In June of 2016, I resigned from my position at a church as the youth pastor in order to seek treatment for serious alcohol addiction. Just prior to my resignation, virtually no one besides my wife and I were aware of my struggles (and she only marginally so). I was never a big partier. I didn’t go out drinking. Really, in many ways, my struggle with alcohol came about from dealing improperly with the stresses of ministry. As a youth pastor, there was a never-ending stream of crises, big and small, which took an emotional and spiritual toll on me.
I’ve spent much of the last year trying to understand how things got so bad so quickly. As a piece of background information, my father was an alcoholic that died from complications of his use of alcohol when I was 20 years old. Growing up with an alcoholic in the house, drinking alcohol never appealed to me as a teenager. I didn’t even go drinking when I turned 21. Eventually, after the age of 21, I did start drinking, but it was extremely rare and usually associated with tragedies or events. I actively made choices to avoid drinking too much because I was fully aware that I likely had genetics that would predispose me to alcoholism. All the way up until several years into my marriage, I was extremely careful about how frequently I would consume alcohol.
But, all along the way, there were choices I made that set me up for failure, or that actively set me on a path towards alcoholism. In each of these choices, the problem wasn’t the action itself, it was the logic and history behind it. As I made these choices, I was fully aware of my family history, and I chose an action that inclined me toward a dangerous direction.
For me, recognizing the choices I made was incredibly important in learning how to move forward. It’s very easy to point at genetic dispositions, circumstances and the choices of others as the reasons or excuse for our actions. While I fully believe it’s vital for us to understand the context under which we make choices, that should never undermine the importance of accepting the choices we made along the way.
Many factors played into my addiction but, all along the way, I made choices that fed my addiction and hid my actions from the people who could help.
14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.
At the core of each of my choices was a temptation and a deception. There were little temptations and deceptions all along the way driving my choices. I was deceived into taking the bait, which led me down a painful path.
Here are five deceptions, and five choices I made which led to serious addiction:
#1 – I Chose to Believe a Bad Day Was a Good Enough Excuse to Drink
My drinking started with a bad day. My drinking continued because of a bad day and my drinking turned into full-blown alcoholism because of a bad day.
The first time I ever drank was when I was 21 years old. I can’t really say I’d actively avoided alcohol up to that point, but I’d certainly never pursued it. One day, a bad enough tragedy occurred that a friend showed up at my house with a bottle of hard liquor, and I decided that the day’s tragedy was a good enough excuse to drink. Several years later my wife and my apartment was broken into, and we were totally cleaned out and didn’t have renter’s insurance. I decided that that was a good enough excuse to drink for several days straight because I was on a break from school. When I entered ministry, there was never a shortage of tragedies that needed to be handled, and far too many times, I decided that the day’s tragedy was a good enough excuse to drink.
I deceived myself into thinking a bad day justified a bad decision.
In reality, I was choosing to self-medicate with alcohol rather than turn to Christ with my struggles.
In all honesty, I can’t say I would blame anyone for choosing to drink a little if they found themselves dealing with any of the situations I faced over the years. The problem wasn’t necessarily drinking itself.
The ultimate problem was that I chose to violate my standards for myself because I had a bad day.
Each time I compromised my standards because ministry got stressful, I compromised the integrity of my ministry.
#2 – I Chose to Make Drinking Part of the Rhythm of My Life
If I haven’t made this explicitly clear, for the first 27 or 28 years of my life, I actively made choices to make sure I wasn’t consuming alcohol too frequently (though it would be fair to say that when I drank, I drank too much).
Then, sometime after I started in full-time ministry, something changed. Perhaps emboldened by nearly making it to age 30 without showing any signs of being an alcoholic, or due to frequent stress of ministry, I found a way to justify starting to consume alcohol on a weekly basis. The thing was, I wasn’t drinking all that much, and I could tell myself, “It’s okay. If I saw someone else drinking this amount at this frequency, I wouldn’t think anything of it.” But, I wasn’t someone else. I was still the person that actively chose to regulate alcohol consumption up to that point because I KNEW I needed to.
I deceived myself into believing I was strong enough to no longer carefully guard my intake of alcohol.
Once again, the problem wasn’t the amount of alcohol or frequency of the alcohol I was consuming. At the time I made that choice, the frequency and amount were small enough that my wife thought nothing of it. But, there was a side of me that knew I was dangling myself over the edge of wisdom.
I knew what I was doing was unwise for me, and I chose to do it anyway.
#3 – I Chose to Hide My Alcohol Consumption From My Wife
I actually fully remember the exact moment I realized I was an alcoholic.
