When the assistant pastor called the church’s key leaders to his house for an urgent meeting, my husband and I both suspected something serious had happened. We could not have guessed just how serious. Once all 20 of us had packed into the living room, our senior pastor came in and simply said, “I have something to tell you.”
His subsequent admission of marital infidelity made sense of his angry outbursts, controlling behavior, and whimsical abandonment of several key programs. Though we felt relief to finally understand what had been propelling his perplexing conduct over the past year, his confession plunged the church into a season of chaos.
Each year an alarming number of churches will face a similar situation. Based on a 2005-2006 study done by the Francis Schaeffer Institute, more than 30 percent of all pastors have admitted to having either an ongoing affair or a one-time sexual encounter with a parishioner during their tenure. (And of course sexual misconduct is but one of the ways that a leader can disqualify himself or herself.) Despite the fact that this situation happens far too often, “pastoring your church through trauma” is not a class taught in many seminaries or church growth conferences.
Who Gets Told and How Much Do We Tell?
When a pastor or key leader is caught in or admits sin, many pressing needs manifest simultaneously. Such occasions require clear, definitive management as well as intensive, ongoing pastoral care. Before any other issues are addressed, leaders should care for and provide safety to any victims. This includes cooperating with law enforcement officials if a minor was involved or if physical abuse or violence was perpetrated.
Communication with leadership comes next. Assuming that the incident/situation has been confirmed and is not mere speculation, face-to-face communication needs to be handled decisively and prudently. Staff and key leaders should immediately be told what happened (after clarifying with the offending party that he or she has informed family members). Though the desire to avoid shame and humiliation is understandable, we cannot cover up or minimize sin. Secrecy and lack of disclosure only perpetuate sin while fostering speculation and rumors and may leave others vulnerable to being sinned against (as was the case in many Catholic churches). Truth telling promotes healing. No one needs specific details but to package a serious sin (such as infidelity) as “overstepped boundaries” is insufficient.
Those in attendance at this initial meeting should be allowed to ask clarifying questions and given assurance that there will be subsequent opportunities to process their feelings. This gathering should also clarify how the news will be shared with other leaders and the church at large.
Establishing Clear Consequences
As soon as the news breaks, top leaders should prayerfully decide on the consequences. Scripture is unflinching in calling us to address sin within the body of Christ (Galatians 6:1, 1 Timothy 5:20, and 1 Corinthians 5). However, we need to marry biblical discernment with compassion. Because we want to assume the best and avoid undue embarrassment, we may be tempted to diminish the offense and assume that after an earnest apology and a brief break, the leader/pastor should be able to step back into the former role. Some communities may swing to the other extreme and forever banish the fallen leader. Neither option will bear good fruit.
If the lead or executive pastor is the one who has fallen, churches that are part of a larger denomination should invite the regional overseeing pastor to come and help them through the crisis. If you are an independent church, it would be wise to recruit a few trusted local pastors to share the burden and provide necessary objectivity.
When our senior pastor had his affair, the regional overseer came and met with the staff and leaders for several days. He then called a special meeting when the fallen pastor confessed and apologized. He also laid out what the process of restoration would look like (Read more about that process here.), including the senior pastor’s immediate dismissal from all responsibilities and mandatory attendance in long-term counseling. The regional overseer and key leaders also determined that the assistant pastor should assume the role of lead pastor. His decisiveness and clarity helped us all to feel cared for and safe during an overwhelming and confusing time.
Pastoring the Fallout
When a leader falls, reactions will be all over the map, including shock, confusion, ambivalence, indignation, and anger. Some individuals will excuse the behavior, regardless of how heinous, and feel angry if anyone disagrees with their assessment. Those who have a previous experience of abuse or betrayal may be re-traumatized and feel they can no longer trust anyone in the institution. Others will be simultaneously brokenhearted and humbled because they have battled their own sin.
After the shock wears off, we need to help each other work through our responses, including anger and disillusionment. When a leader teaches on the importance of upholding a biblical lifestyle and then lives duplicitously, it’s no surprise that we would feel angry at the hypocrisy and deceit—but bitterness is not inevitable. We can prevent it from taking root if we validate the anger (versus minimizing or dismissing it), offer a safe context for people to process, and then encourage them to work toward forgiveness, understanding that it’s a process—and sometimes a lengthy one.
Pastoring congregants through their disillusionment is much more complicated but offers phenomenal opportunities for growth and maturation. Young believers or individuals who hold unrealistic expectations for their leaders are particularly susceptible to disillusionment. Thoughtful, caring conversations will serve to not only help them understand their disappointment but also set more realistic expectations in the future.
All of this intentional pastoring and cleanup takes more time than any of us could ever imagine. After a major fall (infidelity, extortion, abuse) don’t expect things to get back to normal for at least one year. In fact, because we can’t rush the process of grief or restoration, and because such trauma often results in some members leaving, many churches discover that normal no longer exists. Churches may need to scale back from regularly scheduled activities and avoid embarking on any new initiatives until it’s obvious that the body has returned to sufficient health and strength.
As we help others navigate these painful seasons, we must give ourselves permission to step out of our caretaking role so that we can work through our own responses. In addition to the emotions shared by the congregants, we may feel regret or guilt that we did not notice (or did not speak up if we did). Because we’ve worked closely with the one who fell, we may feel deeply betrayed. As leaders it’s wise for us to process with trusted individuals outside of the organization who have some distance and will not be as impacted by our anger or frustration.
Though we seldom talk about the blessings of these seasons, they do exist. For example, when a leader falls, this opens the door for others to confess their hidden sins. We have the opportunity to model forgiveness, grace, and mercy, even as we call leaders to biblical standards of behavior. Additionally, when pastored well, the entire congregation rallies together and forges a deeper bond.
Despite the pain and mess, God will work for good in these situations provided that we communicate clearly and thoroughly, offer compassionate leadership, don’t rush the process, and foster an atmosphere of humility and forgiveness. Though I wish these situations never happened, God’s faithfulness will prevail.
Dorothy Littell Greco spends her days writing about faith, encouraging others as they pursue Jesus, making photographs of beautiful things, and trying to love her family well. You can find more of her Words & Images @dorothygreco.com or follow her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/DorothyGrecoPhotography.