Because my father was a minister, I grew up knowing how “normal” clergy (and their families) really are. Yet as a teen I could see how some, especially women, in our congregation placed my dad on a pedestal. They seemed to make him their spiritual idol; the “god” of their faith. But now, decades later, as the media increasingly reports, we are seeing spiritual leaders of all faiths topple and fall, and when they do, those who have placed their hope in mere mortals often lose their faith along with losing their spiritual hero. How I wish I could sit with Dad and have an in-depth discussion about this reality. But I’m going to have to wait until eternity to have that discussion because he’s moved on to heaven without me.
But it’s not too late for a larger social conversation that demands we have it, because thousands—millions—of clergy of every persuasion around the world face these temptations every single day, and just like the rest of us, many continue to lose that struggle.
If you watch the news you are aware of how clergy continue to drop on the battle field of their own humanity. New stories seem to break every week. Last week focused on five sisters who were all molested by their priest over several years’ time, leaving them damaged and tearful even now decades later as adults. Last week also held a news story about a woman who drove 700 miles to barge into a Mormon ward in the Phoenix area and tell the congregation their church elder had violated her earlier in life. And no one crashed louder than the recent evangelical leader, Bill Hybels. The sexual allegations against him have shaken evangelical’s far from his Willow Creek Church in the Chicago suburbs. There are few bigger names in the evangelical world than Mr. Hybels, and few churches more influential than Willow Creek. Christians worldwide looked to it as a model of smart leadership.
But clearly, leadership training for churches and clergy, as well as for the rest of us, is missing an important ingredient, because leaders and individuals continue to fall. What are we missing? Why are our efforts so impotent in the face of our own human temptations? May I share my humble opinion in answer to that question? Please hear me out before you pass judgement.
Many years of being in the trenches with my own humanity, and with that of others, have led me to believe we will only stop the spiritual and emotional blood shed produced by our sexual struggles if we “normalize” this struggle as being a part of the human condition. What do I mean by “normalize” it? I definitely don’t mean, “This is normal, so just go ahead and give into it.”
But I do believe that the inner battle with our own sexual temptations is a normal part of our humanness as long as we walk on planet earth. If we don’t talk about it openly, we will continue to fall and lose marriages and priests. God, Himself, made both man and woman as sexual beings. It is a gift He wove into the fiber of our flesh. A gift to use to express our committed love to another human being, and a gift enabling us to have children. Could He have made a mistake in gifting us in this way? He’s God, so I seriously doubt it. So what, then, are we do to about the war between our sexuality and our spirituality?
We need to talk about it—out loud—in private and in public, whether we’re in our churches, synagogues, or temples, or other gatherings where we discuss what it means to be human. Around our kitchen tables, in our children’s Sunday Schools, and every place in between. Even the Apostle Paul, who was a bigger leader than Hybles, and has remained a leader two thousand years after his death, talked about his own struggles openly with those he led. What better definition of the battle—of addiction—is there than his? “I want to do what is good, but I don't. I don't want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway" 1.
Can you, like me, relate to his words? Why, then, are most congregations and leaders still afraid to talk about it? Openly, calmly, and without using the label “sin” to make sure people know they are not to do it? With all my heart I believe that until parents, life partners, teachers, friends—until all of us can safely say, “Hey, I’m struggling; do you have time to listen and let me talk about it today?,” we will remain impotent against our own humanity. And we will continue to fall, losing leaders and marriages as we do.
But are people ready and willing to add that to their leadership training? I don’t know. What do you think?
With your healing at heart,
1 The Bible, New International Translation, Romans 7:19