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The Sexually Healthy Pastor

How does a pastor maintain sexual integrity in an environment where talking about sexuality is not only a source of discomfort, but to acknowledge sexuality may arouse suspicion and criticism from a congregation?

By Robert K. Burbee

“The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:25).

In creation, God made Adam in His image and that likeness included a desire for relationship. When God presented Eve to Adam, Adam experienced the fulfillment of a God-created longing.

In the absence of shame, Adam and Eve began the revelry of knowing each other, becoming united, becoming one flesh. For them it must have been ecstasy.

How long did this ecstasy last before their disobedience shattered it? And how did they manage intimacy after it became clouded with doubt, accusation, and a sense of humiliation and failure? Indeed, this is the challenge for post-fallen creatures. This question is poignant whenever we examine human sexuality. The examination and discussion of sexuality among clergy carries an extra sense of mystery because people expect pastors not only to inform us of the truth but also to exemplify that truth.

We can safely assume that sexuality permeates the thoughts, imagination, and preoccupation of a third of the audience in any church, including the pastor. How does a pastor maintain sexual integrity in an environment where talking about sexuality is not only a source of discomfort, but even acknowledging sexuality may arouse suspicion and criticism from the congregation? Even the most superficial consideration of these questions alerts us to the need for improvement in training, mentoring, and supporting pastors. With this awareness let us consider the following:

What Are the Components of Personal, Healthy Sexuality?

Healthy sexuality is an expression of sexual interest and behavior that affirms God’s design. It is a vehicle for experiencing sexual intimacy in the context of an exclusive, committed heterosexual marital union. God designed sexual dynamics and processes to motivate and affirm both the intimate union between a man and woman in marriage and for participation with God in procreation.

Integrity.“The man of integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out” (Proverbs 10:9). Integrity is an expression of what people store and nurture in their hearts. Healthy sexuality does not exist apart from a strong sense of personal integrity.

Integrity refers to a sense of personal wholeness, balance, and purity of thought and conduct. A person of integrity has a strong sense of personal responsibility and is willing to acknowledge his or her mistakes.

A willingness to give oneself time for rest and recreation is part of being emotionally whole. Pastors who carefully observe a personal sabbath and value pursuits that are rewarding, but not necessarily ministry oriented, are investing in their integrity.

Relationships. “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). Persons with a strong sense of integrity often express that integrity in the quality of their relationships. The person with strong sexual integrity enjoys and nurtures intimacy in his or her marriage. The marriage relationship for the sexually healthy pastor is an emotionally safe environment that allows spouses to dialogue about their deepest vulnerabilities and longings. In their other friendships, pastors express this quality of integrity in the vulnerability and support they experience and practice.

Boundaries. “So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). People with sexual integrity understand their vulnerabilities to sexual compromise. They accept responsibility to guard their sexual health and integrity by observing boundaries that protect them and their relationships from trauma and/or deterioration. Such people are committed to explore and celebrate the ever-unfolding mystery of their sexuality within the biblical guidelines of a marriage covenant. Their sense of adventure and discovery is not for their own sexual fulfillment; it also respects their spouse’s developing sexuality. They do not impose their selfishness on their spouse but rather supports him or her in mutually safe discovery of sexual health and vitality.

Identity. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Personal identity begins with the acknowledgement: I am God’s creation. And as such, sexuality is integral to created identity.

Healthy sexual identity and functioning are expressions of healthy emotional adjustment and identity formation. People with healthy sexuality have a strong sense of maleness or femaleness, but are not encumbered by sexual stereotypes or cultural expectations of males and females. They are confident enough to develop their sexual identity in a manner that affirms the whole of their personhood, not just their gender.

Influence. “My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2,3). These words from the apostle Paul express a pastor’s heart for those he or she shepherds. We know from Paul’s other writings he was not hesitant to address sexual issues with those he felt a responsibility to instruct and encourage.

