Sexual Brokenness in the Church: Confessions of a Pastor and Sex-Addict

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Sundays had always been challenging for me. But they became excruciating. By the time I blew up my life, every Sunday morning after awaking I spent a full hour trying to muster the courage to get out of bed. I usually felt sick. As I prepared to go to church I would ask the Holy Spirit not to hold my sins against my people, to have mercy on them and bless them in spite of me. I was their pastor. And I was a sex addict.

I love the Church. I love Jesus even more. That is why I have such deep, deep remorse that I spent so many years both as a pastor and as a man struggling with compulsive sexual behaviors.

Ashamed No More

As I have made progress in my own recovery, I’ve discovered an enormous problem we have in the Church. A lot of men and women who are Christians are struggling with compulsive sexual behaviors, and they’re doing it alone.

That is not the way it should be and that’s why I wrote Ashamed No MoreWhile the book tells a good bit of my story, it’s not a memoir. It’s about holistic spiritual transformation, how our spirituality and our sexuality are linked, how addiction works and what we can do about it. It’s written for everyone interested in robust spirituality and a healthier Church.

I think it would be terrifically helpful if every leader read it, whether or not they struggle with compulsive sexual behaviors. Because our churches are filled with strugglers, and the more they do it alone, the stronger their addiction grows.

The truth is that a growing number of us are trying to follow Jesus while engaging in sexual behaviors we don’t like, don’t respect, don’t understand, and cannot control. We need help. But too often we are not able to find help, love and healing we need in the Church.

Church Members Need Help

God has created us in his image and we are relational creatures. But living in this disordered realm, many of us do not relate in healthy or appropriate ways with others, with ourselves and with God.  Sexual addiction is an intimacy disorder, and for whatever reasons, we have stumbled into an inappropriate and unhealthy attachment to our own sexuality.

We need help. Oftentimes we need professional help. We need others in our lives, others with whom we can increasingly be open and honest, self-revealing and self-yielding.

No one fixes their compulsive sexual behaviors on their own. Ashamed No More tells how I had to learn to break down the walls of separation between myself and others. I needed professional help. I needed support tools, like Covenant Eyes. But intuitively I knew I had to be very, very careful around Christians.

Why? Because I knew what we tend to do with others who are broken, especially those who are sexually broken. And it’s much worse if you’re a pastor. It’s terribly unfortunate, but inadvertently the Church often reinforces the shame we struggle with and makes recovery more difficult.

As tragic as the epidemic of sexual addiction is, what is more grievous is that where people ought to find solid comfort and strategic help—the Church—is in fact where folks hide the most. Because intuitively they know they must.

Many Times, the Church Makes It Worse

In the Church, we don’t like messes. Too many of us believe a gospel that says Jesus forgives our sins and straightens out our lives. He makes us salt and light in a flavorless and dark world. That is true, but the real Gospel also tells us we all need grace and ongoing mercy. God loves and uses people who are not perfect and in that demonstrates His power and glory.

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When we struggle with sexual brokenness, often it results in an isolating effect. Then our enemy exploits our brokenness and vulnerability with lies like we don’t fit in, no one else is as bad as we are, people will never accept us if they know, and we need to fix this on our own. Just often enough we hear of someone being gossiped about or overtly ostracized and it reinforces our fears. And so we hide.

Clergy—who struggle with porn and sexual compulsivity as much or more than their congregants do—are terrified to get help. Can you blame them?

But think about this: they are called and gifted to do this sacred work. Why wouldn’t they be targets? The Church should expect sexual issues among clergy, not be scandalized by them. The point is healing and overcoming brokenness, not holding up a false model of “purity” and keeping the pretensions going. “We are as sick as our secrets” the recovery slogan goes. And in the Church we are not well at all. 

7 Changes the Church Must Make

Jesus is reversing the effects of the Fall, including removing the shame of our sexual vulnerability and brokenness.

In chapter twelve of Ashamed No More I offer seven suggestions for helping the Church become an agent of hope and healing in a culture bent on self-gratification and self-destruction:

  1. Examine our own sexual attitudes and behaviors
  2. Change how we treat leaders
  3. Allocate resources for helping leaders
  4. Change our way of thinking and teaching in the Church about human sexuality
  5. Include everyone in the solution
  6. Make help available
  7. Enhance ministry preparation

We must deal with the onslaught of sexual brokenness in our society and in the Church. Compulsive sexual behavior is putting a stranglehold on the spirituality of Christians and is robbing the Church of vitality. Isolation, shame and hiding are toxic to genuine recovery and so it is in the Church’s best interests to become open, honest and accepting.

When the prophet Isaiah foresaw the coming Messiah, he spoke of him as one who “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.”  (Isaiah 42:3)

If this is how the infinite and holy God treats those whom he loves, how should we treat each other?

