The typical email reads like this: “I’m a pastor who cheated. I’ve never done anything like this before. No one knows except me and the woman I’m with. If my church finds out, I’ll lose everything. If my wife finds out, I’ll lose my family. What do I do?”
I get emails like this several times a month. To most people, the answer is fairly simple. But when you’re a fallen pastor who has been bending the truth for months to justify your sin, nothing is easy. And when you’re at the end of your rope and realizing your about to get caught, you want an easy way out.
The basic question for most fallen pastors whose sin hasn’t been discovered is, “I’m a pastor who cheated. Now what?”
I would suggest to you that if you’re in this situation now to take heed to my advice as I fell from the ministry eight years ago and didn’t do the right thing. I’ve counseled close to 600 pastors, churches, wives of pastors, and the women they have cheated with over the years. There’s no easy way out.
If you’re a church leader, you may find yourself facing this situation one day with a member of your leadership and may have to deal with it or you may have dealt with it in the past. Here are some basic pieces of advice for pastors who have crossed the moral line and are looking for help.
You can’t go wrong with the truth
When I talk to guys who have sinned and cheated, I encourage them to tell their wives and their church leadership about their indiscretion. Everyone knows that it’s the right thing to do. But it may be the hardest thing anyone has ever had to do.
Usually I hear, “But if I tell my wife, it’s going to destroy her.” “If my kids find out, they’re going to hate me.” “If my church finds out, they’re going to lose all respect for me.”
It is extremely difficult to be honest about our sin. Who wants to do that? No one. None of us wants to open up to anyone about the darkness in our soul and expose the filth in our hearts, especially knowing the consequences it will bring.
The truth of it all is that the damage is already done. I typically use the example of cancer with fallen pastors. I say, “You realize that this is all like undiagnosed cancer, right?” And I explain, “There are people who are living right now with cancer cells in their bodies dividing and they don’t know it. The cells might be dividing slow or fast, but eventually, they will find out. They may get really sick or a doctor could stumble on it in a routine exam. But they’ll find out.
“It’s the same way with your sin. You’ve already committed it and it has already started affecting the people around you. They’re going to find out and it’s a matter of time. It’s just a matter of how they find out. You’re going to mess up and get caught or you can tell them. But they’ll find out.”
Truth is a difficult thing. It does hurt. But when we unload it, it’s never wrong. And of the times I’ve seen a person be able to tell the truth themselves instead of have it unleashed on the world by gossip and uncontrolled discovery, it was always better. Truth truly does set us free.
Find an ally
When you’ve crossed the line and realize that you’re going to be headed down a lonely path for a long time, understand that you are not alone in this world. It is going to feel like it for a while. Your church may fire you, your family may stop talking to you for a while, your friends may abandon you, and you may feel like the loneliest person on the planet. But again, you are not alone.
Right after I fell, I pretty much lost everyone. People stopped talking to me altogether and the few who did, I pushed them away. I started reaching out looking for pastors who fell, because at the time, there was no fallen pastor site to go to. There were scant ministries to call or email and just reach out to someone. I found a man on Facebook whom I connected with and was able to talk to.
That needs to be you. Reach out to someone local or online – preferably someone who has been through this. I’m happy to help. Whether it’s me, a local minister, a counselor, a professional service or whomever.
It will also help to have a friend locally who you can talk to. You’re going to need them. Someone who will be there at a moment’s notice if you just need to talk in the middle of the night. Someone willing to go with you to talk to the church leadership and be your voice. Above all, someone who will just listen to you without judgment or condemnation. A person who will be ready to gently lead you down the path of restoration one day.
I can’t say it too many times. You’re not alone.
Move forward in hope and sanctification
I’m not going to lie to you. The consequences are terrible. You earn every bit of it. The day that it comes out? It might be the worst day of your life. You lose your ministry. You might lose your family. Life goes into a tailspin for a few weeks and it is really hard to get your footing.
More than one time I’ve heard guys say, “I just feel hopeless. I know I deserve this, but this is the worst thing I could have ever imagined. I wish I could just go back and not have done this.”
Thousands of thoughts go through a fallen pastor’s mind and none of them are good. They range from, “How could I have done this?” to “I don’t deserve to live” to “God must hate me” to lashing out at people he thinks are responsible for this. I deal with the stages of a fall in my book.
It’s so important for a fallen pastor to not lose hope. Those first few weeks are terrible and there is no shortage of people telling him he’s awful. But I can promise you – it’s not over. Not by a long shot.
Know why? Because God never gives up on his children. Oh, there will be no shortage of Christians willing to throw you under the bus for the rest of your life, but Christ won’t. His love and grace will extend to places you could never imagine during this time. You think you understood grace before? Get ready to experience it like you never have before.
That is, if you’re willing to throw yourself at His feet in brokenness and repentance. It’s a process that will take some time. His forgiveness comes all at once and is instantaneous. It will take you time to forgive yourself. But begin walking in holiness and newness the day the truth comes out. Know that even though you sinned, that sin doesn’t have to define you for the rest of your life.
Need help? I’m here. And there are links to the right to help you as well. If you know a fallen pastor, reach out to him and let him know he’s loved. If you were in a congregation where the pastor fell, search your heart for forgiveness and know that the simplest contact to him would mean the world to him. Above all, remember that the ministers that serve are fragile people in need of prayer and support.
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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