Jason Ulven, a former Modesto, Calif., youth pastor, was downloading a pornographic video on his computer at work when he had to leave it to go to the weekly pastoral staff prayer meeting.
While he was gone, his administrative assistant went into Ulven’s office to use the computer and was shocked by what he saw.
The assistant, who had been on the job for only a couple of weeks, didn’t confront Ulven, but did tell the Rev. Mark Krieger, Modesto Covenant’s senior pastor.
A day or two later, when he was called into Krieger’s office, Ulven downplayed the incident. After all, even his wife had caught just a glimpse of his secret life over the past 15 years, and the lies went deep.
“I told him I clicked on something, and it was a stupid mistake to make, and it wouldn’t ever happen again. I was trying to cover up the addiction,” Ulven said.
But Krieger had talked to denominational officials with experience in sexual addictions. They advised him to take Ulven’s computer and have an expert look at it. Ulven was temporarily suspended, pending an investigation.
Ulven is among a growing number of pastors – and men in general – who have been ensnared by an addiction to pornography. In a 2001 “Christianity Today” poll, 53 percent of pastors said Internet porn was a temptation and 37 percent called it a current struggle.
The addiction may seem solitary, but in fact is messy, inflicting distress on the spouse, children, ministry and others.
Ulven and his wife found help and a renewed faith, but it wasn’t easy.
“I was in torment,” Ulven said. “I had this major problem, and I knew it was a major problem, but I didn’t want to admit it. But I had to admit it.
“I remember taking my boys down to the park. They wanted to try riding a bike without training wheels for the first time. And they did it. As I ran alongside them, I remember thinking this should be my proudest moment at the time, but it wasn’t because I was a hypocritical pastor, and I was living a lie.”
A few nights later, Ulven couldn’t sleep. One fleeting thought was that he still had a key to the church, so he could go and retrieve his computer from the senior pastor’s office.
“But I was not a criminal, and I knew it was just time to come clean,” he said.
He wrote one letter to the senior pastor, admitting everything, and one to his wife, Jill. Up until that time, he said, “I was still deceiving her.”
Grace and discipline:
The Covenant denomination put Ulven under “discipline” and took away his pastoral license. They said the family should attend a different church to protect those hurt by his addiction, a consequence that deeply affected Ulven’s wife and children.
Local church leaders agreed on a plan: They would pay for an intensive four-day workshop in Tennessee on sexual addictions for the Ulvens and for counseling beyond that. They agreed to continue to pay Ulven’s salary for three months.
Ulven said it was an offer full of grace, one he knew he didn’t deserve.
His first step in his road to recovery was joining a newly formed support group in Modesto that worked with men addicted to pornography. Three pastors, including one with a story similar to Ulven’s, and four other men met weekly and agreed to be accountable to each other.
“For the first time, I felt like this was a God thing, that getting caught was something God had initiated,” Ulven said.
He and his wife and their two young sons – Riley and Zachary, then 8 and 5 – stayed in Modesto for a year. He took a job as a charter bus driver to pay the bills.
After the year, his church-sanctioned discipline was removed. He moved with his family to the Chicago area to enroll in North Park Seminary to complete his divinity degree.
The denomination allowed him to regain his pastoral license, Ulven said, because he never crossed the line into sexual abuse. “I never had touched anyone inappropriately or treated anyone inappropriately. If so, they would have still had me under discipline.”
Like many pornography addicts, Ulven got his first taste of graphic sexual photos when he was in fifth grade and a friend showed him a “dirty” magazine. The images, he said, “really left an imprint.”
The enticement grew in his teenage years.
“I was a real shy kid who didn’t have any confidence in speaking to girls, so when I could get access to pornography, there was some kind of comfort to that,” Ulven said. “I could look at that stuff and feel better. In your fantasy mind, these women accept you.”
His cycle of addiction began when he joined the Navy after high school. It coincided with his decision to become a Christian.
“I would feel just a low self-worth and then turn to pornography to medicate that. Then, as a Christian, I would feel that I screwed it up and would try not to see it,” Ulven said. “A few weeks would go by, and then I would just cave. There was a real repetition to that pattern.”
When he left the Navy in 1993, he met Jill in a Bible study. They were married the next year in Oregon.
“There were some of these milestone moments when I thought, ‘If only this thing happens, I’d be cured,'” Ulven said. “One of them was marriage. I thought all of my sexual needs would be met, and I could leave all this (pornography) behind.”
But the Internet had arrived and was like an adrenaline shot to his addiction.
“I felt powerless to the computer,” he said. “My addiction escalated, even when I felt spiritually close to God.”
Like other sexual addictions, Ulven’s pornography use proved costly.
“It probably damaged every relationship that I had,” he said. “Pornography is this illusion that you start to believe. It affected the way I saw Jill. I was always attracted to Jill. The damage wasn’t reflected (in comparing her to ‘perfect’ women). It had to do with the guilt. When we were intimate, I felt guilty. I wasn’t able to enjoy what God said was a good thing.”
