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Leadership: Does Ministry Fuel Addictive Behavior?(1)

Certain approaches to ministry lead to self-destruction. Sally Morgenthaler a prolific author and writer who consults with pastors and staff on collaborative leadership strategies asserts in this piece that she gave vivid account of her experience as pastor’s wife. “Most Church leaders know me as the woman who writes and speaks about worship. What only a few know is that I have spent the last decade experiencing the effects of my spouse’s sexual addiction, an addiction that began in late childhood and was never treated. As untreated addictions go, my husband’s escalated. In the 1990s, his secret life overtook his life as pastor and resulted in a felony sex offense: molestation of a child by a person in a position of trust. The girl was my daughter’s best friend who lived next door; a special needs teen who was eight years older than my daughter, but her exact mental age: eight. What an unspeakable tragedy. This young woman is still living with her parents, afraid of men, incapable of living a normal life. And the damage didn’t stop there. My daughter’s childhood was shattered. She entered her teens without a father, the memory of what father she’d had tarnished beyond recognition. At thirteen, my son assigned himself the role of man-of-the-family, and has carried way too many burdens into his adult life.”
“I never imagined such a nightmare. Since the offense had actually been a series of about fifty molestations over a two-year period, and since the victim was an underage, special needs child, my spouse’s bail topped that set for some murder suspects. He was convicted, incarcerated, and subsequently sentenced to eight years in a halfway house for sex offenders. To date, he has served five of those years. I became a separated (and subsequently divorced) parent; a single woman with baggage the size of a small continent, and sole provider for my children. What had looked to outsiders like television’s 7th Heaven somehow morphed into film noir: American Beauty.”
“Addiction of any kind leaves its marks. Yet the mark we carry that is more embossed than any other is that of God’s faithfulness. Over the past eight years, my children and I have been healing. Much of that healing has come through loving family and friends. More has come through a marvelous local congregation, giving me a new reason to hope about the church in a broken world. Most significantly, however, our progress into wholeness has been the result of an intentional re-shaping of who my children and I are as a family: consciously deconstructing unhealthy family patterns (we are a no-secrets, truth-telling family), as well as adopting a practice of radical presence: being there for each other at unprecedented depth and levels of sacrifice.”
“Another component of my own healing has come from studying the addictive process (its precursors and effects). Reflecting upon our family’s bizarre journey in light of recent research on sex addiction, I began realizing that others may benefit from what we have experienced. Redemption and transformation are at the heart of the gospel. God is in the process of redeeming our family’s journey, our descent into addiction’s vortex. And God never wastes a journey. Going public: My first “out-of-the-closet” step came a year and a half ago at a national pastor’s conference. When the conference organizers heard my story, they were immensely encouraging. They agreed: my experience as a church leader, wife, and mother in the grip of a spouse’s sex addiction needed to be told, and it was time for the telling. Even though there were a dozen other classes they could have attended, they came to this one. Whether it was the subject of sex, a woman teaching about sex, or a woman who usually teaches about worship teaching about sex, something got them in the doors; 150 attendees tried to fit into a room meant for 60. It was a standing-in-the-side-aisle, spilling-into-the-hall scenario.”
“I had three goals for that day: 1. That pastors acknowledge their humanity and love themselves in the midst of their struggles. (After all, grace doesn’t just apply to others. It applies to ourselves.) 2. That they gain a basic understanding of the addiction cycle and dysfunctional sexual behavior. (What we don’t understand controls us.) 3. That they identify some of their own ministry realities that are toxic, undermining emotional and spiritual health. (Just because we put a “ministry” tag on certain church leadership norms doesn’t make them good.) The last concept seemed most provocative: the way ministry is set up, idealized and practiced may actually fuel addictive behavior. Some of these ministry dynamics are described below. This list is not exhaustive. This is merely an introductory treatment. (Also note that I use male terminology for pastors in this article. It is not because I am ignoring female pastors, nor because female pastors are immune to addictive behavior. It is because I have not had opportunity to observe female clergy in their settings. Consequently, I would not pretend to be knowledgeable about their particular contributing dynamics.) As we enter 2006, peoples’ lives are fracturing to a degree that would have been unimaginable even ten years ago. Given this environment, care-giving institutions and their leaders are at a much higher risk for escapism. We must face the realities of our current contexts, attitudes, practices, and dysfunctions as pastors. Ministry practiced in unhealthy ways leads to destructive life patterns, especially clandestine, escapist addictions.”
