Jim Smith has a word for pastors and others who are struggling: Just don't quit.
"If you don't quit," said the pastor of Solid Rock Community Church in Chickamauga, Ga., "God can restore you."
Smith should know.
The founding pastor of Battlefield Church of Faith, which had grown to approximately 180 members in January 2009, said he stepped down after an audit of church books exposed his unauthorized use of church credit cards to pay for pills and other items related to an addiction to hydrocodone.
Today, Smith, in addition to holding down a full-time job in Chattanooga and pastoring the nondenominational church, is 80 percent done with a book, "Addictions Behind the Pulpit," and conducts daily online counseling (firstname.lastname@example.org for counseling or to offer support) for hurting, wounded and abused pastors and other church leaders.
"I believe pastors have an internal struggle talking about their weaknesses for fear it will get out in the community," he said. "There are still walls up in the church. They're still competitive [with other churches]. In the church today, if you say I need to share a struggle, [eventually] 20 people know, and they've all been sworn to secrecy."
Smith said he found refuge in Gospel Tabernacle Assembly of God Church, where pastor Joey Kelly mentored him and helped in a restoration process for him, his wife and three children.
"It's one thing to have a loving pastor," he said, "and another to have a loving congregation. This was a place to be restored. It was the most mature, loving, forgiving body."
Although Smith declared he would not pastor another church, he felt called by the Holy Spirit after being asked to deliver the first few sermons at Solid Rock.
The new church, he said, is growing and is in its second building.
Smith's online counseling ministry, he said, grew out of a daily devotional message he'd been emailing for 10 years to some 900 church leaders and others. As people from various corners of the country thanked him for sharing his struggles, he felt a call to take a next step.
"These are folks that have real struggles," he said, "but because of their position in the church, they feel isolated and don't know where to go, so they just sink deeper and deeper."
To support the sessions, Smith said, he has recruited a team of restored church leaders in various ministries to pray for the person being counseled -- anonymous to them -- throughout their counseling.
"You always hear," he said, "that in the greatest prison ministry, the ministers are ex-cons."
Smith said his struggles followed four hospitalizations -- for problems such as pancreatitis and removal of his gall bladder -- within about a year in 2004.
Prescribed hydrocodone, he became addicted to it and eventually began to use church credit cards to pay for it. Ultimately, he was delivered from his addiction and began paying back the credit card purchases, but his practice was unveiled in an audit of church books.
"I was afraid to come clean," Smith said. "When it came out, it was a relief. I was glad. I was already paying things back, and I hadn't used in two years."
However, he said, "wrong is wrong, and I was 100 percent wrong."
Now, Smith shares his story with every new members class at the church and admits his more recent miscues weekly through his sermons.
"I want ... members of [Solid Rock] to know where their pastor has gone," he said, "[and] why it is so important to grow in faith and not in religion."
It's also Smith's hope that the church in general will learn to extend the same grace to pastors and church leaders as it does to lay members.
Meanwhile, he is trying to live by the verse -- Luke 12:48 -- that he adopted before his hydrocodone addiction: "For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required."
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...