Does Ministry Fuel Addictive Behavior?

In a recent issue of Leadership, Sally Morgenthaler shared the story of her husband's sexual addiction that resulted in a felony conviction and years in prison. Through that painful experience, Morgenthaler came to see how pastoral ministry can actually contribute to the addictive behaviors that destroy many pastors and their families. Here is an excerpt from her article.

Religious culture has a hard time with pastors and pastor's families who have flaws. Thousands of pastors serve congregations that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, expect their leaders to maintain (at least for public viewing) near-perfect marriages, near-perfect families, and near-perfect lives.

Granted, certain kinds of church attendees are attracted to "bad-boy" clergy: those who tell and re-tell their stories of wild living, knowing that they will draw certain kinds of people simply because they have lived life on the edge. When a pastor is vulnerable for the right reasons, not just to entertain the masses, but to humbly demonstrate the power of the gospel, it is a positive step.

But let's not be fooled into thinking that "having a past" gives a pastor permission to be human in the present. More than a few congregations function with this unspoken proviso: "Pastor, we love the fact that you've walked on the wild side. It makes you fun to listen to. You're down-to-earth, we're not afraid to bring our neighbors. But your past is just that: the past." Even former bad boys get stuck living on pedestals at altitudes inhospitable for anyone less than angelic.

And it is not only congregations that build pedestals. Many pastors paint unrealistic pictures of themselves. This kind of leader carefully crafts a leadership icon, rather than presenting his God-given, multi-faceted self. This kind of leader sets himself up for failure. The heat of congregational stress, or simply the wear and tear of the mundane, will wear through the veneer to what is really there.

Image building is a dangerous game. And it's at the core of addictive behavior. Addictive family systems are built on image, from the practice of keeping secrets (the "no-talk" rule), looking good to the community at all costs, to living a double life. If a pastor comes into the ministry with an addictive family background or has otherwise developed addictive tendencies, a congregational system that requires him to uphold an impossible, squeaky-clean image is going to function like a match to gasoline.

Whenever pastors try to hide behind this patina, the chances of latent addictive behavior escalating is extremely high. The more impossibly perfect the pastoral image, the greater the need to engage in taboo behavior.

November 16, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 23 comments


February 24, 2009  10:50pm

We are all laboring under the wrong premise. When did we start making our protestant pastors mini-popes? I do not believe that God ever wanted pastors to be kings of the congregation. Nor should there be one senior pastor, its all set up to fail. We should have the teaching pastor, the shepherd pastor, the restoration pastor, the worship pastor, and none of these people should get paid. YES, none should get paid. That quickly purifies motives, no top position, no money. Viola! We would have a more effective church and much more humble people doing ministry. No one would be laboring under the illusion that they "own" the church, and the people who attend. And the devil wouldn't be taking down entire churches by taking out one guy. We need a real reformation, turning upside down this man-centered institutional church. Sorry if this sounds foreign, but we have been doing the "traditions of men" for church and don't even have the slightest idea how to stop.

Report Abuse


November 23, 2006  4:35pm

In the section under "success" Sally highlights the Pastor's pull towards the megachurch mecca. However, there is another side to this story – the tendency of Church Board members to force out a capable pastor with various gifts, but who has not delivered "success" or whose "flaws" have become "too familiar" and therefore someone else is desired. Oftentimes in the process leading up to the inevitable "forcing out" the pastor loses his or her sense of emotional safety and the permission to be human, and subsequently crafts a "false front" to survive. This living with the false front becomes a real burden and often leads some leaders to find release in secret unhealthy and even sinful patterns. While the individual leader is ultimately responsible for their own issues, this pastoral life daily reality is common in the vast majority of churches. Yet I have rarely ever seen any denomination or organization responsible for a group of churches address this with local church boards or congregations. We keep trying to fix the pastors, but rarely examine the inherent issues within the environment they serve. Thank you Sally, for at least a starting point in raising these issues.

Report Abuse

Rev P

November 23, 2006  5:19am

excellent article - personal experience from the spouses perspective agrees with what you say. the addiction can be to power over people which churches can encourage when they put a pastor on a pedestal - and power as we know corrupts.I've watched as a potentially powerful man of God threw it all away by power abuse and sexual misconduct.

Report Abuse

Rev. Ayana

November 22, 2006  3:17pm

Before I became a pastor, I took extensive psychological tests, in addition to having a great theological education. As fallen people, however, pastors, or ministers in professional ministry, fall under the same "human condition" as others in leadership, with the added stresses and pressures of pastoral ministry. If you are a female pastor or minister, sexism and possibly racism, if you are also of color, are added to the mix. But the greatest temptation of the pastor or minister in professional ministry, in my view, is the temptation to think its about you. Pride goes before a fall, and whomever exalts himself or herself will be in danger of falling into sin, of whatever kind. Our spiritual task as pastors or ministers is to remember whose we are, to pray and seek the prayers of our congregations and others, and to be committed first to God who saved us and called us, and can see us through the inevitable trials.I still wouldn't take nothing for my journey for the privilege of serving Jesus Christ, despite some hardships, heartaches and mistakes.

