Brandon Watkins watched the time count down to the beginning of the worship service.
“God, please don’t make me go up there,” he muttered to himself.
Fifteen seconds left.
“Kill the power so we can cancel the service,” he prayed.
Ten seconds left.
“Well, I guess we’re doing this thing,” he sighed. And Brandon Watkins slunk up to the stage.
Brandon, worship pastor at a growing Southern Baptist church in Alabama, hadn’t always dreaded leading worship. He had been singing in front of church audiences since he was four years old, and by the time he was 18, Brandon had travelled the world singing at camps and evangelistic events. Singing had always been a passion and a love. And every Sunday this 30-year-old pastor led his congregation in worship, but no one knew he was burdened by a crippling, dark secret.
Brandon was having an affair with a stripper.
The affair didn’t happen overnight. It was the result of attempting to face the pressures of ministry and marriage year after year, on his own.
The Silent Slide
It is a story far too many pastors are familiar with. When a church hires the new pastor, supporters reach out to give praise and encouragement for their Spirit-filled talents. But eventually the compliments and encouragements fade, and all that’s left are disappointing emails, discouraging remarks in the hallway and the daily grind of ministry.
Brandon, who admittedly struggles with pride and arrogance, was discouraged and overwhelmed. With growing frequency, he began turning to the escape he had discovered when he was younger: pornography.
Pornography had become an easy escape for Brandon because it was hidden and accessible; no one had to know, and it often felt victimless. But viewing pornography often sent him into a spiral of shame and guilt. Whether churches are willing to admit it or not, certain sins come with a reputation and a label.
Instead of building an atmosphere of confession, churches often develop an atmosphere of judgment. And for many pastors, fear of being exposed and the ensuing backlash causes them to bury their secrets deep down. This fear kept Brandon from confessing his dark secret of pornography, and it only got worse.
He badly wanted to come clean, to just be authentic. But as a pastor, he was afraid of losing his job. As a husband, he was afraid of losing his family. And as a Christian, he was afraid of embarrassment. Soon the pressure and guilt of his pornography addiction grew so strong that Brandon began looking for a new escape.
For the first time in his life, Brandon Watkins started going to strip clubs.
It was there Brandon met a woman who didn’t know him as pastor or worship leader, but who would listen to him open up about life, marriage and his internal struggles. One night, she shared her story with him, and for the first time in a long time Brandon felt a connection through the power of confession. She needed him, and he was there for her.
The Ultimate Double Life
From April to June of that year, Brandon led what many in the church world would consider the ultimate double life: leading worship on Sundays and carrying on an affair the other days of the week.
At first, fear kept him from even wanting to lead worship. “What if God takes away my singing voice? What if He strikes me dead?” he worried.
But none of that happened. In fact, Brandon became more and more bold every Sunday morning. He eventually arrived at the point where he believed he could successfully manage his double life.
But Brandon’s newfound boldness quickly faltered. The pressure of hiding his secret soon became more difficult than all the pressure of ministry and marriage combined. The week leading up to Father’s Day, Brandon finally decided to let the world know.
The following week, Brandon confessed his secret to his brother (also a pastor), he told his wife, and he confessed to his best friend and church pastor, Zach Terry. But Brandon’s confession was not about turning his life around. His confession was simply because he was tired of leading a double life. At first, Brandon was relieved, even excited, to have taken the weight off, and the next four months were, as he describes it, a party. He finally felt free.
The fallout with the church only served to confirm Brandon’s worst suspicions. He did lose his ministry and family. Pastor Zach and the church were shaken. Like many churches in America, they felt ill-equipped to handle the situation. Some well-meaning members would invite Brandon out for lunch or coffee and spend the entire time telling him he needed to repent by jumping through various hoops. Unfortunately, everyone was holding up different hoops.
With each new set of rules to follow, Brandon felt his heart getting harder and harder. The fears of what would happen if he actually confessed all came true. What most people failed to realize was that Brandon didn’t need them to be his savior. He needed people who would love him through his confession and be patient with the journey God was taking him on.
Hitting Rock Bottom
The party only lasted four months. Everything crashed on October 19, 2012. Brandon’s birthday.
“I spent my 31st birthday in that house alone with no running water, no heat and a bottle of Jack Daniels, thinking about my 30th birthday party my wife had put together with a room full of people at the church.”
All of his relationships had imploded. His wife and daughters had moved back to their home state of Kentucky. His girlfriend, whom he had been living with, left him. Ninety percent of the church family had given up on him. The party was over, and Brandon was at rock bottom in an empty house, with no car, no money and using baby wipes to bathe.
By the grace of God, Brandon’s wife happened to be returning to town for the week. She gave him the opportunity to pack up his things and return with her to Kentucky, where he could get help. Although their marriage has still not healed to this day, God used her kind act to begin a long journey of spiritual reconciliation in Brandon’s life.
Brandon moved back in with family members in Kentucky for a while and began seeing a counselor. He joined Celebrate Recovery and began confronting his sexual addictions. Through many hard-fought conversations and tears, Brandon and Zach began to talk about what true reconciliation would look like. Two years after Brandon’s dark secret came to light, Zach invited Brandon to publicly reconcile at the church where they had served together in Alabama.
One Sunday morning, in an interview-style format, Zach and Brandon talked openly about the dark secrets Brandon had kept hidden for so long. Brandon shared his fears of opening up to the church, and Zach confessed his own need to grow in giving grace to his brother. What transpired was a beautifully messy picture of loving one another on the other side of confessed sin.
Brandon would not want you to get the wrong idea about where he is now. He is still working out his faith day by day, and some days are better than others. He is on a journey to find freedom in his identity in Christ, not in sexual escape. But what makes Brandon’s story so powerful is the simple reminder that confession in community is an opportunity for grace not condemnation. Without providing an atmosphere conducive for confession, our communities will suffer in darkness.
Brandon would say that confession in community is the key to healing, and he wishes he had confided in his community earlier.
Editor’s note: Since we first published this story, Brandon met and married a wonderful Christian woman, and together they are involved in music ministry.