The day itself was totally forgettable. It was a totally normal night in the Chandler household. I’d had a little bit to drink, but was nowhere near to drunkenness. At some point in the night, I went to the kitchen while my wife was in our bedroom, and I decided I wanted to drink more without her knowing. Specifically, I wanted to get at least a little drunk just because, and I didn’t want her to know. At that moment, I actually had the thought, “Isn’t this what alcoholics do? Well I’m only doing it once.”
But it wasn’t once.
I deceived myself into believing that a bad choice would only happen once.
Like any sin or foolish choice, the first time you do it, there’s a sense of fear, excitement and psychological reservation about doing it. But, when you’ve done it once (and there weren’t terrible consequences), it’s much easier to do it a second time. Suddenly it became much easier to hide how frequently and how much I was drinking.
This was, without question, when my drinking started to escalate and veered into a category that was indefensible.
In ministry it’s so important for your spouse to be your partner in life. Secrets isolate us and breakdown that partnership. When I chose to keep secrets, I chose to isolate myself while carrying the burden of ministry. Likewise, I isolated my wife during an incredibly stressful and vulnerable time in our marriage and ministry.
#4 – I Chose Partial Confessions Over Authentic Accountability
At this point in time, I knew my drinking was out of control. I knew I needed help, but I didn’t want to face the consequences of a full confession. Working at a church, I had serious fears that a full confession could cost me my job, career and reputation.
Therefore, I chose to partially confess my struggles.
I would tell my accountability partner(s) and friends just enough to be able to claim that I had admitted my struggle to someone, but never enough to actually be vulnerable. I would instruct my accountability partner to ask how much I’d had to drink, but I wouldn’t tell him that I shouldn’t be drinking anything. I wasn’t fully honest about how frequent and how much I was starting to drink.
I deceived myself into believing I could fix myself on my own.
This created a second area where I became numb to the partial truths (also known as lies) that I was telling people about my drinking. I’d become practiced in how I avoided actually addressing my alcohol consumption while admitting to something minor. My admissions were all spiritual sleight of hand to avoid having to face reality.
Eventually, I found myself somewhere where no one knew what was really going on.
I was vulnerable to one.
So, I became vulnerable to my sin.
Authentic accountability is uniquely difficult in full-time ministry for several obvious reasons. When you’re in full-time ministry, there’s usually certain expectations of moral behavior, and if you fail to meet those moral expectations you can be fired. For this reason, it’s usually not safe to fully share your struggles with someone from your church. If your only accountability partners are members of your church, it’s very difficult to be as vulnerable with them as you need to be to stop being vulnerable to your sin.
In ministry it’s vital that you find someone that you can tell EVERYTHING and still feel safe. This likely means you need to find someone or some people outside of your church. To be clear, if I could go back in time, I would have had accountability both from people in my church and people outside of my church. I needed people that saw me day to day and I needed someone I could safely tell everything.
#5 – I Chose to Let Fear of Exposure Guide My Actions Instead of Faith that He Provides
Eventually, after a period of serious tragedy, my life and addiction were completely out of control. I was in serious need of help, and my wife and family were strapped to me as I was spiraling out of control. By this point in time, not even my self-delusion could disguise my need for help from myself.
But, I was afraid of being exposed.
To be fair, all of my fears were totally based in reality. Admitting my struggle would (and did) have serious consequences for my ministry, my ability to support my family, and the way people saw me.
I deceived myself into believing my life would end if my sin was exposed.
I let my fear drive how I was making decisions for my family and for my treatment, and therefore, my addiction only grew exponentially with time.
For so long, I trusted in my ability to provide and my ability to fix myself; all the time knowing that God was the ultimate provider and Christ is the one who provides the grace and power which heals. In reality, I was actively opposing the source which could truly heal my sickness and my family.
Each and every one of us is different. We all have different vulnerabilities, but we’re all prone to sin and self-deception. In those situations, we can make incredibly self-destructive choices. The deceptions I believed and the choices I made have been incredibly painful for my family. While not all of these choices were equal in consequence, they were all in the same direction.
No one chooses to be an addict in an instant. It happens with a series of choices over time. Anyone can find themselves believing the lies and taking the bait.
If you find yourself deep in sin but reliant on ministry to make ends meet, I’d encourage you to reach out to someone who’s been there before. As someone who went through the very painful process of public confession, there is hope in the light. Your ministry is not your life. Your reputation is not your life. And living in the dark with secrets and sin is not living!
Stop being deceived, and choose to step into the light!
Sean Chandler is a blogger, speaker, YouTuber, and 10-year student ministry veteran. He has written for numerous ministry publications, including Youth Specialties, RelevantMagazine.com, and FaithIt.com. You can read his thoughts on life, sin, and grace on his personal blog, www.seanchandlerlive.com. For his movie reviews, check out youtube.com/seanchandlertalksabout/.