[Editor’s Note: This is part one of four in a series by Michael Todd Wilson on how pastors should respond to sexual sin in the church. For more information about this topic and Wilson’s book Unburdened, visit MichaelToddWilson.com.]
As Christian leaders how we respond when someone inside our organization is discovered in sexual sin is of utmost importance. One key to responding well is to set the tone before anyone needs such help.
Start now by communicating an understanding of the principles in these articles to those downline in your organization. Remind them that all Christian leaders must contend for sexual integrity, but engaging in sexual sin isn’t a foregone conclusion. Establish an open door policy with regard to the individuals coming to you to disclose where they are—whether merely internal struggles with lust or external engagement of behaviors. Let them know it’s your greatest desire to first respond with grace and empathy and that you will withhold judgment and sharing “truth” about their situation too early in the conversation. This approach sets a tone of safety long before anyone ever experiences a crisis of discovery.
Also, remember that there are multiple options for response. One response does not fit every situation. When someone does disclose or is discovered, there are different ways for responding depending on the nature and severity of the particular situation:
Informal or formal restoration while continuing in ministry service — For situations such as disclosure of internal struggle without behaviors or behaviors on the less consequential end of the continuum that are unknown by the public, establishing an internal recovery protocol might be all that’s needed. This could range from informal meetings with a pastor, director, or elder to a more formal, regimented meeting that’s complete with curricula and outside professional assistance. The unique circumstances (along with prayerful discernment) will influence the ultimate path constructed.
Formal restoration during paid sabbatical — This would be for more serious manifestations of sin patterns for those individuals in the organization deemed worth retaining and investing in over the long run. Common elements include professional counseling/coaching (individual and couples, but sometimes weekend intensives and residential treatment are also needed), accountability groups (either inside or outside of the organization), use of recovery curricula and formal documentation from beginning to end. An arbitrary timeline can be established at the outset for purposes of knowing when to re-evaluate for either reinstatement or removal from ministry.
Formal restoration post-termination — Not every restoration requires retention of employment. That’s a decision each church or ministry leadership group makes on a case-by-case basis. In situations where knowledge of the behaviors has gone public, it’s sometimes impossible to retain the Christian leader within the church or organization. This can also be true where the Christian leader doesn’t manifest appropriately humble ownership of the problem and/or doesn’t seem to understand the severity of their actions and the related consequences.
Regardless of the path of restoration taken, here are common things that have happened throughout Church history that should no longer be options for the Christian church:
Shooting the wounded — This happens when organizations fire the Christian leader on the spot, giving them no severance and no assistance with regard to getting much-needed help. This leaves the Christian leader (and their family) managing a crisis of employment. This virtually guarantees the leader has no bandwidth or encouragement to get the help they so desperately need. Even in cases of forced termination, Christian leaders need to be financially supported for a season to seek recovery and to be prepared for transition into alternate (and many times secular) employment.
Sweeping it under the rug — When terminating organizations don’t do what they can to help hurting Christian leaders access the help they need, the proverbial can gets kicked down the street to another church or ministry who, in turn, brings on the individual into a similar leadership position, knowing neither the history of events nor about the existence of unresolved problems lurking just under the surface.
A unique obligation exists in the relationship between Christian leaders and the churches or ministries employing them. It’s not easy for a Christian leader to transition from one ministry to another or from ministry back into secular employment. If we think merely about our responsibility to our own church or ministry organization, we’ll miss doing what’s best for the greater purposes of the Kingdom. How well we attempt to care for those in Christian leadership—even those who fail morally and miserably—reflects Kingdom values to all who are watching, both within the Church and outside of it in the surrounding culture.
While there is a need to protect our organization and those to whom we minister, the manner in which we care for fallen Christian leaders can reflect Jesus’ love and compassion and preach a unique gospel message that many in our communities may never walk through our ministry doors to hear.