A blueprint for helping pastors and church leaders overcome sexual sins, and back into effective ministry
Counseling pastors who have fallen due to infidelity, pornography, prostitution or other sexual sins has been a regular occurrence in my office for the last 20 years.
When you do something for more than two decades, you learn quite a bit about those who fall and those who are able to get back into a growing ministry again. I’ve also learned a lot from those who fall but don’t go back to ministry, as well as others who go back in ministry without genuine healing and restoration.
Falling happens in ministry. We can all conjure up names of the famous Christian leaders and pastors who have fallen in the last two decades. My guess is that you can also conjure up names of people in ministry you know personally who have fallen. I was on a plane one day after the national media reported that my pastor had fallen to sexual sin.
As I was thinking through the names of all the pastors I have had over the 30 years of being a Christian, 50 percent of them or their wives had fallen into sexual immorality. So these experiences are not just clinical for me; these were friends and people who I cared deeply about.
Churches and parachurch ministries can take precautionary steps in case of moral indiscretions. The ministry or church that actually plans ahead is way ahead of the game by clearly outlining in their bylaws or employee handbook the procedures that will occur to anyone who has fallen into sexual immorality.
I can’t tell you how many times I have seen leaders of ministries and churches who have their heads in the sand, honestly believing that it would not happen to them. But planning for this reality is the healthiest proactive step your church or ministry can do.
Secondly, the church that outlines a clear set of parameters and expectations for returning to ministry is also ahead of the game when it comes to a moral falling of a leader or employee. Those who have come into my office with written policies had a real clear picture of what was expected of them to be able to return to ministry.
The individual in the process is the other large variable as to whether restoration can happen. You can have a perfect process, but a person with a rebellious heart can be difficult or impossible to restore. Also, you can have imperfect processes, though a good repentant heart and restoration can fully happen.
Qualities for Restoration
The person who I see regularly restored is the man or woman who “falls forward” by disclosing his or her sin—pornography, adultery or sexual improprieties of some kind—to a spiritual authority and/or spouse. This person isn’t responding to a real or imagined external threat, or facts that are being imposed on them. Rather, this person is responding to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, prompting a desire to confess, repent and change—regardless of the cost. This variable of honesty and reckless desire to change is respectable and often paves a softer way to restoration.
A second quality of the fully restored is having a humble heart. They are not talking about their great gifts and influence or how important they are. They are broken due to their mistakes. They are remorseful for what they have done, realizing the pain that they have caused others who have trusted them.
A third quality of the restored is taking full responsibility. They are not blaming the spouse or marriage, how stressed they have been or even the other person they were immoral with. This person stands up to the plate and says, “I did it, I’m 100 percent responsible.” The person who fully owns the sin is most likely going to heal from this past and will have a future in ministry.
This person accepts consequences for his or her behavior. There will be several layers of consequence, and the attitude must be, “That’s my mistake, my responsibility and my consequences.” In order to move through the process, there can’t be a mindset of escaping these consequences.
A fourth quality of those who can be restored is they can take direction from a board, bishop or human resources department. A plan of restoration is laid out, and they simply follow the direction given to them by their authorities in a submitted manner.
Embracing accountability is the next quality I see from the heart that can be restored to ministry. This person knows that being accountable to someone or a group of people is part of the process. I had a worship leader in my office who was given the option of accountability to a team of four men. He willingly agreed to this, texting all four men daily and calling one of them every day. He was happy to do this accountability and will most likely be restored to ministry in the future.
I also see individuals who are restored working on their marriage voluntarily. The marriage is not responsible for the poor choices of the fallen person. The damage from infidelity or inappropriateness can be huge in a marriage due to the disintegration of the trust fabric. The spouse and the perpetrator needs healing and so does the marriage.
Those who fall forward also seek out competent, professional counselors. This helps them discover why they did what they did. This can identify a sexual addiction, depression, psychological disorder, sexual abuse or other issues. This can help make sense of an irrational choice. However, they are still responsible for the choice.
Lastly, I have worked with organizations and individuals who request to do ongoing polygraphs to verify the stopping of pornography, sex outside the marriage or whatever the behavior was. To find a good polygrapher, call a few criminal attorneys and see whom they recommend.
This strategy has several helpful aspects. First, it ends the secret world of the staff member who acted inappropriately. Second, it can rebuild trust in the marriage. It can also help the authority to regain trust on the fallen person before he or she is allowed to return to ministry. Additionally, utilizing polygraphs can show that the church did due diligence in case this person reoffends in the future.
