The Hole in Our Training: An Open Letter of Appeal to All Seminarians (1)

Nick Stumbo

You don’t need to attend seminary very long before you hear various horror stories of men and women who were trained by godly professors, entered the ministry, and didn’t make it. I was one of those stories—almost.

I grew up in a pastor’s family in a small midwestern town. My dad was a second-generation pastor, and he and my mom had us in the church from day one. We were the prototypical pastor’s family, sitting in the second pew on the right each Sunday morning and evening, and Wednesday night prayer meeting. I can remember how exciting it was when my mom allowed me to sit with a friend’s family—they sat way in the back! Our family prayed before meals, spent the summers at Bible Camp or Vacation Bible School, and listened only to Christian music.

In every way, this was a positive experience for me. I had my own struggles, to be sure—more often than not I was the instigator for fights with my siblings and a constant source of patience-building for my mom. But all in all, I benefitted greatly from a godly heritage in a loving, authentic, spiritual environment. My upbringing—both at church and at home—taught me to love God, put others first, and live out forgiveness. I was given every opportunity to grow in my faith and mature as a Christ-follower.

Everywhere, that is, except in my sexuality. Within this peaceful, beautiful picture of a genuine faith-filled family existed a gaping hole around anything to do with sex. If the topic was ever brought up, the subject was quickly met with hushed whispers and furtive glances, letting you know that this subject was “off-limits.” Around age ten, I had one meaningful, if not incredibly awkward, conversation with my dad about the birds and the bees. My eyes were opened to a whole new world, a world that was never discussed again.

In middle school, our youth group began to encounter the “true love waits” messages at camps and conferences, typical of the 1990s. The message was clear: God made sex for marriage, and until then, it was off-limits. I understood this. I believed this! But underneath this firm doctrine, I was left with a whole ocean of grey unknowns. What about lust, pornography, masturbation, or so many other issues connected to the realm of human sexuality? These topics were rarely addressed in any way, other than the occasional, one-word message: “Don’t.”

In my teenage years, I began to struggle deeply with lust, provocative material like lingerie ads or swimsuit catalogs, and eventually with pornography. My desire to follow Christ was high, but so was my desire for the cocktail of arousal, desire, and pleasure that this cycle created in my brain. As this struggle began to deepen, I had no idea, no framework, of what to do with it. The one lesson I had learned well was the teaching of James: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (Jas 5:6). On numerous occasions, I found myself confessing yet another binge into this seedy desire, looking for freedom in the only way I knew how.

I am grateful for the people God led me to in those times of confession. Each one of them was gracious, offered sincere prayers of healing, and sent me confidently on my way to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11). These mentors and friends had been taught the same approach to Christian transformation I had received. When a person sins, they confess, others pray for them, and they will be changed.

I certainly walked away from those encounters understanding and feeling forgiven. What I did not experience was any kind of lasting change or transformation. I would will-power my way into a good stretch of a month or two, and then begin to believe I had changed. Not long after, however, I would be back in the same miserable pattern—a pattern of binge-purge with pornography that lasted into Bible college, my first pastoral role, and right into seminary.

I became a lead pastor at the ripe old age of twenty-six. At this point in my career, four years of Bible college training suddenly didn’t feel sufficient to the challenges I was facing, so I enrolled in seminary through a distance, “in-ministry” program and earned 144 credit hours over the next five years to be awarded a Masters of Divinity. Many of you are on your way to the same credential. Keep at it! Hopefully, you have fewer credit hours in your program than were required of me!

I loved seminary. I thought the professors were great and the instructional path solid, and the peers I befriended are still men and women I reach out to today. But in those five years of classes and weeks and weeks of in-person, onsite training, do you know how many hours were spent instructing us in healthy sexuality and how to live or minister with competence in this area? For me, it was roughly thirty minutes. In the environment most perfectly suited to lead me into further maturity in my sexuality, virtually nothing was ever said. The hole in my training had appeared yet again.

One of the last times I struggled with pornography was during the last year of my seminary program. When I confessed this battle to my wife, yet again, our marriage was on the brink. I had managed to be mostly honest with my wife during the first ten years of our marriage about my struggles. While she was able to accept and forgive, for the most part, the toll of ongoing confessions without lasting change was beginning to erode her hope and her heart. If something didn’t change soon, she was out. With her would have gone our four kids, my ministry, and the only career I knew.

