How to help someone who’s struggling with sexual compulsion, but is not a sex addict

Over the years in my work with sexual strugglers, it became clear that there is a spectrum of struggle … some people simply fight a battle with sexual temptation (and periodically lose), while others would fall into the category of sexual addicts. The line between the two is not always clear — it’s more like a spectrum, not a simple either/or — and many people struggle to honestly face the extent of their problem.

I have come to call this group of people — who fall repeatedly into sexual temptation, but don’t fit the diagnostic criteria for addiction — “sexual strugglers.” Often people in this category don’t have the patterns of emotional and sexual trauma from early life, and they don’t give evidence of other problematic addictive behaviors. But for some reason, they still struggle with behaviors around sex — often related to Internet pornography.

I believe that sexual strugglers need to focus on four things. I wrote an article about his on my sexualsanity.com website. I’ll include a link to the article, but just FYI here is the list of four things that people need to focus on:

  1. Vigilance – Recognizing that this is an ongoing issue that won’t go away, and continuing to pay attention to dangers
  2. Boundaries – Establishing limits and “bottom lines,” and identifying the places and situations where you get into trouble. Then finding ways to minimize or avoid them.
  3. Support – Creating a network of friends who (a) know the whole truth about your struggle, (b) are willing to help you in it, and (c) you enjoy being with.
  4. Emotional Awareness – Being attentive to your emotional states, and finding healthy ways of caring for yourself (so you don’t find yourself sad, resentful, and/or anxious and looking for unhealthy ways of coping … ie. acting out).

Click here for the full article

Overcoming Overwhelm in Ministry

I’ve noticed a theme in the lives of leaders I work with — most of whom are involved in church work: they are overwhelmed.

They are overwhelmed by the demands of church ministry, they are overwhelmed with the needs they encounter, and they are overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them. There is a virtual flood of ideas washing over them every week for how to do their work better, new conferences to go to, new programs to implement, and on and on. They struggle to manage their time, because there is a never-ending que of messages to respond to, emails to process, messages to prepare for, and problems to deal with.

To be clear: the issue of overwhelm is more than just about feeling busy. Busyness is not new … people have always felt busy. Remember that Henry David Thoreau felt so overwhelmed by the busyness of life that he needed to withdraw from the world and move into a cabin in the woods. He did this because life had become too hectic … and this was in the 1800s! This was before electricity, cars, planes, radio, television, the Internet, cell phones.

The problem of overwhelm in church ministry runs deeper than just full calendars and long to-do lists. This is a crucially important point, because if we misunderstand the problem, the solutions we try to solve it won’t work.

When it comes to pastors and other church leaders, I think there two bigger issues going on.

1. Overwhelming needs in the lives of people we serve

One is that leaders are faced with tremendous need and brokenness in the people they work with. It doesn’t matter what ministry setting we are in … we will find deep brokenness and dysfunction everywhere. We are as likely to encounter extreme sexual immorality in the sheltered rural community as we are in the city … drug abuse in the upper middle class community as in the working class community … relational brokenness and abuse in the suburb as in the urban core.

To put it mildly, the needs are overwhelming. Continue reading Overcoming Overwhelm in Ministry

The way we approach crime, punishment, and prison is terrible

I’m getting ready to conduct a recovery workshop at a prison in Texas in February. Lately I’ve been reading up about the realities of incarceration in our country … and I am appalled. Right now more than one out of 100 Americans is behind bars. We imprison more of our people than any other country.

A big part of the problem is our failed war on drugs, with mandatory sentencing in drug related offenses. I am no fan of drugs, but I’m fed up with our country’s approach to this very important issue. Isn’t it time that we declare the “war on drugs” to be a colossal failure, and instead push more money into addiction treatment? If we took just a FRACTION of the money we spend today on law enforcement and incarceration for the “war on drugs” and diverted it treatment, we could actually start to make some headway.

At the very least, we could reduce the crazy mandatory sentences we have for drug-related offenses, and institute more restorative justice approaches.

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Take a look at the infographic in this article, and ask yourself, “Who is benefiting from the war on drugs?” Obviously drug cartels and dealers, but also (and here’s the disturbing part) … so are police departments, which have seen their budgets grow exponentially to “stem the tide” against illegal drugs, the companies that supply weapons and technology to both drug cartels and the police departments that fight them, and — most disturbing — PRISONS.