Unfortunately, not all who fall will fall forward. During the past 20-plus years, I have been called not only to counsel the fallen, but also to be a consultant to churches and ministries to restore fallen leaders. I have discovered that there are several characteristics of those who “fall apart,” not fall forward.
Again, I start with the church or organization. This organization has not proactively written anything into its bylaws or guidelines about what is to occur when a leader falls. This leaves everyone scrambling, and if it’s the leader or senior pastor, it leaves the underlings trying to make decisions, which cannot be optimal. The leader may use manipulation and coercion to call the shots on his or her restoration, which is a bad idea.
A leader who is caught is often on a harder road to restoration. External motivation, to be honest, can be short-lived. The leader can try to manipulate facts as opposed to repenting. I have seen some leaders truly repent after exposure, but it is a tougher road for them than for the person who starts out by disclosing and repents. I have been in countless meetings where the unbrokenness, denial and lies of leaders took hours or longer before they actually repented or owned their mistakes.
Arrogance is another characteristic of those who fall apart and are not restored to ministry. Their specialness, giftedness and sacrifices are circular conversations. They demand to decide their own restoration process. They are offended at anyone suggesting a path of submission.
As far as taking responsibility, those who are not restored rarely own their mistakes fully. They will still blame their spouse, the marriage, the other person, stress, depression or almost anything. Something I look for here is if they still see themselves as a victim. If they are victims, they can rarely be restored.
They are the perpetrators of their life, spouse, people in the ministry, the other person and their family. They caused all this pain, and unless they can see themselves as the perpetrator, they are not in reality.
This victim mentality is a part of any consequences that they or their family suffer as well. They are the victim of the overseers, human resources department or superiors. What is being asked of them is always unreasonable. Being the victim keeps them stuck and leaves them vulnerable to bitterness and hate.
A person who falls apart, even if he or she starts a new ministry or church, rarely has real accountability. They reject the notion that they should be fully submitted for a season. I know a leader who fully submitted as long as he was getting paid by the organization. But when the money stopped, so did the submission because the submission wasn’t from the heart.
This person will often minimize the need for help. They say, “I’ve repented, it’s under the blood, so let’s move on, and I am a new creature.” This is often from someone who doesn’t heal and actually reoffends again in the future. I had a man in my office who had gotten fired from three different churches for having sex with church members. He was a sex addict who masturbated constantly to porn, which always led back to affairs.
This person refused ongoing polygraphs, so when he started something new there was an unhealed, unaccountable individual as the seed of this new work. If persons who fall apart can’t be restored, often they blame others and do not mature past their mistakes.
As a leader, you will be a part of restoring someone you know who falls. Make sure your church or organization is proactive by creating guidelines for when this happens. The Bible has examples of leaders who fell into immorality but were restored (see King David after his sin with Bathsheba), and others who were not (see Samson). I believe in restoration. I have seen countless pastors and ministry leaders fully restored and prosper in their calling. I love seeing God restore leaders all over the world.
Help for those impacted by infidelity
Affair Recovery online offers courses and support groups
A new Web-based service has been launched for those impacted by infidelity. Affair Recovery online, www.AffairRecovery.com, targets couples and individuals who have experienced the devastation of extramarital affairs, betrayal or sexual addiction.
The new website offers online courses as well as expert insights and support groups. Clients can participate in the programs anonymously via phone and computer from the privacy of their own homes or offices.
“Through my practice, I have had the privilege of working with many couples in person over the years, but it has always distressed me to know that there are thousands of couples and individuals suffering in silence not getting the specialized help they need,” said Rick Reynolds, a marriage counselor and family therapist who is founder and president of Austin, Texas-based Affair Recovery. “With the launch of Affair Recovery’s online service, our goal is to provide affordable and confidential access to compassionate and informed experts.”
While beta testing over 48 months, Affair Recovery has seen more than 7,000 men and women worldwide seek out the website and take part in the free “Affair Analyzer” to learn more about what can be expected from their partners, the emotions they could be feeling and what paths they should to take to begin healing.
Research has shown that affairs take place in an estimated 40 to 76 percent of marriages. Although half of all married couples remain monogamous, the other half will experience an infidelity over the course of a marriage, according to researchers at the University of Texas in Austin.
“The bottom line is that a tremendous number of married couples are going to deal with infidelity at some point during the course of their marriages,” said Reynolds, who started Affair Recovery after God healed his marriage when he cheated on his wife, Stephanie, in 1984. “How they handle this adversity is going to impact their quality of life as well as that of the next generation. The challenge is that many of these couples don’t have access to the services they need. They’re hurting, and that hurt passes on to the next generation if not handled well.”
For more information on Affair Recovery online, visit www.AffairRecovery.com.