders confess their addiction to God and then, the next day, the addiction still has its hold on their life, they can question their salvation or wonder if God has withdrawn his Spirit.

In Dave's case, no overnight cure broke his cycle of addiction. Recovery was going to take some time.

Dave learned that while forgiveness might come instantly from a private prayer of confession, for him deliverance from his addiction demanded a wider level of disclosure.

Dave began by telling his story to the addictions counselor. This led to him being able to be honest and open with a recovery group.

Total transparency, progressive disclosure

So just how transparent, and how public, does a pastor hooked by alcohol, drugs, gambling, Internet porn, sex addiction, or other compulsive behaviors need to be to walk again in freedom and joy?

Experiences of Christian leaders like Dave and countless others suggest that recovery from addiction requires, from the outset, total transparency with at least a trusted few. And as time goes on, the circle of disclosure widens.

Yes, private prayers of confession and remorse are essential, but the path forward also includes steps that put repentance into practice. This may or may not lead a person to resign from leadership for a season, but what's non-negotiable for effective recovery is rigorous honesty and accountability regarding abstinence from (or lapses with) that substance or behavior.

Full disclosure to someone is essential; full disclosure to everyone is a matter of discernment.

Of course, in some cases, circumstances become public and the full story is revealed immediately.

But apart from those situations, whether and when a pastor is compelled to announce his sin to the entire congregation is subject to deliberation. Certain high profile ministers have fallen in recent years due to addictions. Often the story was brought to light by the media and required full and immediate public disclosure.

Does that mean that such revelation is mandatory in all cases? Wisdom is found in Celebrate Recovery's sixth principle: "Evaluate all my relationships. Offer forgiveness to those who have hurt me, and make amends for harm I've done to others when possible, except when to do so would harm them or others."

Rigorous honesty, not brutal honesty

Whether the truth is shared narrowly or widely, it needs to be shared. A helpful concept is "rigorous honesty," as contrasted with "brutal honesty." Brutal honesty is self-centered and focused on saying whatever is true that makes me feel good or relieves my guilt. Rigorous honesty, on the other hand, also respects the effects of this disclosure on others.

Complete and utter honesty is vital for recovery. And if public disclosure is deemed more brutal than rigorous, then progressive disclosure may be best. Often this means sharing the story, honestly and transparently, with a trusted mentor or guide at first, and then with increasingly wider circles of people.

In their book Changing for Good, authors and psychologists Prochaska, DiClemente, and Norcross present a model they call the Stages of Change, which sheds light on how many of those addicted work through needed changes in their lives.

Precontemplation, the first stage, describes the individual resisting change. This may be due to ignoring the issue or denying the facts. Some people are so bound by addiction that they cannot even think about change. Others feel trapped or paralyzed. A crisis or confrontation is often required to break through the denial. In Dave's case, a crisis intervened. After he blacked out and his family walked out, he was compelled to act.

But what about the leader who is still "getting away with it" but desperately wants help? The second stage in the Stages of Change model is called Contemplation. The addict is truly thinking about change, but isn't actually taking any action. The hesitancy may be based in pride or fear. Many smokers, for instance, reach the conclusion that their habit is a bad one, but they don't take the steps needed to change.

Addicts are extraordinarily adept at denial, manipulation, rationalization, and justification. In fact, a plethora of defense mechanisms are at work in the addict. It has been said that addicts live in two diametrically opposed worlds simultaneously; they're desperately looking for help and at the same time taking drastic measures to protect the addiction.

As long as the addictive or compulsive behavior is being indulged, it is unlikely that the individual will actually reach out for the help needed even when help is desired. The first step, therefore, must be a total break with the behavior. Formal treatment in an inpatient or outpatient setting may be necessary.

At an absolute minimum, the pastor struggling with an addiction must discontinue the behavior, repent, become rigorously honest with his or her spouse and possibly other family members, and establish an accountability relationship with at least one other individual. This accountability partner cannot be a subordinate. It must be someone "outside" and preferably a trusted friend or colleague who has either been through the process personally or has adequate training in the area of concern. This is an individual who cannot be manipulated. Many addicts want recovery on their own terms. In short, it doesn't work!

As mentioned, freedom from addiction involves repentance. Just what is repentance? Perhaps the definition given by a small child makes the most sense here: "Repenting is being sorry enough to quit!"

In the Twelve Steps, as well as within the principles of Celebrate Recovery, an addict must acknowledge his or her powerlessness over sin. This is not something we can just quit on our own. Without God's help, which we embrace through repentance, overcoming addiction is impossible. Recovery ministries insist that a person admit to oneself, to God, and to another person the sin involved.