The fastest growing population in the US is our prisons … and as the graphic shows, we now imprison 1 out of every 100 citizens. We imprison more of our citizens than any country in the world. AND … half of federal prisoners and 1/4 of all prisoners are there because of no-violent, drug-related offenses.

Who is paying for this?

WE ARE.

According to the latest figures I could find (2007), it costs taxpayers an average of $31,267 per year to feed, house, and guard each and every prisoner. I’m sure it’s gone up since then. Amazingly, NYC just released that in 2012, it cost them $167,731 per prisoner.

And of course incarceration is just the tip of the iceberg. Continue reading The way we approach crime, punishment, and prison is terrible

Great advice for parents of teens experimenting with drugs and alcohol

Teen drug use freaks parents out more than just about anything. Parents desperately want to keep their kids safe and healthy, and when they find out – or even suspect – that their kids are using drugs, they don’t know what to do. The two most common mistakes are the opposite extremes:

Some parents under-react, making excuses for their kids and/or denying reality. They may not be sure what’s going on, and may choose to not learn more, because they don’t want to know. They may try to pretend nothing is happening, while their child is headed down a very destructive path.

Other parents over-react. Their fear causes them to lash out, react with hysterics, and try to enforce punishments that are either too unrealistic to be followed through on (like being “grounded” for a year), or so serious and damaging that they escalate hostility and push the kids further away. Parents who over-react tend to make decisions that harm their children, damaging their relationship, and driving them into addiction, rather than steering them away from it.

There’s got to be a better way. Continue reading Great advice for parents of teens experimenting with drugs and alcohol

Is it Time to Remodel How We’re Living?

simplify-your-lifeI’ve been reading a lot lately about simplifying and streamlining life. One interesting book is The Not So Big Life by Susan Susanka. She is an architect, and the author of “The Not So Big House” series of books on home design. So when she talks about adapting to our increasingly overloaded lives, it’s not surprising that she uses a house analogy: “remodeling.” Here is how she opens her book:

We are facing an enormous problem in our lives today. It’s so big we can hardly see it, and it’s right in our face all day, every day. We’re all living too big lives, crammed from top to toe with activities, urgencies, and obligations that seem absolute. There’s no time to take a breath, no time to look for the source of the problem. We are almost desperate for a solution. If we stop and consider what our lives would be like if things got much faster, we might feel overwhelmed by hopelessness and futility. We just don’t have any more time to give. We’re at the end of our rope.

We need to remodel the way we are living, but not in a way that gives us more of the same kinds of space we already have; that would simply create an even bigger life. What we need is a remodeling that allows us to experience what’s already here but to experience it differently, so that it delights us rather than drives us crazy.

That’s the world we are living in, and that’s the primary challenge people in our churches are facing. People are overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with the pace of life, overwhelmed with challenges of making a living, overwhelmed by the problems they are bombarded with in the media, in their neighborhoods, and in their families. They are working crazy hours, commuting to work on congested roads, and coming home to chaotic homes with spouses and children struggling to manage their own overloaded schedules.

People who are overwhelmed are looking for help — they are searching for direction, encouragement, and insights about how to navigate  the world of stress and overwhelm. On amazon.com, for example, you can find 777 books on “simplifying your life.” A search on google for the phrase, “simplifying your life” creates 2,470,000 results. People are looking for help.

People struggling with overwhelm come to churches, hoping to experience peace and strength there, and hoping to hear wisdom from spiritual teachers about living well in the face of busyness and stress.

And what do they find?

All too often, people find that, instead of offering a place of refuge from the epidemic of stress and overwhelm, churches are just another place that adds to it. They find leaders who themselves are stressed out and overwhelmed. They find leaders who can offer no genuine wisdom for how to live differently, because they are as harassed and rushed and anxious as their parishioners (and in some cases more so). So people are really lost … they are like sheep without a shepherd.

My study and the writing project of “The Not So Overwhelmed Leader” is based on belief that this issue gets to the heart of our integrity as a church. We promise that people can experience an “abundant life” (as Jesus promises in John 10:10), a life where we experience joy and peace, even in the midst of the ups and downs of our fallen existence. But if we can’t live that ourselves … if our lives are as burdened, anxious, and stressed-out as anyone else’s … then why should anyone listen to us?

Overcoming overwhelm is not just a good idea for pastors. It’s not just something optional we can try to implement that will help us feel happier. It is essential for us to learn to live differently, so we can help people in our churches to live differently. It is the need of the hour.