Sexually healthy pastors will likely express an attitude of celebration regarding other’s sexuality. They encourage those under their leadership to embrace the journey of sexual discovery within the biblical guidelines of a committed marital union. They express their influence in their teaching and exhortations regarding sexual topics. This influence reflects a balance of celebration and respect. Such ministry is courageous in confronting sexual sin and corruption, but balanced with sensitivity and compassion for the sinner caught in the trap of sexual compromise.

What Are the Indicators of Sexual Dysfunction?

When either partner in a marriage is distressed or confused sexually, this impacts the other partner. People in general, pastors and their spouses included, are vulnerable to sexual difficulties largely due to three factors: inadequate information, faulty learning, and rigid expectations.

Inadequate information. In a culture inundated with sexual enticements, our temptation and preoccupation with sex remains largely uninformed about even the most basic sexual information. In many cases, we sadly presume to know how sexual interest, arousal, and functioning work by taking our instruction from infomercials, movies, and even pornography. Fortunately, there are a number of resources that can provide basic information about male and female sexuality and provide guidance on establishing meaningful, satisfying sexual intimacy in marriage. A Celebration of Sex: A Guide To Enjoying God’s Gift of Sexual Intimacy, by Dr. Douglas Rousenau, published by Thomas Nelson, is a good place to start.

Faulty learning. The same principles of learning that influence other body functions govern the sexual response system in the human body. In particular, our sexual response system is sensitive to what psychologists call classical conditioning principles. Childhood trauma, especially sexual abuse, can have a profound impact on one’s sexual response system. In the case of classical conditioning, our bodies have learned to respond to certain sexual cues signaling the opportunity for sexual arousal and response. These cues can be highly individualized and sometimes follow stereotypic male and female patterns. Problems are set in motion when we experience sexual arousal and response before we understand how our bodies respond to sexual stimuli.

Our current culture allows, if not encourages, adolescents and even prepubescent children to experiment with adult sexual behavior. Young people can form strong associations at these early formative periods of development. If we do not help them identify and address these associations, these can be a source of confusion and disappointment when they try to establish and maintain healthy sexual intimacy in marriage.

Our sexual response systems do not know the difference between a context of moral compromise and the sexual pleasure and discovery with our marriage partner. These previous experiences contribute to sexual expectations and preferences that can feel confusing once people are in a context where they are free to exercise sexual curiosity without guilt or shame.

Because we have lost our innocence, we do not know how to innocently discover and explore intimacy with our mate within marriage. Thus extramarital sexual experience complicates the God-designed process of developing intimacy over time in the context of relationship. Pornography, in particular, disrupts this process because the person viewing pornography is creating sexual associations outside a marital union. These associations become the source of sexual preferences and expectations that exert an almost unconscious control of sexual response in marriage.

With patient repetition of healthy sexual patterns of interest, arousal, and response paired with cessation of unhealthy patterns, we can retrain our sexual response system. Communication between spouses about their patterns of sexual interest, arousal, and response is essential for marriage partners to relearn a sexual intimacy that is affirming to the relationship and honors the exclusivity of their marital covenant. When such communication can occur sensitively and without fear of retribution and humiliation, couples are well on their way to growing satisfying sexual intimacy.

Sexual trauma — in the form of childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault, and/or harassment in adulthood — intensely impacts these association dynamics. Because the experiences are traumatic, the associations formed during the trauma are especially strong and powerful.

When a threat to our safety confronts us, our memory system opens up and retains minute details of stimuli associated with this experience. It is as if we are wired to remember every little detail of the threat to better recognize signals of similar threats in the future, and thus protect ourselves from additional injury. Interestingly, these sensitive memories can even be outside our conscious awareness. We apparently do not need to make a logical connection between the past trauma and some present stimuli for our brain to register an awareness of threat. We may only be aware of being uncomfortable and not recognize this is the result of a smell, sound, sight, or sensation of touch that occurred during a previous trauma experience.

Recovering from the injury of sexual trauma and relearning sexual interest, arousal, and response without disrupting feelings of fear and threat may require professional assistance. A competent Christian counselor or therapist has contributed to the recovery of countless individuals and couples faced with the challenge of addressing sexual trauma in one or both spouses.

