The Sexually Healthy Pastor
by Robert K. Burbee
“The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:25).
God recognized there was something in Adam much like himself that desired relationship. First, God brought all the creatures for Adam to name. But none of these creatures inspired Adam’s admiration. Is it possible that God, knowing the natural curiosity in man, provided this so Adam would realize that no other creature could fulfill his longing for relationship?
When God presented Eve to Adam, it was as if Adam was viewing the fulfillment of a longing he did not even know he had. What joy Adam must have felt: “ ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ ” (Genesis 2:23).
In the absence of shame, Adam and Eve began the revelry of knowing each other, becoming united into one flesh. For them, this must have been ecstasy.
One can only imagine the scene: lush vegetation and the sound of water flowing gently through the Garden surrounded them. Adam and Eve were unencumbered by pretense, agenda, or clothing. They simply began the joy of knowing one another.
Did they immediately consummate their union or was there a long period of caressing and exploring of each other’s bodies, discovering their private pleasures and sensuality? From a post-fallen vantage point, this feels a bit awkward — if not inappropriate — to even wonder at what must have transpired. How they must have shared their discoveries of each other and the idyllic environment surrounding them.
How long did this ecstasy last before their disobedience shattered it? How did they manage intimacy after their intimacy became clouded with doubt, accusation, and a sense of humiliation and failure? Were they able to recognize God’s original design from what their sin had corrupted?
Indeed, this is the challenge for post-fallen creatures. We are left with the seemingly unsolvable mystery: what, if any, of God’s intent at creation is still in us, and what in us is the result of our bent to disobedience and rebellion? Can I trust my sense of pleasure and curiosity, or am I being led by some corrupt appetite of my flesh that will only result in my ultimate destruction and separation from God? These questions are poignantly prominent whenever we examine human sexuality.
The examination and discussion of sexuality among the clergy carries an extra sense of mystery. Pastors are expected to not only inform their people of the truth, but also to live lives exemplary of that truth. With deep reverence for the role of spiritual leadership, I will attempt to examine and explore the question of healthy sexuality in pastors.
I present this discussion from my perspective as a Christian psychologist and psychotherapist. I will not exhaust the biblical exploration of sexuality, but I will make some pertinent references to Bible passages. My calling to the discipline of psychology places me in a position to study Scripture carefully pertaining to sexuality and relationships.
I have served in lay leadership roles within a church. I feel responsibility for maintaining sexual integrity professionally and personally. I spend the bulk of my professional life coming alongside marriages in crisis. Many of the couples I serve through the intensive marital therapy programs at National Institute of Marriage have sexual difficulties and trauma in their relationship due to infidelity.
Sexual difficulties are present for a large number of couples. We should not expect couples in ministry to be exempt from these difficulties. If one partner in a marriage is having difficulty, it impacts the spouse and marriage. When we combine the one in three probability that a minister and his spouse may be having sexual difficulty in their marriage, along with the likelihood that a third of the congregation is experiencing sexual challenges in their lives — the cloud of sexual confusion, disappointment, and corruption is enormous. We can safely assume that sexuality permeates the thoughts, imagination, and preoccupation of a third of the audience in any church, including the minister.
For a pastor knowledgeable of these dynamics, being secure in his own sexuality and comfortable in addressing sexual concerns as they arise is essential. If the case is sufficiently made for the importance of sexual maturity and confidence in a pastor, we then ask what support, instruction, and encouragement do denominations give to pastors during their training? How does a pastor maintain sexual integrity in an environment where sexuality can be a source not only of discomfort, but to even acknowledge sexuality may arouse suspicion and criticism from a congregation? Even the most superficial consideration of these questions alerts us to the need for improved training, mentoring, and supporting pastors. With this awareness, let us consider the following outline:
- What are components of personal healthy sexuality?
- What are indicators of sexual dysfunction?
- How does a pastor guard against sexual compromise?
