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Why Am I Not Enough?

Shattering Discovery for the Wife of a Sexually Addicted Minister

By Marnie C. Ferree

The attractive woman smiled nervously at the others who joined her at the table. She offered quiet greetings and initiated small talk. Her carefully chosen slacks and sweater were just right for the setting — not too dressy and not too casual — but exactly in between, the way she had learned was safest. Only her terrified eyes betrayed her discomfort as they darted everywhere, yet carefully avoiding the Healing for Spouses notebook on her place at the table. My heart ached for her.

This minister’s wife made it easy to picture another spouse whom I barely knew, yet who was closer to me than any woman who had ever lived — my mother. I remembered her only from yellowed photographs and stories told by those who knew her. I could not recall my mother’s touch, her smell, or her laughter, but I was well acquainted with her pain. I had seen its reflection in the eyes and stories of many women like the one now seated before me. It is the pain of women with anguished hearts and shattered lives who are married to ministers caught in sexual sin.

Like most ministers, my father was an extremely gifted man. An eloquent speaker with a servant’s heart, he was deeply loved by the churches he pastored. He led many people to Christ. My father taught the Bible with a sincere heart and desperately tried to live in obedience to God. He loved his work, his church members, and his family. His calling was sure, and his efforts were blessed. He was successful and widely admired. He was also the most tortured man I have ever known. For years only his wife knew of his secret struggle with sexual sin. On a Sunday morning when I was 3 years old, my mother died while my father was preaching at church. She was grateful, I believe, for the release death gave her from the pain that consumed her life — pain caused not only by her physical cancer but also from the deeper agony of the spiritual sickness that had invaded her home.

Fifty years ago when my mother died, sexual addiction was not recognized or understood. Resources were not available to address a minister’s involvement with pornography and sexual addiction. The pain of ministers’ wives affected by that struggle was also not addressed, but simply endured. As I look at the faces of the women gathered for the Healing for Spouses workshop — one of a series of faith-based clinical workshops dealing with sexual addiction and co-addiction — I am grateful for the opportunity to provide hope and healing for their pain. I wish my mother had understood the following principles.

Four S’s About Sexual Addiction

Secret

Sexual addiction is a secret sin that is carefully guarded by addicted ministers. Many church members, often unconsciously, idolize their pastor and assume he is above sexual temptation. Congregants expect their pastor to be a man of sexual integrity — as they well should. They think, Surely committed Christians, especially clergy, do not struggle with sexual issues. This assumption is especially strong for a pastor’s wife. For her, the issue is as much personal as it is theological. She heard her husband’s vow of fidelity on their wedding day, and she never anticipated he would break it. She believed he would not risk everything for which he has worked. Unfortunately, this assumption is extremely naïve. A shocking number of clergy are involved in sexual improprieties.

According to reports by Focus on the Family, at least two-thirds of the calls to their pastoral help line involve some kind of sexual struggle. Fifty-one percent of pastors say Internet pornography is their biggest temptation. For 37 percent of pastors, it is a current struggle. Clergy can be counted among the exploding number of Americans counted as sex addicts. In fact, sexual addiction has become the addiction of choice among Christians. But it is a secret problem for ministers that is rarely mentioned, much less personally addressed. If a pastor’s wife is newly shattered by the discovery of her husband’s sexual addiction, she should know she is not alone.

Sin

All who engage in illicit sexual activities, including viewing pornography, commit sin in the eyes of God. The biblical standards of sexual purity are clear, even if our sexually saturated society ignores them. Adultery is more than having intercourse with a partner other than one’s spouse. The one-flesh union between husband and wife is more exclusive than just physical acts between human beings. Sexual fidelity includes purity of heart, which is automatically violated by using pornography, connecting through Internet relationships, ogling strippers, and engaging in all other forms of sexual lust.

The sinfulness of illegitimate sexual activity is probably the one principle ministers’ wives most readily accept. Indeed, recognizing the spiritual nature of sexual misconduct only increases the pain. He’s a minister; how could he?

