I'll never forget the first time I heard about a fellow minister who lost his ministry through marital unfaithfulness. I was a young worker in the northwestern United States. It was camp pitch time, and we pastors were having our morning meeting. The president stood and related how a few years ago one of the pastors had fallen from some scaffolding during camp pitch and died. It was a sobering remembrance, and things were pretty quiet. Then he disclosed that there had been another tragedy: yet another worker had just "fallen," with deadly results. The realization of what he was telling us made an unforgettable impact on me.
Well, many years have passed since that day at camp pitch, and I don't even want to recall the many sad variations I have heard on the theme. Too many friends and colleagues lost their ministry, and it hurts each time I hear about it. I'm also shaken by the realization that I too could fall. My only hope is that God will help me keep my focus on Him and my senses under His control!
I am being vulnerable and dangerously frank because it is high time for us to address frankly some of our earthy problems. As Christian men and women we need to be confronted with and confront ourselves with the grim reality that we are sinful beings. We need, by God's grace, to become proactively involved in building hedges to protect ourselves, our families, and our church.
The stimulus for this article comes from the testimony of a former pastor in the July 1992 Ministry, in an article entitled "I Committed Adultery." I'm concerned about whether his analysis is accurate about what happened. You see, I have a close friend whose story so closely parallels his that perhaps he is the same person. In any case, I care deeply. I suggest it would be good for him to be a bit more realistic and objective. There is help available for pastors in trouble if they will be hon est. The first step is to recognize that options do actually exist.
One option is to continue in denial, refusing to admit that danger exists and promising yourself that you will not let things get completely out of control. Another option would be to accept that things are not right but rationalize away the warnings and do nothing. I think all Christians would agree that neither of these first two options is proper yet they are the ones most often chosen.
The honest truth is that the road to sexual involvement is exciting. We may fool ourselves into thinking that it is innocent at first, but the feelings generated by attraction to the opposite sex are powerful and often addictive.
How much better it is to evaluate honestly any relationship that conscience brings to mind, being aware of the obvious danger signals.
Let's review some of those briefly.
1. Do you find the person physically attractive? There is certainly nothing abnormal, unhealthy, or unspiritual about this. I mention it only because when you can acknowledge a physical attraction, you can be more alert to other signals.
2. Do you find yourself frequently thinking of the individual when not in his or her presence ? This could be the first step in a relational fantasy, and while you don't want to become paranoid, neither should you ignore an important early signal.
3. Do you find yourself anticipating counseling sessions, visits, or projects where you know you will be together?
4. Do you deliberately arrange or schedule extra appointments?
5. Is physical touch a regular and anticipated part of your relationship? Hand-holding during prayer, a touch of understanding or concern, or a friendly hug can easily carry more feeling than is intended for either party. Be aware that while you may feel nothing improper, the other person may be having difficulty.
These are just a few of the early signals to watch for. They can seem so innocent that you might easily dismiss them as trite. If that is happening, I would count that as signal number 6: You are either in denial or ready to practice it.
What if the situation has already advanced into a full-blown affair? What are the options then? At this level either you are practicing rigid denial and rationalization or you are experiencing enormous guilt and shame or some combination of both. My first plea is: Be honest with your self. Allow the Holy Spirit to convict you of your sin and show you how you got into this situation. Major questions must be dealt with: Where do I go from here? How do I get there? Who needs to be told? Should I leave the ministry?
You will undoubtedly need some help with these questions. If you are truly repentant and remorseful and at the same time frightened, it is difficult to be objective and fair. You need to consider the best results for yourself, your family, and your ministry. The problem so often is that ministers are "go it alone" types. It is difficult for them to reach out for help. We have heard so often or perhaps even experienced, the horror stories of others who reached out and had that shared confidence used against them.
Help is available
There are resources available for pastors in trouble or in danger of trouble. Consider the Ministry Care Line, operated by Kettering Clergy Care Center. By calling a toll-free number in North America, church employees or family members of sub scribing conferences can access a trained professional, remaining anonymous if desired. Lines are open Mon day through Friday from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. (Eastern U.S. time), and evenings Monday through Thursday from 7:30 to 10:00, except on holidays. Every conference should subscribe to the Ministry Care Line or a similar service and encourage workers to use it. We all need to reach out and touch someone at some point in life. For further information call (800) 324- 8628.
Another resource is the Behavioral Medicine Center at Loma Linda University Medical Center, which also offers a wide variety of help programs that can be initially accessed toll-free: (800) 752-5999. The center will put a pastor in touch with professional assistance or discuss his or her needs directly in a crisis situation.
Obviously, if you are in trouble you need to make some effort to get help before it's too late. Take that initial step in order to be fair to your self and fair to your family and your church.
