No pastor relishes the idea of having to involve himself in the restoration of another leader who has fallen. So when Chris Hodges, senior pastor of the Church of the Highlands in Alabama, heard of the moral failure that led to Dino Rizzo’s resignation in 2012 from the church he founded (Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge, La.), he was heartbroken. But Hodges, who co-founded the Association of Related Churches with Rizzo and is now overseeing his restoration process, believes there is hope for the situation, partly because of the healthy restoration plan established by a group of leaders.
Ministry Today recently caught up with Hodges to talk about this restoration. And while the conversation was not to divulge details of Rizzo’s situation, it became obvious that his restoration process—without revealing private matters—could serve as a positive example of how to fully restore a leader the right way.
This whole thing had to be physically and emotionally draining for Pastor Rizzo. How is he holding up?
He’s doing exceptionally well. We’ve got him on our team for the second year of his restoration. We did it in stages, where there was one year of sitting out completely and then a second year of supervised ministry. We have him on our team, and he is shining on all fronts. It’s been fantastic to watch and see. There is nothing but a glowing report.
You are very much involved in the restoration process of Pastor Rizzo. Can you walk us through the entire process and what was required of him and his wife?
One of the things that people don’t know about this is that I wasn’t involved from the beginning. Some of the steps taken early on weren’t what I would have recommended, but when I did get involved, the first thing we did was that we consulted with people like Pastor Larry [Stockstill], who is my pastor, and literally more than 50 different respected leaders to learn and to find out what were the best processes: what works and what hasn’t worked. Even some of the industry standards from different denominations, we really did our homework on a lot of those. Whoever is being a part of the restoration for someone, they really need to begin by educating themselves on what some of the norms are by different groups. You need to do that so that it is not so subjective to your own opinion. We really took an informed view of it.
Basically, the consensus was two-fold: Some time is needed for the individual to sit out, and then [some time] for him to have some supervised ministry, which again is a very industry-worn standard. You need to give the couple and the individual some benchmarks to determine whether the restoration can move forward. So, between his overseers of the church and people like the counselors—they went to an independent counseling center for their marriage—[they received a great deal] of advice.
Was there a list of benchmarks that he had to meet during the initial healing process?
We came up with 31 different benchmarks that we wanted them to fulfill for them to qualify for restoration. It sounds a little bit more complicated than it really is. There were some as simple as books that we wanted them to read [and others such as] things we wanted them to get in order in their home. One of them was for both him and his wife to go and get a complete physical, a complete health assessment. A lot of it involved counseling, different things like that. Not all of them were easy. In fact, some of them were incredibly difficult and required serious sacrifice. After the first year of sitting out and completing all of those benchmarks, that’s when we could go to Phase Two, the re-entry back into the ministry.
I can’t get into specifics, but I can talk about the categories for the benchmarks. One was in personal finance, getting your financial house in order. There were some in physical health, counseling and marriage. A lot of them were educational. There were seminars he had to attend and books to read. We didn’t feel like we could do both the counseling and the restoration process because I was also helping Healing Place Church and their transition. Emerge Ministry out of Akron, Ohio, was in charge of the counseling process, and they did a phenomenal job. That’s what they do, counseling for ministers, and they are simply fabulous at it.
Pastor Rizzo moved to Alabama after he resigned from the Healing Place. From your conversations with him, how difficult was it for him and his family to move on after 20 years there, and how difficult has it been for him to accept his new role?
One of the conditions of the restoration was for him and his family to move away from Baton Rouge, La., so that with the person we set in his place, there wasn’t any confusion with his congregation and the city. That takes quite a bit of commitment to the process to leave the place you’ve been for 20 years. And that’s not just leaving the church, but the city. There needed to be full compliance. We’re fortunate that we’ve gotten 110 percent of their effort. We offered for him to come to our church and to be in Birmingham for that second year, and it has just been fabulous in every way. You can see the life coming back to them, the vision is returning. The whole goal is for after that second year, there are options. We want to give them as many options as we can to fulfill the call of God on their lives. We’re headed that way.
To be honest, they were in 100 percent submission to the people who were in authority over them and to the process. We could have said, ‘Stand on your head in the snow in Alaska,’ and they would have done it. They were completely willing to do whatever. It’s one thing to be compliant, and it’s another to have a good attitude about it. We not only got the action but the attitude as well. That speaks loudly because we’re still observing the whole process.
