How to React When a Pastor or Other Leader Experiences a Serious Failing

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Moral failure
Has your church been forced to deal with some sort of moral failure? How did it handle it? (iStock photo)

During my career, I’ve dealt with many crisis situations with churches and ministries. Pastors who experience moral failings, staff members embezzling money, leaders who turn out to be pedophiles, serial adulterers, incompetent and much more.

Every situation is different, and the goals include healing the hurt, restoring the leader according to biblical principles and keeping the church healthy. Seeking God is critical, but along with that process, there are some immediate practical choices that have to be made. If you’re a church leader, elder, board member or know someone who is, this is a critical list you should share and keep handy just in case a crisis happens in your church:

1. Prepare for a crisis ahead of time. Research shows that organizations that have a crisis plan recover much more quickly (and with less cost) than those who don’t. And don’t think a crisis can’t happen to you. In today’s complex, Internet-driven world, the chances your church or ministry will have problems has only increased. Pray and hope for the best, but always have a plan if something goes wrong.

2. Get an attorney’s advice immediately. There are numerous legal issues surrounding these types of failings, and you don’t want to put the church at risk. A qualified attorney should be your first call.

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3. Know your liability insurance policy. In many cases, lawsuits happen, and a good insurance policy can literally save the church. It’s one thing for a leader to fail but quite another for him or her to take the entire church down because of legal actions. So talk to your insurance agent as well as your attorney, and make sure you’re covered for these types of situations.

4. When a crisis happens, don’t cover it up. In an instant message, texting and email world, word travels fast. Today, we have to be more transparent than ever because we simply can’t hide anymore. Leaks happen, and they will happen to you.

5. Be honest. You don’t have to reveal everything about the situation, but whatever you do, don’t make anything up or hide anything. Even when you think you’re trying to help the situation, lies will be found out. The worst situation is to have to change your story as new information is revealed. So be honest from the beginning.

6. If possible, break the news to your church family first. This is indeed a family, and they need to be told in person. Don’t email the news; tell it to them live. Sometimes that’s difficult if the problem happens early in the week, because it’s tough to keep a lid on it until the weekend services. But if possible, and especially if the news comes to light toward the end of the week, I’m an advocate for sharing the truth with the congregation first. They deserve to hear the real story, not rumors, gossip or the local news version.

7. Then go public and tell the story. Through an official statement, press release or local news story, I encourage the church to tell the story of what happened. You don’t need to go into inappropriate detail, but the story needs to be told. If you don’t, the press will report anything they can find, including rumors, secondhand gossip and speculation. In an online world, if you don’t tell your side of what happened, the other story will remain forever.

8. Seek counseling, healing and restoration for all parties. If the pastor or leader has had an affair, don’t just help the pastor and his family recover. Help the other person as well. It’s difficult to discern who started the relationship, so reach out to both sides. You should be impartial when it comes to helping everyone heal.

9. Pull the pastor's or leader’s content from your website, print materials, church bookstore and everywhere else. After stepping down from leadership because of a failing, his or her presence in these and other places will only confuse the situation. Make a clean break and make it quickly. Sermon DVDs, downloads, podcasts, broadcast radio or TV programming, books and the like should all be pulled. Also, take down the leader’s personal websites and social media platforms. If you don’t, critics will use online photos and videos to make fun of the situation, and it can get ugly.

10. Get communications advice from a professional. Good attorneys can help with the legal issues, but an experienced crisis communications and media professional can help you know what to say, how to say it and when to say it. Writing official statements and press releases can be tricky. Setting up a press conference can backfire. Talk to someone who has been there and can help you plan. The cost will not only save an enormous amount down the road but it can also save the church’s reputation.

11. Start moving the church forward immediately. Members of your congregation will grieve, but for the church to survive, you need to keep moving forward. Tell your leaders, teachers and small groups not to dwell on the failing but to talk about the future. Keep programs intact. Plan new events. Refocus the congregation from the failing in the past to the possibilities of the future.

Be ready for critics of all kinds, because even some Christians inexperienced in these matters will criticize a crisis plan as not being godly or trying to manipulate the truth. But it’s not about manipulation; it’s about being honest. It’s not about contriving a story; it’s about revealing the truth. However, it needs to be handled in an appropriate way so more lives aren’t damaged and the church doesn’t suffer even more.

God is a good God. Restoration and healing can happen. But taking the right steps from the beginning will make a big difference. God forbid anything like this will ever happen to your church, but just in case, share this with your church leadership so they’ll know what to do if and when that time comes.

If you’ve experienced a situation like this at your church or ministry in the past, what are other steps you took that helped?

Phil Cooke, Ph.D., is a filmmaker, media consultant and co-founder of Cooke Pictures in Los Angeles. Find out more at

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