Rigid expectations. Life has a way of confronting us with an endless array of circumstances that require us to alter our thinking, attitudes, and behavior. The capacity to make important adjustments in one’s beliefs, thinking, emotions, and behavior while retaining a consistent personal identity is a hallmark characteristic of emotional maturity. This is expressly evident in the dance of sexual intimacy. Again, communication between spouses is important to guide adjustments in belief, emotion, and behavior. If a spouse is rigid in his/her expectations of what is normal or pure sexuality within the boundaries of marriage, he/she inhibit the experience of mutual discovery and growth.

Addressing rigid expectations may feel vulnerable at first, but the risk can yield significant rewards. With some information and a willingness to be curious and explore possibilities, almost any couple can enjoy sexual intimacy. But it does entail being willing to set aside rigid assumptions about what is normal.

What Are Factors That Lead to Sexual Compromise Among Pastors?

Paul wrote, “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery” (Galatians 5:19). Peter further stated, “Be self controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Paul began delineating the sinful nature with sexual immorality.

Our sexuality is perhaps our most potent capacity to express God’s image in us and, at the same time, when corrupted, our most obvious separation from His Spirit. Our sexuality is the means by which we participate in creation through conceiving children and is the context where a person can achieve the most intimate expression of love and affirmation of another. Is it any wonder that something so close to the heart of God is the target of evil and such a deep source of shame when corrupted? Consequently, guarding against sexual compromise by those in ministry is of the utmost importance.

Eric Reed, in an article for Leadershipjournal.net, reports that polls over the years have estimated 12 percent of pastors confess to “inappropriate physical involvement outside of marriage. In one poll, Leadership found 38 percent of pastors said Internet pornography was a temptation to them.”1

Anyone involved in church for a significant period of time has heard stories of sexual infidelity by persons in ministry. The news grips us at a deep level, often with anxiety, at times with a vague sense of embarrassment, and always with disappointment. In each case everyone seems to ask the same question: How could this happen?

Deception and denial. Betrayal of marital vows and the sacred trust of the ministry are the most blatant indications of something unhealthy going on. The loss of integrity and the deterioration of personal health is birthed by deception and maintained by denial.

The deception and denial begin with unacknowledged vulnerability. Deception consummates the compromise of integrity, and denial hastens the slide to destruction. In virtually any life-controlling behavior, we see these dynamics at work to oppress and imprison a person.

Consider alcohol and drug dependence. Potential addicts possesses a unique taste and preference for the mood alteration provided by a drug. They erroneously believe they can partake of the substance and not be injured. They then further deny the consequences of the usage and the web of secrecy needed to ensure no one challenges their judgment about their indulgence. They pretend to themselves first and then to others that nothing is wrong, setting the stage for another use of the drug because, “I can handle it.”

Compromise of sexual integrity is no different. People mistakenly tell themselves they are safe from sexual indiscretion. Interestingly, they often resent the challenging and questioning by their spouse or other loved ones when the signs of compromise begin to show. Others often recognize the grip of deception and denial before the compromised person becomes aware of the slide toward moral failure.

As the intensity of deception and denial grows, people find themselves in a quagmire of excuses, protecting their secret indulgence as it gains an ever more powerful grip on their thought processes, emotions, and behavior. What began as an accidental touch or glance becomes a fantasy they nurse and protect like a private treasure. They visit this often enough that the transition to pursuing an inappropriate relationship or activity is smooth and almost imperceptible as they are caught up in the drama of desire and imagination.

Dr. Mark Laaser of Faithful and True Ministries provides some insight on the issue of sexual compromise. Laaser suggested there are at least five characteristics of pastors that contribute to their being vulnerable to sexual compromise:2

Isolation. Despite being surrounded by people, pastors can find themselves with few if any relationships in which they can safely disclose their private struggles and questions.

Narcissism. Narcissists believe they are somehow special, and normal rules of caution do not apply to them. Their belief in their special status allows them to justify holding secrets and entertaining indiscretions they believe others cannot understand. When this pattern of narcissistic thinking begins to take hold, they can easily underestimate their vulnerability to moral compromise and overestimate their capacity to handle the developing web of deception.

