In the 80’s and 90’s, Blaine Bartel was one of the most recognized youth leaders in the country. He led a successful television program and a youth ministry. Soon after planting a church near Dallas, Texas, his world came crashing down. I talked recently with Blaine about his struggles, his redemption, and ways to stay accountable. (If you’d like to listen to the interview, check out Podcast #5).
Gabe: Tell me the story behind you getting involved in ministry.
Blaine: Right out of high school, I went to Youth With the Mission in California. I guess being exposed to missions, needs beyond our own country…And we did outreaches to our own community right out on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. I guess I came home after all of that with a sense of wanting my life to count. I wanted to make a difference somehow. I didn’t grow up in ministry or anything. I don’t have any heritage of ministry. My dad is a businessman. So, it was a little bit of a shock to my family. But ever since that year of exposure to the needs of people, I developed a heart for that.
Gabe: I was probably about 4 or 5 years old when I saw Fire by Nite for the first time. I was blown away by it! And it’s still unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the Christian market. What was it like being involved with that?
Blaine: It was great! I think if you go back…it was mid 80’s when we started
that…Christian programming for students and teenagers didn’t exist. There just wasn’t any. There were no Christian music videos. And at the time, TV and cable was emerging. Kids were watching cable, but there was no Christian programming if they wanted to watch. We just had this crazy idea that, somehow on a shoestring budget, we could create a program that would inform, entertain, and educate kids in their faith. So we started doing skits and drama and teaching challenges. We literally started making music videos for Christian artists like Petra, Carman, and dc Talk. Gradually, it took off! When we started, we had about 300 churches that subscribed to our video club in the first month. Within 4 years, we had about 5,000 churches that subscribed. And then of course a lot of the Christian networks picked it up. It was really exciting because it had never been done. We were launching into new ground. It was great! 20-25 years later, I still have people that come up to me every week and say, “Thanks for Fire by Nite 20 years ago.”
Gabe: When did you make the decision to move from youth ministry into a senior pastor role?
Blaine: It would have been about 2006. We had done about 10 years of this program called Oneighty in Tulsa. It was a student ministry that reached a lot of kids. I had also been serving in my church in Tulsa as an associate pastor for 3 or 4 years during that time. I guess near the end of that season, I felt like I needed to step into a new challenge. I felt unchallenged in what I was doing in student ministry. I also felt like my days were numbered and that I needed to let a new generation of leaders step in. So our church sent us to the north Dallas area in a city called Frisco to plant a church. We had great success for about 3 years. We grew from about 3 or 4 families to about 800 people. We built a new 5 million dollar church building. It was really taking off…except I was a mess privately. I was a mess in my own life in my own private world. And that’s when I stepped down in 2010.
Gabe: How far back did that go?
Blaine: Well, when I stepped out of ministry, I had become really disillusioned with myself. I felt like I was living a double life. I had secrets that I was hiding. I felt a lot of shame and personal hypocrisy. And part of it was that it went so far back. It wasn’t like I fought a year battle…it was a 20 year battle that started with pornography and ended with infidelity on a number of levels. So I realized that I was never going to win this war by myself. Because I was in ministry.. and because I had such a public persona.. and a public mission with what we were doing beyond our own city.. I just felt like I needed to win it by myself. I could not tell anybody this because the repercussions would be terrible for my family and for my career. So after about 20 years, I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t winning. I was losing. I was losing worse and worse. Not only was I losing the battle with lust and sexual addiction, I was losing the battle of my own faith. My faith was diminishing. I was beginning to doubt that this God that I proclaimed was even real because I didn’t see his reality of deliverance, hope, and freedom in my own life.
Gabe: Did you have any kind of an accountability network during this time? Or was that something you just weren’t honest with?
Blaine: Well, my thoughts on accountability programs are a little bit different. I think you can set up all kinds of programs. You can put all kinds of things in place. But unless you are truly willing to be absolutely transparent and honest, it won’t do you any good. Yeah, I had pastors that I talked to where we would have “accountability time”. But I wasn’t willing to be totally transparent. Today, I do have better accountability in my life. I have complete accountability today but I could bypass all of that if I wanted. I could figure out ways around the system. But I have made a commitment to my wife, my family, my kids, my pastors, and my friends to be ruthlessly honest about what I’m dealing and struggling with. And to seek help, prayer, counsel, and grace. So that’s been the difference for me…I don’t necessarily have better programming. It’s being willing to open my heart out and admit that I’m not perfect and that I need help.. and to find the right tools that give me that help. So as hard as that moment was to step away from ministry, and to go through the pain of public disclosure, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Life is much better today than it’s ever been!
Gabe: Is this still an everyday thing for you that you have to fight against?
Blaine: No, not today it isn’t. Now, for the first two years of my recovery it was an everyday thing. Literally everyday I would have to go to war. I would have to go to battle and fight. Over time, it’s like anything you give yourself to that becomes addictive… especially with pornography the more you consume and the more you look and the more you think.. it creates deep deep thought ruts in your brain. Your mind is constantly going in that direction because of those ruts. It connects all the signals in your mind to porn. And it took two years to break those connections. It took two years to fill in those ruts with new thoughts, new ways of living, and new ways of thinking. So today, I can go literally weeks without any kind of temptation in that area. But at the same time, I’m sober enough to realize that I’m not immune to it. It’s by God’s grace that I get up everyday and walk in that freedom.
