Sex Scandals and Pastors

haggartbush

The Story

There are many stories of people high up in churches committing some *shocking* sexual (or other) sin. Usually it turns out that this was not just an event but a lifestyle. Inevitably, what happens is that the pastor or leader is removed from the position and most often they find a “new” congregation or no congregation at all. Then the existing congregation goes on a search for a new pastor or just bumps up the vice pastor to fill the position.

The Thought:

If the church does not work though the reasons why they hired/followed the pastor in the first place they are doomed to repeat the problem. Thinking that you will actually solve the problem by firing the pastor is like thinking that a woman that continually dates abusive men just needs to end the relationship with the current abuser. In order to really solve the problem any therapist or counselor will tell you that there is something fundamentally “wrong” with the spouses of abusers, alcoholic etc.  There is almost always a pattern or deficiency that makes certain partners attracted to those with these issues. Could it be that this same law of counseling applies to church culture. When a congregation can happily exist under a man who wields all sorts of sexual, or other sin, for years at a time could it be that the problem, and therefore the solution, does not just lie with with person in power but also the congregation?

So, would it also be right to suppose that if the pastor is removed and the people do not resolve their issues, in a life changing way, there is a good chance that those issues still exist? With the partners of addicts, why is it that after 5 abusive relationships, the 6th relationship is actually more likely not less, to be with an addict?

I have been a part of a church for the last 8 years that has undergone a major shift in leadership due to “sexual indiscretion.” In my observance, there has been very little open communication about the issue. The underlying feel that I receive is that the issue is over with because the person or problem has been removed. Now I’m starting to wonder.

The Solution

What if members of a “congregation” took responsibility for the problem instead of just blaming it on the leader?

What would this look like?

Does current church structure or culture condone or dismiss this type of responsibility?

Can there be any true or complete healing without it?

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13 thoughts

  1. I think a big factor in this is that people never quit sinning. And that’s is not to say people should ignore the sin or gloss over it and not call it out. But the fact is that sin will always be present in Christians’ lives this side of heaven…so what do we do with that?

    I don’t know quite what it would look like for a body of a church to resolve their issues in a life-changing way, and because of this, I don’t know how well we can judge that a church body has done this. (Meaning across the board, every member has done whatever it would take to convince you.) And I wouldn’t want to leave a church body for this reason, that they hadn’t ‘cleaned up,’ because I wouldn’t want a church to tell me “you can come back after you’ve fixed yourself/resolved your issues.” Where is the gospel in that?

    Instances do exist where someone feels God wants them to leave a certain church (small ‘c’ church) and I think that’s certainly valid. But on the whole, I am wary of abandoning a church body based on something like this.

    Post after post of yours I keep getting the idea that you think there is a black-and-white end to this stuff, what do you think? In this post I’m mainly inferring that from what you wrote in the bold: “If the church does not work though the reasons why they hired/followed the pastor in the first place they are doomed to repeat the problem.” But…they’re doomed to repeat the problem anyway, because of the sin nature. (If not that problem, another.) Our sin nature isn’t something we can “fix.” It’s something that exists in us and reminds us how much we need God. If we could lick it somehow, we wouldn’t need him anymore.

    Curious what you think.

  2. Steph,
    I don’t think we will ever be sin-free nor do I think we should just bail on a church.

    In a marriage I think there are ways to ignore problems and cycles and make the problem worse. Conversely, I also believe that there is a proactive way to constructively find healing and growth through sin or issues but I do not believe that generally happens “naturally.”

    To that degree, I believe it is “black or white.”
    I know how to make my marriage worse. If that is true would you acknowledge that there are things that would make it better?

    I am, merely, asking the question, if this is true with a marriage or any other relationship, might not it be true with the church?
    I don’t know if this would work or what it would look like? Just asking? Do you think there is a better question?

    I agree with you, I certainly wouldn’t want to leave a church body for this reason either. In my numerous experiences though the pastor who had committed the “infractions” did exactly that. He did not stay and learn and grow and be restored. I think that it may be connected to this.

