|Mending & molding the pieces into a whole Body|
January 1, 2001
This is a true story. Only the names and locations have been changed.
The high-pitched roof of the sanctuary blocked the morning sun from the office windows, but by two in the afternoon, the light was streaming in and the office was growing warm. Russ pulled on the cord to adjust the blinds. He turned the slats upward to cut the glare on his computer screen.
His morning had been productive. Russ usually outlined his sermon on Tuesday. He researched the text and read commentaries on Wednesday. On Thursday he located the right illustrations and wrote the manuscriptif everything worked on schedule.
This week it had.
The fire of this message burned in his bones. He would review his notes several times over the next two days, then step up to the pulpit Sunday and deliver the word of the Lord with skill and passion. This would be a good one. He could feel it.
Russ hadn't thought of lunch; he wrote while the words flowed. Eileen's clatterings in the outer office hadn't bothered him this day. She had deflected a couple of phone calls. Thursdays were important to Russ, and Eileen was protective of them. Only once had she interrupted him with a question about the order of service. And he heard her muttering when the folding machine started wrinkling the bulletins. After a jam and some loud banging, she had decided to fold the bulletins by handagain. "Get a better crease that way," she said.
Now, the only noise was the occasional turning of pages as she read a novel. Russ glanced at the clock.
"Is the bulletin done?" he called through the door partly open between their offices.
"Yes." Eileen was efficient.
"What time do your kids get home?" He knew the answer.
" 'Bout three-fifteen." It was almost three.
"If everything's ready for Sunday, why don't you go on home," he told her. "There's no need for you to sit here."
Within two minutes he heard the snap of the deadbolt, the slam of a car door, the scratch of tires. He waited. Silence. Then the fan motor on his computer purred, the mouse clicked, and in an instant Russ was oblivious to everything else.
He had no idea how much time passed. It didn't matter. Russ looked until he could wait no longer. Then he hurried down the hall. Knowing he was the only one in the building, Russ slipped into the men's room, and masturbated.
The church of a lifetime
Woodland Church was a plum. In the dozen or so years since he graduated from seminary, Russ had pastored three churches in mostly rural settings, each a little larger than the one before it. "This is a good move for you," the denominational executive in charge of the region said.
Russ knew it was.
Woodland was a thriving suburban church. Dayton, only 45 minutes away, was growing in the church's direction. The church had a reputation for treating ministers well. Every pastor within a 300-mile radius wanted this church. So Russ was surprised when the committee requested him. He was experienced and was considered a good preacher. And Russ was at the right age, in his early forties, where most everyone in the congregation could relate to him. This was indeed a good move. Once at Woodland, he couldn't imagine aspiring to any other church. "I'll probably retire there," he surmised.
Russ thought this move would be good for his family also. His wife, Angie, wanted to be nearer her aging parents. She wanted their children to get close to their grandparents. Grandpa and Gram lived in Dayton.
Their oldest daughter, Cassie, was a sophomore in high school. She made friends quickly and would find her niche right away. Russell Jr. was turning six and would enter first grade there. Only Rebecca, their middle child, worried Angie. Becca spoke often about the friends she'd left behind. She would face junior high without them. Angie's mother said Becca looked thin. Russ attributed the awkward transition to adolescence.
Angie loved Woodland Churchthe peopleright away. She also liked the parsonage. "Oh, it's beautiful," she exclaimed, as the committee walked them through the house.
"We're thinking about adding a large family room," the chairman said. Angie knew it would be perfect for entertaining.
As a pastor's wife, Angie had suffered the usual slingstoo little money, too heavy expectations, too many dinners turned cold while Russ attended some member's need. But she developed a tenderness for the people and ministry. Angie liked being a pastor's wife.
The family settled in. The church was running smoothly. Their marriage was stable. In nearly twenty years, neither had strayed. Like every man, Russ was accustomed to asking more than receiving; but after two decades of married life, he really didn't expect much more from their sexual relationship.
That's when the e-mail came.
