It was an ordinary Wednesday. I was face down, lying prostrate, on the cold tile floor in the church bathroom. I heard someone open the door. I mumbled something in response as the woman asked why I was on the floor in the first place. I was feeling too sick to move, and the cold tile felt good against my throbbing head and sweaty body. I simply muttered about being so tired and the tile feeling good. At least that’s what I think happened.
I apparently wasn’t aware that I reeked of alcohol. That’s what my husband told me bluntly as he picked me up from my office at church. “You reek. What happened?”
I couldn’t believe I had to call my husband for a ride home after my liquid lunch. I tried sobering up by lying on the bathroom floor and a few hours curling up on the church chairs in the sanctuary. I was so ashamed and embarrassed for myself. After all, I was a well-respected associate pastor at this church of about 500. So much for self-respect.
The next day I shuffled into my office. I don’t even know how I got my car back home or even if I just left it in the parking lot and walked to church the next day. My computer was still on and open, and it looked like I had left in a hurry. The worship leader mentioned something about leaving things “awry.” I brushed off his comment with, “Yeah. I had a bad day yesterday,” and left it at that.
But, yes, I knew I had a problem. A really big problem. Now another person, besides myself, knew I was an alcoholic. Just the word alcoholic made me want to shudder and run away. I wanted to run away from everything including myself. Words; there were a lot of them thrown about the afternoon and night after my husband took me home. The three w’s — when, where, why? How would I even begin to tell any of my story or problem? I didn’t know where to begin.
So how does an associate pastor get addicted to alcohol? The reasons are many, but mostly because of private pain — pain of children leaving the nest, pain of the onset of middle age and wearing the well-worn mask of strength and righteousness of a pastor. It had all come to a climax, and I felt like I was living with so much private pain, that no one could, would or should hear about it, including my husband and senior pastors.
I had been on staff at this large church for about 13 years, and ministry had worn itself thin. I felt jaded. I felt lonely and unsatisfied with my ministry as a pastor. I knew about burnout and was more than earnestly feeling its effects. I knew firsthand that the average person in the church did not want to know my personal problems. I was to be an example. Someone to look up to: holy, responsible, happy and joyful about ministry. These were all things I could no longer pretend were present in ministry for me.
How does a pastor become vulnerable in a congregational small group while respecting boundaries for both parties? How was I to tell my personal problems to people who didn’t think I had any or should have any? It became unbearable.
So I thought a little wine could help. Wine wasn’t strong enough to drown the pain. I went straight to hard liquor. In my soda at night at home or in my coffee cup at staff meeting, the liquor came with me. But no one knew except for me. Now the secret was out and I had to manage the damage.
I knew I had to tell someone else other than my husband. I wasn’t thinking I would march right into my senior pastors’ office and blurt out the whole truth. I simply couldn’t at this point. After all, I made vows saying I would not drink as a Free Methodist pastor. I agreed that I would abstain from alcohol. And yet I was an alcoholic. I could speak the truth and knowingly end my pastoral position. This was a key issue that was one I wrestled with.
I knew enough about counseling and counselors to make an appointment with one. There happened to be a Christian counselor I could meet with. I would meet weekly with this man. Each time he would encourage me to tell my senior pastors. Each week, I went home thinking about it and losing my job. Could I risk telling them without losing my job? It seemed absurd for me to even think I would not get fired at first mention of alcohol use. After a few weeks and discussions with my husband, I finally made the appointment to see my senior pastors, to come clean. I went, along with my counselor, to share what I had been going through.
My senior pastors received me and my news graciously and with much kindness and compassion. The question was: Had I repented and did I receive forgiveness from God? “Yes to both,” I declared. I had made the decision not to drink again after the bathroom floor incident. My senior pastors in return told me everyone, including them, has secret or hidden sins. It just happened to be, in this case, I was an associate pastor.
Complete forgiveness without repercussion of any kind other than my own shame unfolded before me. I volunteered the information that I would be continuing to seek counsel and continue not to drink alcohol. I was both surprised and relieved, especially since I was prepared to lose my job and pastoral office completely. Incredible understanding and mercy was shown to me after my secret sin was now revealed.
I could now start with the business of cleaning up my personal life, emotional life and spiritual life. Now sober, I realized just how much denying the presence of sin in my life had weakened the very foundation on each of these levels. My personal life, especially with my husband, eroded any trust that was there. Emotional issues of empty nesting, burnout and shame crowded my interior emotional life.
My spiritual life was left in shambles knowing I not only betrayed a vow to my congregation and conference but to my Lord Jesus Christ. I felt like the carbon copy of Judas who betrayed Jesus with a kiss. I asked myself: How on earth had I managed to veer so far off the track? As a result, not one of these areas was healthy enough to find strength or joy in.
I remained sober by attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly. It was awkward at first because some people recognized who I was. It was shortly after attending several AA meetings I researched the Celebrate Recovery ministry. This was a ministry that came out of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church.
In a short amount of time, I was able to assemble a group of leaders who were willing to start this ministry up at our home church. This recovery group was the strength of me remaining sober for a long time. I was grateful for a chance to heal emotionally as well as spiritually, which Celebrate Recovery had an emphasis on.
I continued to preach about once a month during my initial recovery period. I felt awkward at best. It was very difficult to comprehend that I had been in the pulpit knowingly and willingly with deep, hidden sin in my life. The thought of preaching again terrified me to the core because I had already been so disloyal to the church and to God. The power and effectiveness of my preaching was greatly affected even after I had become sober. I had no self-confidence whatsoever. This was part of the price I paid for my previous sin.
In my personal life, I suffered greatly with shame and regaining balance to know I had been completely forgiven. It was important for me to stay in the Word and continue to reaffirm what God’s truth said concerning me. In a way I felt like David who felt the sting of his sin after he lost his first son he had with Bathsheba.
Now I am able to see that I wasn’t much different than our spiritual forefathers like Abraham, Moses and David. They had all sinned in significant ways yet were forgiven and brought to a place of repentance and forgiveness. The only difference was I was a pastor in a very public office.
I have come a long way since finding myself lying on a cold tile bathroom floor in August 2009. After about two years of sobriety, I felt it was time for a break from ministry. My husband also retired officially from his job after 29 years. We relocated to a warmer climate.
I don’t foresee re-entering the ministry in a pastoral role in the future unless I get a very clear and loud call from God. For now, I am content to serve in a local church through various ministries in a layperson’s role. I find both joy and pride in doing this knowing I am serving out of love and not obligation or burnout.
“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).
In August, I will have completed five years of sobriety. This is a landmark of many yet to come. I take comfort in the fact that “if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).
My ultimate purpose in writing this article is to let others know to get help if they are struggling with private pain. There is help available in both the public and private sector to those who are hurting. In my case, my pain — though private — was happening in a public pulpit. I became defeated, burned out and emotionally damaged because of alcoholism. Clinical depression set in making the damage further felt inwardly and emotionally. It is my hope that by sharing my story, someone will turn around and reach out before the damage gets too overwhelming.
Today, I stay close to the Word, making daily confession that it is only by God’s grace I can make it through. My awareness of my constant need for Christ is perhaps my greatest strength. My go-to verse when I am really weak is John 8:12: “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”
I am so grateful to once again be walking and living in God’s light and life of fullness and forgiveness. May you also find light in your time of darkness and need.
DISCUSSION: In what ways do you self-medicate? Are those ways God-pleasing and consistent with Scripture and denominational guidelines?  Do you feel this pastor should have suffered more consequences for her actions? Why or why not?  Do you think addictions are an illness or simply sin?