The Preacher Caught in Sexual Sin

crying-preacher.jpgOne of the greatest challenges facing the modern church is sexual sin within the ministry. I know this sounds exaggerated, but it’s not. In my experience, the number of male ministers who ultimately succumb and lose their positions is around 20%! (Not a single current minister of my home congregation is in this situation, thank God.)

I write not to condemn the sin–God has already spoken clearly on the subject–or to judge the minister. That’s not my job. Rather, my concern is with how the leadership of a church should respond when a minister is accused of sexual impropriety.

The elders first learn there might be a problem

Imagine a minister who has committed adultery with a member’s wife–a surprisingly common form of sexual misconduct. If the preacher denies the accusation, the problem could become extremely divisive, as people will take sides!

Meanwhile, sexual sin is too “juicy” to be kept quiet. The story will spread throughout the Churches of Christ with astonishing speed. No matter how hard the minister or leadership tries to keep a lid on the story, someone will call a friend, not intending to gossip (of course), just needing advice on how to cope (they’ll say), and soon the word will be everywhere.

In such matters, the worst gossips are the other preachers! Preachers will call their preacher friends (just so they can be praying for the unfortunate sinning minister, you know), and soon the man’s reputation is ruined.

Of course, word will quickly spread into the surrounding community–perhaps to the local paper–and the church’s reputation is sullied. Even the gospel itself takes a hit.

The investigation

The most important step the you can take is to investigate the matter fairly and very, very quickly. Elders are generally part-time volunteers and have busy personal lives. Therefore, elderships tend to act slowly. But this is a time to take a personal day or two and gather the facts just as quickly as humanly possible.

Ministers are often wrongly accused of sexual misconduct. Sometimes an emotionally volatile girl or woman tries to seduce the man, is spurned, and then starts a rumor that they had sex out of spite. Sometimes an overly suspicious member sees the preacher visiting a divorcee and assumes the worst.

If the you act slowly, her false accusations will soon be taken as fact by much of the congregation–and even by ministers many states away! This has to be resolved in hours, perhaps days, but not weeks.

This means meeting face to face with the accuser very quickly–and with any other person who might have knowledge of the truth of the matter–especially the preacher.

Your employee handbook should give you the right to inspect the minister’s computer, cell phone records, and PDA. If it doesn’t, ask permission. If he hesitates, fire him. An innocent preacher will beg you to review his emails and phone logs, and he’ll give you the passwords without hesitation. A guilty minister will argue that he has privacy rights and is to be presumed innocent and blah blah blah.

You need to respect his legal rights. The law varies from state to state. Therefore, consult a good lawyer (even if you have to pay for his services). But if he isn’t begging you to check, he’s either an idiot or has something to hide. Fire him for non-cooperation (or stupidity).

You are not the government, and he has no Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in this matter. Ask the hard questions and do so quickly. And then check everything you can.
There may even be circumstances where you need to immediately seize his records, cell phone, etc. to prevent tampering before you look.

A smart, innocent minister will encourage you to do exactly this. He’ll know that his career depends on being cleared. A mere finding of no evidence either way is not good enough. He needs to be found truly innocent, and therefore he should want there to be no doubt about the records.

On the other hand, a guilty man is a desperate man. He’s about to lose his job and perhaps his wife, family, and career. Will he tell a lie to protect himself? Yes. An honest man can’t commit adultery. Is he a good actor? Again, committing adultery requires the ability to show a false face.

Therefore, the elders should not be naive. They are going to be severely second-guessed by the congregation. They need to do a thorough, objectively defensible job. It just won’t be good enough to say, “He denies it; we believe him.” As true as this may be, he deserves to have his name cleared, and this can only happen with a thorough investigation.

Declaring the minister innocent

If you honestly conclude that the accusation is false, say so in no uncertain terms. You can’t say, “We find no evidence of adultery.” You have to say, “We’ve concluded that he’s innocent.” Say this before the entire church, not by announcement in the bulletin or email. The congregation needs to see the conviction in your eyes.

If you seem hesitant or uncertain, many will accuse you of a cover up (It’s the post-Watergate world, you know. People are trained to distrust authority figures). You will have only one chance to get this one right.

Closely instruct the membership to refrain from gossip or speculation. Quote the pertinent scriptures. Demand that the innocent minister not be undermined by loose lips.