"Pastor, I want you to hold me accountable. I really need your help." Matt was the youth pastor. A part-timer, he was not in the building much on weekdays. He had made a point to come to the pastor's office that day. Russ, at the big desk, looked at Matt sitting across from him.
"I found the first pornographic site accidentally," Matt said. He hesitated. "I was looking for something else, and it was justthere. I was stunned by it and I turned the computer off right away, butlater," he confessed, "I went back."
"More than once?"
"Yes. Several times. But I felt really guilty about it. I've prayed about it. I told my wife. I asked her forgiveness. But I need someone who will help me control this urge toto look."
Russ fidgeted with the keyboard. "What do you want me to do?"
"I need someone who'll look me in the eye sometimes and ask if I've kept myself pure."
The two men prayed and Matt left. Russ knew he would never initiate the subject with Matt again. How could he?
Like Matt's experience, his had started innocently. Russ turned on the computer, then the computer turned on him. "Click here for a beautiful scene from nature," the e-mail read. Russ clicked. It was a naked woman smiling at him. He quickly clicked again and closed the e-mail. I should have erased it, he thought later. If only I had erased it.
Several days passed, but the image stayed fresh in his mind. When he closed his eyes, he could see her. Working on a sermon for the next Sunday, Russ felt the tug to reopen the e-mail. After Eileen left for the day, he clicked on the icon. "You've got mail!" the computer chirped. Two clicks later, there she wasstill smiling, still naked.
He revisited the photo several times the next week. The image sparked memories Russ thought he had forgotten, memories he had tried hard to forget. As a teenager, Russ had been frequently exposed to pornographic magazines, but when an abusive older brother left the house, so did the pornography. This smiling, available, inviting woman, so suddenly in his life, awakened in him something he hadn't felt in many, many years.
He felt accepted, appreciated, virile, horny. He wanted more.
And his search engine took him there.
Typing the word "sex" into his office computer, Russ found thousands of Web sites. He discovered a world he'd only heard existed. His visits were at first infrequent. He told himself, "I can stop anytime I want." But he didn't. In a couple of months, Russ was spending hours at a time, several days each week, staring at images on the computer screen.
More and more often he sent his secretary home early. His compulsion to look grew, and his excursions became more risky. Sometimes he didn't bother to send Eileen home. With the screen turned so only he could see it, Russ toggled adroitly between Bible study software and hardcore photographs of naked people having sex.
A few times Russ logged on at home and visited sex sites, usually late at night after Angie and the children were asleep. Sometimes the urge he felt was almost unbearable.
"Russ, someone has been looking at Internet porn on our computer," Angie announced one day. "Do you know anything about it?"
"It was probably one of the kids."
He didn't want to lie to Angie. On some level Russ felt guilty, but more about blaming the children than his voyeurism. Angie would never understand what he feltno woman would. If she found out, she would surely hate him for it. Matt told his wife, Russ recalled, but Matt also felt guilty, very guilty. Russ could live with his low-grade guilt a while longer, but he decided to save his surfingand his trips down the hallfor the office.
Angie found no more suspect communication on their computer. Since the children also denied any knowledge of the pornography, she dropped it. They would discuss it again in about six months.
Russ made one attempt to start an accountability relationship. He invited a member of the board who had become a good friend to lunch. "Jack, I need somebody I can spill my guts to."
"You can count on me," Jack replied. He stood by his pastor through a couple of tough situations. They candidly discussed church business and the personalities involved. "Just call on me, Pastor."
Russ never did. He couldn't get past Jack's invocation of "Pastor." Jack wouldn't want to hear what his pastor did with his long afternoons, that his temptations were as real as any man's, and that he succumbed. No one would imagine that this straight-arrow pastor was leading a secret life, much less discuss it with him.
If his town had had a red light district, Russ wouldn't know where it was. He never visited a nightclub, a strip joint, or a porn shop. In twenty years, he never peeked at the rack behind the clerk at the convenience store. Now, he was doing all thatelectronicallyin the church office.
And his virtual infidelity was about to become reality.