Typically, this way of thinking leads to denial of personal responsibility, and the pastor will blame others for difficulties and distress of which the narcissistic minister is a prime player. This is usually obvious to others, but the network around the narcissistic minister becomes like the audience in the children’s story where the emperor is naked but no one has the courage to tell him.

Unresolved childhood trauma. If ministers have not addressed the effects of childhood trauma, sexual or otherwise, the dynamics of that trauma can be a buried danger waiting to erupt in a crisis provoked by stress and dulled self-awareness.

Unresolved resentment. Unresolved resentment in marriage is particularly relevant when assessing vulnerability to sexual compromise. If pastors harbor unresolved resentment toward their spouse, they are especially vulnerable to the kind but inappropriate attention offered by someone other than their spouse.

Unresolved resentment in ministry can have a similar effect. The disappointment and emotional hurt that can occur in ministry may leave pastors resentful of not only parishioners, but also of the call to ministry. Unaddressed fantasies about leaving the ministry can lead ministers toward taking dangerous chances without regard to consequences, because they have not resolved the disappointment, doubt, and resentment from earlier experiences in ministry.

Spiritual immaturity. Clergy who maintain an extreme, authoritarian, rigid, black-and-white organization of their theology can become disoriented when life somehow does not deliver on their expectations for how life, ministry, marriage, and relationships are supposed to function. Most understand personal spiritual health and well-being to be a component of a minister’s overall theology and sense of ministerial calling. Sadly, it is possible for people to be capable in their professional capacity as ministers and yet be woefully deficient in their personal relationship with God.

These factors can be endemic to a condition sometimes referred to as sexual addiction. In sexual addiction, an individual uses sexual activity as a means of escaping or soothing distressing emotional feelings. Psychologists refer to this condition as an addiction because the dynamics closely mirror addiction as seen in alcoholism. Often individuals suffering sexual addiction have companion life-controlling behaviors like drug addiction, workaholicism, compulsive spending, or compulsive thrill seeking.

Any type of sexual compromise is a signal of distress and dysfunction that in most cases warrants professional assessment. A continuation of active ministry or return to ministry before someone has fully assessed the factors contributing to sexual compromise is probably irresponsible on the part of the minister, and may place a congregation at risk for continued damage from a minister with compromised integrity.

Hope and Recovery

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1).

Clergy can regain their integrity and redeem their lives when they are willing to address the symptoms of sexual compromise. Counseling programs are available to assist ministers and their spouse in addressing the crisis caused by sexual compromise. (See sidebar Counseling Programs for Pastors.)

While counseling is a preferred, perhaps even necessary option for many, every pastor can benefit from regular study and research on matters of sexuality, sexual health, and sexual integrity. Imagine a pastoral staff in which sex education and sexual ethics are standard expectations for continued education. A church staff that is unified in supporting sexual integrity and sexual accountability can add to the sexual safety of an entire congregation, not just the pastors alone. (See sidebar Starting a Discussion on Sexuality With Your Church Staff.)

Conclusion

“Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (Romans 8:5).

Paul offers a strategy for cultivating integrity, setting our minds on the desires of the Spirit. Our capacity to live a holy, righteous life lies with God, not with our own intelligence or strength of will. We need a humble acknowledgement of our dependence on God’s transforming power in our lives to know the full blessing of God’s plan for our sexual fulfillment. And, we need courage empowered by the Spirit to address the maze of issues surrounding sexuality. With His power and His Spirit we will know greater integrity personally and witness more effective ministry to others who may be confused and hurting in the area of sexuality.

ROBERT K. BURBEE, LPC, is a licensed psychologist and a therapist at the National Institute of Marriage, Branson, Missouri, and adjunct professor in graduate studies at Evangel University, Springfield, Missouri. E-mail Burbee with questions or comments at drburbee@nationalmarriage.com

Notes

1. Eric Reed. “Restoring Fallen Pastors” in Leadership (winter 2006). http://www.ctlibrary.com/le/2006/winter/22.21.html. Accessed October 8, 2010.

2. Mark Laaser, (2010) Personal communication.

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