When Leaders Fall

My heart was ripped up yesterday hearing the news of a pastor friend of mine in another city who has had to leave the ministry because he wasn’t careful with his personal boundaries.  I’m not usually too much one for tears, but they came yesterday… for him, for his church, for the people involved, for the community he’s been a part of.  I’m totally gutted about it… and I wasn’t even that close to what unfolded.

I’m sure there’s a lot of pointing fingers right now, and a heap of blame and accusation swirling around.  Without a doubt some bad decisions were made in this situation, and now the tragic consequences are being played out.  But I’m a bit slower these days to get out my torch and pitchfork and join angry mobs.  I was an expert on pastoral ministry before I became a pastor myself.  Much like I was a self-proclaimed authority on parenting before we had kids 🙂 I’m still an idealist at heart, but with nearly a decade of pastoring under my belt now – I think I have a much better understanding of the unique pressures that church leaders are under.

So I’m writing this post partly to help me process the pain in my heart that I’m feeling about this situation.  But I also want to communicate a perspective, a ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at how the process of how fantastic and gifted leaders get themselves into trouble.  People are often gobsmacked – “How did that amazing, anointed pastor do something as stupid as that?”.  Unfortunately, history shows us that the path to that destination is seemingly too easy to take.  So how do leaders end up there, and how should we react when a leader takes a fall?

The Set-Up

When I started out pastoring, I was blindly ignorant to the balancing act of ‘Cirque Du Soleil’ proportions that was awaiting me!  You need to have a strong vision and bold leadership, but at the same time, be careful and considerate to the weak and the hurting.  You need to move quickly sometimes and painstakingly slowly at others.  You need to keep a burning passion for the spiritual house that God is building, while being able to make seemingly inane practical decisions on ‘physical house’ of the church building.  You have to stay focussed on those who’ve never heard the gospel while also not neglecting the spiritual growth of those who have responded to Christ.  You need to care enough about people to hold relationships tightly, but be gracious enough to respond well when a person who you’ve invested years of your life into announces that their ‘season has changed’ and they’re moving on.  You need to keep sight of the big picture and the small details.  It’s a pressured job that can easily get on top of you without constant vigilance, prayer, faith and most of all a close walk with God.

But it’s not only a job, it’s a very, very personal job.  There’s perhaps few other roles where every part of a person’s life comes under such scrutiny and is seen so widely.  We expect our leaders to model the Christian faith to us, to give us the example that we can follow.  We expect that their prayer life will be awesome, their families perfect, their decisions Solomon-like, and that they won’t let us down.

Yet in spite of the vast amount of writings, sermons and conversations about how putting leaders on pedestals sets them up to fail… it’s still going on, and I think it always will.  It’s the cost of leadership.  I’m not writing this to complain about it – my personal feeling is if you can’t handle the heat in the kitchen, then maybe a career as a chef isn’t for you!  Every job has it’s challenges and I’ve listed just a few of the ones that church leaders face.  But I share this to make it easier to understand the next point – that the unique pressures on pastors not only requires a lot of energy and dedication, but it also makes it really hard for them to have real, open friendships with people.

It comes as a surprise to many that pastors are often some of the most isolated and lonely people in the church.  “Surely not!”  you say, “that warm and smiling, super-positive guy who spends his weeks having coffees and chats, and on Sunday’s works through the queue of people waiting to grab a moment of his time?  Lonely?  No one to talk to?  Why, he’s friends with everyone!”.  But actually it’s really hard to have close friends when you’re in pastoral ministry.  A big reason for this is that we build relationships with each other by sharing what’s on our hearts and what’s going on in our minds.  But it’s a totally different deal for pastors because:

  • When you hold people’s secrets and they’ve trustingly confided in you, you don’t want to let something slip so… you start to become very careful about what you say.
  • When you think something out loud and find that you’ve unwittingly created a new church policy, and people are coming or leaving based on something you just said once… you start to become very careful about what you say.
  • When the person you thought would be responsible to keep something on the down-low blabs it to all in sundry (“I’m just telling you this so you can pray “…lol!) … you start to become very careful about what you say.
  • When you shared how you were honestly feeling with another pastor or leader, and then rather than draw close and help you they avoid you … you start to become very careful about what you say.

And so the stage is set.  Tired from the continual balancing act, burdened by the expectations of people, managing the relentlessness with which Sunday comes around every week, and facing difficulty having open, honest conversation with others – you’ve got a church leader who’s in dangerous territory.  More often than not, they don’t even realise how close to the edge they are before they fall off it.

There Is No Little Sin

No one wakes up one morning and says to themselves  “You know, I think I’ll have an affair today”, or “Yes, it seems like a good point in time to move thousands of dollars of church money into my bank account to pay off my personal credit card”.  Every ‘big and visible sin’ starts as a tiny thought-seed.  Removing a seed from the ground is a fairly small matter.  Removing the massive oak it’s become, with roots spreading in all directions is another matter altogether.  You can get it out, but it’s going to have a visible and often long-lasting effect on the landscape.