In the flesh
Julia was an average-looking woman, about Russ's age. What made Julia appealing was the look in her eyes, that same accepting, appreciative, inviting look Russ found online. Russ had known Julia almost as long as he'd known Angie. The move to Woodland brought their paths close again.
Russ wasn't surprised when Julia asked to see him. Her marriage wasn't strong, and she wanted to talk. His attempts to comfort her became an embrace, eventually a clutch, then a kiss that stirred him quickly and deeply.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, he thought two days later, reaching for the phone.
"I'm very sorry about what happened," he told her. "My defenses were down. It would be best if we didn't see each other again."
In the months that passed, Russ contented himself with Internet pornography. He didn't admit that his habit had become addiction, but he spent hours every week staring at the screen.
Nothing else satisfied him. Phone calls went unanswered. His sermons were anemic. Ministry, like his marriage, had lost its flavor.
Then he saw Julia again.
Their encounter was brief. No clothes were removed, but for Russ their clutching and fumbling had all the markings of an affair. And deep down, in that moment, he wanted it to be so much more. He wanted it to be everything he had watched others do for more than a year. He wanted it to be risky, raunchy, full-color, airbrushed. He wanted to be conqueror and her to be willing, nubile, and vanquished.
And then he thought of Rob.
Rob, his friend and colleague who divorced his wife of thirty years, was now married to the other woman, estranged from his children, 55 and unemployable, and out of ministry forever.
Later, alone in his study, Russ fell to his knees and cried out to God.
"Eileen, I won't be in the office the rest of the week. Ask Matt to cover prayer meeting for me tomorrow night. I'll see you Sunday." He hung up the phone and turned to Angie.
She was seated on the long sofa in the new family room. Already her eyes were red. "What's wrong, Russ?"
The story spilled out of him. He told her everything. At times the room seemed very large and Angie very far away. "I don't know how it went so far so fast. And the only reason it didn't go further was Rob. I thought of Rob. I don't want to be Rob. I don't want to lose you." Russ covered his face. "Have I lost you?" He expected Angie to start packing suitcases, to gather the children and disappear.
Angie was quiet for a long time.
She had many questions. Was she unattractive to him? Had she said no too often? What was it he wanted but didn't get from their marriage? Had he harbored a desire for Julia all these years? Why had he lied to her? And what about the church: how could he preach when he was swimming in such filth? Didn't he feel guilty?
She decided to save most of her questions for therapy. What she told him was "I'm not giving up on this marriage."
"But I'll have to resign," he countered. "We'll have to move. We may never have another church."
"I know. But I'm not leaving you."
Russ wanted to believe that, but for months afterward, every time he unlocked the door, he expected to find the house empty and the suitcases missing from the closet.
The kids came in later that afternoon, Becca and Rusty. Cassie was away at camp. It was the last week of August, and she was due home on Saturday. Angie prepared dinner. Conversation at the table was polite, but sparse. They would decide later how to tell the kids, and how much.
The conference with Russ's regional supervisor the next day lasted about three hours. Yes, he affirmed, resignation was the right thing. "I'll meet with you and your board Sunday morning at 8:30. I'll preach in your place, and after the service, we'll have a brief congregational meeting. Tell them you are resigning because of moral failure. Nothing else."
"He's our pastor. Why can't we discipline him?" Jack the board chairman asked on Sunday.
The supervisor looked at Russ. Russ scanned the board. A few looked him in the eyes. A few looked at their hands. Russ spoke up. "That's not the way it works, Jack. I'm sorry." Russ knew the procedure. He once served on the discipline committee for a pastor who'd had an affair. "I'm willing to submit to the discipline of the denomination."
"Besides," his supervisor said, "it's best if you make a clean break. You need to call a new pastor and Russ needs to get on with his life."
The explanation was almost as brief in the later meeting with the membership. After the visitors were dismissed, Russ stood before the congregation. Angie came in. She sat next to the supervisor's wife, sobbing softly. She buried her face in the woman's shoulder when he said the words "moral failure."