Invite those with lingering doubts to speak directly with the elders. Inevitably, friends of the accuser or perhaps those with naturally suspicious natures will refuse to accept the elders’ conclusions. Some people just need more than one conversation to accept the conclusion.

Urge them to visit the elders to discuss the matter. Set a time when they may do so. Gladly face the group, pray with them, explain your thinking, and urge them to respect your decision, not just because you’re elders but also because you’ve done a thorough, careful job of investigating the matter.

There will be times that you have information you can’t share. People have a tendency to fill gaps in their knowledge with their worse fears. Your refusal to answer a question will be interpreted by some in the most pathological way possible. Therefore, to the extent possible, avoid the argument of “trust me.” Some people are just constitutionally incapable of doing so. But sometimes that’s the best you can do.

If the minister is found innocent, treat him as innocent. Let him perform his customary duties. If you declare the minister innocent and immediately send him on a sabbatical, he won’t seem very innocent to the congregation.

When the elders can’t agree

The really hard circumstance is when the evidence is unclear or when the elders are divided. It’s hard to hide the uncertainty from the church.

You may need to invite an outside consultant, perhaps from one of the Church-affiliated universities, to consult and mediate the dispute. Objectivity can be hard to come by, and sometimes it has to come from outside the congregation.

Obviously, you need to keep others within the church out of the dispute. You can’t let the members campaign to fire or keep him. This leads to division and perhaps even a split. Present a united front.

If an elder is related to the minister, he should recuse himself at the outset and stay entirely uninvolved–refusing to discuss the matter at all. He should tell those who ask his opinion that they should respect the elders.

Finally, if you fail to reach consensus, no one should resign. This tactic demonstrates to the church that the elders aren’t united and could easily lead to a split. Rather, the minority must support the decision of the majority. If someone feels the need to resign over this, he should wait several months before doing so.

The guilty minister: forgiveness and trust

Of course, if you find him guilty, you have to fire him. And you won’t want to. You’ve spent countless hours with him in ministry. You’ve prayed and cried together. You love him intensely. You know and love his wife and children. Making the decision is agony.

Moreover, someone will point out that he’s confessed the sin, repented, and so must be forgiven. They’ll argue: doesn’t the fact that Jesus has forgiven him mean that we must forgive him, too? Shouldn’t we even forget the sin, just like God?

And this idea causes many an eldership to struggle with what to do. The minister’s been caught, he confessed in tears, he assured the elders he’ll never, ever do it again. Good elders have tender hearts and are anxious to forgive. And they do.

But forgiving is not the same thing as keeping the man on God’s payroll. I’m totally confident that a penitent minister is forgiven by God and so ought to be forgiven by his congregation. OK? The theology is clear. The man stands justified before God.

The question, however, is whether he should be the minister of your congregation. When you interview for a new hire, it’s likely that all 20 candidates you consider are justified before God. That doesn’t make them all a worthy choice to be your minister. It’s only the first of many requirements.

And one requirement is that the minister must be effective in ministry. And whether or not it’s fair, in the 21st Century Churches of Christ, a minister who is guilty of sexual sin cannot be effective. It just doesn’t work.

Some large element of the congregation will be angry with the man. Some large percentage of the men won’t trust him around their wives and daughters. The relationship of trust has been destroyed, and trust is just plain hard to put back together.

You see, forgiveness and trust are too different things. Forgiveness is given, never earned. Trust can only be earned.

In my limited experience with straying ministers, they almost always straighten up and fly right. The experience of getting caught in such sin is so awful these men clean up their acts and return to their Savior.

But I don’t know a single congregation that managed to keep its minister after sexual sin. Some tried, but they quickly had to let him go when the congregation just wouldn’t stand for a preacher who had sinned so egregiously.

Sexual sin in the distant past

Now, there’s an important distinction to draw here. If the minister slept around before he decided to be a minister, most churches will gladly accept him–if he admits his indiscretions before he’s hired. We Christians believe that Jesus changes people and are happy to reward changed lives.

But if a preacher is discovered to have been guilty of sexual sin that happened after he began his ministry, but long ago in his past, most elderships will still fire him, even if his sin predates his being hired by that congregation.

Again, it’s a matter of trust. Had he confessed his sin before he was hired, the elders may well have judged the matter to be in the past and hired him. But elders expect these things to be disclosed in advance, even if they don’t specifically ask the question.

Ministers take note: elders hate unpleasant surprises.

