4 minute read

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

Last Updated: March 9, 2021

Mark Denison

Mark Denison, D.Min., along with his wife Beth, is the founder of There’s Still Hope, a national sexual addiction recovery ministry. Mark has a Master’s in Addiction Recovery, is a certified PSAP (Pastoral Sex Addiction Professional), and is an active member of the American Association of Christian Counselors. Mark is a former church planter, pastor (30 years), NBA chaplain, and university board chairman. Mark has written four books on recovery: Porn in the Pew, 365 Days to Sexual Integrity, A 90-Day Recovery Guide, and Porn-Free in 40 Days.

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.

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.

  • Comments on: Pastors and Porn: Why We Struggle and the Help We Need
    1. Frank Honess on

      FANTASTIC article!!! Thank you so much for writing it. I coudn’t agree more with everything you wrote here. The ONLY thing I would take issue with is in your final statement where you say: “This disease is progressive…” I major issue with the word “disease”. There’s no way one can call this a disease that you somehow catch or manifests in your life. Porn addiction always begins with unhealthy decisions to medicate deep pain. Would you consider changing or clarifying this statement? I can see many others reading this and having a hard time categorizing this as a disease. Thank you!

      Reply
      • Moriah Dufrin on

        Hi Frank!

        Happy to hear that you enjoyed this article! In regards to the word “disease,” I think that it is simply more of a metaphor. A real-life disease is something we “catch,” but I think in this article, Mark is more so referring to the metaphor of a disease that can take over our entire body. It can affect our daily life and cripple us, just like pornography does.

        I would not classify porn addiction as an actual, medical disease, and I don’t believe this is what Mark meant.
        Blessings,
        Moriah

    2. PhiLL Drake, MA on

      Many “diseases” DO begin with bad “choices” …(heart disease, cancer & diabetes can be the result of bad choices like smoking or overeating…) Just like other diseases can be caused or aggravated by bad choices, sex addiction (& all other addictions) might start out with wrong decisions, but then the “disease” does in fact “progress” to the point that it is “out of control” & the addict can no longer simply “choose” to stop on his own (see Romans 7: 17-25)…& must get treatment for his disease or DIE!

      Reply
    3. Donovan on

      I think it was a great article and i am glad it is finally out there for people to see. I have been in pastor ministry for over 15 years and when i came to faith in Jesus i didn’t know porn was bad. I knew sleeping around was bad and husband and wife cheating was bad but porn just wasn’t talked about openly, and when it was i was told just stop doing it and pray more. But nothing about accountability and when i did ask for help……? So i struggled throughout most of my Ministries life as well, but then came Ministries for men that needed help with sexual addiction and my eyes were opened to more hope and now i lead a group of men on recovery and have doing this for 3 years now and every man has Covent eyes on all there devices. I had all guard rails in place in our ministry at our church and it saved me on numerous occasions as well as other people in the church. I think one of the other traps that was not mentioned was the shame and guilt that pastors feel when they are stuck and not feel like they have a way out. Most people don’t understand the feeling that if i tell the wrong person and it gets out i will lose everything my career and sometimes my home and the feeling of devastation that would come to all the people that i lead. As well as all the friendships our family has made it would feel like a shunning. So you get almost crippled with fear of telling someone so you can get help. Up till recently most denominations didn’t know how to help pastors as well… they knew how to remove a pastor but not how to restore a pastor. So that adds to the feelings as well.

      Reply
      • Moriah Dufrin on

        Hi Donovan,

        What an amazing story! Praise God for the work he has done in your life and in your church. Keep fighting the good fight. We serve an amazing Savior.

        Blessings,
        Moriah

    4. martina on

      “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.” but what if the church can’t afford to pay him and other person at the same time ?

      Reply
      • Keith Rose on

        Thanks for your comment! That sounds like a difficult situation. The best course of action is going to be different depending on your church and what resources are available, as well as how seriously your pastor is struggling with porn. It’s going to be different for someone who has occasionally looked at porn and is truly repentant and someone who is deeply in bondage. Ideally, there’s a path to restoration that doesn’t threaten your pastor’s livelihood. However, this may not be feasible for every congregation. In any case, the pastor’s struggle should be handled graciously with the purpose of restoring him, as opposed to punishing him.

        Blessings,

        Keith Rose

    5. martina on

      our pastor is in porn and he is fighting about his position. he still wants to be a pastor what to do

      Reply

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