The hole in my training was suddenly glaringly obvious. Despite the incredible, godly instruction and upbringing I had received from day one in my life, I was about to lose it all over the one topic no one talked about. I had been trained to preach, exegete, lead, and administer. No one had trained me concerning what to do in my own sexuality, and this is the hole that almost swallowed me up.

By God’s grace, my wife and I were connected at this time to the excellent counselors and healing approach of Pure Desire Ministries. Over the course of a year, we were discipled through an intense process of healing and change that included personal assignments, group work, and couple-to-couple counseling. For the first time in my life, someone did more than pray over me and tell me to try harder to avoid falling into sin. Someone showed me the way, a new path to walk down.

Author Juli Slattery has coined the phrased “sexual discipleship.” I love that phrase because of how it speaks to my own experience. For thirty years, I had been taught to do the right thing by knowing the difference between right and wrong. This clarity only made my battle with pornography that much more shame-inducing. I knew the right way to go, but I felt incapable of doing it! But through Pure Desire, I found fellow believers who knew how to disciple me, to train me up, into a new way of life. At Pure Desire, we often say to new clients, “We’re not here to stop a behavior; we’re here to help you change the way you do life.” That sounds like a definition of discipleship, doesn’t it?

The apostle Paul speaks to the discipleship process: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me” (1 Cor 13:11). We see how this progression takes place in so many areas of life; we recognize the need for training. But we rarely, if ever, think of our need for training in the arena of our sexuality. What I discovered in the healing process went far beyond a sin issue (though it is sin) or a failure to know right from wrong. I had suffered, and so many like me do as well, from a lack of training in what it looks like to be mature in my sexuality.

After this year of “sexual discipleship,” my wife and I took a courageous step with our church. We told the whole story. On a Sunday morning (with the full awareness and support of my elders), I owned up to my failures, asked for the church’s forgiveness, and called for their help to start a ministry for men and women battling the same issue. I knew this was a hidden enemy attacking two-thirds of the men and nearly one-third of the women in our church. The healing I had experienced needed to be shared!

Over the next few months, we launched small groups for men and women aimed at one thing: helping them mature sexually so they could follow Christ fully. The results were astounding. Over the next five years, every new leader in our church was a man or woman who was finding freedom in these groups. I can say without a doubt that these groups were the single-most significant discipleship program I ever led in fifteen years of pastoral ministry. And it all started because someone else discipled me in the same way.

A shift in my thinking toward this idea of being discipled sexually was life-altering. What if my struggle wasn’t as simple of a matter as the fight between good and evil in my soul? What if I was up against deeply ingrained patterns in my brain and faulty beliefs in my soul that continued to propel me back down this dark, familiar path? What if my core battle was less about integrity and more about maturity? Could it be that in this widely unaddressed part of my life, I had simply never been trained into mature ways of thinking, believing, and behaving?

As strange as this may sound, to recognize that I was stuck in a place of immaturity—of juvenile thinking and acting—was incredibly freeing. I had strived for years to be “good enough” to have integrity and attain purity, and failed over and over. But what if, instead of striving, I could turn my thoughts and attention to growing?

Growing isn’t an “all at once, make or break” kind of pursuit. We don’t expect a plant to emerge from the soil full-grown overnight. We plant the seed into well-prepared soil. We water. We wait. The sun shines. We wait. Sprouts emerge. We wait. Get the picture? What if sexual maturity in our thinking and behaving is less about “arriving” and more about growing? We can easily recognize that other forms of discipleship and maturing happen in this manner, so why not in our sexuality as well?

Who is helping to disciple you towards maturity in your sexuality? If the answer is, “No one,” then we are admitting to an environment of stunted growth where immaturity may continue to plague us for years or even decades. But if we can answer the call to wholeness and a sexually redemptive lifestyle, we will find God growing and maturing us in ways we never expected.

In my next essay, I will talk extensively about this healing path and the steps you can take toward sexual maturity, whether in your own life or with those you minister to. Today, I hope you will understand the importance of addressing human sexuality from a biblical worldview often in your ministry. I hope you will teach on the goodness of God’s design, the dangers of pornography, and the realities of the way the brain works. But far more than that, I pray that you will take seriously the call for maturing of your sexuality, sexual discipleship, in your own life! You will not be able to lead others in this area further than you have gone yourself. This area is far too important, and there is far too much at stake, to leave this journey untaken. As we walk this road to sexual maturity in our own life, we will lead many others to a new kind of freedom they so desperately need. The hole in our training could become instead the very foundation God uses to transform us and the world around us.

Journey on …

Posted Oct 14, 2020