Pastors and Porn: Why We Struggle and the Help We Need

For 31 years, I was a senior pastor of three churches, ranging in membership from 200 to 2,000. For every one of those 31 years, I struggled with sex addiction. I know firsthand that pastors struggle with porn and sex addiction at alarming rates. Despite repeated visits to multiple therapists, reading dozens of books, attending a Stephen Arterburn retreat, and repenting thousands of times, I did not find successful recovery until 2013.

Can a pastor love God and porn at the same time? The example of the Apostle Paul would seem to validate the possibility. He reflected on his personal struggles in Romans 7. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do” (7:15). “I have the desire to do what is good, but cannot carry it out” (7:18). “I do not the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (7:19). “Wretched man that I am!” (7:24).

So let’s talk about it–pastors and porn. I will frame our discussion with four questions.

1. How bad is the problem?

Let’s hit a few highlights. More extensive data can be found in my book, Porn in the Pew, which can be accessed through our website.

We know that a lot of pastors are viewing porn. While various studies draw different conclusions, the number of pastors looking at porn is alarming.

A 2016 Barna report called The Porn Phenomenon found that 57% of pastors and 64% of youth pastors admit they have struggled with porn, either currently or in the past. Around 21% of of youth pastors and 5% of pastors claim they are currently addicted to porn–they’re living in constant fear of discovery.

2. Why do pastors struggle with porn?

First, pastors are the natural target of the enemy. Satan knows that the best way to bring down the church is to bring down her leaders. And porn is a good way to do it.

Second, pastors live on pedestals. They enjoy the rush of speaking to large groups, hearing weekly praise, and living in an age in which a wall between clergy and laity has been established. The higher the pedestal, the greater the fall.

Third, pastors often isolate. With little accountability, unmonitored “study time,” and a unique set of temptations, pastors are often lonely people. They are afraid to share their secrets, let alone face their deepest struggles.

Fourth, pastors are relational. This aspect of their personality and job makes them more attractive to women. They can quickly become ensnared in an emotional affair with women in their church.

Fifth, pastor face much criticism. As a result, it’s easy to become people pleasers, with a drive for approval. This has lead many pastors into relationships with prostitutes or pornography–relationships with few demands.

Sixth, pastors often feel bulletproof. They live in their addiction for years without detection. I know I did. It is easy for the pastor to fall into the trap of believing that God will protect them for the sake of the church and his ministry.

3. What guardrails can be put into place?

I suggest that pastor take the following steps to avoid a relationship with a woman outside of his marriage, or with pornography. First, he should never be alone with a woman other than his wife. No lunches. No meetings. No counseling sessions. The only possible exception would be a counseling session with the pastor’s assistant or wife in the next office.

Second, pastors should install glass windows into their office doors. I did this at every church I pastored. The point is not that people need to look in on the pastor, but that they can.

Third, every pastor must establish a small accountability group. These three or four men may be other pastors, and will usually come from outside his church.

Fourth, every pastor and staff member should install Covenant Eyes on all their devices. Our ministry believes in the benefits of Covenant Eyes so much that we offer to pay for one month of coverage for any church staff member who asks. (Contact me and just ask: Mark@TheresStillHope.org.)

4. How should the church respond to their pastor who was caught with porn?

We know two things: very few churches have a plan, and almost all churches have a problem. At some point, your church will have a staff member who struggles with porn. You probably do right now. So how should the New Testament church respond? I suggest the following.

Think redemptively.

This does not mean that every pastor should retain his position. But the fundamental principle that should guide every response to a pastor’s fall is redemption. The church’s goal is not to redeem the position; the goal is to redeem the man.

Jesus said, “A battered reed he [God] will not break off, and a smoldering wick he will not put out (Matthew 12:20). God still has a plan for the fallen pastor, no matter the depth of his fall.

Respond biblically.

The same Bible that says the pastor is to be “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2) also says, “There is forgiveness with God” (Ps. 130:4). Several factors will inform the church’s handling of the pastor’s struggles: whether he was in recovery when he was “discovered,” whether he had an affair with someone in the church, whether he used church funds to feed his habit, whether he is truly repentant, and his willingness to accept church discipline.

React compassionately.

When most pastors fall, they are confronted by a few men in the church, instructed to never return, escorted off the property, and then completely abandoned. They are written out of the church’s history, as if their accomplishments never happened.

Pastors tell me the same story all the time: “The men who fired me promised that they would stand with me through the transition; but I’ve never heard from any of them.”

Provide financially.

The pastor who loses his ministry will now need a job. I suggest a pathway of grace. The man has a family to support. I advise churches to offer up to six months of compensation for the pastor who is truly repentant and committed to recovery.

Plan proactively.

The church that waits until their pastor falls before they put a plan in place will regret this. Less than one percent of church goers need a wheelchair ramp, but churches put the ramps in anyway, because they will eventually be needed. And every church will need a plan to deal with fallen pastors, eventually.

Need help creating a plan? Covenant Eyes has a team of dedicated church coaches ready to help you.

Finally, a plea to pastors . . .

For nearly 31 years I was one of you. Now I work with pastors every single day. It has been my blessing to see so many pastors escape the porn pit and go on to live lives of freedom and sexual integrity.

If you are a pastor who struggles with porn, get help! You need to know that (a) you are not alone, (b) this disease is progressive, and (c) if you don’t get help, your secrets will be exposed. Your story can end well. You can finish strong–but only if you get help.