- What Are Components of Personal Healthy Sexuality?
Healthy sexuality is an expression of sexual interest and behavior that affirms God’s design for sexuality as a vehicle for experiencing sexual intimacy in the context of an exclusive, committed, heterosexual marital union. In this definition of healthy sexuality, 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.
“The man of integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out” (Proverbs 10:9). Jesus reminds us that integrity is an expression of the heart — what one stores and nurtures in the heart. Healthy sexuality does not exist apart from a strong sense of personal integrity.
The term 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 mistakes. In addition, when someone challenges people of integrity in some area of their lives, they take responsibility to address that area with honesty and are willing to be accountable for their actions.
A willingness to give oneself rest and recreation is part of being emotionally whole. Pastors who carefully observe a sabbath and value personal pursuits that are rewarding but not necessarily ministry oriented are investing in their integrity. A pastor cultivates a strong sense of personal integrity over a lifetime and values it as essential to enjoy healthy sexuality.
“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).
Persons with a strong sense of integrity express their integrity in the quality of their relationships. They enjoy a network of relationships with varying degrees of intimacy and closeness.
The marriage relationship for the sexually healthy pastor is an emotionally safe environment that allows spouses to dialog about their deepest vulnerabilities and longings. In marriage, the person with strong sexual integrity enjoys and nurtures sexual, emotional, and spiritual intimacy.
A pastor with integrity also expresses his integrity in other friendships through vulnerability and support. He is willing to risk vulnerability and is sensitive to vulnerability in others. Sexual integrity is simply one example of how integrity permeates relationships.
“So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God (Romans 14:12). Jesus challenges us to appreciate the importance of sensitivity to others and the potential harm we may inflict by pursuing our agenda without regard for our vulnerabilities and the vulnerability of others. Those with sexual integrity understand their vulnerabilities to sexual compromise and guard their sexual health and integrity by observing boundaries that protect them and their relationships from trauma and/or deterioration. They are committed to exploring and celebrating the ever-unfolding mystery of their sexuality within the biblical guidelines of marriage and respect for their spouse’s developing sexuality.
A person does not use his sense of adventure and discovery to impose his requirements for sexual fulfillment on his spouse. Rather, this person supports his spouse in mutual discovery of sexual health and vitality. Together they embrace the journey of maturing sexual understanding, transition, and adjustment, letting pleasure and mutual respect guide the journey. They understand that sexuality is part of a mosaic of elements that are part of one’s self-image and identity, and these elements need the sensitivity to healthy boundaries to grow and develop.
“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 by acknowledging: I am God’s creation. As such, my sexuality is integral to my created identity.
Healthy sexual identity and functioning is an expression 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.
“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)
Paul’s words express a pastor’s heart for those he shepherds. Paul was not hesitant to address sexual issues with those he felt a responsibility to instruct and encourage. Sexually healthy pastors, while valuing their developing sexuality, might express an attitude of celebration regarding sexuality in everyone. 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 needs to be courageous in confronting sexual sin and corruption but balanced with sensitivity and compassion for the sinner caught in the throes of sexual compromise.
What Are Indicators of Sexual Dysfunction?
How do we recognize sexual dysfunction and/or distress? Probably the most telling indication that something is not as it should be is the expressed frustration or discomfort of either marriage partner. When either partner in a marriage is sexually distressed or confused, it impacts the other partner. People in general, pastors and their spouses included, are vulnerable to sexual difficulties due to three factors: inadequate information, faulty learning, and rigid expectations.
In a culture inundated with sexual enticements, temptation, and preoccupation, we remain largely uninformed about even the most basic sexual information. In many cases we presume to know how sexual interest, arousal, and functioning work. We take our instruction from infomercials, movies, and even pornography. In other cases, a spouse assumes his own sexual experience is the norm and expects his partner to conform to his expectations. 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. The following books are good places to start:
A Celebration of Sex: A Guide To Enjoying God’s Gift of Sexual Intimacy, by Dr. Douglas Rousenau, published by Thomas Nelson.