Romans 11:29 says that the ‘gifts and calling of God are irrevocable’.  What this means is that when God gives a person a gift, He doesn’t take it back.  The ability to operate in a gift doesn’t depend on a person’s character.  This is simultaneously the greatest blessing that God could give us, and our most vulnerable Achilles heel.  It means that we don’t have to have perfect lives to minister in our gifts and callings.  Halleljuah!  It also means… we don’t have to have perfect lives to minister in our gifts and callings.  Hmmm.

I can’t take this from personal experience (thankfully, and I pray for God’s strength), but I’d wager that at some point every church leader who has ended up taking a public fall discovered that they could hold on to small sins privately, and it didn’t seem to make any difference to their ministry.  They were awakened to the fact that their gifts appeared intact even when they were allowing compromises in secret.  This is why it’s so important that we realise that sin is not just what hurts us or what hurts other people, sin is actually whatever God says sin is, and all too often it doesn’t have an immediate effect.  You can’t discern the seriousness of a sin based on whether or not you were able to get away with doing it and still preach up a storm on Sunday.

The worst part of sin is that the more it grows the harder we find it to confess.  We feel ashamed of the seed-thoughts that we have, and so we keep them hidden.  In the fertile soil of darkness and secret, they grow into small actions and compromises, and so we work harder to keep them hidden.  Over time, if we don’t deal with them, they start to become noticeable to others, so we lie and deceive to keep our reputation intact.  We condone and justify our actions by seeing the sin as a kind of ‘self-medication’, ‘a little payback’ for the difficulty of the job we’re doing and the fact that we’re feeling alone and unsupported.

All this is unfortunately all-too-common human nature, but when you add the dimension of this taking place in the heart of a pastor, it’s a whole other deal.  Righteousness and holiness is not just part of his life… it’s in his job description.  He gets paid to be holy 🙂 (you might want to throw things at me for saying that, but you know it’s true!).  So it’s little wonder that when pastors fail to deal with sin-seeds and they end up with a private locker that’s starting to overflow into their public life… that they will go to great lengths to try to cover up their failing.  Their livelihood depends on it!

So there we have it – a church leader who’s tired from the circus balancing act of ministry, who can’t talk openly to anyone about it, who’s got a triffid growing in secret, and they’re desperately trying to keep it under control so they don’t lose their job.  It’s the perfect storm.

One Way Or Another

1 John 1:9 is a wonderful verse.  It tells us that if we confess our sins to God, He’s faithful to forgive them.  I remind myself of this verse on a daily basis!  But you know, it’s not enough for us just to confess our sins to God.  Every leader who ever fell spent a lot of time after they’d sinned confessing their sins to God and asking for His forgiveness.  They promised God that they would never do that thing again.  I’m sure they were genuine and they really meant what they prayed.  But leaders are still falling.  We need something more.  That’s why God also gave us James 5:16 – “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for each other, so that you may be healed“.

Confessing our sins to God gets us forgiven.  Confessing our sins to others gets us healed.  It’s not enough just to talk about sin with God, we need to talk about it with other people too.

It’s never a pleasant experience to have to own up to what’s going on in your thought life in the presence of another person.  It’s a reminder of how human you are, and how much you have yet to grow in the image of Christ.  But if we skip this step because it feels shameful, or we don’t have the time for it, or because ‘I’m the pastor and I’m supposed to be perfect’ – then all we’re doing is trading a small and private unpleasant experience for what could very well end up being a large and public unpleasant experience.  The choice is ours.

How To Not Be A Statistic

I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years, having watched as we all have the devastating effects of a church leader falling.

Personally, I’ve come to this conclusion: A choice has to be made deep within your heart as a leader that you’re not going to indulge in hidden sin.  You have to regularly do the math on small compromises and realistically face where they will take you if you don’t deal with them.  The little ‘treats’, the little ‘just this once’ – in the moment they can seem trivial.  But we need to see the end of the story to work out just how ‘trivial’ they may be.

Put yourself in the church meeting where it’s all come out and now you have to stand up and apologise to everyone… your spouse standing there with tears streaming down her cheeks, your let-down children, your devastated leadership team, your shocked congregation.  Put yourself on the receiving end of the awkward conversations that will take place for years and years after – ‘Weren’t you the pastor there?  What happened?’.  See yourself in the meeting where you’re sorting out custody for the kids because your marriage has imploded.  Visualise the job interview you have to take because no church is going to employ a recently fallen pastor, and think about what you’re going to say when they ask you what you’ve been doing for the last 20 years, and why you left the job you were in previously.  Your passionate sermons, the powerful God-moments, every reason you got into ministry will be overshadowed by this event.  This will be your legacy, what everyone remembers you for.  Then ask yourself this… is it really worth it?

So hence, wise pastors put clear boundaries around their lives.  Someone once said that if you avoid even the appearance of evil, you tend to avoid the evil itself.  I think that’s pretty right on.  Good boundaries on how we relate to those of the opposite sex, how we deal with money, how we process decisions – are important and necessary to last long term.

