By Darrel Rowland
The student minister starts his car, already planning how he will unbuckle his seat belt, zoom onto a nearby causeway, and veer over the guardrail into the lake . . .
The senior minister silently envies the ailing neighbor he’s visiting, wishing he could trade places with the terminal cancer patient . . .
The church leader, alone one night in his small apartment, pulls out a steak knife and stares at his wrists . . .
CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s editors asked for an article on sexual misdeeds by church leaders and ministers. So why are we talking about people with a death wish?
Because you need to know the stakes of this battle.
Allow me to be even less subtle: If you’re a leader and think sexual temptation isn’t a problem for you . . . Satan has you right where he wants you.
That’s not just my opinion. It’s what counselors say. It’s what the three leaders mentioned above say—all of them, by the way, used to think that way too.
Let’s face it: We hate this topic, and not just because it involves sex.
You may catch whispered conversations about a suddenly departed minister or leader who “had a problem.” Then you hear about two extremes: one set of the fallen who seemingly are too quickly restored to their positions, and another who effectively have been left to rot as if they have committed the unpardonable sin. And who knows whatever happens to the victims?
Most of us are familiar with the struggles of wayward Catholic priests and such highly visible leaders as Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Ted Haggard. But what about us?
This is where our proud undenominational independence hurts us. With no denominational headquarters or centralized record keeping (and I’m advocating neither), we simply have no idea.
But it seems everyone has anecdotes about fallen leaders from Restoration Movement churches:
• A missionary overseas called a former colleague earlier this year desperately wondering how he wound up half-naked and in bed with a woman to whom he was trying to witness.
• One minister visited a massage parlor, passed along a sexually transmitted disease to his wife—and blamed it on bad water he drank while hiking in the mountains.
• A church brought in a “successful” minister who’d already given into sexual temptation at four previous congregations, justifying the hiring by saying “it’s our only chance to get someone of this caliber.”
• And then there’s the minister whose transgression was discovered when he called his mistress. On the church cell phone. From a Promise Keepers conference.
“To assume that our ministers are morally better than those in other fellowships or denominations would be a mistake,” says Joe Sutherland, former professor at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tennessee, who’s been involved in counseling for more than 50 years.
“We don’t have any hard statistics to work with, but we just know of case after case. I can go through dozens of names, and it’s not just gossip; it’s where I’ve been involved as a counselor and therapist.”
Paul Boatman, dean of Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary and professor of pastoral care and counseling, observes, “It is rare that a ‘caught’ person is a first-time offender. I have seen instances where an announced ‘first offense’ produced as many as 17 women who came forward to testify of liaisons with the same man.”
Undenominational independence also means no clearinghouse to make sure an abusive minister at one church doesn’t wind up at another.
“When ministers are moved from church to church, usually the people who write recommendations don’t share information like this,” says Sutherland, 76, now serving a church in Florida. “We just end up passing these guys around.”
Boatman, 63, says the “loose connectional style” of Restoration Movement churches “has enabled predatory ministers to go from church to church with their offenses being undisclosed.”
He related one instance in which a child-abusing minister was allowed to quietly resign and move to another ministry with positive references. When the same behavior emerged in the new location, the parents of the abused child brought suit against the minister, the church that employed him, and the church that gave him the freedom to move on undetected.
Even churches that try to do the right thing face hazards. One senior minister at a large Ohio church was threatened with legal action by the attorney for a former associate whose dalliances were described in general to those calling for a reference.
While no one can say for sure whether the problem is bigger today, ministers and leaders undoubtedly face new temptations.
“The power of pornography, especially Internet porn, is underrated,” Boatman said.
Nothing to Hide
The former student minister had been involved with pornography for 25 years when he plotted to drive his car into the lake. But the source of his desperation was much more immediate: His wife kicked him out of the house after he was fired for viewing porn on his church computer.
The reason Kendall and Sharon Freeman of Westerville Christian Church in suburban Columbus, Ohio, are willing to allow their names to be used in this article is that he has been delivered from his addiction. Instead of driving off the road, he drove to a park where he and Sharon began working on the problem.
She demanded he confess before the church. He did the next Sunday—at all three services.
“As screwed up as I was, I loved the people at Westerville and they deserved more than me just walking away,” he said. “We have in our society this impression that porn is not as bad as a physical affair.”
Sharon says the push to confess came from God: “When we confess, what stone can Satan throw at (us)? . . . There’s nothing to hide anymore.”
Then they attended an intense week at a Georgia church—not a part of the Restoration Movement fellowship—that taught them how to engage in spiritual warfare. He’s now been free for more than three years.
Kendall’s problem began when he was 9, sneaking peeks at skin magazines under the counter of a drug store owned by a friend’s family. It continued, in stops and starts, through Bible college and 12 years of full-time ministry.
He remembers a deacon stumbling across a pornographic magazine while they were cleaning up after an alternative Halloween event at his Indiana church. He noted where the item was tossed in the trash, and when everyone else was gone he retrieved it.
He called sex lines; when Sharon spotted the 900 numbers on their phone bill, he deflected the blame.
“I let her fight the phone company for me over some $400 bill,” Kendall says.
At Westerville Christian, the porn sites he frequented brought a virus into the church computer system. When it was discovered his PC had been used to visit porn sites, Kendall seized on the suggestion of a fellow minister that perhaps students could have accessed the computer in his unlocked office.
“When you’re caught in a sin, especially when you’re a minister, you become so good at covering something up,” he said. “So I let the students, these students that I loved, take the fall for it.”
