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When Porn and Pastors Collide





Few things are more disheartening than seeing one of your own staff members fall to pornography. As a senior pastor, your reaction and guidance set the stage for this leader's future path.
From athletic fields to battlefields to fields ripped with fire, a common motto of brotherhood sounds: "When one falls, we all fall." So it goes in the body of Christ, to which Paul applied an identical truth: "If one member suffers, all the members suffers with it" (1 Cor. 12:26). Today we find ourselves a suffering church due, in part, to an increasing number of ministers falling to pornography. But what do you do when this affects someone serving on your own staff?

Maybe someone spotted the staff member leaving an adult video store. Or maybe pornographic images were discovered on his computer. Or perhaps you got an exasperated call from his wife after she caught him in an online sex chat room—and not for the first time.

Before delving into the appropriate responses from both you and your church, let's set one thing straight: A staff member's struggle with pornography is not your fault. It's easy to take one of your leaders' behavior personally: Was he even listening to my sermons or counsel? Did I completely fail her as a mentor or role model? The fact is that most of your staff was raised by the world's view of sexuality.

Regardless of how much your church is realigning their understanding of sexuality with the Word, many of your leaders already planted the seeds of lust through pornography, fantasy and masturbation years ago when they were 12 and 14 years old. The neurological attachment created from years of self-gratification with these images may have been reinforced hundreds, even thousands of times before their job interview with you. What potential staff member doesn't show up gifted, anointed and flawed all at the same time?

Within the last 19 years, I have counseled hundreds of pastors who have fallen into pornography. I have been in the laboratory and seen the array of ways church bodies and senior pastors respond—ranging from redemptive to ungodly. It is time we understand the correct way to respond.

What's Your Porn Policy?

If you are a senior pastor, understand that you set the precedent for your church's proactive approach, which can ultimately lead to healing or hurt. Your church needs to have a policy in place that outlines exactly what is to be done in the event of porn being used. This must be established before an incident. We have to stop thinking this only happens to other churches, when the current prevalence of individuals who are sexually addicted or struggling is continually growing. Remember, this cancer-laden population is the one from which you're pulling your future leaders.

Your policy should be discussed at hiring and reviewed periodically when covering other personal issues. Make sure everyone on your staff clearly understands it. Some churches have a "one strike, you're out" policy; others take into account the staff member's humility—or lack thereof—to determine the outcome (this is often reactive). Some churches require counseling and accountability for a season, and use this to discern whether the staff member should be reinstated in ministry while receiving additional help.

In working with many churches through this process, I've also seen some require that the staff member take a sabbatical from ministry, continue counseling and even pass a series of polygraphs to know they have done due diligence. Whatever your church policy is, it needs to be written down and clearly addressed to all of your staff.

Keep in mind, there is one factor that overrides whatever policy you have: Any case that involves child pornography must be reported to local authorities, who will likely take the matter out of your hands. If you're unfamiliar with the laws surrounding this, most local police departments have a sex crimes division that can help you with this.

Get Updated!

Statistics prove that having a "pastor" title does little to stop you from dabbling in pornography. Yet it's amazing how many churches ignore this and fail to help their staffs close the door to potential temptations—while at church, no less. It's essential that your church computers have regularly updated filtering software installed on them to block access to pornographic content.

I recently met a pastor who was talking to a computer geek in his church one day about how to tell if someone is looking at porn online. Purely as a demonstration, the man took this pastor to a nearby church computer and clicked through to the history folder to show him where such information might be. To both their surprise, the computer was loaded with pornography.

Although this was a computer multiple people used, they were able to trace the sites to a non-staff member and made sure he received counseling. Still, it amazes me how we know the Web is filled with an ever-expanding supply of pornographic content, yet we allow full access to it in our local holy place called the church.

Most versions of filtering software today allow an accountability person (or team) to see reports of all the sites visited by your staff members. Also, urge your staff to place porn filters on their home computers as a safety net for their families and the church. The last thing you want is children viewing pornography at Pastor John's house.

Personally Speaking

These are all actions you can take to help close the door on pornography use among your staff. But how you react personally with the one who's fallen can be the difference between true restoration and an ongoing addiction. It starts with your sincere concern for what this means for the individual's life.

Obviously, your heart and mind will be pulled in several directions, yet in this difficult situation you still have to make crucial decisions. You care about your pastor's spouse and family, yet firing this person is a real possibility. Do you cover the sin or expose it? Will it benefit the church if everyone knows, or should only a few be made aware while the process of healing begins? Who do you protect—the sheep, the staff member or both? Can you even hear clearly amid the noise of the betrayal from this staff member, who you loved and trusted with your family?

If you are caught in this situation and have to react quickly, let me offer some basic advice. First, involve one or two other senior pastors from other churches, pastors who you fully trust. Their input will be invaluable since they won't be as emotionally involved and can offer both an impartial viewpoint and spiritual discernment.

Second, define the process clearly to both the staff member and the spouse. A wife (or husband, in rare cases) is often more devastated than the one who's been caught. She's scared about possibly having to leave a church family. She's fearful of losing financial security, the house they live in, possibly having to change the kids' schools ... the list of legitimate concerns can be overwhelming. Because of this, it's important to let the couple know what your plans are in the coming weeks as you move toward a final decision.

To that degree, consider the spouse's pain in offering help. If your church can afford to pay for outside counseling, do so as proof that you're genuinely concerned for her well-being. Help her know she has a support network surrounding her with love during this difficult time.

Finally, show your personal concern for the staff member through the counseling you recommend. For every issue there are roots, and the roots of sexual addiction can include such things as sexual abuse, parental abandonment and a distorted self-image. Usually, there is more to the story than what is on the surface. Make sure the counselor you recommend understands the sexual addiction recovery process.

Obviously, there will be other issues you will encounter, along with more questions. For instance, if the church decides to let the staff member go, do you need to publicly explain why? Can the pastor stay in the church while he heals, or would you rather him heal in another location? How many resources to allocate to this person's moving-on process should also be addressed. Some churches give weeks' or months' worth of severance to help the family make the necessary changes in their lives.

It's unfortunate that you will likely have to address these issues at some point in your ministry. I hope you can be proactive rather than just reactive. Your leadership in this dark hour of their lives can be instrumental to keeping them pure and living a life of fruitfulness in the future to glorify God.


Douglas Weiss, Ph.D., is a licensed professional counselor and the executive director of Heart to Heart Counseling Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. He is also a conference speaker and the author of numerous books, including Sex, Men and God. For more information, visit drdougweiss.com.

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