If you’ve been reading this series in order, then you’ve arrived at this point where the church leadership has done the best they can after they’ve learned that the pastor committed adultery. (Part 1, part 2, part 3) Hopefully, the pastor and his family are receiving prayerful support from the church and are being attended to by a ministry/counseling team that specializes in helping them.
But now here you are, a church leadership team without a pastor. Many churches are equipped with staff who can fill in for the interim, but many are not. In the past four years, I’ve seen how this process should not be done. So, I’d like to give some practical advice on how to proceed for the next few months with some do’s and don’ts.
1. Do acknowledge the hurt and sin that has occurred. Don’t dwell on it negatively from positions of power.
You’re going to have hurt people. In fact, leadership is going to be hurting for a while. Make sure your church has a way to cope with all the different feelings that are going on – hurt, anger, disappointment. And there will be a lot of questions as well. Questions like, “How could he have done this?” and “Why don’t you tell us all the details?”
It really is like a grief process. It’s like losing someone unexpectedly. Some members will leave the church. Do your best to check on them. Some may not want to talk. Some may want to talk too much about it. Whatever the case, provide appropriate and biblical ways for people to address their feelings.
One thing that might need to be addressed (if it gets out of hand) is the use of social media. Remind the church that they are messengers of grace to the community. It is good for them to share forgiveness and okay to express hurt, but gossip is never a good way to heal.
Leadership can lead by example. It may be difficult not to preach on topics that pinpoint the sins of the fallen pastor. It may be difficult not to say angry things in public that do nothing more than make the situation worse. Remember that many in the church will take their cues from you. Leaders are to be Christ-like in their reactions. Do they ignore sin? No. But they also understand that once sin has been committed and handed off to God, it is in His hands.
When the pastor is gone, it’s time to focus on those left behind. Begin the healing process.
2. Don’t allow the lack of a pastor put a stop to true ministry. Do choose to be active in what God is doing around you.
A lot of people, for better or worse, identify the pastor as the head of the church. He’s not. Christ is. But the pastor is the face of the church. He stands in the pulpit each week, he’s the one who carries out much of the visitation, he does the funerals, he shakes people’s hands with a smile, and his name is on the church sign. It’s good to remember the legacy he left. He did do a lot of good things in the name of God. It may take a long time to remember those good things in the wake of his sin – but he did them.
What I’m trying to say is that a lot of people are going to feel a little lost. That doesn’t mean that a member of leadership needs to step in and try to act like the pastor. In fact, I’d call for the opposite. When I wrote my book, I found that the reason a lot of pastors get so weak in the first place is that they spend too much time chasing after the “stuff of ministry” and not chasing after Christ.
Get the leadership together and take some time to look at what is going on in the church. Look around and see what God is doing. Sometimes we are so focused on what we are trying to do and what ministries we are trying to grow that we completely miss out on where God is at work. Sometimes God is working on a few people who are on fire for Him. Losing a leader doesn’t mean the end, sometimes it gives the community of faith a chance to reassess their love for one another and their role in the community.
3. Don’t be afraid to be without a pastor for a while. Do make sure your fellowship is ready for the next pastor God has for you.
I’ve seen churches whose pastor fell put a pulpit committee together the next week. I don’t really think that’s the wisest thing to do. This is a crude analogy, but I think you’ll understand. Have you ever been through a breakup? Relationships are tough, aren’t they? And if you tried started dating someone right away, it just didn’t work. Why? Because you were always comparing that person to the person you were just with. Because you were thinking about them.
Can I tell you a little secret that every pastor who has ever been interviewed knows? Most pastor search committees ask really, really bad questions. In fact, many pastor search committees always tell you what the last guy did wrong by the questions they ask you. I got into this conversation with some pastor friends of mine once. Here are some of the questions they got asked by search committees: “Do you allow women to pray?” “Do you think it’s important for the youth to sit up front?” “You do think it’s important to go visit the shut-ins, right?” “Your wife doesn’t argue much, does she?”
Your church needs time to heal. And that’s a good thing. There are a lot of denominations that offer interim ministers that are trained to help after a pastor falls. There are men like me who are able to come in even for a few months and do training with churches to talk with them and help them with some of the issues they are going through. Make sure the church and the leadership has a healthy heart before you ask a new pastor to come in. Because it won’t be fair to him if you’re suspicious of him for sins the last pastor was guilty of.
Overall, work toward holiness and healthiness as a church body. Is it easy? Not always. Focus on the members who want to make things better. Chase after the members who are confused and frustrated. Don’t give up on anyone. Be ready to partner up stronger Christians with weaker ones. Disciple one another. Love one another. Christ gave us the church for days such as these – so that we might live abundantly and share all things together.
One final thought. And tuck this waaaaaaaay back in your mind. There may come a day a long time in the future when your pastor has gone through his restoration process. And a few of your members want to contact him and say, “I forgive you.” Let them. He will desperately need to hear those words. He really will. And if you’re even braver, five years or so down the road, have the church leadership contact him and ask him how he is. And offer forgiveness to him if he’s repentant. You have no idea what that could mean to him.
I and other fallen pastors still live in a time where we are repentant and living lives in the best way we know how and we would love to reconcile (or hear “I forgive you”) with those we hurt all those years ago. It may never happen on this earth or in this lifetime. But you never know.
Other helpful resources for church leaders and churches:
“How can a church survive/recover when a pastor leaves?” from Gotquestions.org
“Is Your Church Without a Pastor?” by Dan Reiland, Global Christian Center
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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.
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