Sheet Music: Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy, by Dr. Kevin Lehman, published by Tyndale.
When Two Become One: Enhancing Sexual Intimacy in Marriage, by Christopher McClusky, published by Fleming H. Revell.
The nice thing about reading a book is that a couple can do so discretely. It can be a wonderful enhancement of sexual intimacy if husband and wife are open to becoming educated together.
Being willing to suspend judgment and be open to discovery is at the heart of healthy sexual intimacy in marriage. The biggest hurdle for many to overcome is pride. Men and women are embarrassed to admit to their spouse and even to themselves they may be lacking sufficient sexual knowledge to allow for mutual understanding and growth to occur.
The same principles of learning that influence other bodily 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 and the residual effects of trauma, especially sexual abuse.
In 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 as well as follow stereotypic male and female patterns. Problems are set in motion when we experience sexual arousal and response before we are educated to understand what has happened to our bodies.
Our current culture allows, if not encourages, adolescents — and even prepubescent children — to experiment with adult sexual behavior. Children can form strong associations at these early formative periods of development. If children do not identify and address these associations, these associations can be a source of confusion and disappointment when children become adults and try to establish and maintain healthy sexual intimacy in marriage.
An analogy may help explain these learning processes. Imagine a child who eats a sugary treat every day when he comes home from school. In a short time his body begins making associations that alert him to the expected treat. As soon as he steps on the bus, or the bus turns into his neighborhood, or he walks in the front door, his body has been preparing itself to enjoy the high-calorie snack. He has been fantasizing about the snack, and his mouth begins to water as he steps off the bus. He might even run the last block to his house full of anticipation of the delight waiting for him. Notice the fantasizing, the mouth watering, and the surge of energy to obtain the reward occurs before he even tastes the snack. Over time establishes the pattern of association by previous experience. Time of day, walking through the front door, the sight of the kitchen — all these stimuli are paired in the past with obtaining an intensely gratifying high-calorie treat. Essentially, when the stimuli or signals appear, the body has been trained to expect gratification.
Early and repeated experiences of sexual interest, arousal, and response form associations that can dramatically influence sexual interest, arousal, and response in marriage. Our sexual response systems do not know the difference between a context of moral compromise and an opportunity for sexual pleasure and discovery with our marriage partner. Previous learning experiences contribute to sexual expectations and preferences that can feel confusing once we are in a context where we 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, premarital and extramarital sexual experience complicates the God-designed process of developing intimacy and exploration. Pornography, in particular, disrupts this process because the individual viewing pornography creates 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 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 childhood, or sexual abuse or sexual assault and/or harassment in adulthood, intensely impact these association dynamics. Because the experiences are traumatic, the associations formed during the trauma are especially strong and powerful.
Memory is selective. We only remember a small fraction of the stimuli that bombards our brain every day. This selective capacity of memory is part of God’s brilliant design.
When a threat to our safety confronts us, our memory system opens up and retains minute details of stimuli. God has wired us to remember every little detail of the threat to better recognize signals of a similar threat in the future and thus protect ourselves from additional injury.
These sensitive memories can even be outside our conscious awareness. We apparently do not need to make a logical connection between the recalled trauma and some stimuli for our brain to register an awareness of threat. We may only be aware of being uncomfortable and not recognize it is because of a smell, sound, sight, or sensation of touch that occurred during a 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. Christian counselors are contributing to the recovery of countless individuals and couples faced with the challenge of addressing sexual trauma in one or both spouses.
Counselors receive special training in how to support and guide trauma survivors to recovery from the wounds of sexual trauma. When professional counselors have biblical knowledge and are sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, their counseling can bring liberation and freedom to fully enjoy the abundance of sexual intimacy as God intended.