Sickness

If sexual indiscretion is clearly sin, why should we also call it a sickness? This question is central to understanding the nature of sexual addiction. It is also a concept that is especially difficult for pastors’ wives to acknowledge.

As a teacher, speaker, and writer on the subject of sexual addiction, the question I am asked most frequently is, “Is this a sin or is it a disease?”

My immediate answer is “Yes.” Sexual addiction is both a sin and a disease. Undeniably, compulsive sexual behavior always begins with a choice to commit sexual sin. A person makes a selfish decision to gratify the flesh rather than submit to God’s standard of holiness. Addictive behavior, though, is beyond pure sexual sin and is diagnosed as a personal pathology.

Trained addictionists who specialize in the treatment of addictions ascribe to the disease model. This paradigm views addiction as behavior that fits four key descriptions:

1. Compulsive. The addict keeps doing what he does not want to do despite his best efforts to stop. This is similar to Paul’s description in Romans 7. Compulsivity is a hallmark characteristic of addiction.

2. Obsessive. An addict constantly has sex on his mind. Sexual activity — whether doing it, hiding it, or feeling shame about it — is the organizing factor of the addict’s life. Everything else is a lower priority. The addiction becomes the addict’s god.

3. Continually. Someone who is addicted does not learn from his mistakes. Instead, he keeps doing the things that get him into trouble despite negative consequences. For example, church leaders confront a pastor for pornographic Internet material found on his computer, yet the pastor does not stop viewing inappropriate websites. This behavior is often the most perplexing to a minister’s wife, especially in the early stages after she becomes aware there is a problem. At first she may rationalize that her husband made a mistake during a weak moment. When he repeatedly makes the same mistake, the pastor’s wife wonders why he does not stop.

4. Tolerance. This concept is widely accepted in the treatment of substance-abuse patients, but many people do not understand that behaviors can create neurochemical tolerance as well. The sexually addicted pastor, like all addicts, will always want more, either of the same activity or of escalating activities. He will need more and more to feel the high he seeks.

To call sexual addiction a sickness does not relieve ministers of their personal responsibility for their sin. This disease model should not be used as an excuse to get pastors off the hook. They still need to confess their sin, repent, and turn away from their illicit behavior. Viewing addiction as a sickness, however, does explain the complicated nature of the problem and why addicted pastors cannot readily stop their sinful behavior. Like the treatment of any other serious disease, pastors must seek help for the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of their addiction as well as their spiritual problem.

Shameful

The stigma of sexual sin is more than that of other kinds of moral failure. A recovering alcoholic usually receives a supportive response. People respect the fact he is successfully addressing his problem. A sexaholic, however, typically receives suspicion, scorn, and rejection. For the pastor who struggles with compulsive sexual behavior, the shame is especially intense. A pastor is called to model a higher standard. His failure to maintain sexual integrity has widespread effects that include violating the trust of his congregants and his wife. This heightened level of shame makes it even more difficult for the sexually addicted minister to ask for help.

This basic understanding of sexual addiction is a good starting point, but it is unlikely to provide much comfort for the wife of an addicted pastor. “Don’t teach me about this problem,” cried one distressed wife. “I get the problem. What I need is reassurance that I can survive this nightmare.” Her plea is echoed in the cries of every betrayed wife. After her life has been shattered by her husband’s sexual misconduct, a minister’s wife needs something she can hang on to. She needs to know the truth.

Three C’s For Ministers’ Wives

Those in the recovery and clinical community call spouses or other immediate family members of addicts co-addicts. Co-addicts are part of the addictive environment because of their relationship to the addict. Beginning with alcoholism, partners of addicts came together to help each other navigate the difficult road of dealing with an addicted loved one. Eventually, these groups and clinicians recognized three truths that are common in the experience of a co-addict. These principles are extremely important for wives of sexually addicted ministers. Each one is in the form of a first-person statement.

