Over the past five months, I’ve gotten at least four emails that were almost identical, asking the same question. They all came from church leaders and asked this question: “What do we do when we just found out our current pastor committed adultery over 20 years ago? The deacons at that time knew of it, told him not to worry about it, he repented to them, and they went on, business as usual? But now, people are finding out and it is hurting the ministry of our church and the credibility of our pastor.”
In most cases, the pastor’s infidelity led to a long term relationship, sometimes with children. The current leaders are right to ask the question. And the question isn’t so simple. In fact, there are a lot of things to consider.
It’s not too surprising. In my book, I share the statistic that 1 in 3 pastors has crossed the line with another woman sexually, but is still serving as a pastor.
First, if it was properly handled the first time, is it wrong to bring it up again? Won’t it be doing more damage to the pastor, his family and the church? Second, if it wasn’t handled properly, is there a sort of “statute of limitations” on this type of thing? If it happened decades ago and hasn’t been noticed until now, why does it matter? Third, most of these men are late in their lives. If they go out on a scandal now, it will probably ruin their ministry career.
Needless to say, the first time I got one of these emails, it had to be handled prayerfully and with great discernment. I asked for advice and help from some friends and I think there is a solid answer to the situation, so I’m going to try and put it in words as best I can here for people to reference when they find themselves in a similar situation.
Let’s start with something I’ve always said about pastoral infidelity – or, for that matter, any sexual sin. It leads to messy, awful circumstances. Scripture teaches that very clearly. When we sin, there will be consequences. Let me be clear – there is forgiveness available for all sinners. Christ wipes the slate clean for us when we are repentant. However, the consequences of our sin may last a lifetime.
Whether we sinned five minutes ago or thirty years ago, we may have to deal with circumstances that stem from our sin. And guess what? That’s expected. That’s part of humility and repentance. A person who is truly humbled by the grace of God and the consequences of their actions will live a life that proves that humility over and over again.
I meet people frequently who aren’t familiar with my story – how I was a Baptist minister and committed adultery – and some will say, “How could you?” My response, if I am humbled by the grace of God, will be, “I sinned, but I have been forgiven. God has been more than gracious to me.”
Let’s turn to the charge of whether a pastor who confessed his sin only to his church leadership should have to bring it back up twenty years later. When I thought about this the first time, something bothered me about it. The church leadership either caught the pastor in sin, was informed about it, or the pastor told them. The leadership then decided for whatever reason, to not tell the rest of the church and keep the pastor in his place of ministry.
I believe this to be a huge mistake. And I believe it to be a mistake Scripturally. When a church hires a minister or has one given to them as their leader, they place their trust in him. They look to him as a man qualified per 1 Timothy 3. Are leaders perfect? Absolutely not. I’ve said more than once that leaders are held to unrealistic expectations. However, a pastor has a bond between himself and the leaders as well as the membership. When he violates any sort of trust with them, the membership needs to be made aware.
Let me be careful here – the response to an adulterous pastor is not to throw him into the street or ignore his sin. He should be removed from the pulpit. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times – the pastor needs to be restored to Christ per the standard of Galatians 6:1. He needs counseling, support, and Christian restoration. What he does not need is to be thrust back into a leadership role while the church is unaware that he has committed a major sin.
Further, in all of the men I have seen who have returned to the pulpit after sexual sin, it takes a very long time to be restored. First, they must be restored to Christ. They have to be restored to their wives. Then and only then can they even begin to think about the ministry. This process doesn’t take a few weeks – it takes months, or even years.
Next, is there a “statute of limitations” on this kind of thing? If it happened twenty years ago and no one noticed, should the church just keep ignoring it? Listen, if you as a church leader know and a couple of other people in the church know, chances are, a lot of people know. In fact, there are people in the community who have probably known for a long time as well. The sin that was committed a long time ago may have been a barrier to many people who might have been otherwise coming to your church. Sin does nothing but fester and grow. Like a disease, it has to be brought to light so it can be dealt with – lovingly and with discernment.
So how in the world is anyone supposed to handle this? I’m not going to tell you that there’s an easy answer. There’s not. A few decades have built up between the pastor’s sin and he’s had time to push it down and explain it away. And in that time, God has blessed the church in spite of his sin – assuming he is unrepentant.
Here’s a good way to tell if your pastor is repentant or unrepentant. Take a couple of the wisest, most discerning leaders to meet with the pastor who know the facts. Approach him in a gentle manner with what you know. You will typically get one of two responses. The response will tell you whether he is a man who is repentant over his sin or not. Here are the two responses:
Response 1: “Are you kidding? We dealt with this twenty years ago. It was taken care of and that’s all there is to say about it. All you’re doing is bringing up gossip and trying to run me down.”
Response 2: “You’re right, you’re missing some of the details and I will tell you anything you want to know. At the time, we didn’t know how to handle it and when I talked to the leadership, that’s what we decided. Maybe it wasn’t the best thing to do. But I feel like I repented. But I want to do what’s right for the church and move forward. I’m open to working with you and whatever is best for my family, this church, and our ministry.”
Obviously, it won’t sound exactly like that. But you get the point. The pastor will have either lived a life of repentance from the point of his sin, or he will have spent his entire life justifying it.
Friends, it’s messy. It’s awful. And it’s because of sin. If you’re in this situation as a church leader, I’m sorry. But know that handling it with compassion, love, grace and kindness will get you a long way. Using accusative, bitter, angry language will simply shut the door. Threatening to leave or split the church will do nothing.
Offer him help, guidance and counseling. Know that I am here to help and I have other people I can put you in touch with.
If you’re a pastor who is serving who is in this situation, I urge you to do what is right. Stop living under the shadow of guilt and confess your sin to your church. To the people who trust you. As pastors, when we sin, we owe it to them to tell them that we have violated their trust. It won’t be easy, but it is the right thing to do.
Above all else, Christians, don’t let a situation like this ruin your church. Your community is watching to see how you will treat a sinner in your midst. Church members are watching to see how you will react. Always remember that all of us are sinners, saved by grace, who need correction and restoration. When times get difficult, don’t give up.
I’ll close by giving the advice I gave one church. I said to them, “One day, you’ll have to share with your children what happened to the pastor they knew when they were young. After you tell them, make sure you’re able to say, ‘Even though he couldn’t be our pastor anymore, we still loved him and treated him as Christ would have.'”
Ray Carroll is the author of “Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World,” which answers many of the questions I get asked on a weekly basis.
If you are a fallen pastor who needs to talk or you are someone who has been affected by a fallen pastor and would like to contact me privately, please click here. You are the main reason this ministry exists. I’m here to help you.
If you are a church, men’s group, association, conference, or news outlet and would like more information about this ministry, please click here.