The first inkling of trouble came when my neighbor strolled over on a Saturday night. "I thought you'd want to know," he said. "There's going to be a big announcement in our church tomorrow. It doesn't sound good. Either it is about your friend Bill, or he will have to deal with it."
My neighbor knew that Bill was in my pastors' small group.
The next day Bill announced that he had gotten tangled in Internet gambling and wrongfully took funds under his control from the church to pay his debts. His ministry there was over.
I knew I had to call him, but I was desperate to avoid it. As a boy in a Red Cross lifesaving class, I'd learned how dangerous a drowning man can be to the well-meaning rescuer. I feared that this would be like that, that I'd be pulled into the desperate clutches of this crisis and get hurt. I'm not made of particularly tough stuff for emotional trauma.
But then I remembered that I'd been in this situation before. That time I hadn't called and I was still ashamed of myself for it. So I found a quiet place, took a few deep breaths, and dialed Bill's number.
No well-worn path
There's a kinship among pastors and other full-time ministry workers. We live with the same standards of holiness that God requires of all believers, but for us the stakes of failure are higher and more dramatic. It can cost you your job, your church, your home. More people get hurt. A whole church will stagger like a man mugged and bleeding.
One friend called it "the blast zone." And our career—our God-given calling—is probably over. We don't talk about this much, but we all know.
Then one day we hear that an old seminary friend, or a pastor across town, or someone we got to know on a board or at a conference crashed and burned. News like that isn't just tragic. It feels too close to home.
When a ministry friend falls, we're in a relational no-man's-land. We may not be privy to the facts. We might not know if our friendship is deep enough to get involved; if our call would be welcome or an intrusion. Plus, if we take the process of church discipline seriously, it's hard to know where we fit when we are not actually part of our friend's church.
The best thing that's happened
Years ago I was at a conference and picked up the buzz: "Did you hear what happened?" A man involved in a well-known Christian ministry had confessed to an affair and been removed from his position. The news was spreading fast.
What the guys at the conference didn't know was that "Don" and his wife were old friends of my wife and mine. We had attended the same church previously and spent many Sunday evenings together. We weren't as close as we'd once been, but still … he was my friend. So was his wife.
I need to call him, I thought, but I wasn't sure. We weren't that close, and he had lots of friends and had a higher station in life than me as I saw it. Plus, I'd always been a little intimidated by him. It took me a few weeks to work up the courage to call.
The conversation was stilted and brief. He said he was in the middle of wallpapering and it wasn't a good time to talk. It seemed like maybe no time would be a good time to talk. So I never called back.
A few years later, we were visiting his ex-wife and she asked, "Are you going to see Don while you're here?" I was taken aback. "I think you should," she said. I wasn't so sure. We went with her to church the next morning and, of all the texts a man could preach on, her pastor preached about the prodigal son's elder brother. I took the point.
I wasn't really like the elder brother in Luke 15, but I might have been his cousin. I didn't want to be soft on sin or let friendship discolor righteousness. I remember being confused with the church discipline question. Was Don under some kind of discipline? (I didn't know.) Was it okay to talk to him if he was? Was church discipline even relevant to our relationship? I didn't know if my concern was me being judgmental or just being conscientious? But the sermon I'd heard was a turning point.
I called him.
We got together that evening over dinner and caught up the way old friends do. We got to know his new wife. We joked and told stories. We didn't talk about what had happened. When we were leaving, he and I had a moment together alone. That's when he said, "This is the best thing that's happened to me this year." I was stunned.
As our friendship rekindled, I learned more. He told me of his spiritual ambivalence, of a few men who had come around him, and that his church had removed him when he would not return to his wife. He told me recently, "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about the damage I did, the changes that occurred in my life, and the things that would be different if I could go back and unravel what I did. Every day!"
I told him about how hard it was to make that first phone call and how badly I felt that I hadn't called again. He said, "The fact that you called was perfect because very, very few did. I was much more confused than you were at the time. I was just desperately trying to move to the next day. I was not in the let's-fix-it mode. I was in the let's-sort-it-out mode."
He said, "It means infinitely more now to have the friendship grow because I'm totally in a different place." He went on, "I've made efforts to renew two or three friendships, and I think I can only identify two other people that I regularly get together with who make the effort to get in touch with me. I think a lot of people struggle with what to say and how to say it."
When I asked what he'd tell others in my shoes, he said, "Be available."
What about Bill?
That experience was on my mind when I debated whether to call my pastor friend Bill. I have to do it right this time, I thought. I called, and soon we were sitting together in my office.
He remembers now, "I felt like I was drowning. Almost everything linked to my identity was gone. I was looking for some air to breathe. I knew I was totally responsible. I was very aware of my need to be forthright."
Of that first meeting, he said, "You were one of the first people I told my story to. I sensed you wouldn't throw your hands up in horror. When we talked, you didn't interrupt. You asked questions about how I was doing as a person and about our family."
I remember that we talked about his future as a pastor. He and I both assumed there wouldn't be one. I told him, "If you are ever to be in ministry again, God will have to give you a new call. Your original call to the ministry is over." He agreed. He knew he had forfeited that privilege.
