While life with an addiction, especially if you’re also a pastor, is like living in a pitch black cave. The journey of recovery is the slow recognition of the darkness you’ve been living in and a long journey seeking the traction you need to move towards the light. Last month on the Where Grace Abounds blog, I shared the first part of my story with you. Today, I would like to share my experience over the past six years, which includes a season of misunderstanding the light in my cave and the keys to finding traction on the road to recovery.

Life Post Arrest

As I closed my last post, I described getting arrested as a moment that felt like light flooding into my cave of addiction. Why light? A fallen pastor is usually rejected by both the church and the world. While the world took its best shots, the church responded with grace. That said, for someone who spent decades living in pitch black, even the smallest amount of light feels overwhelmingly bright. Fully stepping into that grace was more than I could bear.

I don’t have the time here to talk about the details of my experience in the years since, but I can describe the first phase as settling into a section of the cave that allowed enough light in that I could see, while never truly leaving my familiar and comfortable surroundings.

This enabled a season of what my wife describes as crafted vulnerability. I would carefully offer just enough of myself that you felt like you genuinely knew me, but I selectively guard the parts of me that my inner-shame declares unlovable. While this allows you to feel like we’re in a relationship and allows me to feel an illusion of love, in reality, it denies you true intimacy (into-me-you-see) and allows my shame to thrive. Sadly, if you’re a pastor, even without an addiction, I’m sure you can relate. For me, whenever crafted vulnerability proved too difficult to sustain, or whenever life grew too challenging, I would retreat back into the known darkness of the cave.

Truth be told, if I hadn’t remarried, I would still be living in that space. However, my wife loves me with such a passion that she’s been both gracious enough to forgive and jealous enough to refuse to settle for anything less than genuine intimacy. I had to choose between my cave and her. Although it was really a choice between the cave and truly living. The cave and my son, my friends, and my calling. As God’s prophet in my life, she’s the one who demanded I choose between the cave and the abundant life found in Jesus.

Pastor, if you know the cave, today my prayer is that this blog post serves as that prophetic voice in your life, and calls to long for the God who is the lover of your soul.

Finding Traction

I wish I could say that life today is easy. But that would be crafted vulnerability. Instead, I will say that life is terrifyingly hopeful. When the darkness beckons, I largely recognize what is happening and increasingly feel like I get to choose between standing in the uncomfortable light and retreating to an illusion of safety. I am equipped with habits, practices, and communities that help me step into the light. I am purposefully engaging with my wife, my son, family, friends, and my calling. It’s not easy, but I have traction and am moving forward.

But this didn’t come easy. Rather, I spent years of my life and thousands of dollars spinning my wheels. As I look back, there are four traction gaining practices I’ve found:

  • A God I Can Fall Into – I never found traction until I re-examined my theological framework and embraced something truly grace-based. As a former Lutheran, certain of my theology, this was a radical but vital step to breaking the bond of shame.
  • Receive Love & Acceptance – Perfect love casts out fear, but only when that love is received. Addicts are experts at deflecting love.
  • Engage Emotions – Addiction began with a need to sooth pain, but in the process, it numbed all of my emotions. Regaining feeling is key to freedom.
  • Practice Vulnerability – Until you are fully seen, you can never be fully loved. Addiction thrives in lies, manipulation, and deception.

Pastor, Are You Ready to Begin

I recognize the unique difficulty of being a pastor with sexual issues. I’ve created a pastor only course designed to help you gain traction and get on the road to recovery. It’s 12-weeks of small group work. Together we will explore Scripture, share our stories, identify our emotions, pray for one another, and receive each other’s blessing. All of which is designed to root us in the four traction gaining practices. Find out more at findingtractioncourse.com and enter the code WGA at checkout for 25% off the introductory offer.

Pastor Joe Burnham, DMin