Does this mean that a pastor must stand in the pulpit and bare his soul publicly? Not necessarily. The extent of the addiction and the subsequent impact of the secretive behavior should be considered, as well as the likely fallout from the revelation. This is where the advice and involvement of the sponsor or accountability partner who has "been there" is essential.

For Steve, another minister in recovery, his counselor, who was a believer, suggested not telling the congregation immediately, but he did insist on total disclosure to three people: Steve's wife, his sponsor at AA, and the chaplain at the treatment center, all who could be trusted both to keep a confidence and to provide support and accountability. They all agreed that the first step must be complete discontinuation of the behavior, and in Steve's case, meeting with a counselor to help understand the underlying motivations and triggers to his addiction.

The next stage, Preparation, involves creating and implementing a written, structured, monitored action plan. A key element of this action plan is a further level of transparency: developing a group of peers who know and understand the condition.

Gary Kinnaman in his book Leaders That Last outlines the importance of accountability groups, especially for pastors: "The core value that sustains us is treasuring relationship over task. Maybe a better way to say it is that our goal is to develop healthy viable peer friendships that will stand the test of time."

Using the example of the smoker, the individual may actually go online to research medications and patches and stop-smoking gum that help smokers break the habit or to look up addresses for smoking cessation classes. A plan is developing. But it's important the plan is not done in secret. Accountability to the plan, including the involvement of someone else, is essential.

In time Dave joined a small group of ministers who met regularly to support one another and to hold one another accountable. And he shared the story of his battle with alcohol.

Roger, another pastor in recovery, tells his story this way: "I knew I was in serious trouble. The daily visits to the porn sites and subsequent attempts to erase my browser history were becoming a problem. I would wake up in the middle of the night in fear that my secretary would accidentally find my Internet searches while using my computer. I found myself making excuses to be alone in my office.

"My public presence was that of a man committed to spending time alone with God, tucked away in seclusion in order to hear his voice and prepare for Sunday's message. I knew the truth, however, and could not figure out how to stop being drawn to porn. Repeated prayer, asking God to miraculously deliver me, did not seem to bring about permanent change. Putting on 'the whole armor of God' and screaming at the devil left me frustrated and deeper in sin.

"It was only when I acknowledged my powerlessness and allowed someone else in that I began to truly believe there was hope for change."

Owning the truth comes next. This is the Action phase. A pastor in recovery may need the support of Celebrate Recovery or AA to actively work the recovery plan developed in the Preparation phase.

The power of an accountability group is profound during this phase. Other ministers who are willing to be honest with one another and covenant to keep what is shared confidential are a valuable asset.

This is often the most rewarding stage of change as the individual begins to experience progress in recovery and enjoys newfound relationships that are genuine and honest.

When the Action plan has been consistently employed for an appropriate period, the recovering pastor may enter the Maintenance stage. In many ways, this phase is the most difficult. The newness has worn off. The honeymoon period of recovery, sometimes called a "pink cloud," has ended and now the pastor must live it out in daily life.

This is the phase in which the recovering pastor may be best able to share his or her story publicly. By telling their recovery stories, leaders can have tremendous impact in encouraging parishioners (and other clergy!) to acknowledge their own sins and begin the process of recovery themselves.

For Roger, this turned into a significant portion of his ministry. Roger admitted his porn addiction to his church board within weeks of entering recovery. With their support, he did not go public to the entire congregation for almost a year. It was agreed that Roger needed a period of abstinence before taking this step.

He also used this public confession to announce the church's plan to begin a recovery ministry. He was astounded to discover how many men in his own church were struggling with similar challenges. He has subsequently developed a powerful ministry to recovering sex addicts in his community. Being transparent about his recovery has been a key to his long-term success in recovery.

As Joseph Martin, a clergyman in recovery, writes: "Truly, love is never more precious than when it is regained after it is lost. As they say—love is better the second time around. Passing it on to others then takes on a very special glow. Those who have never felt the curse of addiction cannot comprehend the joy of sobriety. They really don't fully know what it is; they've never lost it."

Today, Dave enjoys ministry once again. He found recovery to be the most difficult work he has ever done, but also something to be treasured. He is open and honest with family, friends, and his congregation.

While some members of his church could not deal with honesty on this level and have moved to other chuches, many others have come forward to acknowledge their own struggles with addiction. He has learned not only the value of being translucent, allowing the light of God in, but also the benefits of being transparent—flaws and all—to those around him.

Jerry L. Law is a certified interventionist and drug, alcohol, and addiction counselor. He serves on the staff of Faith Family Church in Chandler, Arizona.