Cause — “I didn’t cause it”

Self-blame is the most common reaction a wife experiences after she has been shattered by the discovery of her husband’s sexual addiction. What did I do wrong? Why am I not enough for my husband? Is it my weight? My nagging or fatigue? What did I do, or not do, that made him go outside our marriage for sex?

The sexually addicted minister may reinforce these fears. He is often quick to point out his wife’s flaws and sometimes overtly blame her for his behavior. “If you were more interested in sex, I wouldn’t have to look elsewhere,” he accuses. With her self-esteem shattered, the wife is more vulnerable to believing this lie.

Sadly, the church sometimes echoes the addict’s blame. In one congregation, when it became known that the minister was involved in Internet pornography, some of the ladies in the church gave his wife some provocative lingerie. The implication is: if she were more sexual with their pastor, he would not stray.

“I was humiliated and angry,” this wife said, “but deep inside I was also worried that maybe they were right.”

The minister’s wife may be the most beautiful, alluring woman in the world, and still her husband would have fallen into sexual sin. No one is enough to curb addictive sexual behavior.

Control — “I can’t control it”

The second truth important for a minister’s wife is the realization, “I can’t control my husband’s addiction.” This mindset probably runs counter to a wife’s immediate response. She naturally attempts to control her husband’s addiction by punishing him in a variety of ways, rewarding him in others, coercing him into changing, or doing an endless number of things to manipulate him to straighten up. The truth is, a minister’s wife is totally powerless to control her husband’s sexual addiction. In fact, most of her attempts will only make matters worse instead of better, and ensnare her further in her own forms of unhealthy behavior.

Cure — “I can’t cure it”

A similar principle is the admission, “I can’t cure it,” which takes powerlessness one step further. It is easier to admit a lack of control than to admit an inability to solve the problem, especially one as serious as sexual addiction.

“Okay, I get that it’s not my fault and that I can’t control him, but surely I can fix him,” wailed one minister’s wife. This desire is legitimate, but again, her approach is usually wrong.

Often, a wife’s cure means supporting her husband in moving to another church or taking over the finances to help relieve his stress. Maybe she buys him self-help books and lectures him about the information they contain. In reality, none of these approaches deals with the deeper issues that underlie the sexually inappropriate behavior. They are like putting a Band-Aid® on a gushing wound.

What, then, is a minister’s wife to do when she discovers her husband is sexually addicted? What proactive steps can she take? How does she respond in a healthy way? The answer is in following a plan of action.

Three A’s Of An Action Plan

Admit the problem

Admitting the problem and telling the secret of her husband’s addiction is probably the hardest for most ministers’ wives. Ministers’ wives may think they are protecting their husbands by keeping silent — and indeed, the impaired pastor probably insists on it — but, in truth, that approach enables pastors to continue in their addiction. Equally important, keeping the secret postpones the healing for both the minister and his wife.

One of the greatest benefits of admitting the problem is discovering that others are in similar situations. The wife of a sexually addicted pastor is not alone.

Admitting the situation is incredibly frightening. Life for the addict’s wife has turned upside down; she now faces an unknown future. The minister may face serious consequences, including the loss of his job, if his sexual addiction becomes known. His family’s life will also suffer. The minister’s wife can find strength in many biblical promises and draw comfort from the declaration “the truth will set you free.”

One wife said, “I thought I would die if anyone found out about my husband, but finally I couldn’t pretend any more. When I eventually poured out the horrible story, the weight of the world was lifted from my shoulders. I wish I had known how freeing it would be to tell the truth.”

Before disclosing her husband’s addiction, a pastor’s wife should prayerfully examine her motives. To open the door for help is an honorable objective, but to publicly shame her husband out of her anger is self-defeating.

Next, a minister’s wife needs to determine in whom she should confide. Perhaps it is a ministerial associate or other church leader. The best place to start may be with a personal therapist who can offer advice about what to do next. Whatever the avenue, healing begins with the crucial first step of admitting the problem.

