Rick appeared to be the quintessential “five-tool talent” for pastoral ministry. He was a great communicator, a good administrator, an astute musician, a charismatic personality, and he seemed dedicated to his family.

He was also caught up in the rush of ministry life, exhausted in workaholism, and angry toward church members. His marriage was rocky because of ongoing disputes about life imbalance and distorted priorities. Long-submerged abuse in his childhood went unnamed and unresolved in Bible college and seminary.

Isolated in his study with no one to talk to, he decided to surf the Internet and stumbled across a pornographic site. He was shocked when he realized that a few minutes drifted into a few hours. He repented and told God he would never do it again—only to be drawn in day after day like a moth to a burning candlelight.

The cycle was repeated again and again. Stuck in a double life, Rick couldn’t get enough of what he didn’t want. Refusing to get the help he knew he needed, pornography consumed his life. His secretary discovered images on his computer and immediately told the chairperson of the board.

Rick found himself in our counseling office humiliated and devastated. He didn’t understand how he got to where he was and admitted that even after disastrous consequences, he couldn’t stop doing what he didn’t want to do.

The Internet: ‘Crack Cocaine’ of Porn Addiction

The story of Rick is all too common in our counseling practice. Widespread and pervasive accessibility to pornography is unprecedented due to the advent of the Internet. The late Al Cooper, author of Sex and the Internet, coined the phrase that instant accessibility to Internet porn has become the “crack cocaine” of pornography addiction. Fueled by easy accessibility, apparent affordability, and pseudo-anonymity, the Internet promotes a compulsive scenario of rapid escalation of both the amount and diversity of sexual behavior. People like Rick who have significant problems struggle almost immediately. The obsessive behavior escalates and becomes quickly fixated. One pastor, who had not struggled previously with pornography, began viewing porn one holiday weekend and within five weeks had embezzled several thousand dollars from the church to pay for his online activities. Stories of out-of-control online behavior are not uncommon to our practice.

Clicking Toward Total Disaster

The Internet offers both great opportunity and great peril. In 2002, sex-related sites became the top economic sector of the Internet, exceeding sales of both software and computers. Overall revenue from the porn industry in the United States is greater than the National Football League, National Basketball Association, and Major League Baseball combined. The dollars exchanged in adult bookstores on the corners of seedy neighborhoods pale in comparison to the reality of the online “adult supermarts” in the studies and living rooms of millions of homes and offices.

Pastors who struggle with addiction to pornography have common themes and familiar links in their backgrounds. Often, their family background includes other addicts. Their family system is rigid, disengaged, and emotionally absent. Neglect and abuse are often present. Pastors from chaotic family prototypes often struggle with authority, suffer poor impulse control, and wallow in pervasive feelings of shame and chronic loneliness. They tend to focus more on doing and less on being. They often hold themselves accountable to extremely high and unreachable standards of performance. Many commonly feel like scapegoats in their ministries and take on a martyr complex. Most have little awareness of healthy boundaries and fail to recognize how their own personal history of woundedness contributed to their abuse of power and position for personal gratification. When pastors come from families where other addicts are present and childhood abuse pervades, addiction ceases to look accidental but rather resembles a heat-seeking missile when pornography enters into the parish ministry.

How the Church Enables Addicted Pastors

Yes, a pastor needs to face his or her problems. However, equally important is to measure the impact of systemic factors within the church that contribute to addictions. In Incest in the Organizational Family, William White suggests that the church is predisposed to what he calls organizational incest. Churches prone to this dynamic often place intense stress upon their clergy staff with nearly impossible expectations. Generally, they provide minimal personal support. There are strong no-talk rules about sexuality while other boundaries are breached. The more tightly the system contracts upon itself, the more depleted and suffocated the participants become and more likely sexual boundaries will be violated. The final step for the isolated, depleted, rigidified clergy person in such a system is a sexual violation of church boundaries. Even if professional boundaries are not violated, the dual relationship catalytically disrupts the organization by focusing and concentrating simmering feelings of resentment, alienation, and deprivation among other staff members. Ultimately, the incestuous church institution collapses in upon itself and implodes.

It is not enough to consider the backgrounds and personality profiles of clergy who are addicted to pornography. We believe that it is also necessary to help pastors evaluate their working environments and organizational systems whenever there is an addiction. Oftentimes what precedes the acting-out behavior is a merging process within the church. The views and values of staff become increasingly homogenous. Dissenters are often expelled. As the staff draws closer together, they tend to socialize exclusively with each other, “since no one else understands.” The boundary between social life and professional life becomes less and less distinct. Staff members think about work constantly. They exhaust themselves in efforts to be all things to all people. They become their jobs. At the same time, their jobs leave them emotionally starved. They advocate to others God’s command to honor the Sabbath, but work seven days a week themselves. They preach family, but put their own families second.

The Devastating Effect on Spouses

The pastor’s pornography addiction takes its toll on the clergy spouse. Many addicts have shared that the impact of cyberporn is similar if not the same as that of a real life skin-to-skin affair. Discovery often results in shocking betrayal, confusion, and shame. It is common for a spouse faced with this crisis to believe it’s his or her fault for not being attractive enough or sexual enough in the bedroom.

