How a Church Should Respond to Ministry Failure
I wanted to be able to write something to help churches and leaders have a guide for when their pastor falls. The problem is that no two situations are quite alike. And yet, all situations are very similar. I would like to give some basic advice that comes from my experience and from the things I’ve read in the past few years of ministry as to how a church should respond to ministry failure. For more in depth help, refer to my book.
When a pastor falls, it hurts many people. Whether the pastor has committed adultery with another person, has been engaged in what he calls an “emotional affair“, or has been engaged in a long time addiction to pornography. This post is designed to help the leaders in the church when the find out their pastor has fallen.
Basic steps of response:
1. Remember that each and every decision needs to be bathed in prayer. People will be quick to act, easy to anger, and will be very hurt. Prayer has a way of focusing us in the right way.
2. Remember that decisions based on God’s Word, no matter how difficult they might be, will always be the right ones. A pastor who has committed adultery has forfeited his right to shepherd the flock for a time (that topic is covered elsewhere on this site and may vary depending on denomination).
3. But always remember that decisions based on God’s Word are always to be made with grace, love, and humility. If the pastor is removed, it should always be done with the grace of Galatians 6:1.
4. Never forget that there are many people involved in this matter. One man’s sin may be at the forefront, but there are many others who need care and need to see the church act with truth, love, and grace.
5. Keep it confidential until a decision is made. If your church leadership is gathering facts and talking to the pastor, gossip should not be part of anyone’s life. When the facts come in, your pastor may be cleared. If one of the church leaders goes home and tells his spouse all the details of an important meeting and word gets out and severely twisted, the damage may be too great.
6. Finally, never be afraid to ask for outside help. If your church leadership team isn’t sure about what to do, or you feel like you can’t seem to agree, find a mediator. Ask an expert for help. There are a lot of people I know and there are people provided by your denomination or association who can offer wisdom. Never feel like you’re alone or that you’re the first ones to go through this.
So let’s get to some first steps in this matter. I don’t want to assume anything – like I said, people tend to find out differently and people tend to react differently.
Get The Facts Straight
Finding out that the pastor has committed some sort of infidelity is not easy. The information can come in many different ways:
- A rumor that has spread in the community
- A church member might approach the church leadership with a printed out series of emails or Facebook messages that prove the pastor’s infidelity
- An anonymous letter is sent to the pastor and church leadership from a woman claiming to be his mistress
- The pastor’s wife might approach a deacon regarding her suspicions about the minister and a church member or staff member
- A staff member might tell church leadership of an ongoing affair
- At the end of a service, a church member/staff member might confess that the pastor has been cheating with them
- The rumor might begin on a social media site (Facebook, Twitter) and get picked up by local media
There are many ways that church leadership can get informed of an issue the minister might be having. I’ve heard of or witnessed all of the scenarios listed above. The easiest thing to do is panic. The knee-jerk reaction is to fire the pastor.
The best thing to do is for the church leadership is to respond in a calm and biblical manner. Many church by-laws require some sort of due process for the minister. It is important to have a meeting with him. Before that meeting takes place, it is a good idea to do fact gathering from people who are knowledgeable about the situation.
The church leadership should take seriously any first-hand evidence that is presented to them. Always be wise with any evidence, understanding the people presenting it. Such a time requires discernment. If a person asks for a meeting with the church leadership and confesses to an affair with the pastor, should their claim be taken seriously? Absolutely. They have a right to be heard. Their claim should not be rejected outright. If they have evidence of communication, it is even more helpful.
Every person who has a justifiable claim has a right to be heard. Again, the claim may later be rejected as false or partially false, but all evidence needs to be weighed before rejecting any outright.
Gossip, innuendo, and rumor is not typically helpful. Anonymous letters are not the greatest. However, I have known many women who have written such letters and were truthful in what they wrote. Of course, the fact that they did not sign them led many to reject the claim. The church leadership should be careful in approaching such communication.
The pastor’s side of the story should be heard as well. He needs to understand the facts that have been gathered or given to the church leadership. One of the worst things that can happen in a meeting is for things to get personal. Sticking to the facts is very important. Most of these meetings will be intensely emotional and passionate. Do your best to keep them level-headed and on topic. Get a mediator if you need one.
Don’t Read Into The Situation
If you do hear gossip, receive a letter, or have someone approach your leadership about your pastor’s fidelity, treat it as a serious matter.
One of the worst things we can do when an accusation is made (and no fault has been found in the pastor yet) is to think, “You know he has been acting weird lately,” or “He has always hugged the women in the church too long,” or “I never did feel comfortable around him.” You may feel those statements are true, but those statements may have nothing to do with the matter on the table now.
As church leaders, examine the facts as you have them, pray over them and prepare your heart for what decisions may lie ahead.
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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