This is the first time I have ever written for Wineskins. For those of you who blog here frequently, my next statement may seem absurd. I feel like a rock star today. Yes, I know that’s crazy. It’s just that Wineskins was a part of my journey. A stack of print edition copies over two decades old remain in my library. My faith really came of age during the era when this magazine was first published. So, to be asked to write something associated with Wineskins had a special meaning to me. It may be the only time I ever do so. Still, I am grateful.
Ironically, Matt invited me to share on a subject that has been at the epicenter of my pain. My wounding began with sexual abuse and sadly the shaming and legalism of my early experiences in Churches of Christ was all too formative. I was a very messed up 20 year young man in the US Marines when I surrendered to God’s grace. Trying to make sense of those painful memories became more complex when I took human life in combat only a short time later. Trauma was fused to my DNA. Several years of marital misery, sexual sin, and lots of therapy followed. Still, today I am at peace with my past because of the healing journey in God’s grace. That should not surprise as God is the Master at repurposing broken lives for our healing and His glory.
Parallel to my healing journey I felt called by God to ministry. To increase my competency as a helper I became a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. I’ve practiced for twenty years and have specialized in the treatment of trauma for over a decade. During that time, I led a group for church leaders who have sexually compulsive behaviors and I have treated hundreds of individuals and couples who were sorting through infidelities, sexual abuse, and other related traumas. I teach at the University level in my field and I have been in full-time ministry for over 17 years. There are an infinite number of subjects about which I am completely ignorant. This is not one of them.
The main reason so many church leaders struggle with the question of what to do when it comes to helping someone with sexual issues is that they have not done a thorough job working on their own. This failure to talk honestly with people from the pulpit or in private is about their own history and deep-seated shame produced by an ongoing silence in their life and that of their family of origin. This silence will have potentially devastating effects on their marriage, their children, and their congregation because they are not providing appropriate information and biblical guidance about their own sexual development.
Modeling a healthy relationship with your spouse, others, and most importantly, God, is every bit as important as the actual conversations we have with our church and family about sexuality. The first task church leaders must approach is exploring and discussing our own beliefs and feelings about the subject. I realize that is a challenging task and for some of you it is a potential hornet’s nest. Before your own fears and frustrations cause you to hang up on me, please let me offer some words of encouragement. As I have dealt with my own sexual issues and other traumas and walked alongside others doing the same, I have become all the more convinced that God is lovingly in control of each of our journeys, if we let Him. As you face the possibility that the task of exploring your own sexual beliefs and experiences is a potentially painful one, I would like for you to consider that you will be doing so for the benefit of God’s kingdom. Your willingness to grow in your sexual wholeness can be a tremendous gift to all.
In my professional experience I would say that the leadership in churches runs behind this issue and says too little too late. Even if they do successfully transmit information about biblical sexuality, leadership does not often realize how crucial it is to take the conversation to the next level. Our churches need to know a lot more than your XXX sin is bad, be accountable, or go to Celebrate Recovery. I believe one of our primary tasks in leadership is to teach and model healthy relationships and to create a vision in the hearts of our people for the rich, fully developed relationship that married couples can enjoy and to understand that we don’t cease to be sexual beings when we aren’t in the context of marriage.
Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can’t have effective discourse with your church until you have successfully completed your own work. No one is perfect and wholeness will elude all of us during this lifetime. It is a process of exploration and some issues may even need to be deferred to a later time for one reason or another. How then could or should it be necessary to have done everything in your own process before you can lead effectively? If that were true, none of us would have a chance. So take this seriously but relax. Deal with your stuff at God’s pace and if you are married give your spouse the grace to do the same.
I believe the fundamental issue is that leaders be conscious of being on that journey and that we be appropriately transparent about that as we are led by the Spirit. A common theme for every person with whom I have worked is the plastic, spin control life that they managed to live. Let me add myself to that group as well. I mean, it’s as if we have never read the Bible. Is it not populated with the biggest bunch of sexual screw ups you have ever seen? Yet, they were leaders. One of the few people in all of scripture that comes off looking like he has it together is Daniel and he was probably castrated when he was sent to live at court. I’m not recommending that for anyone because we are still sexual beings even if we were paralyzed from the neck down.
Still, the myth of a leader who has it all together, figured out, stands head and shoulders above others is the prototype for too many churches. Has anyone read the story about King Saul? Experience has taught me that far too many leaders try to hide personal problems and work them out on their own. It drove Saul mad and it will do the same thing with us. That is why I am not a big proponent of some of these online support groups or classes because they are really thinly veiled places where you can trick yourself into believing you are in some sort of genuine community. As I write this @priestDavid is taking confession via SnapChat. Really? Remember we call the wireless world a “virtual” community not a real one. It is no substitute for help with skin on it. Confession literally means agreement. We are called to live a life on the outside that agrees with what is going on inside.
Difficulty talking to each other about sex can be caused by a few problems common to many people. First, you might have some sexual difficulty. In the age group 18-59 sexual dysfunction is prevalent at a rate of 43% for women and 31% for men. For those over 60 years of age that number increases. Second, you may have a history that causes you shame about who you are sexually. When I began acting out sexually at a young age in the 1970’s there was not a lot of healthy information available. While there was a time when I would direct a lot of my blame at the church or sadly towards my parents, I accept today that there was very little cultural awareness of this subject at that time and living as a victim of my past is not going to make things better today. But, living as a victim as I did for so long breeds fear, suspicion, and worst of all…secrecy. In recovery I learned a mantra whose truth is powerful and liberating, “You are only as sick as your secrets.”
