I have been a pastor since 1988. During that time I have seen many sad instances where a Pastor or other church leader falls into moral failure.
In almost every instance the church and church institutions were not prepared to deal with the entire scope of the failure.
It is my hope that this article on restoring fallen leaders will give you some biblical principles if you are faced with what to do when your pastor or other church leader falls into moral failure.
I am not coming at this from a theological perspective. I am sure you know and understand your own theology much better than I do. I am coming from a practical standpoint and hope to give you an outline that then you can hang your theology upon and apply it to your local situation.
There is however one thing that we must be in agreement on. We must agree that God not only desires but wants to restore fallen pastors and leaders. To the extent that the person can be restored can be open to your particular church’s or denomination’s interpretation of scripture but we have to agree that restoration is possible otherwise what I am going to give you will be of no use to you.
Just go and move forward with your disciplinary and punitive measures and go on. This article is for those that believe that there is a much more excellent way.
Biblical Considerations in the Pastoral Restoration Process
Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself.
No matter what the original sin was that caused the moral failure of your pastor or church leader, there is one sin that is common to all leadership failures. It is the sin of hurting and disappointing the people who they were responsible for leading. They were commissioned to guard the hearts of the flock they were shepherding. (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2)
The absolute first biblical consideration that must deal with is the issue of not doing the same thing to the people that they have just had done to them.
Now you might be saying to yourself, “No worries! I love my wife, have no desire to drink or use drugs, and I am not going to put my hand in the till.”
That is not what I am talking about. I am talking about wounding the hearts of the congregation further, the hearts of the innocent victims of the pastor’s family, and even the pastor himself.
You as a board member, staff member, or even a church member, have the hearts of all of those around you in your hands. What you do will have life long implications to your church, your community, and those that need the church the most in their hour of need; those that have given their spouse, dad, mom, or sons to you and your church.
You have a responsibility not to foster a spirit of distrust or cynicism within the body. You have a tough balancing act in front of you to walk in grace and mercy while still upholding the standards of your church.
When I was young, I loved to go Steelhead fishing. When they would come every year to spawn in the waters of Oregon rivers we would get out a rowboat and head out into the rivers. Now, these were not the slow meandering rivers of the Midwest, but fast-flowing mountain rivers filled with rapids and lots of white water. I learned at an early age that you have to watch the water as you are approaching a set of rapids. The water will form a V shape before the rapids and you have to maneuver your boat to float through the point of the V in order to navigate the rapids successfully.
The same is true with what you are facing. This will probably be the hardest thing you have faced and will ever face in your Christian life. If you do not navigate the rapids successfully you, your church, and the pastor’s family will end up being capsized from the turbulent waters. So prayerfully listen to what I have to say in the following steps I suggest in dealing with the moral failure of a leader.
A 5 Step Plan For Pastoral Restoration
Step One – In The Beginning Do As Little As Possible
That may sound counterproductive. It may sound like a lack of leadership. However, it will save you a bunch of pain in the future. At the beginning of a crisis, all the forces of nature and emotion are telling you to respond. Your first instinct is to react. A good leader doesn’t react, they lead.
The biggest mistake I see boards, staff members, and members of a congregation make is that they make decisions in the midst of their pain. They react due to their pain and disappointment. Any time we make decisions when we are wounded, we make decisions that are not healthy.
So, other than the possible need to cooperate with law enforcement officials, do not make any decisions until you have worked through your pain and disappointment. You are angry, embarrassed, shocked, and questioning everything you have believed about this man and his motives. This is not the time to compound things by operating out of these types of emotions.
I would suggest that you do not accept any resignations yet. I would suggest that you do not permanently remove the fallen leader from the office yet. Yes, you may need to put them on administrative leave or suspend their appointment from office for a season, but until you have dealt with yourself, do not make any permanent decisions until you have had time to digest the news, deal with your heart issues that this has caused, and evaluated and came up with a plan of restoration.
Recently I saw another church leader fall in one of the nation’s megachurches with over 20,000 members. In less than one week, all references to him were removed from the church website, church broadcast ministries, and other communications from the church.
I can’t help but think about what this communicates to his family, friends, and the thousands of people who were touched by this man’s ministry. What does this say to the man’s wife who shared her husband for 29 years with the same people who removed all mention of him? What does this say to the children who had less time with their dad because he was serving these same people? What does it say to the congregation and thousands of people who were touched by his ministry?
As much as you might be embarrassed by the situation or feel the need to uphold biblical standards, what about the biblical standard of healing the brokenhearted?
Step Two- Evaluate The Root Cause Of The Failure
After you have gotten over your anger, disappointment, embarrassment, and questioning, then you are ready to objectively look at the issue. It is not just about what the sin was that the man committed. It is about what led up to the point where the man gave in to the temptation to sin.
I do not believe, and I think that if you honestly stop and think about it I think you will agree, that the vast majority of pastors do not go into ministry in order to fail. They go into ministry based on a sense of call from God and a desire to help others.