When individuals have rigid expectations about sex, distress, and dysfunction, this can interfere with satisfying sexual intimacy. 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. Communication between spouses is important to guide adjustments in belief, emotion, and behavior. If a spouse is rigid in his expectations of what is “normal” or “pure” sexuality within the boundaries of a marriage covenant, this inhibits the experience of mutual discovery and growth.
Consider the example of pregnancy. If either spouse maintains rigid demands on what is acceptable sexual activity and is unwilling to experiment and explore alternative activity for sexual intimacy, they may abandon sexual intimacy altogether. They likely will assume they must wait until the wife’s body returns to its prepregnancy shape before they can approach sexual intimacy again. Sadly, they begin to avoid the communication and intimacy they previously enjoyed before pregnancy and the marital bond of closeness suffers as a result.
In contrast, a couple who is willing to be flexible accepts the changes of pregnancy. They begin experimenting and exploring with one another on how to maintain the special bond of shared sexual intimacy with new activities, and the communication that accompanies this exploration. They may even learn new insights about themselves and their sexual intimacy that deepen their bond of closeness and add new forms of sexual intimacy following pregnancy.
Addressing rigid expectations may feel vulnerable at first, but the risk can yield significant rewards. Sadly many couples resign themselves to marriages without regular enjoyment of sexual intimacy because they are not able to participate in sexual intimacy as they did in the early years of their marriage. 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.”
How Does a Pastor Guard Against Sexual Compromise?
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery” (Galatians 5:19)
“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 begins 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. It is the means by which we participate in creation through conceiving children. It is the context where couples can achieve the most intimate expression of love and affirmation from each other. 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 estimate 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 These survey results certainly document what many of us already know. Sexual compromise in ministry is an ever-present threat to the church.
Anyone involved in church for a significant period of time has heard the 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 a sense of disappointment. Sometimes the stories gather wide public attention. Other times the news regards the breakup of a seemingly solid, healthy marriage in the church. 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. Sexual confusion, disappointment, and dysfunction are the unfortunate companions of many who are struggling but may not yet have fallen to the more severe evidences of sexual compromise. Deception and denial birth and maintain the loss of integrity and the deterioration of personal health.
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. The potential addict — by genetic inheritance, historical experience, or both — possesses a unique taste and preference for the mood alteration provided by a drug. The addict erroneously believes he can partake of the substance and not be injured. He then further denies the consequences of the usage and the secrecy needed to ensure no one challenges his judgment about his indulgence. He pretends to himself first, and then to others, that nothing is wrong. Thus, he sets the stage for another use of the drug because, “I can handle it.”
Compromise of sexual integrity is no different. The individual mistakenly tells himself he is safe from sexual indiscretion. He assumes he has some sort of special protection that precludes that he would ever fall prey to temptation. The assumption may be relationship based. Feeling relatively secure in his marriage, the individual assures himself that his spouse is too accommodating and sensitive to his needs to ever allow an indiscretion to develop. Interestingly, these same individuals often resent the challenge and question by their spouse or other loved ones when the signs of compromise begin to show. Often others recognize the grip of deception and denial before the individual becomes aware of his slide toward moral failure.
As the intensity of deception and denial grows, the person finds himself in a quagmire of excuses, protecting his secret indulgence as it gains an ever-powerful grip on his thought processes, emotions, and behavior. What began as an accidental touch or glance becomes a fantasy he nurses and protects like a private treasure. He visits it often enough that the transition to pursuing the relationship or activity is smooth and almost imperceptible as he is 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 suggests five characteristics of pastors that contribute to their vulnerability to sexual compromise:2
Most pastors are well aware of the pull to social isolation common in ministry. In spite of being surrounded by people, pastors can find themselves with few, if any, relationships in which they can safely disclose their private struggles and questions. This isolation contributes to a longing to be understood at an intimate level. When a relationship that strokes that deeply desired affirmation and validation presents itself, it can be emotionally intoxicating. The isolation further serves to nurture the secret of a relationship that may be dangerously close to moral compromise.