But unbeknownst to Kendall, the church continued to monitor Web usage. The reports went to one of his youth sponsors who worked at the church. That led to the day when one of the veteran ministers walked into his office with a list of lewd Web sites Kendall had visited that morning.
Kendall and Sharon, both now 38, say their marriage is better than ever. They still attend Westerville Christian, but he yearns to minister to ministers (see note at the bottom of this article).
“My heart beats to think about meeting church leaders and ministers and seeing them restored,” he says. “Rather than have Satan pick off our ministers one at a time . . . you have a brother go out and pick ‘em up and take them to safety in a foxhole and restore them to service.”
Reentry Too Soon
Sutherland and Boatman acknowledge the tension between protecting the integrity of the church and extending grace and forgiveness to the fallen.
“Some people say forgive, forget, and go on, but I don’t think you can do that in ministry . . . because the minister is held to a higher standard,” Sutherland says. “It’s not a matter of forgiveness at all. It’s a matter of the role of leadership in the local church.”
Boatman says, “Those instances in which I have seen a ‘fallen leader’ responsibly reengage have ALWAYS included intense accountability relationships. Unless a person is broken and thoroughly penitent, such demands for mentorship are usually attacked as ‘lacking in grace.’ But grace has to pursue redemption for both the sinner and the church, protecting both from the vulnerability to sin.
“Reentry into ministry is usually pushed prematurely. Public confession and tears can sway a congregation to affirm love for a man who, though guilty of moral sin, has done so much for us in other ways, especially as he is now so ‘transparent.’ Putting him quickly back into leadership is parallel to forgiving and reinstating the license of a remorseful drunk driver, without ever dealing with his addiction to alcohol.”
The senior minister wanting to trade places with the dying cancer patient was restored to ministry about three months after disclosing his adultery. The Midwestern church of several hundred members was starting to founder in both direction and finances, so leaders wanted him back in the pulpit—even though he had not come close to finishing the restoration and accountability tasks to which they had agreed.
But things were never right. His wife did not support his ministry, but when he quit she filed for divorce.
“I lost my family, my home, my church, my friends, my livelihood, and my career. I had to start over . . .
“God does come alongside. He loves you enough to crush you. Before he’ll let his church be destroyed by your mistakes, he will expose it.”
The former senior minister has remarried, his fall is now 17 years behind him, and he has returned to the pulpit—but not in a Restoration Movement church.
“I don’t think I’m welcome in Christian churches anymore.”
From where he sits, the movement is “long on talk about restoration” but short on action at a personal level.
“It’s pretty much devastated my life,” he said. “The unforgivingness of many Christians has just compounded it.”
He found unexpected acceptance among African-American churches. “They understood that people sinned, and they celebrated repentance.”
He speaks occasionally at seminars about his experiences, but often gets the same dismissal he once expressed.
“I once heard a speaker say, ‘There’s some woman who knows how to unlock every one of your doors, and she’s coming at you.’ And I laughed at that. I thought, Why would anyone destroy their career, their witness, their family . . .
“It’s the one thing that the guys who aren’t guilty hope no one talks about. It’s the one thing that the guys that ARE guilty hope they don’t talk about.”
Ministers and church leaders traditionally are taught about boundaries and the need for checks and balances to ward off sexual temptation, Boatman says.
“But the greater emphasis is rightly placed on character development. Moral failure emerges in the context of underdeveloped Christian character,” he says.
“The old rules, such as ‘Never be alone in a room with a person of the opposite sex,’ are about as effective as the ’50s TV code of never letting a couple be in bed on-screen with both feet off the floor. Once a person has allowed the heart and mind to entertain the idea of an inappropriate relationship, intelligent Christians can become remarkably devious in manipulating appearances and transcending barriers.”
A few years before he picked up the knife, the church leader was becoming increasingly involved—serving as chairman of the board, teaching regularly, visiting church members at least once a week, planning a new evangelism outreach, taking his turn leading services, attempting to disciple a new Christian—all the while trying to be a decent father and working at a challenging secular job.
It was in the workplace where he succumbed to temptation.
Within weeks he resigned all his church leadership roles. When the minister and other leaders wondered what was going on, he said only that it was personal. Soon he left the church he loved and had attended all his life, visiting a variety of churches in the next few years as his sin continued.
Within a couple of years, his marriage was finished, although the paperwork wasn’t filed until much later. He was fired from his job—interestingly, for trying to stand up for a principle. Nights especially saw hours of tears and anguish as the guilt and recrimination washed over him. He lost 50 pounds, then gained more than 75. Counseling sessions helped but didn’t resolve anything. The new woman wanted to get married but he—such a tower of character—wouldn’t because she didn’t care for his kids and wasn’t a Christian.
When she moved on, the devastation was complete. There was little left to live for. He had failed his wife, his children, his church, and his God. Those failures were seemingly his only possible legacy, a sad tombstone for somebody who tried to be Mr. Super-Christian.
There has to be a way out, he thought, and threw the knife across the room.
He started attending a large Christian church that helped nurture him back to spiritual health—even though he told virtually no one of his background. After several years, he even started teaching again. Seven years ago he married a Christian woman.
The scars from the bad old days remain. He still wonders if his children would be closer to Christ if he hadn’t sinned so egregiously. Would any good ever come from that dark time of his life?
Then one day the editors of CHRISTIAN STANDARD contacted him about writing an article on church leaders’ battle with sexual temptation . . .
Darrel Rowland is public affairs editor of The Columbus Dispatch and an adult Bible fellowship teacher at Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church.
Kendall Freeman, one of the individuals profiled in this article, wants to minister to ministers who are struggling with sexual sin. E-mail him at email@example.com.