  3. Stephanie,
    I think what Ben is referring to, is that, rather than desiring to see the pastor helped with their sin within the body of their church, we tend to shuffle the pastor out of the body, replacing them with a new, less openly sinful pastor. But like you said, we all have a sin nature, so we’re just moving one sinner out to replace them with another. I know of at least one church who found out about a pastor’s private sin, and they had him retire and move on. They never confronted the sin, and had him move away from the people that were the most likely to administer church discipline/recovery from their sin.
    I think the main issue in my mind, is that perhaps a christian leader should lead by being the first to admit their brokenness, and their body quick to love each other and have compassion in their brokenness. I’ve rarely heard a pastor talk about their sin in a specific way. And when it is discovered that they have specific, ghastly sin, it’s so embarrassing for the church to find out that their pastor isn’t as holy as the congregation had made the pastor out to be.

    Ben, correct me if I’m wrong.

  4. hmm….I’m not getting the correlation between pastors who lead double lives and domestic violence in marriage or intimate relationships. Maybe my perspective is too wordly. But…

    I would never suggest that a person stay and “work out” their problems with an abusive spouse or intimate partner. By all means leave that person because statistically speaking they could be dead if they remain in that intimate place… http://www.da.usda.gov/shmd/aware.htm#BREAK

    Pastor scandals in my experience (I’ve witnessed about 6 different situations where a pastor leaves due to a secret sin or scandal) the pastor stepped down from leadership or moved away because – once the sin was out in the open they…. (1) denied wrong doing and shift blame to others (2) they refused to accept church/elder discipline and therefore leave.

    Also, I attended regularly the church you speak of Ben back in the mid and late 90’s. I don’t recall that the original pastor was hired by the current congregation. The founding pastor wasn’t affiliated with a denomination back then. I think alot of people left after that upset… I remember visiting once soon after the new pastor was appointed and I didn’t recognize anyone in the congregation anymore.

  5. The bible I think outlines what should happen in this situation. The problem is most churches are not following what the bible prescribes. I think the issue starts with asking, has church discipline (Matthew 18) taken place? If that answer is no, then thats your first step. If the answer is yes, then the question is, has the person repented or not? If they have repented the church’s responsibility is absolutely to help restore them from their sin. But you need to ask, are they still elder qualified (Titus 1:5-9)?
    The church is responsible to help the person, but this doesn’t mean they should still be in leadership, and if there hasn’t been healing they shouldn’t move on to another congregation.
    What if they don’t repent? Once you have gone through all the stages of church discipline Matthew 18:17 says, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” We are to treat the person as an unbeliever, so no they shouldn’t be shepherding another flock. The church should be reaching out to them as an unbeliever, and this means preaching the gospel to them, to bring them into right relation with God.
    The reason church’s are running into this problem is that the church as a whole isn’t practicing church discipline at its most basic level (this is all the people in the church holding each other accountable for sin). The problem isn’t why did they hire this person. The problem is that accountability isn’t taking place. Is the church making sure that church discipline is happening at its high levels? Is it happening at all? Was this person elder qualified in the beginning? It is hard to find churches that take seriously what the bible has outlined the church to be like. I am thankful that I have.
    It should be okay for pastors to admit that they sin, we all sin. However, there are some sins that disqualify pastors from leadership.
    I know that I am being repetitive, but the question that the church needs to ask itself is church discipline happening on a regular basis, with all its members? That is the heart and soul of the issue.
    In my church people are help responsible for their sin, but that doesn’t mean being cast out, that means bearing one another’s burdens. If something has happened in someone in leadership’s life that disqualifies them from leadership. The leader goes before the church and tells the body what happened. The leader may be removed from leadership, for a time, but they still remain an active member of the church. The only time that someone in the church should be asked to leave the body is in case of an unrepentant heart, where the person doesn’t care to stop sinning.

  6. Keri – I totally agree that the person shouldn’t “stay” and work it out. If the relationship is abusive precautions must be taken. What I am saying is that both parties need to seek help and healing or they will probably both find “new” partners to fill the same role.

    Emilie – I totally agree that this is an issue of church discipline/accountability. I think the lack of it though, shows multiple weaknesses. That’s what’s so crazy when these pastors come out after hiding things for 20 years. At that point, spiritual “discipline” or restoration needs to be implemented but that is only one side of the coin. The other is, how is it that a congregation depended upon or allowed a person to exist in such a manner for so long? I think that there is often times an unhealthy dependence or trust that makes this story very common.
    In a marriage if one spouse finds out the other has been cheating for the last 20 years counselors suggest that there is a much deeper issue than the sexual symptoms. The lack of intimacy that was “allowed” and maybe even promoted by both parties created an atmosphere where something could remain hidden for so long. My question is: Are we creating or allowing a similar atmosphere in the church?

