Over the years I’ve talked with many people, including pastors and ministry leaders, who are caught in the snares of a compulsive behavior. They keep trying to stop but can’t. No matter how guilty they feel or how hard they try they haven’t been able to get free.

Hope for Struggling Pastors

The ministry of Soul Shepherding focuses on helping pastors and ministry leaders. We want to say to you: there is hope! God’s promise is true for you: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

You can get free of compulsive behavior. You can experience new depths of intimacy with God, enjoying his love deeply and empowered by him to overflow joyfully in ministry to others.

Pastors Struggling with Addictive Behavior

Pastors tell us, “I’m a pastor. I shouldn’t be struggling with this!”

Yes, you’re serving God and helping people. Yes, you’ve been through seminary, Bible school, or other training and have wonderful godly wisdom to share with people. Yes, you’ve had powerful experiences of God’s love and have helped other people come to Christ. And, yes, you may still be struggling with a compulsive behavior as a way of dealing with Pastor Stress.

When pastors struggle with compulsive behavior usually the first place is in the area of ministry: overworking, always being in a hurry, or continually trying to rescue people. It’s hard for pastors and ministry leaders not to overwork when the needs of the church or ministry are so huge, so many people are need of their help, and everyone expects so much from them!

Our Stress Overload Inventory can help you assess if you might be in danger of burnout. Overstressed pastors tend to turn to other compulsive behaviors to cope with the stress. It’s a way to feel better or forget about their problems.

What’s the problem? Why do men and women of God get caught in the snares of compulsive behavior? We find that for some time, probably a number of years, they’ve had a growing Sanctification Gap in which they know about God but are not experiencing his presence, not living out their beliefs joyfully. They’ve grown tired and distant from God. Their souls are not satisfied in Christ like they used to be. They feel like they need a little something on the side to help them out.

Some Common Compulsive Behavior Problems

You may be thinking, “I’m not an addict. I’ve just been struggling, but I can stop this.” If you’ve been returning to a sin or other problem behavior it’d be helpful for you to understand how this may be a kind of re-cycling, self-reinforcing pattern.

Consider a habit you’re struggling with and ask God to speak to you about this as you read this article.

  • Abuse of alcohol or drugs
  • Using pornography or affairs
  • Overworking (including in ministry)
  • Overeating
  • Living in hurry (may be adrenaline dependence)
  • Rescuing other people (codependency)
  • Gambling
  • Internet addiction (e.g., using social media to the neglect of family)

Understanding the Cycle of Addiction

You may relate to the Cycle of Addiction. I want to show you how with the help of God’s grace you can learn how to step out of compulsive behavior and be free and satisfied in Christ and your life with him in the Kingdom of God!

Emotional Trigger

Compulsive behavior is triggered by an upsetting emotion like fear, anxiety, insecurity, sadness, loneliness, jealousy, inadequacy, anger, tiredness, boredom, or emptiness. These emotions may be connected to past experiences of abuse or other painful memories.

Emotional pain becomes a problem when you don’t want to feel it, are overwhelmed by it, or are afraid to be vulnerable and reach out for the care and help that you need. When unpleasant emotions are repressed they doesn’t just go away! They build up and are likely to drain your energy or cause more and more anxiety.

Also, stuffed emotional pain is likely eventually to be “acted out” unconsciously in compulsive behavior.

Craving

We all have personal, emotional needs. For instance we need to be connected to someone who cares for us, to establish our unique identity and be respected, and to know that we’re accepted even with our faults and weaknesses. But if we repress our needs than they can’t be me — we are never known for who we truly are so the attention and care that we received makes little difference for us.

If you have deep emotional needs that aren’t being met then you’ll start to develop cravings for things that feel good and are easy for you to access — like wine, chocolate, sex, or accomplishment. These things are pleasurable and make you feel better — for a little while!

Ritual

When you feel anxious or depressed and something makes you feel better you want more and more of it! It becomes very important to you. You anticipate using this substance or activity to get the lift you need.

Yet part of you knows that you’re drinking too much (or using ______ too much) and so you try to resist the craving or at least limit it. In the hours or days in which you are experiencing this emotional dynamic of craving-resisting-craving-resisting you may start to engage in “ritual behaviors” related to your compulsion.

At this point in the cycle you’re eagerly anticipating your next chance to use (your craving may be largely unconscious, especially if you’re trying not to have it). So you may start to flirt with your compulsion.

For instance, if pornography is your drug of choice then you may indulge in some visual “lust hits” without going all the way. Perhaps you channel surf on the television, hesitating on sexy commercials or R rated movies. Or maybe you start isolating from your family, overworking, or cruising around on the Internet.

Everyone with an addiction has certain ritualistic behaviors that are flashing red lights warning you: Your craving is rising up within you! Danger is lurking! Seek help!

Using

Resisting a craving is exhausting. How long can someone endure being torn in two — I desire to do this so bad, but I shouldn’t because it’s not right — before finally giving in, if for no other reason than to make the conflict go away?

If you’re caught in this cycle then eventually you’re likely to give in and use. For instance, the food addict who has stayed up late watching television alone (a ritual behavior) gets out a bag of chips and eats the whole bag and the whole container of cheese dip.

Guilt

The chips with dip tastes good. It’s crunchy, salty, and sweet. Eating and watching television is relaxing—no pressure, nobody needs you, nothing you have to do — you’re just sitting there being entertained and eating.

