When a pastor fails morally, there is extensive "collateral damage." The pain isn't limited to the pastor's family; the entire church takes a punch in the gut and almost immediately people begin choosing sides.
Typically, there is a group that forms to force the pastor to resign and leave, and another group that champions forgiveness and restoration.
What should the church do? Should the pastor be restored? Can the pastor be restored? If so, how?
This is one of the most difficult situations a church ever faces. Emotions run high, people are hurt, and the pastor's family is devastated. It seems, however, if there is a chance for restoration, the local church would be the environment that could provide it.
It is clear that the standard for Christian leadership is high. I Timothy 3:2-4 states:
Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.
This biblical passage makes it clear what qualifies a leader to lead, but it does not directly say what disqualifies a leader. However, I believe we can safely say that the same list gives clear direction on what might disqualify a pastor from leadership.
The critical question is this:
Can the pastor be restored?
Every circumstance is unique, but here are some questions to thoughtfully review and consider in making your decision.
1. Did the pastor confess or was he or she caught? While this does not change or reduce the sin, it does reveal, at least partially, the heart of the leader. The heart of the leader is a significant determiner of the potential outcome. If the leader is "caught," restoration is still possible, but repentance may be more difficult to determine.
2. Was the moral failure a long-term intentional sin? Was there intentional cover-up, lying, or denial over an extended period of time? Or was it a sudden surrender to temptation that was quickly ended? These two scenarios are vastly different stories and would require a very different restoration plan.
3. Has the pastor fully disclosed and repented of the sin? This is the "hinge-pin" question. Any potential for restoration can begin only when there is full ownership and repentance of the sin.
4. Is he or she willing to break off the wrong relationship? This may seem odd, but it often happens. There is a strange sense where the leader in the immoral relationship feels that he or she "owes" something to the other person outside their marriage. This causes them difficulty in breaking off the relationship. There can be no exception, no delay, and no tolerance for any continuance of the relationship in any form.
5. Is the leader willing to submit fully to any and all of a restoration process? The one who falls morally must not be allowed to design or determine the length of the restoration process. In contrast, he must willingly accept any and all terms to the process.
These questions matter because the answers give clear insight to the depth of the situation and the disposition of the leader. They are not easy to answer, and will require great courage by the board (or governing body) to ask them with grace and strength. If the leader clings to a definition of "indiscretion" or "mistake" (rather than moral failure), you must determine the degree to which discipline and/or restoration must be administered. And, it's important that we not let our own personal sense of hurt enlarge (or diminish) the final decision.
Galatians 6:1 says: "Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently."
This is not an encouragement for easy grace. There is a difference between willful, knowing, continued sin and a one-time mess up. But Scripture guides us in the direction of restoration if possible.
Using one Scripture to define restoration is risky (if not foolish), but my goal here is not to write a biblical dissertation as much as offer a potential path toward restoration that has a biblical foundation. All of Scripture is a path toward forgiveness and restoration.
But the question still remains:
Does forgiveness necessarily mean one can resume leadership?
Ultimately, the answer is yes, but the question can only be fully answered at the end of a very thorough restoration process.
That process could look something like this:
1. Determine a set time away from ministry. The actual length of time may vary, but it is always wise to have a full break from ministry for a substantial season of time. Again, this is not for punishment, it is for healing and restoration. In the case of moral failure, particularly those extended over time, this sin affects many areas of the leader's life. It can impact finances, health, leadership competency, and of course there are huge impacts on the family. Time is needed to heal, and a rest from the demands of ministry is required.
2. Consider a change in geography. In most cases, particularly if a senior pastor, relocation is needed. This is not about escaping or hiding. A true restoration plan doesn't allow either. It simply admits there is a potential for the fallen leader to be either:
- lulled into complacency by those who are sympathetic
- or discouraged by those who believe in punishment (not restoration)
In the case of relocation, the restoration team is often comprised of leaders from the church where it happened and a new church who is willing to help in the process.
3. Establish clear benchmarks of progress. Benchmarks are determined by the needs of each individual. These are often not complicated and can range from physical exercise and books to read, to personal retreats, prayer and fasting and the development of close personal relationships. When you are determining benchmarks, don't be tempted to think that the longer and harder the list the better. The important thing is to get the right things, not the most things, for that leader. Ultimately, the heart attitude of the leader and the power of the Holy Spirit will trump what is on the list. The benchmarks just give steps to follow in the natural, while supernatural healing and change of heart takes place.
4. Provide appropriate counseling. A professional, well-vetted therapist is needed to help the leader process what happened.
- What were the triggers?
- What lingers in the past that contributed to the breakdown?
- How does true change come about?
- What will help prevent this from ever happening again?
These are significant questions that require time, prayer and wisdom from a trained professional to work through.
5. Carefully select an accountability group. This group need not be large, but they must be dedicated. If they don't have the time, don't include them. The group can include close friends and trusted advisers, but should also include wise leaders who are not personally or intimately connected to the situation. If there is geographic distance, it is not always practical to have monthly group meetings in person. But technology can make communication possible with those who are distant as long as there are at least two or three advisers who are local.
6. Re-engage ministry with supervision. The search for the right place can begin when:
- The agreed upon benchmarks are achieved.
- The appropriate amount of time has taken place.
- The accountability team has determined the leader is ready for ministry.
It is highly recommended that the pastor have two to three people who live in the same city become a continuation of the accountability group, but with a new approach. Instead of healing as the focus, the team serve as coaches to make sure the transition back into ministry goes well.
This is not a comprehensive turnkey plan, but it does provide you with guidelines that will help you think through the process and design a plan of your own.
I hope that you never need this, but if you do, I pray it leads toward restoration. The beauty of God's grace in action is to see a pastor restored to service, and once again realize kingdom impact.
Dan Reiland is the executive pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as executive pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as vice president of leadership and church development at INJOY.
For the original article, visit danreiland.com.
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