The phone calls began as soon as they returned to the parsonage. Church members were distressed and shocked. They wanted to know more, but there was no more that could be told. Always loving, Woodland Church wanted to be supportive now, but there wasn't much they could do.
Then pastors started callingand confessing. The men wanted to know Russ's story. When he told them about his Internet addiction, twenty admitted their own involvement, ten of them who pastored in his area. "You need to tell your wife and get help," he said to each one.
Then the calls stopped. He heard nothing more from the pastors, except one. Angie's friends stopped calling, too, all but two. Their life grew quiet and uncertain.
Deeper and darker
Angie's father died six weeks later.
Telling her parents had been as difficult for Russ as telling Angie. Russ loved his in-laws. Early in his ministry, his own family expressed little confidence in Russ or his calling, but Angie's parents encouraged him.
"I don't understand this," the old man replied when Russ confessed. "But, we still love you, and we'll do whatever we can to help you." His death so soon after was stunning.
At the funeral Russ watched another pastor conduct the service. That was my responsibility, he thought. I owed him that. Russ couldn't sing. The words stuck in his throat. He couldn't pray. Public prayer was all he had done for months. He couldn't console the grieving woman standing beside him. He could only weep. It's a good thing I don't own a gun, he thought. He would think that a number of times.
The letter from the discipline committee outlined the next two years of their life, but the details were up to him. They must move 25 miles from Woodland. They must engage a therapist. They must join a church of their denomination and Russ must meet monthly with its pastor. He must perform no ministry for one year. After that, the committee would consider some limited service. After two years, possible reinstatement, but who knows for sure?
The immediate questions went unanswered: Where would they live? How would they earn a living? How would they survive?
Russ started job hunting right after his resignation. He found little market for suspended pastors. In the meantime, Woodland Church was generous, providing some salary and benefits for four months. The new pastor wouldn't move in until after the first of the year, so they could stay in the parsonage temporarily. But by Thanksgiving, they were getting desperate.
"We ought to skip Christmas altogether," Russ said.
"We would, except for the kids," Angie responded. "I'll have to put up a tree."
"There won't be much under it."
Russ found a job selling cars in Dayton. They decided to move there. He started looking for a house on his lunch breaks. She started packing.
Russ rented a truck to move them just after Christmas, the only day it was available. Then his new boss scheduled Russ to work that day. The men of Woodland came through for their former pastor.
"They were so good and it hurt so much," Angie said to Russ when he came home to their rental that night. "They were laughing and joking and talking about how nice their Christmas was. And all the while they were hauling my life out to the van." She melted into tears as they stood in the disarray of furniture and boxes.
The next week Angie registered the kids for school in Dayton and began looking for a job.
Becca stayed behind when the family moved. She wanted to finish junior high with her close friends. Angie and Russ agreed for her to live with a family from Woodland, the parents of one of those friends who had been warm and gracious to them after Russ's confession.
Rusty seemed to adjust quickly. A new school and new friends were exciting for him. The reason for their move was not much of an issue. He knew it was Dad's fault and Dad was sorry. Rusty was not yet at an age where the term "Internet pornography" was appalling or alluring. Their oldest daughter, now 19, understood everything.
The day before he resigned, Russ drove to the camp where Cassie had worked for the summer. The account unfolded on their five-hour drive home. Russ stammered over the first few sentences. Cassie interrupted. "Dad, are we moving, again?"
"Yes, but we're not going to another church." Russ told her the whole story, including his clenches with Julia.
There were tears and long silencesCassie is a lot like her motherbut before they returned home, the young woman hugged her father and kissed him on the cheek.
"You're my daddy, and whatever happens, I will always love you," she said. It was the kind of thing a parent says to a child.
The reaction from Becca was delayed. "If it weren't for Dad and his stupid pornography, we wouldn't be here," she shouted at Angie months after they moved. Russ and Angie were called to Becca's school. She had fainted in class several times. The counselor suspected a cause.