I'd like to deal with this by just speaking for myself, and you can jump in where you feel comfortable. I'm going to risk sharing personal information because I am tired of seeing quality individuals either lose or severely impede their ministry. Please be assured that I have no latent sins to confess, nor do I have any desire to be anything but faithful to my wife of 23 years or to my Lord. But I have a healthy fear because I know myself. To remain faithful, I need to proactively seek the help of Christ and of my closest human allies. I have come to grips with who I am. The truth is that I still find women attractive. Now stop and think about that before you fax a copy of this article to my conference president. That's not really so startling, is it? Actually, my wife thinks it is good news, because that means I still find her attractive as well.
Acknowledging an attraction is a vital first step in coming to terms with it. It reminds me that I am human, that all my systems are working, and that I need to remember whose servant I have chosen to be. This does not mean that I can't develop friendships with women I find attractive. Quite the contrary, but it does mean I am aware that my God-given senses have been tainted by millennia of sin. This first step takes place only in my own mind. Sometimes a second step is necessary.
Recently I was conducting a smoking cessation program. We had a good response with about 60 participants. After the first night's program a very attractive and well-dressed woman came up and began talking. She shared some of her background, letting me know she was divorced. She also complimented me on my presentation and on my suit and tie. Now and then as she spoke she touched my arm. She also was the last participant to leave.
It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out this development was potentially dangerous. My antennas were working. Now, in saying that, what do I mean? Was I wrestling with whether or not I wanted to pursue a relation ship with this woman? Not at all. I was recognizing the reality of temptation, knowing that unchecked and unguarded emotions could lead to disaster. What did I do? I thanked her for her compliments and assured her we would provide help with the tobacco habit. Then I also let her know that I needed to get on the road so I could have a little time with my wife that evening.
Upon arriving home, I discussed with Ingrid how things had gone, and part of my report went like this: "There is a very pretty young woman there, and I think she likes me." Now, what do you think the chances are that I am going to call my wife the next evening and tell her I will be a little late? That, my friends, is called proactive account ability. And it works! When I came home the second night the first thing my wife said to me was "How's your girlfriend?" She did have a smile on her face.
My wife was not necessarily thrilled when I first began to share with her these situations. She changed, how ever, when I helped her to understand that my reason for doing so was to help ensure that I always would remain faithful. I do not want to endanger my relationship with my wife. I have seen disaster strike so many seemingly safe homes that I have developed a healthy fear that it could happen to me too.
Don't forget phileo
Recently I did a study involving the three faces of love depicted in the Greek words agape, phileo, and eros. One conclusion I drew was that no woman in the world can give me through eras alone what my wife can give me through eras accompanied with 23 years of phileo. The sexual relationship between a husband and wife is continually enhanced by the process of working through and sharing all of the other experiences of life.
Another interesting note is that frequently when I share with my wife that I sense a somewhat more than normal attachment by a church member, her response is "Well, good morning! I saw that a year ago."
Gentlemen, listen to your wives. They know these things.
Beyond the safeguards discussed so far, I'd like to recommend strongly to each man: Cultivate an accountability relationship with another man. We all need a soul mate whom we can go to with any problem, any fear, or any confession, knowing we will never be repulsed. For men, this person should not be a woman. I have men challenge me on this all the time, but I am getting more set on my position every day.
There is a kind of intimacy that develops when we open up to some one. This level of intimacy should not be shared with a woman other than your wife. The second reason that this comrade should be a man is simply that a woman cannot see all things from the same perspective. That statement is not chauvinistic or sexist; it's a fact of life. Only a man can fully understand my viewpoint on some things.
How do you begin and build such an accountability friendship? You already have a certain group of friends whom you enjoy being with more than others. Choose one or two and simply ask them if they would be interested in meeting together once a week, twice a month, or some other agreed-upon frequency. Spend some time just sharing how things are going. Perhaps you will agree to read a chapter or two of a designated book beforehand and dis cuss it when you meet. Take some time to pray together about individual and common concerns. Go slow. Don't reveal deeply personal information until you know it is a trustworthy friendship. I can tell you from personal experience that it is a wonderful thing to have a friend whose confidence and judgment I have come to trust.
The bottom line? Be deliberate in your choices. "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom. 12:2, NIV). Perhaps if my colleague who wrote in Ministry about committing adultery had considered these options, his course would have been different. We will never know. But now you and I can avoid the pain and loss suffered by all affected by such sad occurrences. While shunning sin, we also can enjoy the fullness of the ministry and the relationships God has given us, trusting Him to keep us from falling.
"So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (1 Cor. 10:12, 13, NIV).