If we fail to subdue the three-headed monster of busyness, anxiety, and stress in our own lives — we have no credibility in trying to help others deal with this issue.

And make no mistake, this is one of the essential issues of our time. Failing here, we fail everywhere.

I’m not saying it’s easy, and I’m not claiming to have mastered this myself. It’s an ongoing priority in my life to balance an active and engaged life with a heart that is serene, joyful, open, and loving. If people come to church and find the pastors are stressed out, anxious, overwhelmed, and resentful … they will filter the teaching that comes from the lips of these pastors. There will be part of them that realizes that these pastors are not able to help them with one of their greatest sources of pain.

What addiction and recovery taught me about “believing in God”

The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines belief as: “A state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.” The experience of addiction messes this up for Christians, whether they want to admit it or not. They say that they “trust God” to help them be happy in life, and to help them overcome their addiction … but somehow this “faith” doesn’t seem to be working. Why not?

My experience of addiction and recovery has forced me to admit that professing to believe something doesn’t mean I really believe it. It has forced me to be attentive to situations where what I observe and experience in “real life” don’t fit with the set of beliefs I espouse.

beleiveComing to believe is a process

In 12 Step language, recovery is a process where people “come to believe” in a Higher Power who can help them overcome their addiction. It’s not assumed that anybody is doing this when they start. It’s a process … and it takes time. And for people who come into this process with a set of beliefs about a “Higher Power” already established, the scary reality is that part of their problem is likely that some of those “beliefs” are inaccurate and destructive.

Religious people hate hearing this. They want to think that their spiritual life is all fine, just the way it is. In fact, they think that recovery should be easier for them than for “non-religious” or “non-Christian” people … because they have the spiritual part all figured out already. But what if they don’t?

Suppose I believe that God is a magic fairy and that if I ever get into a big problem, I can spin around in a circle four times and say “help me help me help me fairy God” … and then all my problems will be solved. I am very earnest and sincere about this … and I go to a church that teaches this as the correct interpretation and application of the Bible’s promises about prayer.

But then suppose I come into a recovery program with my life in a shambles and my addiction raging out of control … but I still have this belief about God and the spiritual life. It should be obvious that the magic fairy prayer beliefs need to go. They aren’t working … and in fact are keeping me from doing the things that would work.

Look honestly

So when we go into recovery, it’s wise to go into the process holding our “beliefs” loosely. Maybe our beliefs are wrong. Maybe our beliefs about who God is, and how God relates to us, are more a part of the problem for us than part of the solution. Maybe some of these beliefs reflect the dysfunction of the family members, church life, and traumatic experiences that shaped us in early life.

To me this is part of the genius of 12 Step recovery. By keeping the God language vague and recognizing that “coming to believe” is a process, 12 Step recovery offers Christians a golden opportunity to ask themselves important questions about their spiritual life.

The irony

I find it sad and ironic that this aspect of recovery — the recognition that our spiritual beliefs need to be looked at and will likely undergo some changes — is the great wisdom of the 12 Steps but is also the reason why so many Christians don’t like the 12 Steps.

I come from an evangelical, Bible-based Christian denomination, and I’ve met a lot of people who don’t like the 12 steps because of the language in Steps 2 and 3. They won’t go to a 12-step program which talks about a “Higher Power,” and “God as you understand God”. They want to go to a Christian program, which specifically talks about Jesus Christ. They see 12 Step spiritual vagueness as a threat, and assume that if Jesus isn’t mentioned by name in the steps, that somehow He will be ignored in the process of recovery.

I have come to a place where I see this broad, non-specific language about a higher power as a good thing. I was a pastor for many years. I had concrete beliefs about God, and devoted my life to studying this belief. I had the impression that I understood the pure, unadulterated image of God and that I was giving the “true gospel.” But at the same time I was struggling with addiction.

After being in recovery 12 years, I’ve come to a place where I see things differently now.  I see how important the language in this step really is. This language allows people of all spiritual backgrounds to be able to take part in the 12 step program, but it also forces those who already have a belief in God to really dissect that belief and figure out what might have been missing in the first place.

The 12 steps asks us to turn our lives over to God as we understand God. If we don’t understand who God is, how can we in any meaningful way turn our lives over to God?

