We recently covered this topic on a Rainer on Leadership episode, but I wanted to expand our conversation in this article.
Few models exist on how to handle the moral failure of a staff person. Indeed, there is little consensus among pastors about what to do, even with something as explicit as adultery. Researchers asked pastors, “If a pastor commits adultery, how long, if at all, should the pastor withdraw from public ministry?” As you will see, the answers vary greatly.
Surprisingly, 1 in 4 pastors (not church members) are unsure how long a pastor should withdraw from ministry after committing adultery. As the above figure demonstrates, about 1 in 5 pastors believe withdrawing for a year is wise. But another 1 in 4 pastors believe permanent withdrawal from ministry is the best option. A few even believe three months or less is appropriate. If a pastor is dealing with the moral failure of a staff person and calls peers for advice, the likelihood is high that those peers will give widely different answers. How can a pastor have discernment in such a situation?
The Path Forward After a Moral Failure
How should you discern a plan of action following the moral failure of a staff person? The following questions will help you determine a path forward with a staff person after a moral failure.
What is the degree of offense? Avoid making quick decisions if possible. When leaders make emotional decisions, the repercussions are often not good. Instead, take the necessary time to understand the entire situation. Too many leaders make the mistake of finalizing decisions without hearing from all involved parties. When analyzing the situation, no leader should act alone. When staff moral failures occur, leaders need the advice of trusted counselors within the church and outside the church.
Does the staff person deny it or not? Allegations of a moral failure are much different than an admission of a moral failure! A majority of pastors (73%) believe allegations should be kept in confidence with church leaders during an investigation. If the staff person denies the allegations of a moral failure, the path forward must include an investigation. You should meet with the accuser and the staff person separately first, and you should not meet with them alone. Bring in the elders, the personnel committee, or whatever group helps oversee the staff. If no such group exists, bring in a couple of other trusted church leaders.
What is the level of remorse? If the staff person admits to the moral failure, you should discern the level of remorse. When a broken staff person is ready to repent, the process should include much grace. When a staff person is defiant, the process should include firm discipline.
What are the church’s policies and/or covenant? Many churches have clear guidelines detailing the process of working through a moral failure. Many churches also have a covenant for pastors and staff, which also helps provide biblical support for the process of discipline or reconciliation. Before you move forward with a plan, make sure you understand the guidelines in the church’s policies, as well as any covenantal requirements of staff.
Leading Your Church to Heal
When a staff person has a moral failure, you must not only have a plan for the guilty individual but also the church. Both the staff person and the church need a path forward towards healing.
First, you must tell the truth. The church should know about the moral failure. It is impossible to heal unless you know what hurt you. There is no need to share all the details, or even the other parties involved, but the church should understand the big picture of what happened.
Second, if you are the lead pastor, you must teach about healing. Put the current sermon series on hold and focus on teaching your church about healing.
Third, it is essential to spend time with people, especially those most affected by the moral failure. Put your vision on hold. The season of healing from a moral failure is not the time to launch new endeavors.
The hurt may last for a while. The pain may feel intolerable. You may even be tempted to go to another ministry to escape the situation. But leading your church to heal is paramount. Churches facing this type of pain need their pastors to own the problem and demonstrate the grace of Christ. One day, Jesus will remedy all the pain. Lead your church to believe it.
Posted on April 27, 2022
As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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I don’t think a congregation should conduct an internal investigation of an alleged offense. Partly because it is likely the accuser and alleged offender are known to the congregation. If handled internally, there can be accusations of “sweeping under the rug” or “witch hunt.” Second issue, it is difficult for most congregations to walk with the individuals during fact-finding and adjudication. I know it would be hard to not become distracted with the investigation as Senior Pastor.
One reason our denomination expanded their Disciplinary Board responsibilities to include lay leaders. There is a canonical process for forwarding allegations and a process of intake, fact finding, recommendations, and resolution for misconduct cases. While the process is impersonal that impersonality lends itself to fairness.
Once the facts have been learned and adjudicated, steps can be taken to resolve or reconcile as warranted.
There is always serious fall-out from a moral failure of a church staff person. There is no way to avoid it. Some in your church will long for restoration. Others will demand moving on. The church WILL be divided on how to respond and emotional suffering will result, because sin always brings reproach, regardless of how it is handled. Having a procedure in place to handle moral failures is the best hope. However, leaders must recognize there will be tragic fall-out and faithful leaders will stay for the long road towards healing and renewal.
In some cases employment law is a barrier to being able to disclose any details to the congregation, even big picture details. When a pastor resigns because of a moral failure people want to know details. Having been the senior pastor in a situation where an associate needed to resign we could share minimal details due to employment laws in our area. That made it much harder for the church to move on. We consulted a lawyer to guide us through this process and it was very challenging because we were bound as to how much could be revealed.
Excellent point. It’s always wise to seek legal advice in these situations.