  7. I think the problem is that people arn’t confronting sin in the beginning. It is a huge problem within the church. Marital unfaithfulness doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process. Wives need to be held accountable to do their part in marraige. Husbands needs to be held accountable to do their part in marraige. Everyone in the church needs to open themselves up to be held accountable.
    The church is setting themselves up for failure, because vulnerability is lacking. Church’s will die/be unhealthy and pastors will get caught up in sin if they are not apart of a healthy body that is holding each other accountable for sin. Unhealthy churches do create atmosphere’s where everyone wants to appear perfect and sins are remaining hidden.
    I completely agree you that there is a lack of intimacy in the church that is a breeding ground for sins to arise and people to fall.
    If the people in church don’t figure out ways to hold people accountable le for their actions we will continue to see our pastors fail. Everyone is vulnerable, no one can do it alone, we need people to help us.
    \

  8. When I was in middle school, one of my church’s pastors was fired for gambling. As a church, it was gossiped about and swept under the rug, with the pastor “graciously” moving away. What an example, right? After learning about The Church recently, it seems that as a body, we should have surrounded him and his family and helped them recover, following biblical discipline. Of course, I have to admit that since it was a large church and I was a minor, some of those things could’ve happened without my knowledge.

  9. it’s got to be more than just ‘accountability.’ in my opinion, people don’t act out/feed their addictions because they’re not held accountable. it’s because the alternative is something much deeper, darker, and painful– that we fear will be the death of us.

    ben, you said: “In a marriage if one spouse finds out the other has been cheating for the last 20 years counselors suggest that there is a much deeper issue than the sexual symptoms.”

    it doesn’t take 20 years for it to be a “deeper issue.” in my opinion, it doesn’t even take the first time.

    in the words of one of dan allender, “it’s never about the sex.”

  10. My two cents on the whole matter of holding pastors accountable is this: it is incredibly difficult to do so under the modern concept of what a pastor is, and what his relationship to the “congregation” is… Pastors, realistically, are seen as being part of different class of believer, to have a higher calling.

    Since today we understand being a pastor to be a position, instead of a gifting, the rest of the Body is held at arms length from people in these positions. Just like in any other corporate setting, the entry-level employees do not hold the CEO accountable, so it is in our modern day, business-model based churches. Thus the “laity” are subtly conditioned not to question their professional leaders, who are revered for being better educated in theological matters, and are the ones speaking to the group the majority of the time.

    Which brings up another point, that the average church-member’s interaction with those who are seen as their “shepherds” amounts little more than sitting and listening to them talk for half an hour or so, once or twice a week… Personally, I spent years and years in a church environment, with a whole staff of pastors, and the amount of interaction I had with any one of them outside of a church-related function was minimal. I had virtually no idea what they were like at home, with their families, or on a “monday through friday” basis…

    Overall, the generally-accepted concept that a pastor is someone who you mainly interact with by listening to sermons, or chatting in the lobby, is one that not surprisingly repeatedly produces situations where the Body as a whole are completely oblivious to the day-to-day goings on of their leaders, and even if they weren’t, are usually too afraid to approach an individual whom they have been convinced has a higher standing with God than they do…..

  11. Spiro, I love that. I think that. I think you are so right. What if me are completely mis-diagnosing the “problem”?

    Daniel, I think in light of my response to Spiro, your response is dead on. The practical structures and cultural “job description” of a “pastor” really do promote not just this lack of accountability, but as Spiro was saying the lack of an environment that promotes the health and growth of ALL individuals in a church.

    AWESOME responses guys, thanks for posting!

  12. I had been a youth pastor at a church for about a year and a half when the Sr. Pastor was “asked” to resign because of sinful conduct. While I thought the initial situation was handled very well by the elders – he went before the entire church and confessed, nothing was swept under the rug – the follow up didn’t happen the way it should have. While most of the leadership agreed there should have been greater accountability and openness, nothing was done to effect change and after a few months everything was pretty much the way it had been before. It is so tough for us to break out of our comfortable routines. Check out the book “Healing the Heart of your Church” by Ken Quick

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