The great news

Here’s the great news: it’s okay to do this step by step, and it’s okay to do this imperfectly, knowing that “more will be revealed” as we continue the recovery process. As we continue the recovery journey, we will “come to believe” in new and deeper ways, and thus “turn our will and our lives” over to the care of this God in new and deeper ways.

The work of spiritual care

spiritual-direction3The work of spiritual leadership includes providing spiritual care … what people used to call “The Care of Souls.” This care involves ministering to people in the crisis times of life, but it’s much more than that. It is also about helping people grow spiritually. It’s about equipping them to go through the normal ups and downs of life. Helping them navigate through life as it unfolds.

In this regard, I think the care of souls is similar to the work of spiritual direction. Spiritual direction, though a very historic practice, seems to be coming into its own as a special discipline these days, with special schools, workshops, and certification programs. Formerly known mostly in Roman Catholic circles, it’s now being practiced in a variety of Protestant settings as well.

David Scheuneman describes spiritual direction like this:

“Generally speaking, spiritual direction refers to a relationship in which one person assists another’s spiritual development. It takes various flavors, sometimes called spiritual friendship, mentoring, guidance or counseling, depending on the context. It can be formal or informal, professional or casual.”

I’m familiar with the work of spiritual direction – having worked with spiritual directors during several periods of my life. I hope it’s not a slight to them to suggest that their work is what many pastors have done since the time of the early church … and it’s something that pastors could be doing today. I find that many pastors want to do this kind of work … in fact providing this kind of spiritual care to people is what attracts many people into ministry. But not many pastors are doing it, for reasons I’ll get to later in this article.

What’s helpful about envisioning our ministry in terms of providing soul care and support to people is that this is full-orbed ministry. In other words, we’re talking about something that is more than just crisis care, and it’s more than just helping people with the “spiritual” parts of their lives.

I’d like to quote at length from Thomas Keating on the work of spiritual directors. Notice the psychological sophistication as he describes the issues people need to address in spiritual direction. Keating is not simply telling us to encourage people to pray and read their Bibles more.

“Any sign that you are upset is an invitation to ask yourself why you are upset and not project the blame on another person or the situation. Even if they are to blame, it won’t do you any good until you solve the real problem which resides in you. The fundamental work of the spiritual director is to encourage and guide people to submit to the divine therapy which allows the unconscious emotional material of early life that led to the drive for security, esteem and affection, and power symbols in the culture to be evacuated.

“Each of us has a significant dose of the human condition. In Catholic theology we call it the consequences of Original Sin. We come into the world not knowing what true happiness is but needing it; not knowing what true affection is but needing it; not knowing what true freedom is, but needing it. We bring with us into adult life the way we as children coped with impossible situations, either through repression of feeling or by compensatory programs for happiness that could not possibly work. The stronger those needs, the more frustration when they were not fulfilled.

“Into this universal human situation Jesus comes saying, “repent” which means “change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.” Human happiness is found in the growth of unconditional love. The work of spiritual direction is to help us to become aware of the obstacles to divine love and the free circulation of that love within us. This requires the cultivation of a non-possessive attitude toward ourselves and other people. Gradually we learn that God is the true security, God truly loves us and with this love, we can make it even if no one else seems to care.”

I don’t know about you, but I love to work with people at that deep level of human experience. But I don’t really find that I do it very much as a pastor … and I know I’m not alone. Few pastors today really get into this kind of deep soul work with their parishoners. In fact, I believe that one of the reasons for the growth of “spiritual direction” in Protestant settings is that in our churches today, pastors aren’t able to offer this level of care to people in their churches.

What is that? I think there are three reasons for this — two obvious, and one not-so-obvious:

1. There’s not enough time to do it

This is the most obvious reason why pastors don’t do the work of deep spiritual care. We are too busy with other things, and our churches are too big to allow adequate time to devote to this work. It’s not scaleable … there aren’t enough hours in a week for a pastor to offer this kind of care to people in churches with hundreds, let alone thousands, of people.

It takes time to hear someone’s story, to learn enough about their life that you’re able to make sense of the complex questions and struggles they are working through. Who has time for doing that, when there are so many other church tasks that need to be done? (More on that in a minute.)

2. We’re not trained for it

Doing the work of spiritual direction well is an art and a skill, and it takes training. Many of us have been trained by seminaries that prepared us to be theologians and preachers, with a couple of pastoral care classes thrown in to help us deal with marital conflict and death. To get into the deeper issues of someone’s life would move into the category of “counseling” … something that most pastors are not trained to do.