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Dr. T. C. Ryan, author of Ashamed No More, is a speaker and pastor, retreat and seminar leader. He leads two recovery groups, one for clergy and one for men in the church he and his wife currently attend. He blogs at tc-ryan.com, and you can learn more about his ministry on his Facebook page, T. C. Ryan

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About the Author

T.C. Ryan

T.C. RyanDr. T. C. Ryan, author of Ashamed No More, is a speaker and pastor, retreat and seminar leader. He leads two recovery groups, one for clergy and one for men in the church he and his wife currently attend. He blogs at tc-ryan.com, and you can learn more about his ministry on his Facebook page, T. C. RyanView all posts by T.C. Ryan →

  • Paul_M_SAA

    A very important message, and one that my church has been shy to deal with publicly. My sex addiction nearly destroyed my marriage and my job, and only by submitting to a higher power, joining a 12 step program, and working with a pastoral counselor that I was able to get on the road to recovery. My church did help me, by meeting with my pastor in private settings, but it was more like having a friend to talk to than someone who was knowledgeable. Thanks for bringing this important issue into the light for those who can’t.

  • http://twitter.com/shoopscope Kevin Shoop

    Hi T.C. – I haven’t read your book, but thank you for this article and for your willingness to talk about this issue. Your article and the title resonated with me because I was told that I was “sexually broken” because of my sexuality. But the way you describe “sexual brokenness” (as compulsions toward addictive sexual behavior) is much more on the nose–it has nothing to do with sexual preference and everything to do with intimacy. My own compulsions grew out of intense and sustained shame of being a gay person. I withdrew from all relationships as I hid my sexuality and as I fought against it tooth and nail (prayer, therapy, etc)…this hiding and this shame inevitably led to a secret life to find relief from the shame and the lack of intimacy. After reading your article I am interested in reading your book. Thanks again for your courage and openness!

  • http://snommelp.tumblr.com/ Snommelp

    It’s so much easier to take these struggles to clergy that we don’t know as well… in college I was obsessed with pornography (like so many college-aged men). I was too ashamed to bring it to my pastor or my campus minister. But I was perfectly fine taking it to my then-girlfriend’s priest for a “confession” (he was clear that, as a non-Catholic, what he and I were doing was not a typical confession). I trusted him to keep the silence of the confessional, and because I wasn’t Catholic, I was less worried about it coloring my regular interactions with him. It was that second part, especially, that kept me from bringing it to my own ministers – I could trust them to keep it secret, but I didn’t want to see disappointment in their eyes.

    • bluecenterlight

      I remember reading James 5:16 the first time “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” and thinking I would rather die than let anyone know that part of me. The as I’ve grown older it’s clear now that I’m not alone, we are all sexually broken, and we are all ashamed. Anyone who has done marriage counseling can tell you the two biggest problems in any marriage are money and sex, two topics we find difficult to discuss. I am convinced the reason homosexuals have been elevated to “enemies of the church” is because we see in them the thing we hate about ourselves. The more people who have the courage to be honest about their struggles the less power sin will have in our lives, it’s almost like James was right. Thanks for sharing.

      • Gr8whiteN

        Real confession is almost non-existent in our Christian circles today, at least among men. I too struggled with this issue for over 20 years and had to be broken by nearly losing my marriage before I knew how to truly confess. It was excruciating, especially for my wife, but incredibly liberating & cathartic. Today we have a stronger relationship than I ever could have imagined possible! If I could go back and undo all the hurt I’ve caused I would but at the same time, having gone through the healing together is what has made our marriage so strong today.

  • Frank

    Thank you or this. Sexual brokenness in all forms; pornography, adultery, causal sex, homosexual behavior, etc. can be healed and overcome but the church must stop ostracizing and start participating in the healing process.

  • Mark Munger

    Keep the dialogue going T.C. because very few others want to recognize it ,let alone try to understand and help in the healing.

  • Dennis

    This is a very timely message, and one that has roots that go back a long way. Many years ago as a new Christian struggling with a gay past, I was nearly disillusioned about the church because of the reaction I encountered when I sought help. I knew I couldn’t go it alone, but my openness about what I was experiencing met with an embarrassed distance from people I thought would come to my aid. Fortunately there were ‘a few good men’ who were of inestimable help in enabling me to persevere through an excruciating period in my spiritual journey. I now make myself available to those who have similar struggles to give them advice and support learned from my own difficulties in this area. Consequently I know and agree that this is a much more prevalent problem than most Christians want to admit or acknowledge. You are doing a lot of good in a very neglected area of church life.

  • SurvivorGirl

    Dr. Ryan, I commend you for your transparency and thank you for broaching this issue publicly. I am a survivor of clergy sexual abuse (habitual sexual harassment by my pastor) as an adult. If the abusive pastor had felt free to seek help before my husband and I intervened (and he was suspended), he might still be on staff today. He once told me that pastors didn’t take their problems to their peers, as they are all in competition with one another. That needs to change. Thank you for showing such courage in speaking out about this.

  • Jim

    Thank you for the article, and taking the time to write it.

    Are we satisfied with the Lord Jesus? Can He alone, Does He alone, change us?

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