They do not start out planning for the day that they will step into moral failure. In fact, I believe that they all believe at the time they start that they will never face such a situation.
What happens is that something happens from the time that they start and the time that they fail. This is where we need to step in and evaluate what was the root cause.
Many pastors fall due to burnout. They become tired physically and emotionally and that causes them to become weak spiritually. A life out of balance in one area is out of balance in all areas.
So the question to ask was if the church, board, or the pastor himself put demands upon him that were not healthy. What can be changed about this?
Some pastors fall due to a lack of balance of power. They have been given too much authority and not enough accountability and this leads to a pride problem. (Proverbs 18:16) Part and parcel with this is a lack of transparent culture.
If we have a performance-based structure where failure is not allowed, then there is no room for a pastor, to be honest about his struggles and trials. He has to always be the spiritual superhero without any clay feet.
So the question to ask is if there is a way to change this in order to prevent this from happening again and if the circumstances are changed, is there a way to then restore the man to the office after a solid restoration plan is proposed and accepted?
Look at the demands of supporting his family, spending time with his family, having quality intimate encounters with his wife alone, and ministering to her woman’s heart. Were there demands that were placed upon him that made these things problematic? A man who has a healthy home life is not nearly as tempted to stray from his wife than one who has an unhealthy home life.
I cannot address every issue that might be the root cause. I am sure they are as myriad as there are churches. However, I would encourage you to look beyond the obvious. I would almost guarantee that the problem goes beyond counseling women alone, being in control of the finances, lack of willpower or just a choice to sin.
Step Three – Develop A Plan Of Restoration
This step depends on your understanding of leadership and restoration.
Some will feel that restoration can only go so far and that a person will not be able to be restored back to senior leadership or other types of leadership.
This is not just about the divorce and remarriage issue but can be about many other things like pedophilia. I personally would not restore a pedophile to any sort of leadership that had anything to do with leading children or families. That is just common sense.
However, I would say that a person who has fallen to pedophilia still needs to be restored to a relationship with God. So, you will need to wrestle with the issue of how far you can restore someone and how to offer a plan of restoration to the fallen leader.
In any biblical restoration plan, there needs to be repentance and reconciliation. Included with that is what you have discerned as the issues that set the stage for the failure in the first place. I would suggest you devise a plan where the fallen leader acknowledges this failure and that it was a sin.
Depending on the situation this should include engaging directly with the parties involved in the sin, and with those that the sin has affected. A personal acknowledgment of guilt and sorrow is appropriate along with an affirmation about God’s perspective on the failure.
The second part is the reconciliation. This goes beyond repentance but it is the asking of forgiveness for what they have done. I do not believe that a general request for forgiveness is sufficient. I believe that it needs to be personal between the offender and the offended. It needs to be personal since the offense personally affected everyone offended.
The next stage needs to be restorative. The fallen leader needs to deal with the failure and the reasons the failure happened.
If they were burned out, then a sabbatical is in order. If they had their priorities out of order and their family life was suffering then marriage counseling, family counseling, and a total reevaluation of priorities are in order. If there was a lack of accountability and a culture that has a lack of transparency then a revision of power structures and safe places to be transparent need to be established.
I cannot give a time frame for this to happen but I would caution you not to make it happen in a time frame, but set realistic goals and spiritual marks that need to be seen before the leader is restored.
Step 4 – Restore In Stages
One of the things I see churches do is restore without allowing trust to be rebuilt. They have a leader fall, they take him or her through a restoration process and then restore them right back to their original leadership position.
I do not think this is wise nor takes into account the hearts of those that were wounded. Restore the person in leadership in stages. Allow time for the people to see that the leader is once again qualified to lead. Let them interact with the leader and their family. Let them see that they can once again trust the leader.
If it was a pastor who fell, then let them start by leading a small group or Sunday school class. Slowly advance them back up through the various ministries of the church.
Not only will this show the congregation that they can trust the leader, but it will show that the leader is walking once again in humility. It will also show that not only does your church live by its moral standards but it also shows that your church is a restorative body rather than a punitive body.
Step 5 – Celebrate Restoration
The problem with the way most churches handle fallen leaders is that they punish failure. They dismiss the fallen leader, start teaching why the dismissal was necessary and once again reaffirm their moral standards. While I do not have a problem with churches having moral standards and the teaching of those standards to their parishioners, I think there is a more excellent way.
Instead of just removing the fallen leader and cleaning up the mess, I would suggest to you that you celebrate restoration.
It will be a lot messier, and there will have to be a lot of transparency and accountability involved that scares a bunch of people, but in the end, it will teach your church and your community that Jesus restores sinners, both inside and outside the church.
This more excellent way will challenge you. It will call you to lay down your embarrassment for what has happened.
It will cause you to love when you want to think only of yourself. It will cause you to place the hearts of people over the reputation of the institution however if you will take this path less traveled, you will see the community coming to love and respect you for being authentic followers of Jesus.