But at some point comes the stomach ache, the extra weight, and the guilt. The guilty regrets will come—whether its when you see the empty bag, later in the morning when you stumble out of bed, or whenever you get on the scale.

And guilt is just the tip of the emotional iceberg. Underneath that there are other emotional pains, including a hole in your soul… a vast, painful emptiness. No matter how much you eat or use ______ you can’t fill this void.

In time this emotional pain builds up and is triggered by some situation and becomes re-cycled again, “acted out” in a compulsive behavior.

The Way to Freedom

Recovery from any compulsive behavior problem begins with realizing that you’re caught in a cycle of addiction that you can’t control. You must admit that your life has become unmanageable (Step 1 in the Twelve Steps). Probably you believe in a God of love, wisdom, and power but for some reasons you don’t understand your Christian beliefs are not helping you to change.

It’s time to cry out to God to help you learn a different approach to getting free! Most people seeking change focus on trying not to use their compulsion anymore, but that’s just one part of the problem pattern and usually it’s the last part to change. In order to get free of a compulsion you have to change how you deal with each part of the Cycle of Addiction.

Emotional Awareness

How do you deal with your emotions? If you’re struggling with a compulsion then probably you also have a pattern of trying not to feel stress and hurt. Maybe you try to be strong or stay busy. Instead you need to learn to be vulnerable with someone. You need to become more aware your emotional stress and hurt and learn to reach out to safe people for support.

For instance, some people overeat when they’re overtired — that’s their emotional trigger. (For others it’s feeling lonely or anxious.) So they need to learn the reasons for their exhaustion and resolve those. They may need to set better boundaries on their work or on relationships that drain them. They surely will need to practice healthy behaviors and engage in good relationships that lift their spirits.

Meeting the Needs that Underly Cravings

Cravings for food, alcohol, or sex are intense when they’re associated with deep emotional needs. To progress in freedom from a compulsion it’s essential that you learn what these true needs are and how to meet them.

For example, sexual compulsives may use pornography with masturbation or sexual encounters with others as a way to feel emotionally alive and connected with someone. But sex in itself does not meet attachment needs. That requires an authentic, vulnerable relationship in which their is trust, love and respect. Learning to develop healthy relationships will over time decrease the craving for sex.

Other compulsive behaviors work the same way. If you’re having trouble setting boundaries on the time and energy you’re giving to your ministry why is that? No matter how important your work as a pastor or ministry leader is it is not more important than setting aside time and space to worship and enjoy God, be personally involved with your family, or care for your own soul. God is not giving you too much to do — you’re doing that to yourself — you must be trying too hard to please people or bolster up a sagging self-esteem. You need to address your personal need for acceptance or significance directly.

Replacing Rituals with Constructive Behaviors

People in the throes of an addiction give themselves permission to play around the edges of their compulsion. This intensifies their craving and makes it harder and harder for them to resist.

A critical part of recovery is identifying ritual behaviors and then eliminating them by replacing them with constructive ones. For instance, an alcoholic may like to drive down the street that his favorite bar is on. He has to accept that that street is not safe for him and use a different route to wherever he’s going. If he finds himself going down that street he needs to realize it is an urgent warning for him to go to a meeting or call his sponsor, counselor, or friend.

Using Recovery Resources

You can’t stop using an addictive substance or activity merely by trying harder. Trying harder to stop a compulsive behavior actually reinforces the cycle of addiction. I’ve talked with many alcoholics, overeaters, habitual users of pornography, workaholics, and others struggling with an addiction and they’ve all tried to stop their problem behavior on raw will power and found that they couldn’t — maybe for awhile they could, but not consistently. Or if they were able to stop cold turkey they did so either by switching compulsions or accomplishing behavioral change in that one area without real character transformation. (Have you ever heard of a “dry drunk”?)

The secret of recovery from compulsive behavior is indirection. Don’t try — train. That’s the way the 12 Steps work or any program of learning and transformation. For instance, the drug addict in recovery needs to identify the times he’s vulnerable to use and fill those time periods with AA meetings, counseling sessions, phone calls with friends in recovery, or other constructive, nourishing activities.

“Overcome evil with good” was the way Paul put it in Romans 12:21. The way to replace a negative behavior is with a positive one.

Discovering Self-Worth

Guilt and shame are a huge part of an addiction. You feel bad about using. More than that deep inside you may feel unacceptable as a person and this pain or emptiness predates your addictive behavior.

Sober, responsible living and loving requires that you discover healthy ways to experience your worth and value as a person, which will make you less vulnerable to using your drug of choice to make yourself feel better. For instance, the Bible teaches us, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Really believing and internalizing the truth of God’s mercy and grace is huge for progressing in recovery from an addiction. (Do you know the joy of your “Identity in Christ“?)

Seek Help from Christ’s Ambassadors

The power to overcome compulsive behavior patterns is in developing relationships with gracious, wise people who help you to connect tangibly with the love of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). By relating with a counselor, pastor, sponsor, or support group you can engage in a transformational process to get at the underlying causes of your compulsive behavior, develop the capacity to trust and receive care that meets your deep needs, learn to use recovery tools, and grow in the character of Christ.

Through the support and encouragement of Christ’s Ambassadors in your life you can learn to practice the tools (disciplines) that over time help you to become a sober person—humble, emotionally aware, self-controlled, and loving.


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