He didn’t call to makes small talk, but we’d been high-centered on small-talk topics for twenty minutes—weather, sports, politics. This was not Mike’s (not his real name) modus operendi; he was a minister who wasted little time on veneered conversation, one who prided himself in getting down to the nitty-gritty.
Midsentence—mid-ramble, rather—he paused, took a deep breath, and sighed white-noise into my end of the receiver. Then came the confession. “Seth, I have a problem with pornography, and it’s leading me into the throes of doubt.” Voice quivering, he unpacked his decade-long secret, confessed how he’d begun to doubt a God who wasn’t delivering him from his addiction. He sniffed, sighed again, admitted that he’d avoided teaching about pornography for fear of being labeled a hypocrite.
For ten minutes he confessed, and confessed, and confessed, and when he gave me space to enter into his confession, I asked a simple question. “Have you shared your struggle with anyone in your church, perhaps a trusted deacon or elder?” There was a longer pause, more white noise, another sniff.
“I can’t tell anyone at my church. I’m on staff. If they know, they’ll fire me.”
He’d cut to the chase, gave me the confession underlying the confession. These were the brass tacks of the matter, and his catch 22 was clear. His livelihood was tied to faith, and confessing his faith-struggle threatened to upend his livelihood.
It’s been some time since that conversation with Mike, and as much as I’d like to say it was an isolated incident, it isn’t. In September of 2013, I walked into my own confession of addiction—I battled the bottle, see—and in 2015 I wrote about that struggle in Coming Clean: A Story of Faith. My openness with the pain of life and the addictions we use to quell that pain has made me a bit of a confessional target. Friends, even ministers and pastors have been called to out their own struggles with addiction and doubt, and time after time I ask them the same question—have you confessed it to a trusted confidante in your church? Time after time, the answer is the same, “I could never confess it without jeopardizing my job.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that when asked in a recent interview whether I believed pastors were equipped to lead their congregational members through struggles with addiction, I hedged my bets. “In an ideal world, every pastor and church leader should be equipped to lead their congregants into healing and wholeness,” I said, “but some church leaders conceal their own wounds, their own struggles….” Then, off the record I shared Mike’s story, and the story of so many other Christian leaders, good men for whom authentic struggle might spell the end of their career.
It’s not easy, this life of authentic faith. On occasion, admitting struggle presents very real consequences, some of which may be unfair. And yet, isn’t this the very thing Scripture calls us too? Aren’t ministers held most accountable to the truth, too?
“Confess your sins one to another,” the brother of Jesus writes, “so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16) Likewise, Paul juxtaposes his instruction against drunkenness with his instruction to live in a Christian Community of spiritual encouragement (Eph. 5:18-19). Isn’t this the meat of the matter? Don’t ministers of the good news of Jesus need healing from our own addictions? Don’t we need our own safe places of confession and encouragement within the community of faith?
I’ve said it before—there’s no greater disservice to a church body than a leader who will not participate in confessional vulnerability. After all, if a leader is unable to model confession of sin, repentance, and restoration, will his or her people languish in their own inability to live an honest Christian life?
Time and time again I’ve shared conversation with the church leader with the shoulders of Atlas, the man or woman carrying secret addiction and shame like the weight of the world. I’ve pointed them to the same passages of Scripture time and again. I’ve counseled them to confess their sins to trusted friends, to their congregational leaders, and to walk in the sobriety of honest Christian community. This sort of vulnerability may be painful, but sobriety begets sobriety. And sobriety is no small aside; it is place from which authentic ministry flows.
I’ve walked in this practice of confession, come through my own dark season of alcohol abuse. I was a lay worship leader, served the church on a near weekly basis. But my faith didn’t find its true freedom until I confessed my secret abuses, my misplaced dependency on liquor. I recorded this journey in Coming Clean: A Story of Faith. These days, I share my story with churches, recovery groups, and friends on the telephone. Time and time again, I see it—the freeing.
Months after that first conversation with Mike, we’d speak again. He found a small group of men, compassionate leaders in his church who were willing to bear his confession. He wasn’t terminated or reprimanded. Instead, he was surrounded by the loving support of an authentic faith community as he came clean from his own addictions. And though I can’t assure the same result for every leader who confesses their own addiction, the truth is simple—authentic faith begins with authentic confession. Are you living into this kind of authentic faith? Have you walked through your own coming clean?
— Seth Haines, Coming Clean: A Story of Faith.
How to Use This Book
If you are a pastor or leader in the church, you have likely come in contact with someone who is struggling with addiction – whether it is pornography, alcohol, drugs, or one of the many other ways Satan keeps people in bondage to sin. Or, perhaps you can personally relate to what Seth has shared in this article? Coming Clean is an excellent resource for you, your staff, and your church community, helping anyone struggling with addiction to begin walking in authentic faith.
A Story of Faith