“Maintaining ministry patina Religious culture has a hard time with pastors and pastor’s families who have flaws. Of course, the healthiest congregations do not expect their pastors to walk on water; do not put their pastors on pedestals. But in my experience, such congregations are not the norm. Thousands of pastors serve congregations that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, expect their leaders to maintain (at least for public viewing) near-perfect marriages, near-perfect families, and near-perfect lives. While it may be fine that their pastor forgets to take out the trash, is hyper-addicted to football, burns the toast, or consistently forgets his wife’s birthday (all endearing foibles that make good fodder for sermon jokes), he’d better not have any serious bouts of depression, credit issues, children who get caught selling ecstasy, or a wife with a drinking problem.”
“Granted, certain kinds of church attendees are attracted to “bad-boy” clergy: those who tell and re-tell their stories of wild living, knowing that they will draw certain kinds of people simply because they have lived life on the edge. When a pastor is vulnerable for the right reasons, not just to entertain the masses, but to humbly demonstrate the power of the gospel, it is a positive step. But let’s not be fooled into thinking that “having a past” gives a pastor permission to be human in the present. More than a few congregations function with this unspoken proviso: “Pastor, we love the fact that you’ve walked on the wild side. It makes you fun to listen to. You’re down-to-earth, we’re not afraid to bring our neighbors. But your past is just that: the past.” Even former bad boys get stuck living on pedestals at altitudes inhospitable for anyone less than angelica.”
“And it is not only congregations that build pedestals. Many pastors paint unrealistic pictures of themselves. This kind of leader carefully crafts a leadership icon, rather than presenting his God-given, multi-faceted self. This kind of leader sets himself up for failure. The heat of congregational stress, or simply the wear and tear of the mundane, will wear through the veneer to what is really there. Image building is a dangerous game. And it’s at the core of addictive behavior. Addictive family systems are built on image, from the practice of keeping secrets (the “no-talk” rule), looking good to the community at all costs, to living a double life. If a pastor comes into the ministry with an addictive family background or has otherwise developed addictive tendencies, a congregational system that requires him to uphold an impossible, squeaky-clean image is going to function like a match to gasoline. Whenever pastors try to hide behind this patina, the chances of latent addictive behavior escalating is extremely high. The more impossibly perfect the pastoral image, the greater the need to engage in taboo behavior.”
“Where addictions begin: Sexual addiction takes root most often in family environments where parental-child bonds are weak or non-existent; where development of normal intimacy among family members has been blocked or interrupted. Family environments that lead to sexual addiction are also often sexually repressive, viewing sex as dirty and not discussing normal, developmental sexual questions within the family. It may also include a history of “sexual secrets,” particularly abuse and incest. When such an environment is combined with extreme parenting stylesauthoritarian on one end or non-involved on the otherthe chances of sexual addiction developing are even higher. The odds increase even more when parents vacillate unpredictably between the extremes. (My former husband’s family fits this category.) While family-of-origin factors are not directly related to ministry practices, there is a conspicuous connection: many pastors grew up in highly religious homes and experienced more than the average share of suppressed intimacy and sexual repression. Many also experienced extremely authoritarian parenting styles as well. As a result, pastors (as a group) could be more predisposed to sexually addictive behavior than the general population.” Not done read next issue.

Dr. Lewis Akpogena
E-mail: akpogena@yahoo.com

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