I joined the ranks of fallen pastors in 2005. I will spare you the details of my fall; we have heard similar stories too many times already. This is the story of how God used the train wreck I made of my life and marriage and gave me a new calling to help Christian men, pastors, and their churches who are struggling with sexual brokenness.
Like many other men, I was exposed to porn when I was 11. My dad had magazines in the nightstand next to his bed so it was acceptable in our home. The images from those magazines were burned into my brain, and it felt powerful to see them and to become aroused. My brother and I both had porn of our own as soon as we turned 18.
I learned at an early age to use porn to make myself feel good, and after serving as a youth pastor for 6 years and a senior pastor for 20, this would come back to destroy my ministry. As I strained under weight of pastoring a large church and trying to prioritize my marriage and four kids, I began using porn more and more to escape. I needed to get my fix—although it did not fix anything.
It didn’t stop there. On September 9, 2005, three men from my board came to my office to confront me about a rumor they had heard: that I was involved in an affair with a woman in our church. The rumor was true. I was so ready to leave my double life that I prepared to give an open confession no matter the consequences. I knew I needed to come clean and allow God to do whatever he wanted to do. Had I been a better man with more courage, I would have sought help earlier instead of allowing my sexual addiction to grow deeper and darker for over eight years.
When the truth was exposed, I lost my ministry, destroyed my career, and made my education worthless. I worried I would lose my marriage and my relationships with my kids. However, due to the spiritual maturity of my gracious and forgiving wife, a lot of counseling, and a commitment to walk this out, God carried us through the years of healing.
I Confessed to My Wife and Children
Several things were instrumental in helping me through the early days of recovery. My resignation happened on a Friday. I spent the weekend confessing to my wife and sharing the truth with our kids. I told my wife she could ask me anything and I would tell her the truth. I told our kids that I had been unfaithful to their mother, had become addicted to pornography, and had lost my job. If they wanted to know anything more they could ask me. None of them did, but all of them talked with their mother.
I was in a deep depression and barely able to function. Having struggled with depression since 1986, I was no stranger to its horror, but this was the deepest and darkest hole in which I had ever been. Fear, shame, and anxiety came in constant waves, and I was unable to sleep for a couple of nights. On Monday I went to my doctor and told him what had happened. He doubled my medications of Wellbutrin and Zoloft. It took me about two weeks to feel their effect.
I Took Drastic Measures
My wife and I created some ground rules for recovery. There had to be barriers in place in order for me to stay in the house and continue in the marriage. First, I was to have absolutely no contact with any of the women with whom I had affairs. No calls. No texts. No emails or meetings. Any contact they made to reach out to me, I reported to her as soon as possible. Also, I would have no contact with other women, no pornography, and no masturbation.
About a month into this new lifestyle, one of the women called me on my cell phone. When I heard her voice on the line, I quickly told her to never call me again and hung up. After work I told my wife of the call, gave her my phone, and suggested we switch phones for a few days. After that I got a new number for my phone. This was a pain, but it helped show my wife that I would do whatever it took to stop. I had no passwords on my phone or on the computer. She was given full access to everything.
I Joined a Recovery Ministry
Recovery from this addiction is a commitment to living one day at a time in a strong and growing relationship with God and in constant connection with a support team.
I began to attend a men’s ministry at Vineyard Columbus that helped men who struggle with sexual sin. I was placed in a small group that provided essential weekly accountability. It also allowed me to connect with two men from that small group on a daily basis. Gus was on my right, and Craig was on my left. We locked arms and helped one another walk out of our addictions through daily encouragement.
Our conversations were not about the surface stuff men typically talk about. We shared our temptation and our triggers. We prayed for one another daily and connected through email, text, and calls when we struggled, or we would just call if we had not heard from each other that day. We asked questions like, “Have you faced any temptations today?” “How are things at home with your wife and kids?” “Did you cross any boundaries today, and if so, have you confessed any falls to your wife?”
Most men like this process about as much as a root canal. However, when your tooth is infected and a root canal is called for, it simply must be done. Our phone conversations were times of probing questions, honest confessions, and prayers for healing.
I Gave Control to God
For the next three years, I felt like I was learning to survive in the desert. At times God seemed distant and life was brutal. I struggled to find employment that would allow us to stay in our home, keep two kids in college, and prepare to send a third to school. Yet week after week and month after month God provided. I worked hard to give God control, and he was faithful.
That is not what happens to everyone. Some men go through divorce and their families blow up. Some, in their insanity, go back to acting out sexually and struggle to leave this behavioral drug that is so effective and accessible. If a man has not hit rock bottom and is unwilling to prostrate himself before God—allowing God to work his will—and walk in honesty and truth, then he will probably fail to recover.
I also know of former pastors who thought that after a period of time they should return to the ministry. They wrapped up their identity with being a pastor even though they had disqualified themselves from the office. Can they be restored to ministry? Yes, but only in the right kind of ministry position and after—I would say—a minimum of five years in recovery and with the agreement of their wives.
God Redeemed My Sin
After three years of hard work in my walk with God and my marriage, God gave me this passage from Isaiah 32:14–15:
The fortress will be abandoned,
the noisy city deserted;
citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever,
the delight of donkeys, a pasture for flocks,
till the Spirit is poured on us from on high,
and the desert becomes a fertile field,
and the fertile field seems like a forest.
Slowly I began to experience seasons of growth. Four years into my recovery, in February 2009, Gus and I started our own small group at Vineyard Columbus called 180 Recover. For our first meeting, nine nervous yet brave men showed up to learn about how believers can recover from sexual brokenness and manage sexual addiction.
I thought I would be able to return to ministry after three years, but when I arrived at that mark, I realized I was nowhere near where I needed to be to enter full-time ministry again. Instead, it brings me great joy to serve the body of Christ as a lay person. The men of 180 think of me as their pastor, and one man said, “You get to shepherd all of the black sheep.” Amen to that.
For the last several Monday nights, we have averaged over 100 men coming to 180 Recover. In our eighth year, it has become a place where men receive biblical teaching and strong accountability. 180 is not a quick fix; there isn’t one. Instead it is a long-term committment, where sexually broken believers find freedom from the power of sexual sin through the unconditional love of the Father, the finished work of Jesus on the cross, and the indwelling presence and empowerment of the Spirit in a community of honesty, support, accountability, and prayer.
One of my leaders, who was in that initial group of nine men, says he struggled with porn and acting out daily for 60 years. He is now in his 70s and has experienced years of sobriety.
At 180 we spend time worshiping, listen to one of the videos in our recovery program, and then break into 12 small groups where broken men receive encouragement, support, and individual prayer. We believe and practice James 5:3: “Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
Helping men who have succumbed to sexual addiction is my calling at this stage of life. I disqualified myself from serving as a pastor, but I want to help you make a difference in your own life and ministry. If you or your church needs help—and I know that is the case—please contact me or find help in another way. God brought about healing and redemption in my life, and he can do the same in your life and the lives of your church members.
John Doyel is a former senior pastor living in Columbus, Ohio, who is now in his 13th year of recovery from sexual brokenness and addiction. He ministers as a lay person in his church and helped start many 180 Recover ministries across the country.
If you or someone you know is looking for help with sexual addiction or you would like to start a sexual addiction recovery ministry at your church, visit www.180recover.com or contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org.