Opinion: Overcoming a pastor’s moral failure

(“Acyt Failure” by Giuseppe Maio / CC BY 2.0 via Flickr)

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I’ll never forget that awful Sunday morning when my pastor’s adulterous affairs were made public to the congregation. That pastor also was my grandfather. It was a double blow that devastated my family and led to the end of my church.

Elizabeth Esther 130Elizabeth EstherIn nearly 14 years since that terrible day, I’ve watched other churches fall apart in the wake of a pastor’s moral failing. This summer, Perry Noble, pastor of NewSpring Church, one of South Carolina’s largest, was forced to step down after admitting to an alcohol problem.

While it’s discouraging to see this happen, things don’t always have to end badly. Churches can take steps to provide support, ensure accountability and facilitate healing.

Perhaps a helpful starting point can be found in adopting the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. As the faculty editor for Harvard Health Publications, Robert H. Shmerling, a physician, writes, the dictum to “first, do no harm” is a “reminder that doctors should neither overestimate their capacity to heal nor underestimate their capacity to cause harm.”

The same principle can be applied to spiritual healing. While many Christians often are eager to jump-start the healing process, that very eagerness can become a potential pitfall.

Rushing toward forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration actually may cause more damage and re-traumatize already-wounded people. It is wise to proceed slowly, gently and with much tenderness. To paraphrase Shmerling, churches should neither overestimate their capacity to heal nor underestimate their capacity to cause harm. 

With that in mind, here are ideas for congregation care in the wake of a traumatic spiritual event:

1. Protect the innocent.

Protect them first, last and always. Welcome their truth-telling. Protect their physical safety and personal identity. If the involved people are consenting adults, protect their identity and never subject them to public scrutiny by the congregation. If the pastor has committed a crime, notify the proper civil authorities immediately.

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Do not wait until the next prayer meeting to decide whether God wants you to report the crime. Do not wait until the next deacons/church council meeting to decide whether you should report the crime. Do not wait for a congregational vote to decide whether you should report the crime. If a crime was committed, nobody needs approval before calling the police.

Never handle things privately or “in house.” Even if the victim does not want the police to know what happened, please remember the best way to protect the victim—and potential future victims—is by involving the proper authorities.

It’s also important to note that sometimes the congregation as a whole can become collateral damage in a pastor’s fall, and so the church itself must be protected from the pastor.

2. Be rigorously honest.

A great deal of pain can be avoided if church leadership operates openly and transparently from the moment the pastor’s actions are made public. The congregation deserves a full, honest accounting of what happened, what is happening and what will happen. There is no easy way to break bad news, but pretending everything is fine will only make things worse.

Honesty is best served by plainspoken delivery. Provide complete information without minimizing the pastor’s behavior. Remember, this is not a PR campaign. This is repentance. Honor the congregation’s dignity by providing a space for members to ask questions and get answers. Fuzzy answers will only add to the congregation’s sense of betrayal, grief and anger, so strive to be rigorously honest.

3. Practice true humility.

The pastor should be allowed to repent before his congregation, but—and this is important—only according to the leadership’s direction. True humility does not make a big show of repentance. It is important for everyone to remember the pastor is no longer in charge. He has been disqualified and no longer gets to run the show—not even the show that’s about his own repentance. This protects the innocent and the church itself.

When a pastor is allowed to run his or her own repentance show, the tendency is to comfort and “forgive” the pastor without requiring accountability or consequences for his behavior. This places unfair pressure on those who have been hurt by his behavior.

Forgiveness and “moving on” don’t happen overnight. A pastor who demonstrates true humility by accepting responsibility and resigning leadership will pave the way for healing and prevent further damage to the church.

But a pastor who denies responsibility, stonewalls, refuses to accept discipline, goes on the attack and/or refuses to step down will cause potentially fatal injury to the church. This is why a pastor should be placed on mandatory, immediate paid leave while a plan is developed for moving forward.

Side note: I do not believe in cutting a pastor off financially, especially if the pastor has a spouse and children. The pastor’s family should not have to pay for the pastor’s mistakes. The family already will be suffering enough without having to figure out where the next meal is coming from. Continue to pay the pastor’s family until a severance package is decided upon.

It’s never easy to deal with the moral failures of our spiritual leaders. But it doesn’t have to be excruciating.

Asking for outside help, speaking honestly and proceeding humbly will go a long way toward binding up the brokenhearted. And even if everything falls apart—like what happened in my church—healing still is possible.

The end is never the end. God is always doing a new thing. It’s OK to let things fall apart. Tomorrow, we begin again.

Elizabeth Esther is the author of Girl at the End of the World and Spiritual Sobriety. Find her online at elizabethesther.com. Religion News Service distributed this column.

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