This series is designed to help church leaders have a broad concept on how to handle the situation when their pastor has been accused of moral failure. Not all situations are the same, but the response should always be one of love, grace and truth. When the pastor falls, there is a difference between a biblical and unethical response.
The Church’s Response to the Pastor’s Sin
This post assumes you’ve sat down with the pastor and you know he has committed a sexual sin. He’s either admitted to adultery or you are convinced he has and you have the evidence. In my last post, I quoted Dr. Hershael York (I strongly encourage you to go back and read that quote) who said that the church’s response should be guided by how the pastor reacts. (Dr. York’s quote and other ways to handle a pastor’s reaction are also found in my book.)
At this moment, the pastor has forfeit his right to shepherd the church. He was appointed to be the pastor of a congregation under the guidelines of 1 Timothy 3 and he has lost the trust of the congregation. I am of the belief that in the overwhelming majority of cases, the church should be informed of the sin.
A couple of important things need to be remembered. First if your pastor shows any sign of repentance he needs to be restored. I’m not talking about being restored to ministry. That’s something that is so far off that it’s not even in the conversation at this point. He needs to be restored to Christ and his family. And as a member of your congregation, it is upon you to find him help. Does he need to remain at your church? Probably not. But he is a member of your local body of believers and I don’t believe it is Scripturally acceptable to kick the man to the curb if he is showing any sign of repentance.
Find a program, counselor, group, or organization that can get him help. There are several out there. Check with your denomination. Check out pirministries.org. Give him severance pay so that he can find a way beyond what has just happened and have hope. Remember that this man has sinned. Has he hurt you? Absolutely. But we are commanded to treat one another with love and restore one another to Christ.
I also remind churches that the world is watching how we will react to a sinner in our midst. This time, the sinner is the pastor. What will we do with a man who just got caught and is asking for forgiveness and is showing some level of repentance? The unbelieving world is watching how we treat those in our midst and how we treat one another.
How NOT to Respond to Your Pastor’s Sin
I think the most horrifying decision I see is when churches decide to cover up the sin. I don’t think a lot of the churches think of it that way. What I usually hear from church leaders is, “Are we doing anyone a favor when we throw him out? Isn’t it enough that we know he’s sinned? He’s repented to God and to us. Isn’t that enough?”
No, it’s not enough. I’ve blogged about it here extensively and mentioned it a few paragraphs ago. When a pastor falls, he has sinned against God and he needs to make that right. But he has violated the trust of every church member in his care. He has (at least for a while) forfeit his right to hold the office of overseer.
When a church leadership team along with the pastor decides that the church “doesn’t need to know,” they are making a mistake that has repercussions that are sinful and will come to bear in many ways.
First, their decision often does not take into account the pain that the wife of the pastor is enduring. It is the case that many times the church leadership will tell the pastor, “You’ve sinned, but you can stay. But you and your wife need to take six months off for counseling.” Guess what? Six months doesn’t fix it. In my experience, the wife still has trust issues and after her husband returns to the pulpit, she watches him in that position of authority and asks, “How can he be preaching while our marriage is still in so much trouble?”
On top of that, six months really doesn’t fix him either. Restoration takes a very long time to fix a man whose relationship to Christ was so broken that he committed adultery. After that, then he can work on his marriage.
Second, when I talk to churches about their decision to retain the pastor, I will almost always eventually hear, “Well, if he leaves, we’re going to lose a lot of people. He sure brought a lot of people here and they’ll leave if he leaves.” I cannot imagine a more selfish, man-centered response. The leadership is really saying one of two things (if you care to read between the lines): “We can’t do the Scriptural thing because our attendance will decline. Membership numbers are more important than standing by doing what is right.” Or, the more frightening alternative: “We can’t get rid of him, the offering will be lighter.”
When I counsel pastors who have committed adultery and haven’t told anyone, they are very worried about losing their jobs. Of course they are. It’s scary. It’s usually the only job we have. It’s what we spent our lives training for. And if we lose it, what are we going to do? But it’s a consequence of our sin. We knew that when we crossed the line.
But there’s always hope. I always tell guys, “You know what? Telling people the truth and being honest is always the right thing to do. It’s not easy, in fact, it hurts. But I can promise you that God always helps and stands by those who make the decision to start walking again in the right direction.”
Third, when church leadership decides to hide the truth from the congregation, it doesn’t stay hidden. It will eventually come out. It may come out a year later or I’ve seen it come out 20 years later. But the truth comes out. And the members say, “Why didn’t you tell us? Why would you allow our pastor who committed adultery to keep preaching? Don’t you think we deserved to be informed?”
Still, some of you are unconvinced. The church needs to know. And a wise, loving, caring leadership with a biblically based message can share the truth of what the pastor did in the right way. Moreover, the leadership will have a team of people or experts on hand to help the congregation through it all.
Worse yet, when you hide such a thing from the congregation, you’re keeping a secret from everyone. You’re asking every leaders, the pastor’s spouse, his family, those involved, and anyone else who knows to keep quiet. You’re telling them to keep this horrible secret to themselves and never talk about it to anyone. To push down the hurt, pain and grief over a sin that needs to be dealt with.
It’s just not right. And that’s why church leadership needs to be trained in this before it happens. That’s why they need to know how to handle this situation beforehand. Lovingly, with wisdom. They need to know what resources exist. They need to be able to discuss openly with one another how they would deal with such an ordeal if it ever occurred.
Pray to God it never would. But be prepared if it does. Because if it does, people’s hearts need to be protected. Individuals need to be counseled and healed. A pastor and his family need to be embraced. And the truth of God needs to be uncompromising.
Next time, we will look at the post-pastor fallout and how to deal with the church members.
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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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