Report Abuse


November 22, 2006  1:09am

Excellent article. Church, please listen to the things it addresses. A guy I knew turned to a homosexual lifestyle after many years as a married minister and family man. Since he could remember, he had struggled with this desire and there was no one he could tell, not even his wife. She herself had been abused as a young girl in church, never received healing from it and so was not very responsive to physical intimacy in marriage. Eventually he gave himself over to it and now believes it's of God and has left his family. If these issues had been brought to light and prayed through rather than being shoved under the rug of keeping up appearances, how might the outcomes have been different? We must permit people, whether in ministry, OR men and women, in our marriages, to be real and to speak of what is tempting them or even has lured them into a snare. We need to build strong bonds of trust wuth people and agape them in God's power and according to His will so they are able to come and find healing and hope, not beat them under the table for being tempted or having sinned.

Report Abuse

Michael Fewson

November 21, 2006  10:33pm

After reading the article "My secret struggle" I would like to add to my previous comments. The writer realised the very nature of the gospel through the support group he attended. My interpretation of his story is that his breakthrough began when he discovered in His heart who God really was (Christian conversion?). This is the Word of the cross. It is a word of revelation of who we are and of who God is. We live as little god's trying to control our own destiny. Pleasure, possessions and position are the expressions of our idolatry. We focus on sexual issues but is a minister who uses his giftedness to accumulate wealth a better person that a minister struggling with homosexual thoughts? A millionaire minister is, in my opinion, one whose idolatry is expressed in their possessions. The cross reveals our idolary as shameful; declares us guilty, and reveals our nakedness. It reveals the righteous God who punishes sin, but it also reveals the God of love and grace who bestows mercy and forgiveness on those who come to Him believing in who He is. It is from here that freedom comes. This is not psychobabble but the power of the event of the cross and the God of the cross to bring true lasting freedom. It is not easy because death to self is to commit suicide in one sense to receive a new life. it is war against our own flesh. I pray we become people of the cross.

Report Abuse


November 21, 2006  10:29pm

The verse comes to mind that says "if we say that we have no sin, then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." Christ told Peter that sin is crouching at his door. Epehsians tells us not to give the enemy a foothold. My question is where is the support group that upholds the "man of God"? I believe that Sally's article is true in many cases. Not all, but many. I am saddened when men such as Ted Haggard fall. Situations like this challenge my thinking to wonder is accountability only an after thought, or can we have men and women, deacon boards, or elders who can collectively obtain a mutual submission status with the Pastor that creates a level of accountability before hand? Churches in America are nonprofit organizations- Is there a written code developed that would support mutual accountability and how it should work between board and pastor? Maybe the ability to map out steps for a pastor to follow when trouble arises, or how elders can confront pastors when speculating there is a need for concern. I heard jack Hayford say in a conference, that because of the men in his church standing and supporting him, his marriage and commitment to Christ was maintained. I think that maybe the way we handle accountability needs to be redefined.

Report Abuse

Wes Roberts

November 21, 2006  6:59pm

With a ministry to Christian leaders for the past 25 years, it has been a sincere and vital partnership to encourage men and women and couples to spend an intensive with Michael Cusick at Restoring the He has been an amazing tool of God in lives plagued with what Sally writes about. He offices in Littleton, CO.

Report Abuse

Evan Wiggs

November 21, 2006  3:15pm

Very powerful stuff here. Yes pastors are sinful people just as those in the pews, but pastors need to honestly before God let the crosss have its way in them. Then they can be the pastor the Lord intended.

Report Abuse


November 20, 2006  12:00pm

While I can see the point of the brother who wrote that pastors should deal with their "stuff" before they enter the pastorate, sadly this would not solve the problem. Dealing with the pain of daily rejection, criticism, and not being allowed to be human (i.e., make mistakes) drives us to irresponsible and sinful behavior if we're not careful. I was forced to resign after over six years as pastor of a small church. I was not involved in sinful behavior. I had groups of pastors and laymen whom I met with to keep me accountable spiritually, mentally, and physically. My problem - I'm human, and so is my family. Our family has gone through a seriously difficult stretch for the past over three years. My wife was diagnosed with an incurable heart condition that will eventually kill her. Then I was diagnosed with a much less serious heart problem (kept under control with medication). Both of my grandmothers died within four months of each other. I was betrayed by a friend. I lost my favorite uncle to prostate cancer and three months after that my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Two months later, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and the process of going through surgeries, complications and recoveries has been difficult. During this time we received minimal support from our church. A few folks supported us, but the attitude that the rest portrayed was "live with it." So since I spent some time trying to deal with these issues emotionally (and not doing very well) and help my family do the same, I wasn't quite as attentive to my congregation. I still worked many hours. I still got the job done. I still was there for surgeries and tough times. But it wasn't good enough. American churches have got to give their pastors permission to be human, to make mistakes, to feel, to hurt, to work through the pain of going through life - AND SUPPORT THEM THROUGH THE PROCESS. Until that happens, pastors will always be particularly vulnerable to temptation.

Report Abuse
  • Seeing God on the Silver Screen
    An interview with Kevin Harvey on how engaging pop culture might be the best way to share the gospel.
  • Have Stethoscope, Will Travel
    Nurse Kelly Sites talks about her experience battling Ebola overseas
  • Actively Seeking Change
    Daniel Ryan Day talks to us about his attempt to live intentionally different
  • Digging For Truth
    Josh McDowell on the Bible's truthworthiness, the internet, and the future of the church