How would you respond if you discovered your minister uses pornography?
According to xxxchurch.com:
- 12% of Internet websites are pornographic or about 24 million individual sites
- Every second 28,258 Internet users view pornography
- 40 million Americans are regular visitors to pornography sites
- 70% of men aged 18-24 visit pornography sites in a typical month
- 1 in 3 pornography viewers are women
- 20% of men and 13% of women admit to watching pornography online at work
- The most popular day of the week for viewing pornography is Sunday
Mobile technology seems to further enhance the pervasiveness of pornography:
- 1 in 5 mobile searches are for pornography
- 24% of smartphone owners admit to having pornographic material on their mobile phone
- 3 out of 5 girls are exposed to pornography before the age of 18
- 30% of all 17-year olds have received a sext
But surely – some may argue – ministers do not struggle in the same way.
In an age of pervasive pornography, ministers, ministry students and churches ought to consider four steps to pursue intelligent transparency and healthy ministerial engagement.
First, ministers need to prepare – and churches ought to expect – to proactively address the reality of pornography and other sexual issues. While age-appropriate conversations are key, given that the average age at which a child first sees pornography online is eleven, children’s ministers and children’s workers need to carefully address with children and parents alike healthy online habits that address this issue as well as other acute online realities such as cyberbullying.
Proactive engagement is perhaps even more incumbent upon those ministering among teenagers and young adults. Youth groups need to have pointed conversations about social media, texting, and even more broadly the use of technology. Simply shunning technology is not an appropriate answer, though it is the one most often cited to me by college students struggling in this area. While taking a Sabbath from smartphones and Snapchat may be necessary as a short-term initiative to break a particular habit or addiction, we cannot teach or expect individuals to simply shun technology as a means of avoiding temptation. Otherwise, as happened to a friend several years ago, when a company or ministry issues a business smartphone it becomes an easy access point to patterns that were dormant rather than defeated. Rather than emphasizing simple avoidance, though perhaps necessary for some as an interim step, ministers need to encourage individuals to develop a toolkit that masters technology and can navigate the workplace and ministry expectations of the twenty-first century in a healthy way.
Pastoral sermons and counseling can also play a key role. Internet pornography increasingly contributes to marital struggles and divorce. Moreover, there are a number of corollary topics all too often neglected from the pulpit such as human trafficking and domestic violence. A recent survey by Life Way revealed that 42% of pastors rarely or never address domestic and/or sexual violence in their sermons.
Second, every ministerial search committee ought to have an open and frank conversation during the interview process about the struggles the candidate has faced in this area. Such a conversation is best suited towards the end of the process and perhaps with a select portion of the search committee, personnel committee or deacon body. Though potentially uncomfortable, addressing this reality upfront:
- Helps foster a healthy and safe accountability relationship of trust for both the church and the minister where struggle may still occur
- Encourages the minister to more openly discuss the formation of healthy sexual patterns and identity drawing upon their own struggles and victories without fear of immediate retribution
- Establishes an expectation that the minister will in appropriate ways love and minister holistically to those within their areas of responsibility, including in the sensitive realm of sexual behavior and identity.
Third, every church needs to have a technology policy in place and be proactive rather than reactive. Though dated, one 2002 survey noted that 54% of pastors reported viewing Internet pornography in the last year (http://www.covenanteyes.com/porn-free-church, pg. 113). After recently visiting with one youth minister seeking freedom in this area, I encouraged this young minister to seek a continued and extended conversation with the pastor at the church. The individual quickly responded that this was not possible as it would lead to immediate firing. If a youth minister serving at a church whose desire was to seek freedom and accountability felt that the church would only offer rejection, how can we expect anyone else to turn to the church as a place of healing and restoration?
There are certainly types of clergy sexual misconduct that must be handled differently, but if a minister is involved in immoral but not illegal pornography there ought to be a guiding policy that helps the church and the minister jointly pursue a process of recovery. Some time ago I was visiting with an individual who helps set up and maintain church networks as part of his business. He relayed the story of how a pastor phoned him late at night because his college son who was home visiting had used a church computer to complete homework and then visited a variety of pornographic websites. The pastor asked this network administer if he would be willing to quietly scrub the computer at the personal expense of the pastor so that the church did not know. Whether it was in fact the son and not the pastor himself pales in comparison to the perceived need for the pastor to respond in fear and secrecy.
Churches need to be proactive in working to establish well-reasoned technology policies. For years churches and ministers fought to place a window into the door of every office. It is time to extend that concept. Churches and ministers need to fight for a window into our technology.
Fourth, churches more broadly ought to work to create intentional climates of open dialogue, healthy accountability, and grace-filled recovery. In the 1500s Ignatius of Loyola wrote:
The enemy also behaves like a false lover who wishes to remain hidden and does not want to be revealed… When the enemy tempts a just soul with his wiles and deceits, he wishes and desires that they be received and kept in secret. When they are revealed to a confessor or some other spiritual person who understand his deceits and evil designs, the enemy is greatly displeased for he knows that he cannot succeed in his evil design once his obvious deceits have been discovered (Movements Produced in the Soul).
Sin hates exposure and recovery begins in the light. In the end, after all, the same grace by which we are saved is the same grace by which we are to continue to live.