Since they’ve been here, they’ve loved being a part of our church. Dino is very involved in our Dream Center. Every minister has a little niche—their preaching or their music or whatever—and Dino’s niche has always been compassion and serving the poor. So we have him involved in the Birmingham Dream Center. With the vision and energy and excitement in our church, he’s having a blast, and our church is benefiting from his spiritual gifts as well.
Trust is something that is difficult to regain once it has been broken. Has it been your experience by looking at others’ situations that people are quick to forgive, or will it be a long process for Pastor Rizzo to earn the trust for any potential new congregation?
I think there are different trust levels needed for different roles, and it depends on which role he chooses and which direction he chooses to go. For instance, for him to be a senior pastor of a church, I’m not sure that’s possible, and if he does [desire to do that, it’s unknown] how long it will take to serve in that capacity again. I think the roles determine the level of trust required.
Then there is the one between him and his family, especially his wife. Part of the restoration process requires a designated time for that. It’s different with every situation because every offense or sin or moral failure is completely different. It’s different in not only what happened but also in how long it was happening. A 20-year, covered-up adulterous affair is obviously different from a one-night stand.
Did Pastor Rizzo ever convey what he thought was the most difficult part of the process for him and what his hopes and dreams were for the future going forward?
We talk all the time about what’s difficult and what he wants to do moving forward. I’ve urged him not to formulate any long-term plans until the process is completed. With every month that passes, the process changes, and it’s all been positive change. I’ve urged him to stay in the present and for Dino to continue to do what he’s doing.
The most difficult thing for him is the difficulty of knowing that he’s disappointed many people, the feeling of breaking that trust. One of the most painful parts, and I’ve even felt this as part of his restoration process, is when people have misread the situation and added more than what’s there. Being misunderstood has been hard for him.
You can divulge some things, but you can’t divulge others because there are other people involved. His kids are involved. There is a level of sensitivity there. You try to be as open as you possibly can, but you have to be as sensitive as you can, too, to other people’s feelings and needs. It can be very difficult.
When will Pastor Rizzo be released from the program to pursue what God has for him?
The first year of no ministry was completed Aug. 7. It had been about 14 months. On Aug. 7, he preached here at our church on a Wednesday night. The two years is up August 2014. If he continues in good standing in all of these areas, we’re just going to turn him loose to fulfill the call of God on his life. He will have several options open to him, one of which is, if he would like to stay here and stay on our team, he can do that.
We’ll help him fulfill whatever he wants to do as someone who has been completely restored. Every indicator to this point is 100 percent positive. I would give him, his wife and his family an A-plus on attitude and effort. There have been more than 30 ministers who have given their approval during this process. I check in with several of them, including my pastor, Larry Stockstill, and give them updates about what’s going on. They give their thumbs up, and you can’t ask for more.
Satan obviously is having a field day with marriages and breaking up families in this day and age, and pastors’ families are no exception. What does Pastor Rizzo’s restoration say about God’s grace and mercy and the hope it gives?
When I did research, I couldn’t find models of guys restored. In most cases, pastors were just put out to pasture. ‘Sorry, but you’re done.’ I so desperately wanted there to be a model here. It is a message of hope to those who have experienced some sort of moral failure or whatever. There has to be. It is our responsibility as a body of believers to let there be literal demonstrations of the love of God and the restoration of God in people’s lives, all to God’s glory.
People are watching. We have a responsibility to model the old adage of, ‘What would Jesus do?’ He would take that person and pick him up and show him a way to restoration and freedom if he would just take the steps.
Is this your first time going through such a process, and if so, what have you learned from it that, God forbid, you can apply if you ever have to again?
Yes, indeed, this is the first time, and yes, I’ve learned a ton about not only the process but also what caused it in the first place. It has caused a lot of us who are watching closely to re-evaluate our own lives in any areas that may be open doors for the enemy.
In Dino’s case, and I suspect that this would be true for most pastors and ministers, one of the main culprits was the pace of life. When you get working so hard for so long, you neglect the important relationships, including your relationship with God. It’s not a bad relationship, but it’s simply a neglected one. There’s your time with your family and your time with the Lord, and the pressures of your time that are demanded within the ministry.
There were other factors that were involved, but that was one of the main ones. It’s made all of us who were watching closely re-evaluate our personal Sabbath, our travel schedules and just how much we’re doing. Personally, I’m already healthier from the adjustments I’ve made by watching what happened to Dino. That’s been one of the greatest benefits. I’ve learned some things just in watching this process.
Shawn A. Akers is the managing editor of Ministry Today magazine.