Read Paul’s take on this. “We have spoken freely to you…opened wide our hearts to you…are not withholding our affection…my children – open wide your hearts also” (2 Cor. 6:11-13). He discussed sexual issues and my understanding of his writings suggests he had the same battles other women and men have. If you are a leader or a parent or an influencer of some sort…that is, if you are human, God has called you to a full new life…one where you can be who you are in Him. The struggle to live and be fully human as God created us to be brings pain. Oh, but it brings great relief as well. Try it. It’s like Green Eggs and Ham. Try it. You’ll like it. (That’s a nod to Dr. Seuss week).
The problem is that those of us in leadership often fear seeking help because we don’t want to be exposed and lose our job or power or whatever your idol is. Look, you are going to lose it. It may not be because you get busted for sexual behavior but it will be related. Your shame will come out in other ways and impair your relationships. What you will do depends. But, for those who don’t seek help I typically see a lot of finger pointing and blaming. “My elders….” or, “This church member…” Trust me; it has more to do with you and your unresolved issues than it has to do with an elder who has a control problem or a church member who has an axe to grind about your theology. Get help!
A reputable therapist is not going to report you unless you are a danger to yourself or others or for reasonable suspicion that a child has been abused. I served a church in the Deep South, for over a decade and my shepherds knew I was in recovery. They were very supportive of me continuing to attend a group and see a professional as needed. One of the first things I did in preparation for our move to Massachusetts to plant a church was to set up a system of accountability and ongoing recovery. I go to a support group facilitated by a licensed therapist every other week and I have since developed redemptive relationships with men in that group and elsewhere in New England.
OK. So where should I go for help or where should I send someone else? First, I would say that it isn’t necessary to seek out someone who is a Christian. If there is any consolation for my deep shame it is that it led me to believe that I was the chief of sinners and if there would ever be hope I needed to see the individual with the best training. To my biased surprise, one of the most outstanding therapists I ever worked with was a 67 year old woman divorced from a former alcoholic Church of Christ minister. She didn’t have a favorable opinion of God or the church. She was a consummate professional and was not interested in imposing her values on me but she did share those personal details in the course of our work. I am convinced God used that therapeutic relationship to do some healing for two people.
I ask you, “If your child were going to have brain surgery tomorrow, would you prefer Ibrahim Azar, M.D. an agnostic of Iranian descent, lauded as one of the best talents in the field or Jim Bob because he got his undergrad degree from Harding?” (No offense to my alma mater and both Ibrahim and Jim Bob are fictional characters) Sure there are a few Ben Carson’s out there. But, if you believe that the kingdom of God is bigger than the church, and I absolutely do, then you can appreciate that the skills this person has acquired have come from God whether or not they choose to acknowledge that.
What skills? You need to encourage people who are sorting through sexually compulsive behaviors to find a therapist who has a lot of training to deal with trauma. The first place I would recommend checking is the International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals. If your DNA demands that you see a Christian or that this person must have some sort of understanding about Churches of Christ then contact Marnie Ferrie at Bethesda Workshops, Richard Blankenship and crew at Capstone in Atlanta, or Onsite Workshops which is owned by Miles Adcox (son of Jimmy and brother of Russ). They can help you or they can refer you to someone they trust.
Next, people need a group. We are wounded in relationship and we will heal in relationship. I believe in individual therapy but I’ve always referred my clients to a group that I led or to one that was led by others. Celebrate Recovery is a great program. It doesn’t deal with the trauma related aspects of recovery but it is still good stuff. There are also Christian groups around the country that do have trauma recovery as a part of their process. L.I.F.E. Recovery offers support groups in almost every state and they often know of connections that are not listed on their website. If you don’t know what I mean by trauma recovery; don’t worry, just point people to help. I don’t expect you to know this stuff. But, I promise you that EVERY (I am not prone to making blanket statements) EVERY compulsive sexual behavior is related to trauma.
There’s a lot of other things I could say like get an accountability partner, pray more, study the Bible, be in Christian community, computer monitoring, read a book, etc… You already know that. What I am saying is take it to the next level. Don’t be satisfied that you have really pointed people to help if you have told them those same old things. They need those things but an experienced professional and a group are imperative. What’s that you say? You did it without these recommendations? Probably not. Yes, the Spirit of God can spontaneously heal people. More likely, God used some informal support group and counseling experience or you may just not be acting out right now and you are hanging on for dear life trying to convince yourself and others that things are better. Really? Not messing up isn’t recovery. Jesus said that he came to, “give life to the full.” That’s recovery.
Next, I know a number of churches that have developed relationships with counselors over the years who provide services to their congregations. Just because a person is a licensed therapist does not mean that he or she is the best resource for every situation (think general practitioner vs. cardiologist). Help people find the best resource first and then let them make their own decisions. Don’t default to a good ole’ boy system. If you really think they can’t afford help, then see what you can do as a church to assist. I don’t recommend paying for everything. People should have some skin in the game. Someone in your church right now is struggling. No, several people are struggling. Be proactive as a leadership and set some resources aside.
Finally, I’m not a sin snob. That is, sexual sin is a convenient target for this sort of attitude (especially if it involves same gender attraction). I could enumerate a long list of personal sins that I battle – pride being one of the worst. Thank God for His grace, for the reconciliation through Jesus at the Cross, and the power of His Spirit. Please don’t be that church leader or that church that holds people with unhealthy sexual behaviors to a different standard than other sin. We all have a battle. This is just one among many.
P.S. If you have read this far, visit my page on 500 For The Fallen and consider sponsoring me as I run to honor some fallen mates.