By Bob Smietana
Members of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago are experiencing a congregation’s worst nightmare.
Bill Hybels, their longtime, beloved pastor, is in the headlines of the local paper—accused of serious misconduct. Other church leaders allegedly looked the other way.
The Chicago Tribune reported Thursday night (March 22) that multiple women say they experienced unwanted advances from Hybels. He has denied all of the accusations.
When pastors are accused of going astray, church members are left to clean up the mess. Leaders often don’t know what to do, whether they are at a small congregation or at one of the biggest churches in the country.
No one wants to believe a beloved pastor could betray the congregation. And no one wants to falsely accuse a pastor of wrongdoing. One wrong step can haunt a church for years.
How should church leaders respond?
Facts & Trends asked experts in dealing with pastoral misconduct this question for a story on pastoral misconduct in our summer 2016 issue.
Whatever the process, accusations of serious misconduct should be tackled head-on.
“Churches do best when there is immediate action by the people or structures that have responsibility for pastoral oversight,” says Ross Peterson, director of Chicago-based Midwest Ministry Development, which often works with pastors who have been disciplined for misconduct.
That includes an initial investigation to see whether the accusations have merit, said Frank Sommerville, a Houston-based attorney who specializes in legal issues facing churches.
In some cases, the initial investigation can be wrapped up in about 10 days, Sommerville told Facts & Trends.
“You don’t want this thing dragging out. It’s easy to explain the pastor is unavailable for one week,” he says. “It’s harder to explain if it takes three months.”
Sommerville suggested the pastor step down with pay during the investigation. The pastor should also turn in work computers, cell phones, and passwords for work email.
The investigation should include interviews with those making the accusation, church staff, and other key stakeholders.
Get outside help
Experts say churches should not handle allegations against a pastor on their own.
In cases involving abuse, child pornography, or embezzlement, call the police, say experts. If the pastor has broken a law, the police can best handle the investigation.
Steve Joiner, director of the Institute for Conflict Management at Lipscomb University in Nashville, suggests churches also seek outside help to address accusations of moral or ethical failings.
Sometimes a denominational leader will have a process for investigating the accusations and can set up interim pastoral care for the church.
In other cases, another pastor or mediation expert can help. An outside party can focus on what’s best for the church without taking sides, either for or against the pastor.
It’s hard for church leaders to handle emotionally charged accusations on their own.
“You have to bring in a third party who has at least some neutrality,” Joiner says.
An outside expert can guide the church through a process for addressing the accusations and any potential discipline.
Having a clearly defined process will help everyone involved: church leaders, the pastor, and the congregation, says Joiner.
Keep the people informed
When a pastor is accused of misconduct, chances are more than a few people in the congregation already know about it, Joiner says. Don’t let the rumor mill get started.
Instead, if the pastor has to step down for a few weeks, provide some general information.
In the beginning, details aren’t necessary. Instead, church leaders can tell the congregation some family issues have come up and the pastor needs time off, says Joiner.
“That raises anxiety and people get upset, but you can manage that.”
Above all, says Joiner, don’t lie. That kills trust.
If pressed for details by a congregation member, church leaders have to be cautious but as truthful as possible.
Putting off a discussion of details is better than a denial, especially when the congregation member might be close to the truth. Misleading the congregation makes it difficult for people to trust church leaders.
“It’s amazing how many church leaders will lie to cover and justify that as, ‘We are trying to save the church,’” he says. “You have to have some principles that guide how you engage with people.”
With accusations of serious misconduct, it’s best to get the pastor out of the pulpit. That step may seem harsh, says Joiner, but it’s best for everyone involved.
The church can’t function properly when a pastor is under a cloud of suspicion, and the pastor can’t focus on preaching and leading the church, says Joiner.
While suspended, the pastor should have limited contact with church members.
“Although it’s often painful, churches do best when there is a firm boundary in place between the suspended/removed pastor and the congregation,” says Peterson.
“Ongoing connections and conversation between the pastor and their friends/supporters in the church creates all kinds of problems. It can be very hard on the pastoral family as well, but it seems to be better to have a firm, clear line on this, rather than ambiguity.”
Can a pastor return?
In a case of alleged pastoral misconduct, the goal is to restore the church and the pastor to health. Peterson says this means asking questions like:
- Is this pastor safe in ministry?
- What would it take for the pastor to be safe again?
- What do church members need to do to healthily process their likely conflicted feelings?
- How can genuine healing happen in the church and among the affected individuals?
Church leaders should provide care for everyone involved in the crisis—church members, potential victims, the pastor, and the pastor’s family.
“Churches do best when they can trust that help is being provided, or at least offered, to everyone involved,” says Peterson.
“This might include paying for counseling or offering someone who can serve as a spiritual friend or confidante to a person.”
After allegations are proved or disproved and a decision is made about discipline, a church may need to do some soul-searching, Peterson says.
Did church members or leaders unwittingly contribute to unhealthy ministry patterns? Did they encourage behavior that led to abuse?
“This helps a church begin to move past the blaming phase and toward a healthy kind of responsibility,” he says.
- Preventing Sexual Harassment Webinar (Brotherhood Mutual)
- Good Employment Practices Protect Ministries (Brotherhood Mutual)
- Creating Sexual Harassment Policies for Church Workplaces (Church Law & Tax)
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.