But having said this, I’ve come to realise that no amount of checks and balances, accountability relationships, stated boundaries etc can change what’s in a person’s heart.  I’ve seen plenty of leaders with all of these things in place… and they still fell.  They got around the checks, and they didn’t tell the whole truth in the accountability sessions.  Having these things in place is important, but none of it will ever make up for the ongoing decision that takes place in secret in a leader’s heart.

Pastor – the only person in the world who can stop you from being a statistic… is you.

Responding Right When A Leader Falls

I think it’s the responsibility of the leadership in place in a local church to deal with a leader falling in the most transparent and honourable way possible.  Things shouldn’t be ‘swept under the carpet’.  In my experience, people generally know when something isn’t right, and they always know when they’re not being told the whole truth.  If a leadership tries to hide things from people to ‘protect the congregation’ or ‘not expose the leader’, what often ends up happening is that the leadership ends up taking a credibility hit, and the situation degenerates even further.  We have to speak the truth, and we have to do it love and with genuine concern for the people involved.

I’ve also seen some crazy responses over the years to leaders falling.  Sometimes people go as far as burning books and resources from the person… as if now everything they’ve ever said and done has been tainted by this one sin.  Others use the fallen leader as their ongoing excuse for why they’ll never trust the church again, or the justification for pain that they’re holding on to that they won’t deal with and give to God.  I meet people who were under a pastor who fell 20 years ago, and they’re still holding that pastor responsible for their messed up life today.  We can’t stop other people from doing things that hurt us, but it’s totally our choice as to whether or not we hold on to that pain.

With all my heart, my prayer is that we will never have to see another leader fall because of hidden sin.  But as long as we have imperfect humans in leadership positions, I think unfortunately it’s going to be something that we have to continue to deal with.  Historically, the church hasn’t been very good at this, having the tendency to execute our wounded as opposed to resotring them back to health and wholeness.  As a result, the devil all too often gets the double victory of taking a gifted person out of ministry, as well as destroying their walk with God.  I’m not suggesting for a second that when a leader falls they should keep their role, but it’s also not about withdrawing from them and leaving them out in the cold either.  We need to maintain high standards of integrity and credibility in leadership.

Church isn’t another organisation, it’s a family.  Organisations get rid of people when they fail.  Families live with people when they fail.  We find our way forward through the mess, we deal with the issues, we talk things out.  Re-establishing broken trust and restoring a leader can a very long time – often years.  But if we continue to reach out in love, and walk through the process, we’ll get to the place where broken people are restored and stronger than they ever were before.  And what the devil intended to destroy us, God has turned around for victory.    That sounds like God to me, and it sounds like the kind of church that I want to be a part of!

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12 thoughts on “When Leaders Fall”

  1. Excellent and insightful Peter!! Well worth writing a blog post on. I think we forget sometimes how high our expectations of our church leaders are. Certainly higher expectations than we have for ourselves!!!

  2. As someone who has been preaching for over 40 years I have had too many of these moments when people who had influenced me fell. I have had too many of these moments when peers and friends have crossed those boundaries. I have too many moments of standing in the pulpit and ministering to a congregation just receiving the sad news their pastor had become a casualty. I am only too aware of our own humanity and the need to walk with grace. Thank you for reminding us we not only need to be forgiven but we also need to be healed. The first can be given instantly. The latter is often a process. I thought you handled the subject well. I weep with you for the pain you are also experiencing on behalf of a friend.

  3. Well written. And grace towards those who stand next to the ‘fallen ones’. Being or remaining a friend doesn’t indicate they are ‘taking sides’, or approving of what’s happened, but rather being a vehicle of healing.

  4. Wow Pete, that was brilliant ,incredibly insightful and well written,especially the part about pastors potentially being really lonely and having to guard what they say so as not to break confidence.Really important to have trusted colleagues to go fishing with on your day off.Thanks Dave

  5. A very good article but I’m not sure calling a church meeting and discussing everything openly is the best vehicle for healing.
    I have been in two situations where the leadership has failed and church meetings were called. In each case the damage to the person concerned and the congregation was much greater than the time a ‘fallen’ one was stood down for a period of ‘restoration’. We all knew something was not right but could only speculate and as (thankfully) those involved kept it as a matter between themselves only. The result of this was the fallout died naturally and everyone moved forward. In a corporate setting I worked in a senior person was removed unexpectedly with no explanation and we were told there would be no further discussion on the matter. That person has faced their issue and moved on to rebuild their lives. I believe that is a far kinder and more restorative process than having a public hearing.

  6. Resilient Ministry by Burns, Chapman and Guthrie is a good read, and very pertinent to your post. In our denomination (Pres) professional supervision by a wise mentor is compulsory, and while not being perfect, goes a long way to being the fence at the top of the cliff rather than the ambulance at the bottom. thanks for the post…….

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