[Editor’s Note: This is part three of four in a series by Michael Todd Wilson on how pastors should respond to sexual sin in the church. For more information about this topic and Wilson’s book Unburdened, visit MichaelToddWilson.com. Read Post #1 or #2]
Men in Christian leadership (myself included) are busy people. We generally don’t prioritize prevention unless we see a fire that’s about to burn out of control. We know it’s not healthy and it’s certainly not what we advise others to do. But it tends to be our default, nonetheless. Preventative thinking requires intentionality. And there’s no greater place where intentionality is needed among many Christian leadership than in the area of sexual integrity.
Rather than give you specific steps for boundaries and healthy choices (which, no doubt, you’ve already heard), let’s talk about a few over-arching paradigm shifts for bypassing our fear and pride in order to succeed at living out sexual integrity.
It’s not whether we struggle, but how. You and I both know it. We have to contend for sexual integrity on a daily basis just like any other guy. In humility, we must regularly admit it to ourselves, to God and to one other person (more on that in a minute) to stay grounded. When we expect our need to contend for sexual integrity today, we’ll be on the lookout for the various ways “the world, the flesh and the devil” daily conspire against our integrity and the success of our ministry calling.
While some temptations will inevitably catch us off guard, a humble expectation of the need to contend for sexual integrity enables us to anticipate wise choices. If we know our calendar calls for meeting with a female church member, driving past an adult bookstore, researching the Internet for a blog article or participating in a group activity with a delightfully engaging co-worker, we don’t have to be ignorant of the Devil’s schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11). Small decisions ahead of time allow for choices more consistent with our values, rather than being “surprised” when we’re suddenly preoccupied with lustful thoughts.
Self-improvement is good, but submitting to the power source is better. You could cut down a tree with an unplugged chainsaw, but why? The apostle Paul speaks of our need to rely on God’s strength in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). As soon as we’re aware of tempting lust, our first and best resource is prayer: “Lord, I don’t have what it takes within myself to resist this temptation alone. I need Your strength in my weakness or I will fail. I surrender to Your strength and direction.” Then, pause and listen for the nudge of God’s Spirit within. He’s promised to give wisdom when we ask in faith (James 1:5-8). Whatever you discern in your spirit, do it in faith that God is empowering you to follow through rather than trying to gut it out in your own strength. It may look the same on the outside to a casual observer, but it will feel completely different on the inside.
Community is necessary, even for Christian leaders. As leaders, we don’t get a free pass on the need for community. It’s stitched into the very fabric of the created order (Genesis 2:18). Yes, it’s more complicated for leaders to find authentic community where we can experience gut-level honesty with others out from behind our “pastor mask”. Commenting on the suicide of a pastor friend, one Christian leader recently admitted, “It’s hard to be honest… and so it’s difficult to find camaraderie.” Pursuing such community for Christian leaders might be less about finding the right people and more about cultivating them over time through seemingly small and sustained micro-decisions towards fostering such relationships.
Where does a Christian leader find such people? First, start with those you already at some level “know, like, and trust.” Both peers and mentors are possibilities if they’ve been in any way trustworthy before. Where such relationship can’t be prayerfully found, consider pursuing men you’ve seen evidence trustworthiness in relationship with others.
For those still empty-handed, perhaps consider risking attendance to a support group in a neighboring community. Finding a professional therapist or integrity coach (like me) can also be an effective way to begin the journey, especially for those with significant compulsive behaviors or those who still don’t yet consider anyone safe enough for risking deeper community. As part of my work with clients, I often help them brainstorm options for fostering or expanding authentic community.
None of us can do the Christian life alone. We weren’t designed for that, even as Christian leaders. Strength lies in our weakness being surrendered to Christ’s strength. Part of our surrender journey just might be learning to live in Christian community with a few trusted others. For the Christian leader, this is often found in a precious handful of other men.
Finding support for personal integrity isn’t just theoretically important for the Christian leader, it’s also possible.