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Restoring Fallen Ministry Leaders
Stress and too much work can cause pastors to burn out—or worse. How can churches help?

A pundit once quipped that if it weren't for dealing with people, being a minister would be a great job.

… what about when burnout includes a moral failure such as sexual impropriety?

It is not unusual for today's pastors to be stressed out, overworked, underpaid and often underappreciated. If they are people-pleasers to boot, they might really be in trouble. Facing crushing workloads that are nearly impossible to fulfil, it's no secret that wounded and weary clergy are burning out in record numbers.

According to one of many studies, three out of every ten North American pastors across the Christian spectrum show signs of burnout five years after leaving seminary. By the tenth year, it's three out of five. Stress and burnout have become hallmarks of the job.

Most of us are sympathetic to burnout in the abstract, but what about when burnout includes a moral failure such as sexual impropriety? How does a congregation or a parachurch ministry deal with the blow, with hundreds of people who may feel betrayed? Given a spiritual leader who has confessed to major moral improprieties, who seems to be repentant and wants to return to ministry leadership, how then should church supervisors and board members balance forgiveness and justice?

Congregations commonly choose one of four actions when their pastors are caught in sin, according to Thomas Pedigo, author of Restoration Manual: A Workbook for Restoring Fallen Ministers and Religious Leaders (Winning Edge Ministries,

1. Relegate them to the secular scene because they have "lost their calling";

2. Keep them on a shelf and "forever limit or restrain their gifts, calling and leadership";

3. Drop them "like a hot potato" because they have "embarrassed the Body of Christ and have emotionally wounded you"; and

4. Ignore them and hope they move away "because you don't know how to deal with their restoration and rebuilding, or you're not sure you want to."

Pedigo's book outlines 27 "checkpoints" for a "restoration team" to work with fallen clergy. It's used in 2,000 U.S. churches representing 25 denominations. Pedigo is himself a fallen minister.

Perhaps hesitation is such a common response to the question of restoration because there have been few rehabilitated pastors to serve as public role models. The differing reinstatements of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and Gordon Macdonald, all in the United States, come to mind. Politicians and celebrities, when caught in scandals, show us year after year how common it is for human beings to lie in such situations. It can be hard to discern true and complete repentance.

Believers often find it inspiring to have a leader whom God saved from immorality at the point of conversion. But once someone is leading a ministry, believers expect to see unswerving, public moral excellence. A congregation led by a reformed porn addict might give pause to some, but the idea would be a non-starter if the porn problem dates from a previous term of ministry leadership.

In the majority of cases, moral failure in leadership involves so much pain for a community that few are willing to talk about it even years later. In Canada, two pastors forced to leave their pulpits for sexual indiscretions were contacted for this article. Both refused to be identified, let alone quoted.

Lack of forethought?

Seminaries are often leading the way in addressing issues of burnout and restoration—notably Heritage Baptist, Tyndale and Canadian Southern Baptist—but many denominations still have work to do on these issues.

Actual church policies vary considerably, and don't fully reflect all the books, studies, institutes and retreats for pastors that have been established in recent years, especially south of the border, to address clergy misconduct. Some policies still seem designed chiefly to satisfy insurance requirements, and many others seem caught in a limbo of "re-examination."

These issues should be of particular concern to Evangelical churches, who have underperformed in this area compared to mainline churches, argues John Auxier, dean of Trinity Western Seminary, an Evangelical institution in Langley, B.C.

Mainline churches, he says, have "done a better job of handling [sexual misdeeds and restoration] mainly because of feminism."

Many conservative churches, Auxier says, lack policies on handling clergy sexual misconduct, including its impact on victims, and they get caught unprepared. Once such a crisis hits a congregation, says Auxier, "it's like building a boat in the middle of a storm."

Because Evangelical churches place a strong emphasis on congregationalism, an old boys' network often protects the pastor. "Even when policies are in place, they're not always enforced, which can leave a church vulnerable legally."

All this means that too often attempts at restoration are shoddy, says Auxier, "more like a paint job, and nobody comes out a winner." Or, the pastor doesn't wait to be restored; he/she simply jumps to a more sympathetic congregation or another denomination altogether.

