Pastors and Porn – Question #3: "What will my church think of me if I confess my problem?"

In 1984, two years into my first pastorate, with all the idealism and enthusiasm of youth, I presented my church with a vision for the future. As I am fond of doing, it was laid out step-by-step, with helpful diagrams and graphics, and a personal copy for each person to study. I spent weeks getting it ready. Though I expected some resistance, I was in no way prepared for outright rejection—even less so for the mocking and ridicule of my ideas: I got it all. The next year was long and difficult, with a growing sense of isolation and despair, including bizarre panic attacks and health issues. In 1985, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was burned out. I resigned.

In the weeks after moving to a neighboring community, I was still maintaining contact with several of the younger families. They had lived through the year of disappointment with me. They had become my support network, and one of them spoke some magic words that sparked hope in my dark heart: “Why don’t we meet on our own? Maybe we should start our own church.”

And we did. For several weeks we met. The fellowship was sweet. The singing was warm. I had never enjoyed preaching so much. But a strange thing was happening in my heart. It was especially evident when driving back into town on Sunday mornings. I found myself looking in the rear view mirror more than normal. I took an alternate route to the house-church—one that avoided driving by the mother church. I dreaded running into old church members at the gas station or grocery store, so we never filled the tank or bought milk in town. The worst thing was when one of the men in our group shared a discussion with his neighbor about starting a new church. “What are you doing that for?” the neighbor asked. “Aren’t there enough churches in this town already?” I wasn’t sure how to answer his question.

I became haunted by an additional ghost. The prior year I was tormented by feelings of rejection and resentment, and then I was tortured by guilt and shame: guilt, because I knew that starting a church under these circumstances was divisive and confusing for our community; and shame, because I was terribly worried what other people thought. In my case, I think the guilt was justified. But I have to admit, I was much more bothered by the shame.

Psychologists tell us there is a difference between guilt and shame, even though they may look and feel similar. But, guilt says, “What I did was bad”; and shame says, “Others think I am bad.” Guilt arises when we fail to live up to internal standards of right and wrong. Shame develops because we can’t meet the expectations of others—those whom we desperately want to please. Guilt fears punishment for our actions. Shame fears rejection.

As a licensed counselor, specializing in clergy care, I find that many pastors are more bound by shame than guilt—especially when involved in secret sin patterns like pornography or substance abuse. In practice, this means they’re reluctant or even unwilling to ask for help. When they finally realize how much trouble they are in, they’re unable to take the next crucial step in recovery: confessing/exposing their problem. They’re often more worried about what the congregation, colleagues, or community would think than they are about the destructive behavior itself. This fear of exposure results in sophisticated and clever deceptions to hide the truth. I had already begun crude ones on my Sunday morning commutes to church: taking alternate routes to avoid being seen; refraining from going to the gas station and grocery store. If I continued much longer in my shame, the sophistication of my methods would have necessarily intensified, and so would the shame.

The problem is this: shame-based strategies can’t work forever. Remember the old rhyme from Sir Walter Scott? “What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” The longer we bow to the fear of shame, the more tangled becomes the web of lies. Eventually we are trapped in our own web. If it’s a secret life we’re hiding, someone finds out—often a spouse. We can’t hide it anymore. And then the shame is even more intense because those who have long been deceived assume we’re not the same person they thought we were.  When trust is broken it leads to even more rejection. And more shame.

When I was in college there was a popular book, Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?, by John Powell. While I am not particularly satisfied with his answers, I do love his question. It’s one every minister must answer.

Even if we don’t have a secret pornography addiction or spend Saturday night in a drunken binge, we all have a secret-self. There are parts of us we hope no one sees. I call them the closets in our hearts. Why are we so afraid to tell others who we are—to let them see what’s in our closet? Not every secret is appropriate for public exposure, of course. But no secret should be hidden from everyone. There should be no closet in your heart to which no one has a key but you. Why do we keep the closets a secret and refuse access to others? Many times it’s because of guilt. Most often, it’s because of shame.

In 1985, my struggle with guilt and shame continued to intensify. Even after I told the little flock it was wrong for us to continue meeting and sent them back to the mother church, I was still troubled. The guilt was magnified by the shame. After several weeks of prayer and soul-searching I knew what I must do: I had exposed and confessed my guilt to the little flock. Now, I must do so to the bigger flock. Admitting my own sinfulness and seeking restoration in the relationships was the only way to be rid of both the guilt and the shame.

It was one of the hardest things I had ever done at that point in my life: driving to the church, walking past my old (now empty) office, seeing the stoic (and skeptical) faces of those whom I used to serve. I didn’t trust myself with an extemporaneous confession, so I read it to them. It was short and simple: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” When I was done I had expected some words of affirmation, an olive branch of forgiveness. I got none.

Even so, I did get something. I was rid of the shame. Walking out of the church building that evening I was soaring! The Prophet Isaiah had spoken words I clung to in preparation for that night: “those that wait (depend) on the Lord shall renew their strength, they will mount up with wings like eagles; they will run and not be weary; they will walk and not faint” (40:31).

Why did I feel like flying when I stepped into the parking lot? Because I was no longer trying to hide. The closet door was open. The light shone in. I was no longer carrying the dead weight of my guilt and shame. When I overcame the fear to tell them who I really was, and to accept the consequences, whatever they might be, the shame no longer held me down. Even though I felt scorn from many that night, I was free to fly.