In the old nursery rhyme "all the king's horses and all the king's men" tried to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Likewise, when a pastor falls, a great amount of energy can be poured into the leader's restoration. But what about the fallen leader's church? In the wake of the Ted Haggard story we've invited Dave Terpstra, pastor at The Next Level Church in Denver, to share his reflections on leading a church after the fall of a gifted pastor.
What should a church do after the fallout of a disgraced leader's resignation? That was the question our team faced almost 6 years ago when our senior pastor resigned after the revelation of a disqualifying pattern of sin in his life. After the shock began to fade and reality began to set in, we sat around and asked ourselves, "What next?"
After the fall of a primary senior leader, it is the junior leaders of the church who are left holding the bag. Sometimes, in churches with a smaller staff, it is lay people who are left to lead the church. The fall of a primary leader requires the best leadership that a church can muster, and for most churches that sort of leadership usually came from the person who fell.
Thankfully, when we found ourselves in this situation a group of mature and experienced church leaders offered their support and advice to those of us left. It was their words of encouragement that allowed me to discover the one thing I believe every church needs after its leader has fallen - a team of leaders who focus on themselves before they focus on the church.
At the time our senior pastor resigned, I was 25 years old and still a full-time student at Denver Seminary. I had just bought a house and was getting ready to settle into a comfortable junior position at the church. I had no experience in the senior levels of church leadership. But in spite of my youth and inexperience I was invited to replace our senior pastor as the primary teacher on our new leadership team.
I have no intention of trying to argue that under our team's new leadership our church has been "successful". But I believe that two things are true. Our church has survived the fall of our charismatic founding pastor and I believe we have been faithful along the way. And I attribute that to God's faithfulness to us, and the primacy we as a leadership team placed on our own self leadership.
When thrust into this situation, a leader faces enormous challenges. The church's phone rings off the hook, the mailbox is full, perhaps the media calls, and everyone's email inbox is full of forwarded emails. People want to know what really happened. Rumors fly. And I can attest that all of these things are 100 times worse if the senior pastor does not publicly confess and own up to what they did.
So in the midst of this madness the leadership team must lead themselves first, before they can even try to lead others. Let me be specific with what areas they need to begin with:
1. As a team and as individuals leaders need to honestly wrestle with doubts and together slowly rebuild trust in God. At the same time leaders must grapple with belief in the church and in the role of pastor/elder in that church. This experience at the very least rocks our faith, but in some cases will shatter it all together.
2. As a team leaders must pledge to each other your total dependence on the plurality of your church's leadership. Since this event will cause an overwhelming lack of trust among the church in any one leader, it is essential that you commit to each other as a team.