When I first heard about Bill, I asked God to help me make some sense of what had happened. One thing that stood out to me was that God had arrested Bill before he passed a point of no return. Some people walk so far from God in their sin that they never come back. By the mercies of God, Bill was not among them.
Grace in the air
You might think that once the sin comes out, the danger is over. The wound has been lanced. Not so. In realty, that is when Satan amplifies his crushing accusations.
What's more, while sorrow and confession may come quickly, repentance is much harder to gauge. The thing is, you can't tell about repentance at first. No one, not even the offender, may be able to discern what is happening in their soul. Repentance can't always be fast-tracked. The toxic clouds of shock and shame don't dissipate quickly. The redirection of a life takes time to discern.
Ministry people who sin greatly stand weak-kneed before Jesus' words: "From everyone who has been given much , much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked" (Luke 12:48). We can feel as if others, who have not handled such holy things as we have, may be given latitude in their sin, but not us. Surely, not us. That heightened accountability is a burden teachers and elders feel (James 3:1).
Believing that God demands more may mean your fallen friend isn't so much in need of repentance as care. My friend Bill was deeply remorseful. But receiving a full dose of grace takes time.
Psalm 103 says, "Forget not all the Lord's benefits." The first benefit, "He forgives all your sins," might be believable to a fallen pastor who has preached the gospel for years, but it may be too big a stretch for him to believe that any other benefits will come his way.
To someone deep in guilt, it doesn't even seem right that God would ever heal all his soul's self-inflicted diseases or redeem his life from the pit he dug for himself. And it seems impossible to believe that there would ever be a bright and cloudless day this side of heaven when God would crown him with love and compassion.
A prodigal who has been a pastor may find it as preposterous as the Pharisees did that Jesus would ever again dine, let alone feast, with the likes of him.
Grace heals broken people, including broken pastors. The potent, anti-viral grace of the Lord Jesus Christ can best be delivered through grace-bearing friends. When our fallen friend sits with us, it is like grace if we simply show concern, even if we say nothing. Maybe especially if we say nothing.
If we will sit and listen and speak hope at the Spirit's prompting, it is easier for them to believe that Jesus will meet with them, too.
In the summer of 1988, I heard a recording of a widely discussed "Service of Restoration" for a fallen ministry leader. I hadn't thought about that word—restoration—till I listened to that remarkable service. I never forgot it.
My friend Bill entered into a process aimed at restoration. Not restoration to the ministry. Simply restoration to fellowship and the trust of the church. I was on the periphery of that process. At its heart was counseling, the forgiveness of his family, the wise and faithful love of a remarkable small group, and the regular attention of a tough-minded and graceful professor and his wife.
A friend who observed the process told me, "Bill was the poster boy of responsiveness—humble, gentle, and thorough."
One day when I was visiting with the pastor of Bill's former church, I remembered the taped Service of Restoration I had heard so long ago. Bill was no longer part of that congregation, but I asked the pastor what he thought about inviting Bill back for a restoration service.
"I have been thinking about the same thing," he said. And so, on a wintry Sunday evening four and half years after this all started, I sat teary-eyed as Bill was restored. The line of people who wanted to affirm Bill and his wife afterward was so long that they never did make it down for the cake and punch in the fellowship hall.
Some months later, the pastor in the church Bill and his wife had begun attending asked if he'd fill the pulpit one upcoming Sunday. Bill was very reluctant. He talked to his support group and other friends, including me. Finally he agreed with this condition: "Only if I can tell my story." He didn't want people to think he was sweeping his sin under the carpet.
So he laid it all out using Scripture in a sermon called, "A Fall into Grace." He was asked to preach there again. Some months later the church asked if Bill would fill in as an interim while they searched for an associate pastor. Then one day they asked Bill if he would consider the position permanently. It was not an easy decision for him. We had to persuade him to take it.
During all this time, Bill had not only been accountable to his small group and others around him but also to the denominational process. When this invitation to return to the ministry arose, he would not consider it without their blessing, which they gave. He became the associate pastor, and a couple years later when the senior pastor left, he accepted the church's call to shepherd that flock.
When I visited Bill in his office not long ago, I noticed his black-framed ordination certificate standing on a shelf. I knew Bill had been required to surrender that certificate back to the denomination all those years ago. I pointed at it and said, "I bet that's pretty special to you now."
He told me that when his small group learned that he had been invited to become associate pastor and that the denomination had given him permission; they arranged to get the certificate back. One night at their small group meeting they surprised Bill with it. They had framed it beautifully. Bill was stunned and wept.
"The first time I was ordained, I felt like I had earned it," he said. "I had gone through the hoops. I had the right doctrine, the right examination, the right schooling. This," he said, pointing to the certificate, "is because of grace now. It's just grace."
Stories don't always turn out this beautifully, of course, but that part is out of our hands. What is in our hands is the Bible's instruction.
"Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted" (Gal. 1:6).
"To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen" (Jude 24, 25).
After his fall from the ministry, Bill got an encouraging letter from a pastor who had walked with others through such experiences: "You will find the people you thought would be there for you won't be, and you'll find that people who you never thought would be there for you will be."
Bill told me, "That is so true!"
From that I take heed: If a terrible thing happens and a fellow pastor falls, be there!
Lee Eclov is pastor of Village Church of Lincolnshire, Illinois.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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