Jeremy felt a roller coaster of emotions in a matter of moments. There was excitement at searching through the scores of erotic pictures that flashed on his computer screen; the thrill of climax; and then shame at having done all of this in his church office.  Suddenly, he heard someone at the door. He panicked. His heart was racing. Had he remembered to lock it? As the door knob jangled but did not budge, Jeremy felt fear give way to relief. He expressed sincere thanks to God for having dodged a potentially disastrous encounter and wholeheartedly vowed to never do it again. But two months later, after a particularly tense finance meeting in which people seemed to imply that he was responsible for the decline in giving, Jeremy retreated to his office, booted up his computer, and sought his escape. 

In our work with clergy and congregations, we have heard similar scenarios play out time and time again. While most clergy and congregational staff never suffer the humiliation of getting caught, the psychological toll of conflicted feelings, self-doubt, and shame remains. These conflicted feelings are often compounded by a looming sense of hypocrisy about being the chief moral leader in their community of faith. At such points, many people in ministry will attempt to “go cold turkey,” believing that if they only steel themselves then they will make better choices next time. But the psychology underlying such behavior suggests that the odds may be stacked against them. It’s simply not by chance that the porn industry is the number one business on the web.

Do you recall your Psychology 101 class in college? Sexual climax is a “primary reinforcer” of behavior. The good feelings associated with sex reinforce whatever behavior leads up to it, and the person’s likelihood of engaging in that behavior in the future significantly increases. On a behavioral level, it makes sense that people return again and again to pornography. Similarly, neuroscience explains the chemistry behind pornography, and researchers find that its use mimics the effect of drugs in the way it lights up the pleasure centers of the brain. Dopamine, adrenaline, serotonin and other feel-good chemicals flood the brain. After climax, other chemicals associated with falling in love are released and further link positive feelings to the act.

If it’s so natural, why should we be concerned? It’s an excellent question and there are at least three good reasons to take pornography use seriously. 

1. On a societal level, Wendy Maltz, a well-known sex therapist, characterizes internet pornography as “a public health problem,” and Patrick Carnes, a foremost authority on sex addiction, describes it as “our newest and most challenging mental health problem.” As an example of real world implications, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers identifies cybersex as a contributing factor in over half of divorces. In a recent article in Newsweek, reporting on a new study by Melissa Farley, the researchers lamented that “the use of pornography, phone sex, lap dances and other services has become so widespread that the researchers had to loosen their definition” of users vs. non-users of these services in order to assemble a 100-person control group. The article goes on to say that “the burgeoning demand has led to a dizzying proliferation of services so commonplace that many men don’t see (these services) as forms of prostitution.” (Newsweek vol. 158, issue 4, p. 61) Perhaps even more concerning, the largest users of pornography are among those who attend our church youth groups, ages 13 to 17. While it’s normal for teens to be curious, how might this shape their nascent views of intimacy and sexuality?

As moral leaders, many pastors know that they should speak out but cannot in good conscience when they’re accessing the same material. Statistics range from a third to over half of pastors acknowledging that they use internet pornography. It should be noted that these numbers represent only those willing to admit it. In fact, the numbers are likely higher.

2. On a personal level, numerous pastors have crossed the line from occasional use of internet pornography to a place in which it holds prominence in their day-to-day living. About ten to fifteen percent of internet pornography users engage in it compulsively and can be considered “addicted.” For these individuals, they spend hours each week searching the web, take risks by accessing it in the church offices, set aside ministry tasks in favor of the sexual high, and, over the long haul, damage their personal lives by neglecting spouses, family, and friends. 

Similar to other psychological concerns, we view the use of pornography on a continuum, from behavior that falls in the normal range to patterns that warrant attention and concern.  Meeting with a therapist can help a pastor figure out where they are on this continuum and identify strategies to deal effectively with it so that they can continue to flourish in ministry. Not addressing it can lead to devastating outcomes.

3. On a congregational level, the fallout can vary widely when a pastor is caught using internet pornography on a church computer. Like other types of sexual misconduct, some people will view it as no big deal because they are “only human;” while others will feel deeply betrayed as they had seen this person as “the moral leader” of their community. From our experience, the way in which the pastor, congregational leaders, and denominational officials handle the emerging situation can make a world of difference for the clergyperson’s future and for the ability of the congregation to recover in a healthy manner.


Join us on Friday September 16 when we will be offering a one-day workshop for denominational and seminary administrators at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton, MN to delve more deeply into the pastor’s use of pornography. Our goal is to explore the societal and psychological dynamics involved, as well as to share best practices in addressing it. We wish to move beyond the shame component of internet pornography use, which often only serves to drive people more deeply into secrecy, to offer practical advice on how to promote health and provide support for clergy who may be struggling with this issue. To learn more, go to or click here to listen to a podcast about the workshop. 

Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog  

Susan Nienaber is a senior Consultant for the Alban Institute.  She writes here with Dr. Mark Sundby, executive director of the North Central Ministry Development Center. Article written for Alban Weekly, © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.  



AL139_SM Spiritual Wholeness for Clergy: A New Psychology of Intimacy with God, Self, and Others   
by Donald R. Hands and Wayne L. Fehr  

The authors combine clinical psychology and spiritual direction to create a practical model of spirituality that integrates theology, psychology, and an understanding of individual frailties in a new way. Spiritual Wholeness draws on counseling experience with more than 400 clergy and pinpoints the human problems, traps, and temptations awaiting those who choose the clergy role. 

AL294_SM The Competent Pastor: Skills and Self-Knowledge for Serving Well
by Ronald D. Sisk

Competence, defined by Ron Sisk as “the ability to do what needs to be done,” requires ministers to understand themselves and others and to keep a realistic perspective on their lives. In The Competent Pastor, Sisk draws on the wisdom he gained in his many years as a pastor and seminary professor to describe what it takes to excel at negotiating the ins and outs of daily pastoral life.

AL289_SM Your Brain Goes to Church: Neuroscience and Congregational Life   
by Bob Sitze 

In Your Brain Goes to Church, ever-provocative author Bob Sitze joins the conversation with a new question: What does the human brain have to do with the beliefs, practices, and structures of congregations? Weaving together clear, accessible explanations about the workings of the human brain (an extensive glossary makes it easy to follow the more technical sections), Sitze shows how a congregation’s identity and behaviors are shaped by the work of individual members’ brains as well as by the “collected brain” of the congregation.

AL307 The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles  
by Timothy C. Geoffrion 

Designed for pastors, executives, administrators, managers, coordinators, and all who see themselves as leaders and who want to fulfill their God-given purpose, The Spirit-Led Leader addresses the critical fusion of spiritual life and leadership for those who not only want to see results but also desire to care just as deeply about who they are and how they lead as they do about what they produce and accomplish. Geoffrion creates a new vision for spiritual leadership as partly an art, partly a result of careful planning, and always a working of the grace of God.


Pastors, Pornography and Other Sexual Compulsions

September 16, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, MN  

Nienaber,SusanSusan Nienaber, Alban Senior Consultant


Mark SundbyDr. Mark Sundby, Executive Director of the North Central Ministry Development Center

Co-sponsored by The Alban Institute, North Central Ministry Development Center, and United Theological Seminary 

Learn More » 

For a full list of learning events, check out
Alban’s 2011 Event Calendar  


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