Right now pastors are being emasculated by pornography and struggling with sexual addiction at alarming rates. Clergy Sexual Abuse Rates are climbing steadily — about 100,000 clergy members (15% of all the clergy in America) are currently engaging in sexually inappropriate relationships. While nearly 85% of men in America look at pornography at least once a month online, the percentage of clergy, though not as high, is still staggering — about 30$ or 200,000 clergy members in North America view pornography at least once a month. Those are crazy numbers! Additionally, the spiritual abuse that always accompanies addiction of any kind is hitting the Church in untenable ways.
In addition to these choices many are making to escape life, the number of pastors who struggle with depression and anxiety has skyrocketed. Many pastors find that an unshakeable anger is their constant companion. Other pastors’ bodies are breaking down from stress and long-held trauma which they have bodily stored. Clergy burnout is as high or higher than nearly every other profession.
The Church positions pastors to mediate between the people and God and pays them to be unblemished representatives; expecting pastors to be almost sinless – or at least without any big sins present in their lives – but no pastor is able to meet these expectations. When pastors sin – and they do – it is a failure tied to vocation, calling, self-image, sufficiency, and shame. While in the short term, it often seems beneficial to separate the public pastor from the private persona, this choice turns little mistruths into full-fledged lies and a double life of continual and ongoing drowning in a whirlpool of deceit.
Pastors can’t admit their humanity. Instead, they go along with the ruse that they are somehow, “a little above humanity.” They play the role and lose themselves, but humanity denied is not humanity displaced. Humanity, separated in its exile, makes its presence known, often through addictions and abuses. Eventually, the dark attitudes and behaviors grow until they can no longer be denied. This results in crises: Crisis of faith, crisis of ministry, crisis within community, crisis in their family, and the crisis of identity.
The solution is a very common word among Christians: “grace.” Grace is common in its conversational usage, but uncommon in a restorative application. For most, taking a gracefall is a brand new concept.
Many of our historic programs of redemption and restoration are built around our shame. We urge, “Work harder. Pick yourself up. Find the strength within you. Do better.” We work these programs over and over and we pray harder and give more accountability, but the best shame-based programs can achieve is temporarily alter our outward behavior. And even this is iffy. These programs don’t fix what’s broken within us. They don’t heal the rending of our humanity from our spirit.
Grace alone heals the deep wounds. Falling into grace reunites the pastor on the pedestal with the person in the pits. A gracefall restores identity – in God, and in community. Grace is not found by striving, believing better, or working harder. Grace is found when we lay bare our humanity finding that we are welcomed back into humanity and the arms of Jesus.
Grace is not a singular event, nor is it an immediate fix. We continue our gracefall as we confront denial, examine hurtful patterns of behavior, recognize the hurt we cause others – including the spiritual abuses – and repair relationships as we are able. We learn that gracefall is not a program of restoration, but the mechanism of living with and loving one another and God.
Because our brokenness involves others, so too does our healing. Grace often leads us to awkward and difficult conversations with spouses, children, and other family members, with ministry partners we turned on, and with the congregations we let down. Sometimes it leads to awkward silence and grief. We have found, through our own restorative journeys as well as walking alongside others, that the gracefall, the silence, and/or the conversation is much less frightening when we have a friend with us, who has taken the fall before us.
This isn’t easy work and it only gets more difficult and dangerous without a companion along the way to give perspective, to help process thoughts and feelings, to help prepare for hard conversations, to see the realities of the situation, and to know when to pull back, step down, or take some time away.
It is hard to discern the Spirit on one’s own in the best of circumstances and even more difficult in times of distress. Pastors in distress need a friend they can trust who will listen intently; offering faith hope, and love while acting as a prophet, priest, and king. They need loving, courageous people who will speak grace-filled, loving truth to them; walking with them no matter what ugly choices they’ve made, actions they’ve taken, or hurts they’ve inflicted.