In fact, I would suggest that not only are pastors not trained to do counseling, they are trained not to do counseling! Do you see the difference? In books, seminars, and conferences over the years, the message drummed into my head as a pastor has been: “Meet with someone once or twice about an issue or question … but don’t establish a long term counseling relationship. If they need more than that, refer them to a trained therapist. Let counselors do the counseling.”

This advice makes good sense from a strategic perspective, and seems consistent with Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4 that the role of spiritual leaders (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor / teachers) is “to equip God’s people” for works of service. In other words, we aren’t the ones who are supposed to be doing the ministry, we are equipping other people to it. We are called not to be shepherds, but to be ranchers … to help equip people in the church do the shepherding.

I don’t know. Look around at the church in America these days. I think what’s happening is that there’s not much shepherding going on by anybody. And so now we’re professionalizing it, and sending people people to spiritual directors. Is this really what we should be doing?

3. We struggle to balance providing soul care to people with the demands of “running the church organization”

I have also found that it can be a challenge for a pastor to care for people on that level, when the pastor is also charged with the responsibility of building the ministry of the church. There have been times when my task of building the church’s ministry seemed to clash with the task of caring for the souls of people who were volunteering to serve in various capacities. Sometimes what they needed was to stop serving in those positions, because they were getting burned out, or needed time to heal from another life crisis. This is to say nothing of the challenge of how to balance my time — as the church gets larger and more complex, providing leadership to it takes increasing time and attention.

So what do we do about this?

I will be the first to admit that this article is more about me venting and thinking out loud than it is about providing a clear-cut solution. Here’s some ideas:

1. Implement the Richard Baxter model of one on one visits with all members of the church as part of the lead pastor’s job. Richard Baxter, in the book “The Reformed Pastor” described his approach to this issue, which involved a plan and almost fantatical devotion to a system of annual “church visits” that he would do with members of his congregation. I remember reading the book and wondering how meaningful those kinds of visits would be today … it seemed like he was mostly spending that time preaching to them and challenging them to be more devoted. Not sure this would work for me today, but you’ve got to give him credit for creating a plan and doing it. In that book he (rightly) emphasizes that life-change is not the automatic result of listening to a bunch of sermons.

2. Keep churches small enough so the pastor is able to devote time to providing this kind of soul care to church members. I’m not sure what to do about the fact that people seem to like big churches. This would mean doing things — like more strategic church planting by hiving off members — to actually keep the size of churches down. Can churches afford to do this? Pastors and church buildings are expensive.

3. Figure out ways of providing this kind of soul care to groups of people, rather than simply doing it one on one. This is actually happening in the spiritual direction movement, where people are establishing “group spiritual direction.” I know that some people might struggle to share all the things going on in their lives in a group context … they might prefer to talk one on one about some “touchy subjects.” But strategically, doing things in groups would make this much more powerful, as the leader would be able to reach many more people within the limits of his or her time.

4. Figure out ways of better equipping and training leaders within the church to do this kind of soul care. In other words, get more people who are gifted and trained to provide spiritual direction. Make this a mainstream part of the church’s life. I have one reservation about this — I find that people have a desire to be able to connect with the person doing teaching in the church. In other words, it’s helpful if you can combine the work of teaching with this kind of care.

Leadership Communities Teleseminar Recording – The Strategy for Maximizing your Spiritual Leadership

isolatedLeadership Communities…. What they are. How they work. And why they can help you.

In this informative free teleseminar, program director Mark Brouwer will talk about what the new “Leadership Community Groups” are. He will describe the program, and explain how the groups work, and why they are life-changing for leaders who participate.

These Leadership Community Groups will be starting in the Fall of 2013, and are built on the foundation of a series of pastor support and coaching groups that Mark Brouwer has been leading since 2008.

Note: this teleseminar has already taken place. You can get a recording of it for free! Sign up using the form at the link below:

–Sign up Here–

Pope Francis on the need for community

Pope Francis was quoted as follows in a USA Today article, reporting on his most recent interview. This interview was carried out in Italian on behalf of La Civiltà Cattolica, America and other major Jesuit journals. America arranged for the translation into English. The interview made news because of his comments about the Church’s statements about abortion and gay marriage … but this jewel came out in another part of the interview.

Well said Monsignor!

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What you do is important. I want to help you keep doing it.