My life is a miracle. When I went into recovery, I went to a secular recovery center. The lead therapist that had been in sexual addiction recovery for 40-50 years told me, “Blaine, I don’t know that you’ll ever get free. You have one of the most serious addictions that I’ve ever heard of. You have no idea how much it’s going to take for you to find freedom.” But I can tell you and your audience that it’s been 3 years since I’ve had any kind of slip up with porn. It’s just not an issue. Yet, there’s not an arrogant, prideful, or self-serving claim in that. It’s just a testimony to what Jesus can do, what the Scripture can do, what community can do…especially when you lean into a Christian community honestly and transparently. They can all help you and support you. It’s not a story of “look what Blaine Bartel did”… It’s a story of “Look what happened when Blaine Bartel finally surrendered..and when he got the tools and the community that he needed to find that freedom.” Freedom is possible! And it’s such a beautiful thing!
Gabe: How much of that issue can be pride? Having that feeling that you can sweep it under the rug…justifying the sin in your life because you’re doing a lot of good things.
Blaine: Yeah, that’s part of it. When people ask me how I got into porn, I think it’s a multifaceted thing. It was pride…and pride blinds you. The more pride that you engage in…in my case, I was thinking I was hot stuff! I’ve got this TV show. I’m speaking at conferences. I’m doing all these great things. And I’m working hard putting in all these hours….You begin to, if you’re not careful, get a sense of entitlement. Somehow you’re entitled to things that others aren’t because you’ve earned more or worked harder. So there definitely was a sense of pride and entitlement. I remember times when I would be encountering the guilt and shame of giving into lust and pornography…I would think to myself, “Well, I live a tough life. I rarely get home to see my wife because I’m traveling all the time. I’m giving my life to the Gospel. If i give in to this sin, it’s not really a problem.” And what I didn’t realize, especially early on, is where it would take me..and how far it would take me by not dealing with it, and challenging myself to be honest about it…Because sin is never satisfied. What you did a year ago in an area of sin won’t be good enough next year. It continues to grow. It has this crazy hunger that wants to be fed. It’s a monster! The more you feed it, the more it wants.
Yeah, I think pride has to do with it. I also think shame has a large part in it. The deeper your shame and the constant feelings of “I’m not good enough because I keep messing up…” That shame leads you when it’s not dealt with, when you don’t get forgiveness, or when you don’t seek help. That shame leads you deeper into that world because you start to give up. You feel so shamed and feel so guilty and feel so condemned, you just start to think “You know what? I’ll never win. I might as well just give into this and live this life the best I can.”
Gabe: When all that went down, did you ever see yourself getting back into ministry?
Blaine: No. I met with Ron Luce…he was the first person I met with. I met with Ron to confess my sin and tell my story to him. And I remember Ron saying, “Blaine, we’re going to help you. We’re going to help you get into a restoration program.” And I said, “Restoration to what?” And Ron said, “Well, a restoration back into ministry…it will probably take a year or two.” And I just said, “I don’t really want that.” I just really wanted to get out of ministry. My concept of ministry at that time had gotten so distorted…It was so messed up that I did not want to go back. It wasn’t until about a year and a half after I had resigned that God began to reshape my thoughts on ministry and what it could mean. God helped me recalibrate what was important to me in ministry…which made it a lot more inviting.
But at first, I had no plans to return. But yet, I wasn’t bitter. I wasn’t mad at anyone. I wasn’t blaming the ministry. I just felt that partially I had disqualified myself and partially I had felt like I was ready for something different. I felt like maybe if I got into the real world, the market place, that I could be honest about my life. I felt like if I ever got back into ministry, I would have to hide again. There’s this thing where people want to put you on a pedestal…and you seem to put yourself on a pedestal too. I kind of wanted to be de-pedestalized if that makes sense! (laughs)
Gabe: For people that are struggling with addictions, what are some ways that they can guard their hearts and minds against those addictions and temptations?
Blaine: First of all, you just have to be willing to be honest. Find 2 or 3 people in your world that you know you can trust. Tell them your story and what you’re going through. And guess what…they may say “I’m glad you told me that because I’m struggling too.” That’s usually the case. Especially with men. I’ve heard about 95% of men struggle with porn or lust on some level. So find people you can trust. But then put into practice different borders…or training wheels…where you can’t tip over. The borders in my life are: when I go home at the end of the day, my wife has open access to my computer, my cell phone, my emails, my data history… Because that’s where a lot of temptation begins, especially for men. It’s the internet especially with smart phones and things like that.
And not only that but I have Covenant Eyes on my technology. I have a Covenant friend who is one of my best friends. Every week he gets a report on anywhere I’ve been that could possibly be a red flag. In about 2 1/2 years, we haven’t even had to talk about anything. It’s $10 a month but I’m going to pay that ’til I die because I need those training wheels. I need that protection in my life. I need to know that there’s somebody with me in this journey. And who knows? I’m a human being and could have a weak moment next month! Thank God there will be somebody that will know about it if that happens. So, I think you just need to open your life and heart to people you can trust. And especially if you’re married. If you feel like it’s going to be a huge problem in being honest or confessing, I would encourage you to do it with a counselor or a pastor that you can trust…so you don’t go through those tough waters alone. But if your wife or husband doesn’t know you’re struggling, you’ll continue to struggle. I think the only person that can truly keep you accountable is that person that is with you everyday. Otherwise, it’s really hard!
Gabe: Thanks for your time!
Blaine: No problem, Gabe.
Follow Blaine Bartel on Twitter: @BlaineBartel