By Name Withheld
In a perfect world there would be no articles like this. The leaders in our churches would be solid, stable, and blameless. You wouldn’t need the testimony “of a leader who failed.” And I wouldn’t be that leader.
In a serious understatement, I was asked to describe for you “what happens when a shepherd ‘stubs his toe’ and it is handled well by the church.” I was asked because I am that shepherd, but I didn’t feel I had “stubbed my toe”—it felt like I had cut off my legs.
While the elders of my church know all the details, the specifics of my story probably are not necessary or germane to the crucial questions. How does a good church handle well the moral failure of a leader? What do you do when there is sin among the shepherds?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but there are four things I saw and experienced as my church worked through the situation with me that I think are crucial.
Grace and Truth
The church has been accused of being the only army that shoots its own wounded. I have friends who left ministry because they just couldn’t take the heartbreak of watching harsh shepherds kill off anyone with scars or evidence of a limp. You probably know such sad stories too. Many have yet to heal from stripes they received as a penalty for not being completely healthy. Perhaps you have experienced the nightmare of the church at its weakest.
That was not my experience. I was bleeding from a self-inflicted wound, and the leaders around me became a healing team. They loved me back to wholeness. Actually, I don’t think I had ever really experienced wholeness before, at least not to the degree I’ve known since they tended me. I know that healing comes from the Father. But the leaders around me were his hands, feet, and heart to me as well as my family. I received a full measure of both grace and truth.
The truth, they would not compromise. They did not look the other way. They stared me in the eyes and asked the hard questions. They wept with me. They debated, prayed, raged, struggled, searched the Word, and lost sleep. They “fathered” and “Fathered” me. They acted like an earthly father who loves his son and works hard to show him direction. And they were examples of my heavenly Father in ways I’m still coming to understand. They would not compromise grace either.
I don’t know all the answers to the struggles of sin in ministry. But I do know that a leadership willing to wrestle for the soul of a brother or sister—not just take an easy way out, whether by looking the other way or by a quick firing—will go a long way toward reflecting the image of the Father to a lost world and a careworn congregation.
There are always regrets when a leader crashes and burns. As the ashes cool, we sift through the rubble to find more pieces of the puzzle that should have given us clues to the oncoming catastrophe. And we continue to replay the warning signs that some of us caught. If we had only had the full picture, we could have perhaps saved him from himself—and maybe in saving him, saved others from the wounds his failure caused. These are the haunting questions of love and concern. From my experience I encourage you to act on the “clues that don’t make sense.” Ask pointed, godly questions in love.
Regardless of who missed what, in my case, as in most cases, it was my sin. I had to take full ownership. There is no one else to blame. No matter what anybody else did or didn’t do, I chose my course. There may be contributing factors and accessories to the crime, but nobody made me do it. And like all deceived people, I worked hard to hide my sin. You were handicapped at discovering my secret.
My leadership helped me take the one road to restoration after a wreck. When leaving the scene of a crash, there are many roads we can take, but only the road to truth leads to lasting freedom. If I want to be free, I must take the gut-wrenching path of full disclosure. I can’t hold back. I can’t be allowed to hold back. I can’t confess only what is already known. I can’t compromise with an incomplete truth. Not everyone needs to know everything, but my leadership needs the whole truth. (And that leadership cannot just be one or two people!) A partial truth may save my job (if I can get away with it), but it will not allow for healing.
It is right to have high expectations for our church leadership. They are to be held to a higher standard, and unrepentant sin or secrets cannot be ignored. Perfection is not possible for any leader, but a passionate, unrelenting pursuit of holiness is a rightful expectation.
And what is a reasonable expectation for restoring a fallen leader to a position of leadership? While God says there is forgiveness and there is restoration to him and the body, he does not always equate forgiveness with restoration to leadership.
There is no clearly marked path in Scripture. David was restored. Peter was restored. Saul was not, and Ananias was not. The situations are not all the same. I think within your leadership you will find a difference of opinion. (If Paul and Barnabas couldn’t decide what to do with John Mark’s weakness, I expect we too will struggle with our dilemmas.) Your leadership team will have to make a hard call. We need to expect them to make the best “hard call” they can, and then trust them with that decision. I would only add that the admonition to “not lay hands on someone too quickly” probably also applies to restoring an individual to leadership.
Relationships and Accountability
I had to keep myself completely under our church’s leadership. I had to be willing to accept the verdict. I had to be willing to do it their way—no matter what the decision. We discussed my stepping out of ministry but staying under their authority until they felt I was ready to lead again. We talked about what we might say to the congregation. We talked about dealing with it only within the leadership. These are hard calls.
I had seen people who wouldn’t submit to the final decision of leadership; they always defended their objection and reaction “as being better for the church.” Such rejection of spiritual authority will always do more damage in the church than full obedience would have. I had gotten myself into this mess, what would make me think I had a better idea of how to get me out of it? Only arrogance could lead me to that conclusion.
Whether or not I kept my job, I am fully accountable to them. We are relationally committed. As to the job, I think they could have been right with either choice. They sought God’s heart. Their decision came out of the integrity and love they exhibited through the whole process. There are no easy answers here. Real life is real messy.
Hours of prayer, hard work, and rivers of tears came to a solution that allows for sleep at night. I am doing well. My family has a better husband and father, my church has one more grateful family, and my life has more wholeness than I have ever known. A flock flourishes through the willingness of the shepherds to get involved in the messy lives of the sheep . . . even when there is sin among the shepherds.
The writer remains as an active member of the church he describes. He says his current employment is “kingdom-centered,” but he is no longer working for the church. He did, however, remain on the church staff for the first year and a half of his recovery, which included work with a team of leaders “investing in his life” and time at a retreat center that provides counseling for persons in situations like his.