Ask for help

The primary reason for telling the secret is to ask for help. No wife can deal with this issue on her own. It is unhealthy for her to try. God intended Christians to bear each other’s burdens. A minister’s wife needs the support of others to carry this enormous load. Even if her husband is unwilling to get help, the wife can still get help for herself. In fact, professional assistance is crucial if her husband refuses to address his problem. Her life has been shattered along with her husband’s, and she needs help to pick up the pieces. Others can guide her through the difficult choices her situation demands.

Unfortunately, finding the right help can be challenging. Many professionals lack the training to treat sexual addiction and co-addiction. Many wives report having tried several sources before they found someone who had a clinical understanding of the problem.

“Most people told me to read my Bible more or pray for my husband. I believe those are important, but I needed specific help to cope with my situation,” said one wife. Many others echo her comments.

“If I was having a heart attack, I would pray, but I would also get to the hospital and find the best heart specialist around,” said another pastor’s wife.

The website for Bethesda Workshops, the ministry that sponsors Healing for Spouses workshops, has an extensive resource section that may be helpful. (Visit www.BethesdaWorkshops.org).

Address your own issues

While a pastor’s wife is not responsible for her husband’s behavior, she is responsible for her own. She may struggle with her own behaviors, which might include: overeating, spending money, overcompensating at work, abusing alcohol or drugs, or through a different outlet for her personal problems. Maybe she carries secrets about childhood sexual abuse or other trauma. One of the saddest aspects of addiction is its power to affect generation after generation. Many addicts’ wives grew up with a parent who struggled with an addiction, so this unhealthy environment feels unconsciously familiar.

“My dad was an alcoholic, and I promised myself I would never marry a man like him,” said one pastor’s wife. “And I didn’t. Instead, I married a man who was a sex addict and workaholic.” Her experience is common.

It is crucial that a minister’s wife has the self-understanding to know how her experiences have shaped her choices, including her selection of a marriage partner. She needs to break the pattern of dysfunction that likely exists in her family.

Like most people, pastors’ wives have learned to cope in a variety of ways. Some of these are unhealthy. Almost all wives of addicts grapple with co-dependency. They fight internal battles with low self-esteem and struggle to set healthy boundaries. They wrestle with personal obstacles that hinder them from finding intimacy in relationships. The wife of a sexually addicted minister must admit to having her own issues to face, and focus on herself instead of her husband.

One of the biggest challenges for the wife of an addicted pastor is to refrain from self-righteousness. Because sexual sin is so egregious, it is easy to be holier-than-thou and forget that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. A wife’s best antidote against a haughty spirit is to name her own shortcomings before God and humbly ask for His forgiveness and help.

Hope For Wives Of Ministers Caught In Sexual Sin

I know firsthand the devastation caused by a minister’s sexual addiction. I have seen the impact it had on those who loved him — his peers, his congregation, and especially his family. Through the blessing of honest conversations with a few people who knew my mother, I have a glimpse of the unique pain that descended on this addict’s wife. I, too, have felt the influence of my father’s addiction in my own struggle with sexual sin.

The good news is the story does not end with the discovery of a pastor’s addiction. God’s power to heal is greater than any disease. There is hope for the wife of a sexually addicted minister. I have witnessed hundreds of wives experience freedom. I have been privileged to see their courage, and I am awed by God’s faithfulness to walk with them through that process.

It may be devastating for a pastor’s wife to discover her husband struggles with pornography or sexual addiction, but it can also be the beginning of a journey that ends with the kind of marriage she has always wanted. This journey will take her into a deeper level of intimacy with herself and with God who will sustain her through it. In a way that she has never imagined, she can discover the truth found in Isaiah 54:5, “For your Maker is your husband — the Lord Almighty is his name.”

Marnie C. Ferree, M.A., LMFT, is director, Bethesda Workshops, Nashville, Tennessee.

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