When Our Spiritual Leaders Fall

Eddie, without getting into the gory details, my pastor was just asked to resign due to a catastrophic moral failing. The church board accepted his resignation, the associate pastor read a statement from him on Sunday, and now I’m attending a church that is totally devastated. So I guess my question is, what happens now?

– Paul

Paul, my friend, I am so sorry. Everything in my soul aches for you, your church, the staff of that church, the fallen pastor, his family and the countless ripples of pain that are making their way through your community. This is hard, Paul. I know. I’ve gone through this, and it gutted me both personally and professionally (I was on staff at that church). So I know what you’re going through, and I’m grateful you reached out.

Additionally, I’d like to acknowledge that I’m going to write this response to you as a member of the congregation, as opposed to someone who is on the staff of your church. And the reason I make this distinction is because I’m not going to tackle subjects like: “Will membership decline?” (maybe), “How do you lead and mourn?” (tons of support, grace for yourself) and “What happens if the congregation turns on the staff?” (love and pray). All of those questions are important. But unfortunately, they’ve been well covered in recent years due to the pandemic problem of pastors derailing. More on that another day …

Today, I’m going to give you three things to think about. None of these will be a silver bullet that makes it all better. Because, well, there is no silver bullet. This is just the worst, and it will take a while to sort out. But this is what I’ve learned, and I hope it helps.

1. Mourn the Loss

Paul, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that there is an internal battle raging in you right now. Part of you is still reeling from the revelation and trying to reconcile the fact that a man who you respect(ed), who taught about things like integrity and honesty, was apparently more able to speak those truths than live them out.

Additionally, I’d bet that you’re a mix of: angry at him, feeling betrayed, sad for him, sad for your church, and maybe—deep down inside—just a tiny bit relieved that God and truth have gotten the final word here? Maybe, maybe not. In any event, you’re deep in it.

Ironically, the best advice I’ve ever heard on mourning was from my former pastor, the very one who ended up leaving the pulpit. He said, “Be present in your sadness. Because you either cry out to God from the place you’re at, or you might as well not cry out at all.” He was right.

Paul, you have experienced a real loss, akin to death or divorce. It’s a terrible blow and one that you can’t sweep under the emotional rug and keep a stiff upper lip about. You need to let yourself evolve through the grieving process, that is: denial (“I can’t believe this happened!), anger (“How could he do this to our church!?”), bargaining (“We should have done something to prevent this.”), depression (“I’m just so sad and nervous about the future of my church.”), and finally, acceptance (“God is bigger than this. We will be OK.”)

Mourn the loss, Paul. It’s not just some guy who preached great sermons and wrote thoughtful blogs. He was your pastor, and the Bible is clear that this person is more than just a teacher. A pastor is a very spiritual and personal role that, when misused, has very real and painful consequences. So again, cry out from the place you’re at.

2. Be Graceful

Paul, I get a sense that you’re already a graceful man. But in a time like this, even the most Mister Rogers-like among us may want to lash out—and why not? A few weeks ago things at your church seemed awesome! The services were engaging, more and more people were attending, the small groups were thriving, and everything was perfect. (Or should I say, “perfect”.)

But now, it is all messed up. Now, the services are sad reminders of what once was. The guy who preaches now is good, but different. And in general, the momentum of your church has just…….slowed……..down.

Think of it like this:

When you’re driving down the road at 70 mph, you can basically only see what’s in front of you and what’s down the road. However, you really can’t see anything else. The brown bunny in the forest, the hubcap by the side of the road, even individual trees—all of them are a blur. Conversely, if you are driving down that road at 10 mph, you will see everything—bunnies, hubcaps, trees—in stunning detail.

In like manner, your church was barreling down the road at 70 mph. Then, your pastor blew up his life, and now the car has slowed to a gentle roll. And because of that, your church is clearly seeing every flawed ministry, every lack of programming, every glitch in the Sunday service, and generally everything that was once flying by too fast to see. When we have momentum as a church, there’s a lot we don’t notice (or choose to ignore). But when momentum slows, we see that our church isn’t the flawless entity it once appeared to be. In part, this is a cleansing thing. But it can also be pretty frustrating.

To that end, I would ask you and your congregation to be graceful. The volunteers, the staff, the new pastor—and really everyone—are just treading water and figuring out how to stay afloat.

Over time, you all will pick up speed again. But right now, everybody is sad and frustrated and generally just looking out the windows and picking out problems. This isn’t helpful, though it’s understandable. In these days (and probably all days), grace should be the currency as all of you figure out what the new normal is.

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3. Remember Why You’re a Church

In closing, I’ll leave you with this question: what is the point of a church?

Now, you may be tempted to give me your church’s fancy slogan, something like: “Community. Bible. Coffee. Connection. Fog Machine.” And while that’s all good, it’s not really why you’re a church.

Here’s why you exist:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).

You exist because God uses gatherings of normal, well-meaning, messed up, flawed, broken, wonderful people to do His work. Pastors will fail, programs will falter, and the band will be out of tune. But guess what? God will prevail, and people will still be saved.

So to answer your question, that’s what happens now, Paul. God still rules the day. Even your pastor can’t derail that.

I’m sorry you’re walking through this, friend. I, along with many others, am empathizing and praying for you. Keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Warm regards,
Eddie

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