I regularly receive notes from pastors and church members around the country on how to deal with the moral failures and abuses of so many leaders in the church today.
A few quick notes of clarification are needed here: the rash of leaders that we have seen fall within the past year and a half or so have nearly all engaged in moral failure. They have made wrong decisions regarding the proper and biblical way to act as leaders.
But, some have also abused power, which I’ve addressed quite often. There is a difference. It’s important to note this, even though my focus in this article is on how we might respond. YOu see, people are hurting in many churches, and leaders either often don’t know or aren’t responding as they ought to those who have serious questions and concerns.
This is unacceptable, and it’s time for change.
So in this article I am addressing both how to deal with moral failures, as well as how to respond when those include abuse and victimization.
I am seeing two extremes happening as a response to this continual stream of news: Camp one is placing their proverbial fingers in their ears in denial over the serious and deeply troubling condition of many in the church today and camp two is standing with one foot out the door of the church, ready to shake the dust off their feet and walk out, unable to deal with so much silent sin.
I understand both sides. This is a very hard season for many churches, and frankly, a season in which many cannot yet see the end in sight.
It’s a time of lament.
As a Christian leader who has sought to live in a way that brings honor to God (though too many times I fail), it pains me over and over as I see colleagues fall as a result of unaccountability, pride, and a distorted view of the image of God in all.
I don’t think of myself above the temptation, but I am grieved by it.
As I wrote in an article in April 2018, “Christ is purifying his church, and it hurts. And, there is more to go.” In fact, in that article I shared three important takeaways as we deal with moral failure among our leadership. I encourage you to read (or reread) that piece.
We all seek answers. Where has the accountability been? How can so many fall into moral sin after so many years of ministry? Why has there not been ‘cities of refuge’ for so many victims? Where do we go from here? And of course, Where do we turn for help and answers?
Moral failure is not a new phenomenon.
In the Bible, we see the moral failure of many leaders and they act as a reminder to us that even those near to God are tempted to turn away. The carnality of all of us ought to daily bring us to our knees as we seek strength to fight against so many temptations to sin. This is magnified for those in leadership.
Moral failure is but one expression of the problem of sin. And for many in our churches today, it’s the expression that is causing real questions that need answers.
Although quite simplified, let me offer a starting place for both pastors and church leaders who now face very difficult questions from their congregants and for congregants who have more questions than answers.
Dear church leader:
Break the silence.
The proverbial elephant in the room is not welcome in the body of Christ. As leaders, our call is to speak what must be said and to lead our people into places of safety and openness. If your church members have questions over the moral failings of so many (and they do!), allow them to ask them in safe places and to receive affirmation and comfort that their concerns are valid and will be addressed.
This may be done in congregational meetings or during a series of meetings. It may also be done through sermon series and Q&A times. Perhaps even through FAQs sent via email in how your church is addressing critical issues like this.
But, don’t hide immorality. Instead, in regards to immorality, as far as the sin is known, the response to it should be repentence. And, in cases where repentence has come, as far as the sin is known, the repentence should be known.
Clean your own (personal) house first.
Your body is the temple of the Lord. Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit as you engage in sin. If you are engaged in sinful behavior (either one time or continual), you are dishonoring the Lord you claim to serve. Not only are you harming yourself, but your acts (whether you see it now or not) are harming all those around you.
Take time out from your schedule (whether it’s a few hours to start or a retreat with others who can hold you accountable) and assess your own relationship with Christ. For example, I have a group of close friends who constantly ask me tough questions to hold me to account.
This may be very painful and may bring you to a place where you must step down from leadership. However, as a church leader you have been called by God to be “holy and blameless.” This yardstick measure is not easy, but it is attainable through the forgiveness of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Don’t hide from people with hard questions.
All of us are busy—I get it.
Few of us actually have time to minister and care for those deeply wounded as they need to be cared for. But here’s the thing: do it anyway.
Answer the questions of people who are hurting and confused because of a moral failure.
But, sometimes it’s more than just a moral failure— and that may take an honest conversation of a different kind. All of us must make time for those who has been victimized by another person. This is called following Jesus in serving others.
Develop a plan in your churches that includes you or some senior leader who will be part of the process of walking alongside someone who has been victimized. The main team will likely be those more qualified to care for the person (e.g., a trained trauma counselor), but it is very important that your church leadership plays a personal role in the healing process as well.
An immoral act, a crime, and/or the pain of telling the truth all demand a pastoral response to all involved.
Dear congregation member:
Reach out to your leaders with your questions.
You may feel as though they have 20 other important issues to deal with, but as a part of your local congregation, your church ought to be one of the first places where you can ask your questions and share your concerns.
Let me be honest: there are countless women in churches in America today who are wondering if they can even stay in church as they continue to see so many in leadership held unaccountable for their moral failures or their abusive actions. There are also countless men who want to advocate for women but don’t have a platform to do that.
The vision of the body of Christ as having different members must be recalled on a regular basis. Your own role in the church, whether larger or smaller, is critical. And your voice is important. If you are in camp two (which I mentioned at the start of this article), ask first if you have clearly expressed your questions and concerns to your church leadership. If you have and they have gone unanswered, email your leadership with a link to this article.
It might sound like I’m joking, but I’m really not. Unfortunately, some leaders need to be reminded on occasion that it is they who serve their congregants, not vice versa.
I’m not saying that these words will open up all the needed important conversations, and I’m not trying to lay out every path that you can take to get the answers. I AM saying that many are afraid to ask— and you should not be.
Continually turn to Jesus first.
All of us are fallen in one way or another—you, me, your church leader, your best friend, your spouse.
Only Jesus is perfect. So, go to him first.
We may believe that another person will have all the answers to our questions. Here’s the thing: they won’t. Jesus calls us to bring our hurt and pain to him first. He reminds us that he is the answer to all the wrongs in the world, and that he will one day make things right.
For some, it might be the community that brings them to Christ. For others, coming to Christ will lead them to community. But, the community that is called church can be a place of healing— but we start with Christ.
As you wonder if you should stay in church, consider Jesus. Even when all turned against him, he stayed faithful to love them with the ultimate sacrifice. I’m not saying you should stay in your church if there are clear patterns of sin that are unresolved, but what I am pleading with you is this: Don’t turn away from the God who loves you.
Turn to him in prayer and in thanksgiving. Find your hope in him to carry you when hard questions are slow to be answered.
He is faithful.
Know that many of us are cheering you on.
I cannot count the number of women and men who have impacted me over the years because of their honest questioning of what they saw around them. Any faith worth having is one that asks hard questions. These times of questioning and leaning into God often lead us into deeper levels of faith.
If it seems as though others are not willing to come alongside you in finding answers, remember that many pastors and leaders and brothers and sisters in Christ are cheering you on as you pray for the church to have integrity for the sake of Christ and the world.
Keep fighting the good fight, knowing that our God is on your side. Fight with integrity. Fight for the truth. Fight to bring light to darkness.
Don’t give up hope. These may be dark days for the church, but Jesus is the light of the world, and as we press on to purify ourselves, his light will shine brighter and brighter.
Hebrews 12:12-13 reminds us, “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.”
Indeed, we are in a very difficult season and by all outward standards the church in America is on a perilous path. But for the grace of God who works in us…
Pastors, church leaders, members, Christian friends, now is neither the time to put your heads in the sand nor to abandon ship.
It’s a time to strengthen yourselves in the power of Christ, knowing that Jesus is our guide and seeks to restore his church.
It’s hard. But it is essential. People matter. The gospel matters. And so does how we respond.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.