Recent gay-sex scandals involving evangelical pastors have prompted much soul-searching among conservative Christian leaders.
No one has proposed rethinking the theology that homosexuality is a sin. Instead, there’s a growing consensus that the church must do a better job of helping pastors resist all immoral desires, such as a lust for pornography, an addiction to drugs or a lifelong same-sex attraction.
Seminary professors, Christian counselors and veteran clergy say the best way to help pastors fight temptation is to get them talking -- even about their most shameful secrets. They don’t want a sordid tell-all from the pulpit each Sunday. But they would like pastors to bare their weaknesses and admit their lapses before a small group of “accountability partners” -- friends committed to listen with empathy, then rebuke or advise as needed.
“Our current environment demands perfection of pastors,” said Craig Williford, president of the Denver Seminary. “It doesn’t allow leaders to struggle, to be human, to deal with their issues without fear of losing their ministry. We need to help them find safe harbors.”
Williford recently attended a conference with 50 seminary presidents; most, he said, had pushed this issue to the top of their agenda after the scandals.
The most recent involved the Rev. Paul Barnes, 54, who resigned Dec. 10 as pastor of a large church in suburban Denver after confessing to repeated trysts with men. In a tearful goodbye video, Barnes told his congregation he had struggled with homosexuality since he was a boy. “I can’t tell you the number of nights I have cried myself to sleep, begging God to take this away,” Barnes said, according to the Denver Post. One of its reporters viewed the video before the church sealed it last week.
The confession in many ways echoed a farewell letter the Rev. Ted Haggard, 50, wrote his Colorado Springs mega-church last month after admitting to contact with a male prostitute.
Both men described their lives as a decades-long battle against their desires. They said they had tried numerous strategies to overcome their feelings but did not succeed.
Some gay-rights activists had hoped these accounts would prompt a reevaluation of the widespread view among evangelicals that homosexuality is a choice -- and that it can be overcome with prayer and discipline. “If one of these guys in power would say ‘I’ve been wrong,’ that would change the world,” said the Rev. Mel White, who runs a faith-based gay-rights group called Soulforce.
But many evangelicals have drawn a very different lesson from the scandals.
They note that Barnes and Haggard said they felt alone in their struggles, unable to confide in anyone. And they blame that isolation -- at least in part -- for the pastors’ falls.
“We don’t know how to deal with what’s going on inside us, so we stuff it, or deny it, or adamantly preach against it,” said the Rev. Kurt Fredrickson, who directs the doctorate program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
The Rev. H.B. London, who runs a clergy counseling program for the Focus on the Family ministry in Colorado Springs, said: “There’s a loneliness, even though you’re surrounded by lots of people, and that often drives you to try to fill your life in another way.”
Church culture often reinforces that sense of loneliness.
In his 14 years at the helm of a conservative Baptist congregation in Colorado Springs, the Rev. Benjamin Reynolds found it almost impossible to have an honest conversation with his deacons. He set up a monthly “check-in,” but everyone responded to his questions with a reflexive “I’m blessed.”
“I wanted to say, ‘Please! I feel like crap!’ ” Reynolds said. “I felt like I was not dealing with human beings.”
Talking with members of the congregation was even harder, he said; they held him to such a high standard that he could set off a round of gossip just by running out for a carton of milk on a Saturday night -- a time they expected him to be home in prayer, preparing for Sunday worship.
Reynolds, 45, struggled for years on his own with the realization he is gay. Several months ago, he asked a former seminary professor to gather some good listeners.
It was to that team of three men that Reynolds first came out. This fall, with their encouragement, he told his congregation he was proud God had created him as a “same-genderloving person.” He resigned from the church rather than divide the congregation over the propriety of a gay man at the pulpit.
Ministers everywhere echo Reynolds’ frustration with the solitude of the job. Office politics can be as ruthless in churches as in boardrooms; pastors are often reluctant to confide their struggles to colleagues, for fear they’ll be pushed out of a job. And they tend to move so often, it can be tough to make good friends outside the congregation.
Eric Reed, managing editor of the church journal Leadership, urges churches to combat that isolation by assigning pastors spiritual advisors, or by requiring that they spend several days a year in counseling at a Christian retreat. “Don’t wait until the pastor falls apart,” Reed said. “Build it into the job.”
The trustees of Haggard’s former church, New Life, are considering writing such a requirement into the contract when they hire a new senior pastor.
To gay-rights activists, that seems a ludicrous response to Haggard’s disgrace. No amount of counseling can wipe away same-sex attractions, they say, and it’s cruel to make gifted spiritual leaders deny their sexuality as a condition of ministry.
Conservative Christians respond that everyone has immoral desires of one sort or another. Straight Christians are called upon to resist the temptation to steal or cheat or look at porn, they say, and gay Christians are called upon to resist any longings for same-sex intimacy. “We learn to manage [the urges] and not allow them to control us,” Williford said.
Alan Chambers, president of the “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International, holds himself up as an example. He says he confides any wayward thoughts to his wife and closest friends, so they can help him avoid situations that might tempt him to homosexual behavior. “Leaders don’t need to be ashamed of the fact that they’re human,” he said.
In the last few weeks, he has shared that advice with church leaders from across the country. Chambers says he hears a common desperation in their voices. They haven’t yet fallen, they tell him. But they need help.