"Becca is thin, but she appears to have lost weight since your move," the counselor said. "I'm afraid she may be bulimic." Their doctor confirmed the counselor's suspicions: Becca was eating very little and forcing herself to vomit that up. He recommended a treatment program for people with eating disorders. Angie added Becca's emotional condition to the list of matters to discuss with the therapist.
And to her prayer list.
Enter the bulldog
Through it all Angie was prayingfor Russ, for her children, for herself. But with Russ's confession, most of the people who were her prayer support were gone.
Angie's mother, though dealing with her own grief, tried to help her daughter. A few members of Woodland kept in touch, but she understood that with a new pastor and his wife in place, it wasn't easy for them to maintain a relationship with her.
"I passed a church yesterday, and a parsonage sat next to it," she said. "I was envious. Why should they have a church and I be deprived of mine? Every other time we've moved, there was a new congregation, new people to love and to love us," she said. "Where are the people this time, Russ?"
Tears came to her eyes with the thought.
The ministers in the area had frequent contact, and some of their wives grew close. Angie felt their loss deeply, but in her despair, she wouldn't call them. "We can't go to the conferences. Are we lepers? I feel like we've been shunned."
That summed up Russ's feelings. He'd had almost no contact with the pastors he had considered friends. When he met one on the street, the man would say "call me sometime," both knowing Russ wouldn't.
He did begin praying for an accountability partner. Since the confession, Russ had not looked at pornography in any form. (He and Angie changed Internet providers on their home computer and installed filters on the search engine. He showed her how to check the history of Web site visits, and only she had the passwords.) But the images were still in his mind and he wrestled not to act on them.
"Lord, if I'm going to withstand this temptation, I need help," he prayed. For the first time in a long time, he felt his prayers were heard.
James is not someone Russ would have chosen for a friend. He's younger. He has very different interests. They pastored in the same region, but that's about it. But when they met and James said, "I'm going to call you regularly," Russ knew he meant it.
"I need someone to hold me accountable," Russ said, "a man who will ask me the tough questions. And I need someone who will pray with me and for me, if I'm going to survive the next two years."
Russ outlined his plan: some prayer, some Bible study, and every time they met, the tough questions. James balked. "I never asked another man that before'have you looked at pornography since our last meeting, have you fantasized, have you masturbated?'"
"That's only part of it," Russ said. "I also want to be accountable for my prayer life, my devotional life, and my spiritual leadership of my family. I need to know that every week, I'll have to answer these questions. And I won't want to tell you that I've failed in any of these areas."
James took the case. "He's like a bulldog," Russ told Angie. "And if we make it through this, it'll be because you stood by me and James came alongside."
The waiting game
The alarm goes off at five. Angie gets up a half-hour earlier than she has to. She sits in the old chair in the living room and reads Scripture. She spends a lot of time in the Psalms.
Soon she'll get the children ready for school. Cassie is away attending a community college now. Rusty is beginning his second year at his school, and Becca is just enrolling in high school in Dayton.
Becca decided to move home after she completed the treatment program. She's still very thin, but she's doing better now. Becca hugged Russ when they came home. "You're my dad. I want to be wherever you and Mom are."
Russ is awake, though he worked late the night before. He won't sleep in. Temptation is strongest when he's home alone, so Russ will get up and get ready to meet James for coffee. Today is the day James drives into the city for their weekly conference.
He will tell James about his brother-in-law's funeral two days earlier. The death was unexpected, another shock for the family. But Russ found pastoral feelings stirring again, the desire to comfort and to pray that he had not felt in almost two years. He read Scripture at the funeral and sang. "It was so good to hear you sing again," Angie told him afterward as she squeezed his hand.
It was good, he thinks. I wonder when I'll hear from the discipline committee. It's been more than a year.
Then his thoughts turn to cars and trying to sell them with integrity. Lord, please send me a sale before the end of the month. You know the rent's due.
In an hour Angie will give him a kiss and head off to the shop where she works. Standing on her feet all day is hard, but she says the work is therapeuticit keeps her mind occupiedand she enjoys meeting the customers.
Besides, they need the money.
Eric Reed is associate editor of Leadership.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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