Narcissism is a peculiarly insidious development in a minister that contributes to sexual compromise. 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 others would not understand.
When this pattern of narcissistic thinking begins to take hold, the individual can easily underestimate his vulnerability to moral compromise and overestimate his capacity to handle the developing web of deception. Typically this way of thinking leads to denial of personal responsibility. The pastor blames others for difficulties and distress of which he 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
Unresolved sexual trauma contributes to sexual dysfunction and distress. When a minister has not addressed the effects of childhood trauma — sexual or otherwise — the dynamics of that trauma can be a buried danger he may not notice until a crisis erupts. Addressing childhood trauma is a common focus of psychotherapy, but can be addressed independently of therapy. Consultation with a therapist or counselor can help someone determine if he has adequately addressed and resolved childhood trauma.
Unresolved resentment can develop from a variety of sources. Unresolved resentment in marriage is particularly relevant when assessing vulnerability to sexual compromise. If a pastor harbors unresolved resentment toward his spouse, he is especially vulnerable to the kind, understanding, and affirmation offered by someone else. These dynamics paired with the previously mentioned factors makes for a dangerous combination.
Unresolved resentment in ministry can have a similar effect. The disappointments and personal injuries that occur in ministry may leave a pastor resentful of not only the parishioners but of the call to ministry. Unaddressed fantasies about leaving the ministry can lead the minister toward taking dangerous chances without regard to consequences because he has not resolved the disappointment, doubt, and resentment from earlier experiences in ministry.
Finally, clergy who maintain 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. A careful review by persons in ministry of their personal spiritual health and well-being is good practice and certainly consistent with the earlier discussion of integrity.
Most understand personal spiritual health and well-being to be a component of a minister’s overall theology and calling. Sadly, it is possible for someone to be capable in their professional capacity as a minister and yet be woefully deficient in their personal relationship with God.
It should be evident to the reader how these characteristics suggested by Laaser combined with other factors place a minister on the edge of sexual compromise and moral collapse. These factors are endemic to a condition sometimes referred to as sexual addiction. In sexual addiction an individual comes to use sexual activity as a means of escaping, or soothing distressing emotional feelings. We call this condition 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, compulsive spending, or compulsive thrill seeking.
A mental health professional may need to determine whether a pastor’s drift toward sexual compromise is indicative of an addiction process or not. The compromise itself is certainly signaling distress and dysfunction and may warrant professional assessment.
The Assemblies of God policy of removing someone from active ministry depending on the severity of sexual compromise garners respect from sources outside the Fellowship. A continuation of active ministry, or return to ministry before someone has fully assessed the factors contributing to sexual compromise, is 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).
Caring and competent Christian counselors are helping clergy and their families. The stigma about seeking help has lessened in recent years and it is more acceptable for a minister and his family to receive professional help for concerns like sexual health and sexual integrity.
At minimum, every pastor can benefit from regular study and research on sexual health and integrity. Imagine a pastoral staff where sexual education and sexual ethics are standard expectations for continued education. Many pastors attend conferences, workshops, and join study groups to keep current in their vocation. Why should we not include the study of human sexuality and issues related to sexual integrity as part of the continuing education curriculum for pastors?
Some churches have a large enough staff that retreats addressing issues of sexuality and sexual integrity would be a welcome area of focus. 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.
“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).
No ironclad guarantee exists for sexual integrity. Paul offers a strategy for cultivating integrity — set your mind upon the desires of the Spirit. Ultimately your confidence to live a holy, righteous life lies with God, not your own intelligence or strength of will. You need to humbly acknowledge your dependence on God’s transforming power in your life to know the full blessing of God’s plan for your sexual fulfillment. And, you need courage supported by the Spirit to address the maze of issues surrounding sexuality. With His power and Spirit you will know greater integrity personally and witness more effective ministry to others who may be confused and hurting in the area of sexuality.
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.