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When Christian Leaders Succumb to Sin
A Christian leader's moral failure has far-reaching and devastating consequences for the individual, the congregation, and the Body of Christ worldwide. What's to be done?


Earlier this year I was shocked and dismayed to hear that on the previous Sunday a friend of mine had stood before the congregation he leads and confessed to the sin of adultery. It had been an extended affair. Needless to say, the damage to the individuals involved, and to the testimony of this evangelical congregation, will linger for years.

… these events further erode the credibility of the Gospel in our already cynical-toward-Christianity society.

(These situations are real, but in order to minimize further hurt and damage in already fragile circumstances, no involved person or ministry is identified in this article.)

Part of me is angry, for I know first-hand something of the long-term damage created by pastoral failure. Four years prior to my arrival, one congregation I served had dismissed its much-loved senior pastor because of marital infidelity. It took nearly ten years for the congregation to put that experience behind them.

On the other hand, I feel true sadness for my friend, because I know he faces a long journey rebuilding trust within his own home and with people who looked to him as their spiritual shepherd. And whatever future ministry he has, there will always be the shadow of this tragic chapter.

Further, I know he demonstrates what is potentially true for me—for all of us. If I do not maintain a spiritual equilibrium, I will fall sooner or later. Luke's concluding remark about our Lord's temptation ought to be burned into the hearts and minds of every Christian leader: "When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left Him until an opportune time: (Luke 4:13, emphasis mine).

I am also sad because I know these events further erode the credibility of the Gospel in our already cynical-toward-Christianity society. In recent months, my denomination has experienced at least four "moral failures" within its pastoral ranks. And as one of my colleagues in ministry said, "Those are just the ones we know about."

The truth is, Fellowship Baptists in Canada average five moral failures each year—a figure that has held steady for more than 30 years.

No monopoly on immorality

Baptists, however, do not have a monopoly on immorality. Canadians were shocked some months ago to learn that an Ontario Alliance pastor had been arrested, charged and convicted of Internet luring when police picked him up at a shopping mall where he had gone to meet a young girl he "met" online.

In recent times, Pentecostal and independent congregations have experienced moral failure within their ranks, and there is the still-unfolding saga of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic priesthood. Every group has its share of moral failure.

One Canadian evangelical pastor shared with me his horrific experience of serving as an associate in two consecutive ministries where the senior pastors fell morally.

In the first situation, when the pastor was charged with sexual impropriety, no adequate steps were taken to deal with the issue. It was simply pushed out of sight. He moved on to other pastorates, but the woman involved saw her marriage disintegrate.

Incredibly, when this associate pastor relocated to a new church, he found himself serving with another senior pastor discovered to be sexually involved with several women. This pastor was removed, but not before inflicting great damage on the ministry, and contributing to the demise of several marriages.

The emotional cost of these two ministry disasters was so traumatic for the associate that he contemplated suicide. He did leave pastoral work for several years, but by God's grace, now enjoys a fruitful ministry as lead pastor in a growing congregation.

Reflecting on his experience with fallen leaders, this pastor remarked: "Churches often fail to ask if there's been moral failure in the life of the man they contemplate calling as pastor … . By neglect, we do the same with our fallen pastors and churches as the Roman Catholics do by moving their priests on to new charges."

What's to be done?

Sexual immorality in Christian leadership is nothing new. The ubiquitous caricature of the hypocritical, philandering fundamentalist preacher proves that beyond any reasonable doubt. So what is to be done?

Lapses in the spiritual … are certain to spell trouble.

Randy Alcorn, director of Eternal Perspective Ministries, suggests several strategies for maintaining moral purity (Strategies to Keep from Falling). Here is a summary of his thinking for men in ministry:

Watch your spiritual health

Lapses in the spiritual disciplines of meditation, worship, prayer and healthy self-examination are certain to spell trouble.

Guard your marriage

Regularly evaluate your relationship with your spouse, keeping him or her involved in what happens in your ministry world.

Take adequate precautions

If you find yourself thinking more about ways to be with a co-worker than with your spouse, set strict parameters about that working relationship. Avoid meeting alone with him or her.

Understand subtle signs of sexual attraction

Exchanging notes and gifts, holding hands tightly in prayer, allowing the arm to linger just a bit longer on the shoulder, offering embraces more often—these may denote a relationship veering into dangerous territory.

Back off early

When you realize a counselee has become interested in you personally, it is time to refer that person to someone else.

Maintain clarity in your thinking

Never justify flirting, and never disclose to another person that you have lustful thoughts about them.

Make yourself accountable

Don't try to be a lone ranger leader.

Guard your thought life

Alcorn astutely notes, "Our thoughts are the fabric with which we weave our character and destiny." With good reason Paul encourages believers to keep their minds focused on things that are noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).

What about those who have fallen? Can they be restored to ministry?

Maintain and review a list of consequences for moral failure

Broken relationship with God, ruined testimony, devastated family, squandered reputation, distraught congregation. The list goes on.

Repent, and be restored

What about those who have fallen? Can they be restored to ministry? Whatever your view, and there are strong arguments for both positions, some are non-negotiable.

There must be genuine repentance evidenced by full, unreserved acknowledgement of culpability. A truly repentant leader offers no excuse for his or her sin.

For example, one pastor explained his moral lapse by alluding to the prophetess Jezebel who "misleads my servants into sexual immorality" (Revelation 3:20). This pastor believes he was deceived into having an affair, and that led him to become a deceiver. He believes he should be restored to his pulpit so he can warn his people of the deceiver.

Any shifting of responsibility for sin, especially by spiritual leaders, should immediately raise warning flags. Does this leader truly understand what has happened?

Raymond Pendleton, professor of pastoral care and counseling at Gordon Conwell Seminary, says the foundational step in dealing with moral failure, and any subsequent return to ministry must be to determine that "the person has truly 'come to himself' … has developed significant insight into what has gone on … has confessed his sin first to God, to his spouse and then is willing to deal with the consequences of those actions …

"[The] issue of significant time cannot be overstressed as a necessary component for healing and re-establishing a foundation for moral and familial wholeness."

Bruce Christenson, director of the B.C. region of the Fellowship Baptists, has an extensive process for handling moral failure in the lives of leaders.

Aimed at restoring fallen leaders whenever possible, Christenson utilizes a lengthy process of counseling, accountability groups and restitution. Five key areas are addressed: the leader's personal life, marital relationship, family, congregation (including care and support for any and all injured parties) and the denominational relationship between the leader and the proposed ministry.

Any potential ministry role must depend upon genuine repentance, adequate time away with the proper supervision and counseling. A return to leadership roles must be gradual and involve a carefully structured accountability for the individual being restored.

More than sex

I have been discussing moral failure in terms of sexual immorality, but all sin is a moral failure. While we rightly see sexual lust, fornication and adultery as serious moral lapses, how often do we hear of pastors being removed from ministry for jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissension or factions? But these sins are listed alongside all sorts of sexual sins when Paul writes that those who "live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5:19-21).

As for the key to breaking the cycle of moral failure, one writer put it like this: "I'm convinced that it is a flat-out, radical passion to know and serve God combined with accountability to other[s] … " (If It Could Happen to Me).

The inspired wisdom writer put it this way " … through the fear of the Lord a man avoids evil" (Proverbs 16:6).

David Daniels, a former Fellowship Baptist pastor, leads the ministries of New Covenant House in Toronto. He can be reached at david@wisereader.com.

Originally published in ChristianWeek, May 12, 2006.

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