Addiction to pornography created a barrier between Ulven and God. “I felt much shame,” he said. “It’s this weird irony that what we all want on our deepest level is to be loved and accepted just as we are. God offers that. But I didn’t get that, and I turned to pornography to feel better about myself by the acceptance of these fantasy women. It was driving a wedge between God and myself. It’s strange that we take something good from God, sex, and twist it to make it something bad.”
Burden falls on wife
Jill said her husband became adept at hiding the depth of his addiction.
“He came to me pretty early on in our marriage and told me that he had a problem with it,” she said. “I was just trying to do everything I could to get rid of all the places that it would be a temptation. I would call the video store and say, ‘No adult movies can be rented on our account.’ I’d check the history on the computer. I checked the mail. But I didn’t really know the extent of it. It turned out he had his own account somewhere else, so it was pointless.”
Unlike other women who often feel unworthy or physically unattractive when their husbands turn to pornography, Jill said, “I didn’t feel like it was something wrong with me, but it upset me. I felt betrayed and lied to and deceived. But I never understood the addiction part.”
After the Ulvens moved to Modesto in 2003, Jill said she didn’t see evidence for three years that her husband was still looking at pornography. Then, on Valentine’s Day weekend in 2006, she found and erased images on his home computer.
“We set up all kinds of rules,” she said. “I told him he couldn’t erase the (computer) memory. Then he came home a couple of months later and said they’d found it on his church laptop.
“He said it was because all of the rules at home had pushed him over. He said the (youth group) kids used his laptop, and who knew where all this stuff came from? It was just denial, denial. Finally, on the following Sunday, he said this had been going on forever.”
The workshop in Tennessee proved “extremely helpful and insightful” to Jill. “That’s when I found that all the checking I was doing was co-dependent stuff, and it wasn’t my job,” she said.
“He had his recovery, and my job was to stick to my recovery. I was really grieving, and I didn’t know I was. I was grieving the loss of our church, the loss of support, the loss of financial security, all of that. That’s when I started learning how strong I was and had enough strength to get through it.”
It doesn’t mean her journey was easy. “We’d moved to Modesto to be at that church,” she said. “I worked at the church. I did Pioneer girls (a children’s program) at the church. I was in a Bible study at the church. My whole life was at the church, and we could no longer go to the church.
“I remember being in my body and moving around and not existing, not wanting to look at anybody. But by the grace of God, I was moving and doing what I needed to do.”
A couple of years ago, Ulven was asked to tell his story to a group of about 1,000 pastors and their wives.
Jill had mixed feelings about it, sorrow that their “dirty laundry” was being aired again, but pride in her husband for recovering from the addiction and hope that their story could help others.
“I feel God has been using me to pay it forward, to be there for others who are going through the same thing,” she said. “The most important thing that I pass on to wives is it has nothing to do with them. All the addiction stuff starts a long time before they meet you.
“The other thing I pass on to people is that I didn’t come from a perfect background, either. I was able to give Jason grace because I needed it, too.”
Confession to sons
Ulven’s addiction affected not only his spouse, but also his children.
“We talk to our boys all the time,” he said. “Even before we left Modesto, we called it what it is: Dad looked at pictures of naked people and that was the wrong thing to do. We’ve been very upfront with them. They’re innocent – only 5 and 8 years old – and you don’t want to damage that, but they’re going to come into it.
“Our boys are now 13 and 10. On TV, we block out certain channels. We put passwords on Riley’s iPhone. We know there are people out there who are targeting him with their ads. There is an agenda to hook these boys early on.”
Along with the confession of wrongdoing, Jill added, came a powerful message.
“We told our kids, ‘Daddy’s made a big mistake, but we’re going to be here as a family, and if you ever make a mistake, we’ll be here as a family for you.'”
Walking in the light
Ulven finished his seminary education in 2009 and signed on again with the Navy, this time as a chaplain. He’s living in Maryland and stationed at a Coast Guard facility.
His experiences have helped him advise others who have come to him, troubled with sexual addictions. Ulven urges them to join an accountability group, which he called “the key to my recovery. You have to talk to other males about it.”
He likes a Bible verse from I John: “It talks about walking in the light. It doesn’t mean walking perfectly without ever stumbling. It means shining the light on the darkest part of our hearts.
“To me, that means if we are going to be pure as Christian men, we have to be able to admit everything. For the first 15 years of my addiction, I tried to overcome it without shining a light in that darkness. I prayed for years for God to instantly deliver me. He does that sometimes, but he didn’t do it with me. He did it when I was willing to admit everything and walk in the light.”
Like a recovering alcoholic, Ulven said, “I will always be a recovering sex addict.
“There are boundaries that I now need to set to keep myself sober (such as) accountability with other men. Another key tool for my recovery is on every computer I use, is a program called Covenant Eyes, accountability software that keeps track of all the sites you go to. Anything it flags, it sends to my accountability partner.”
Don’t quit working for God just because you’ve had problems, he said.
“When everything fell apart back in Modesto, and I was questioning whether I should even be in ministry, I was reminded that God had used me despite everything. I became very excited to see how God could use me without all those shackles.
“For years, I was withholding a part of me from God. Now I say, ‘God, you can have all of me.'”