The spouse may attempt initially to increase sexual activity in order to win back the addict. Spouses sometimes agree to sexual practices with which they are not comfortable such as having sex when they are tired, or undergoing breast enhancement surgery or liposuction. Frequently, typical codependency behaviors are utilized, such as snooping, bargaining, controlling access to the computer, and giving ultimatums. We have known some extreme cases with computer savvy spouses who would entice their addicted partner by logging into the same chat room under a false name. Most often partners attempt to negotiate and bargain with the user to stop using the Internet. These measures end in an illusion of control.

The real-life partner cannot (and should not have to) compete with the fantasy. But the porn addict loses interest in a spouse because of “ideal” relationships where there’s no hassle. The experience results in emotional detachment from the marriage. The addict does not avoid sex. On the contrary, he or she engages in sex compulsively. However, the addict often redirects sexual interests away from the spouse and toward the computer. The marriage enters a crisis when the partner realizes that the couple’s problem-solving efforts have been unsuccessful and when the cost of remaining in the status quo becomes intolerable. We see partners who demonstrate symptoms of depression, isolation, loss of libido, and their own dysfunctional behaviors (affairs, overspending, and eating disorders) escalating, with devastating effects on their marriage, their children, and themselves.

Accountability Cannot Be Optional

According to the Internet Data Center, about 40 percent of business Internet activity is nonbusiness-related, costing millions of dollars in productivity. About 70 percent of all Internet porn traffic occurs during the 9-to-5 workday. The reality of unstructured and unaccounted for time in the life of a local pastor suggests that the Internet is used to access porn with secrecy in the private study. Privately, the pastor languishes in quiet desperation and secretly wallows in shame due to living an incongruous life. Some pastors sink into depression and have suicidal thoughts. Lonely all the time, the pastor may withdraw into an escalated cycle of pornography use to medicate emptiness and emotional pain. In some cases the addiction will expand to more risky behaviors. For example, a pastor gets caught attempting to solicit a prostitute whom he contacted through the Internet. The addicted pastor can become totally out of control.

Most pastors who seek counsel have struggled with some form of compulsive sexual behavior most of their lives. The struggles began with early exposure to porn (frequently, from Dad’s secret stash). Very few pastors ever receive adequate education regarding professional and personal boundaries in their training. They experience that it is unsafe to talk about personal stories of struggle regarding their sexual lives. The reality is that it could either cost them their ministry career or brand them as flawed and unworthy of serving in a pastoral role. Most pastors adapt and live in isolation regarding their struggle with porn. Effective boundaries education at the seminary and other ministry formation levels of training must become a top priority. It’s imperative that models of openness and accountability be exposed to ministry candidates early in their educational experience. Every pastor must have accountability in a safe forum to process personal struggles without fear of retaliation or losing his or her job. Local churches should mandate accountability as a condition of employment.

Facing and Naming Porn Addiction

It’s crucial to break through the layers of denial that cover the ugly truth of the addiction. Psychologist Fritz Perls once said, “Nothing ever changes until it becomes real.” Pastors must be directed to get real about the impact of porn in their lives and confront attitudes of minimization, arrogance, and blame toward others. Pastors who struggle with the addiction must complete a thorough sexual history to uncover triggers, build-up behaviors, false beliefs, traumatic events, coping strategies, and relational patterns that have contributed to the use of pornography.

Porn-addicted pastors have a history of personal woundedness. Just as you would scrub a physical wound to reduce the possibility of infection, it’s imperative to clean the wounds of past emotional hurt. The painful process involves validating past painful experiences that have long since been buried. The purpose is to acknowledge how these unresolved issues sabotage emotional intimacy in the present. It provides interventions that promote healthy self-care. Unaddressed past trauma creates a pool of pain that must be drained.

Exposing the Secret—Getting Help Now

Addiction to pornography gains power and strength in secrecy. Therefore, it’s crucial that a pastor make a thorough and complete disclosure to his or her spouse about all sexual acting-out behaviors. This process is best accomplished with a trained counselor and can be most hurtful when it is done without trained third-party guidance.

Marital counseling is always necessary. Validating painful betrayal and heartache experienced by the spouse is important. It’s important to help spouses understand how intimacy disability developed in their relationship. It’s necessary to underscore that the pastor is fully responsible for the porn addiction and that the spouse has no responsibility. However, it’s important that spouses understand ways in which they have contributed to intimacy disability in the marriage. We’ve found that without this ownership, the relationship will probably remain stuck in victimhood and blame.

Pastors are notorious for lacking accountability. We ask each pastor to create a well-defined sobriety contract detailing specific sexual acting-out behaviors, high-risk situations, and positive alternatives. It’s necessary to create an informed support network designed to help manage and monitor high-risk behaviors. As a rule, we suggest a network of at least five people who know the pastor’s sexual history and high-risk zones. We’ve also encouraged pastors to attend community-based 12-step groups for sex addicts.

Pastors who confront their double lives with rigorous honesty and who cultivate a courageous program of healing and accountability can regain the confidence and serenity that Joseph declared to his brothers when he said, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good…” (Genesis 50:20). Pastors who stay the course and go the distance of recovery can transform the curse of addiction into a blessing of healthy intimacy.

This blog is from an article writen for Rev.org that was posted in the July/August 2007 edition