The simplest solution—to hope the whole mess will just go away—is generally what happens.

"This is what brings grief to me," agrees a pastoral counsellor who prefers to remain anonymous. "Instead of utilizing and profiting from what these wounded healers could now offer the church, they are discarded and cast on the scrap heap. The offending party is never heard from again and so another valuable human resource is lost."

Although a pastor seeking restoration must be truly penitent for what he or she did, the unbending theologies of some denominations, especially very conservative ones, preclude any possibility of restoration. With these churches, "anything sex-related tends to be unforgivable," says the counsellor.

Of course, there are transgressions virtually any church would think are beyond the pale, including the extreme examples of murder and pedophilia.

But in most other cases, the counsellor argues, "restoration should always be the goal." It's a difficult goal to reach, and working toward it will require more work than most evangelicals realize. "We may think we have our theological ducks lined up in a nice, neat row, but the pragmatic realities tend to show that we haven't really done our theological homework. We've merely accepted pat answers that have not been tested. When they are, we find that our theology is inadequate. We're often forced to admit we have no idea what to do," says the counsellor.

Sample policy

Arguably some of the most sophisticated guidelines on discipline and restoration of clergy in this country have been developed by the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC), which represents 1,100 congregations and 3,600 credentialed ministers. Running ten densely packed pages (of a total of 76 outlining the general constitution and bylaws), the PAOC rules on misconduct and restoration leave little if anything undefined or unexplained.

"They're quite detailed," understates David Hazzard, the PAOC's assistant superintendent of ministerial services. "We endeavour to cover all the bases."

Indeed, the guidelines run the gamut from causes for discipline, procedures for investigation of allegations (including those under the Criminal Code and civil lawsuits), punishment, appeals and restoration, for which a pastor must apply in writing and provide a written admission of guilt.

Discipline may be triggered by a range of items, from a pastor's "contentious or non-cooperative spirit" to "assumption of dictatorial authority," but it's no surprise to find sexual infractions topping the list.

The period of general restoration called for is "not less than one year"—two years for adultery—and a minimum of four years when the violations involved sexual "deviation." The guidelines flatly deny reinstatement of credentials for anyone found guilty of child abuse.

When it comes to rehabilitating the fallen leader, the guidelines rather broadly state that "an effort" should be made to lead the offender through a program of restoration "administered in brotherly love and kindness."

Hazzard, who describes the rules as a work-in-progress, concedes the "an" before the word "effort" should be changed to "every" to better reflect the PAOC's belief that almost no soul is beyond repair.

"In our hearts, it is 'every' effort," he says. "We want to restore the minister at all times. We want to honour justice and mercy."

Forms of restoration

Restoration can mean several different things, notes Errol Lawrence, an associate professor and chair of the department of religious studies at Canadian University College in Lacombe, Alta. He has written about how to handle the issue for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

There is restoration of the one who has fallen but come back to a spiritual connection with God. There is restoration to his/her spouse and family, to the Church, colleagues, the congregation, and the community. There is also restoration to the pulpit.

Restoration to the pulpit is not where to begin, says U.S. author Tim LaHaye in his 1990 book If Ministers Fail Can They Be Restored? He and others maintain that the place to start is to help the pastor rebuild his or her spiritual life. Lawrence offers a passage of Scripture: If someone is caught in sin, "you who are spiritual should restore him gently" (Galatians 6:1).

Lawrence claims churches have a bad track record when it comes to forgiveness and restoration. "Leaders talk about forgiveness, but they abstain from—sometimes even fight against or oppose—efforts at restoration. It is not uncommon to hear leaders say: 'We love him and we forgive him, but we cannot have a person with such a sin on his record working for us. What would the world think of us?' "

The best examples of restoration? Lawrence calls it "God's Hall of Fame:" Moses committed murder; Jacob lied and cheated; Rahab was a prostitute; David was an adulterer and plotted murder; and Samson was a hot-headed philanderer. God gave them a break, and they all ended up making a difference.

So as Lawrence and others ponder, if God gives those who stumble a second chance, why can't His Church?

Ron Csillag is a freelance writer in Thornhill, Ont.

Originally published in Faith Today, September/October 2004.




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