Ministering to the minister.

You have to fight the temptation to get angry. As they find themselves having to defend to his supporters their decision to fire the man, and then having to do a preacher search, you’ll be tempted to become resentful. Don’t.

Rather, he, his wife, his family, and those with whom he sinned are members of your flock and still in desperate need of counsel and comfort. Don’t cut them out.

Recognize that although the preacher has brought this entirely on himself, he is absolutely vulnerable and helpless. He has a lifetime of study all committed to the ministry. He may still carry school debt. He can’t get a job in ministry, and yet he has a family to support.

Pay a generous severance, keep him on the church’s insurance, and work hard to help him find a secular job. Pay for career counseling.

This will not be easy and will seem unfair to the church. But it’s not the church’s money. It’s Jesus’ money. And I think Jesus would be pleased with your compassionate use of his resources.

Good stewardship never consists of being tightfisted toward people in need. Even if you’re very angry at the minister, have compassion on the man’s family.

Dealing with the preacher’s victim

I know “victim” sounds like a harsh word, but I think it’s appropriate. Even for consensual sex between adults, the adultery harms not only the minister but his lover. If he was counseling her, he’s taken advantage of her vulnerable state in a truly awful way. In any case, he knew better and almost always he used the talents God gave him to do ministry to cause someone else to sin.

Of course, the woman is also a sinner, and perhaps she pursued him. Either way, she needs her elders. You must meet with her, confront her if need be, and be prepared to help her deal with her blunder.

She’ll be horribly embarrassed. If the congregation discovers who she is, they may blame her for the loss of their beloved preacher.

But she’s just another sinner in need of Jesus and the love of her brothers and sisters. Don’t forget her.

Restoration

I know several ministers in the Churches of Christ who committed sexual sin, lost their jobs, left the ministry, and then were later rehired into ministry with great success. And I’m glad of it. As I said, to my knowledge, every man who’s been in this situation straightened things out and changed his life. These men were often among our most talented ministers. The church needs their talents.

But trust has to be earned. And it takes years for a man who left the ministry to regain the confidence of the church community so that he can be hired again. There’s no hard and fast rule for how long he must “wander in the wilderness,” but it seems to me to be at least two years.

Interestingly, most ministers who leave the ministry this way return to ministry as quickly as they can. And many become much better ministers. In fact, we like our ministers a little less than perfect–and we greatly prefer them to have a little humility.

It’s an awful way to become a better preacher, but it actually does sometimes happen.

However, the preacher carries the stigma with him until he dies. Most wear it well. They readily admit their sin to prospective employers. Sometimes they even build their try-out sermon around it. After all, they need to know the church will accept them with full knowledge of the sin.

Conclusion

It’s tragic that elderships and congregations and minister’s families have to deal with this problem so often. However, there are two things an eldership can do to help.

First, as we’ve just discussed, when the problem arises, handle it well–from a truly Christian perspective. Don’t let it divide your church or push you into less-than-Christ-like decisions.

Second, do your best to prevent it. This is the subject of the next post.

Leave a Reply

  1. It is also important that *all* elders *carefully* examine the evidence produced by someone (or someones) making a claim. There are ministers who are masters of persuasion, and their testimony alone may be very convincing if the evidence is not considered. Some are extremely good at making themselves just open and contrite enough in the face of accusation to deflect suspicion and cast the cloud back on their accusers. Also, sometimes there are one or two powerful elders who refuse to examine the evidence and then have sway over major decisions. *Always* consider the evidence.

    If the claimant is a subordinate of the minister in any way, the elders must make quick and decisive steps to protect them, especially if the claimant perceives the minister to be a threat to them. There are some ministers who react very harshly to the threat of loss of power or prestige.

    Claimants must also be given the benefit of the doubt. Yes, some people make such accusations as power plays on someone's reputation, but the vast majority of the time it will be because they really believe it to be true. These kinds of accusations will often only be made after a severe amount of anguish over deciding to do so.

    But most importantly, in my opinion, is that ministers be closely accountable to the elders from the outset. Accountable for their time, actions, financial usage, and most importantly, family life. Some ministers' family lives go completely unchecked in ultra-professional corporate-culture churches, and breakdowns at home are the active ingredient of affairs. And accounting for family life can really only happen when elders have a genuine relationship with the minister and his family.

  2. Jay,

    If a preacher is found guilty of gossip, do you have to fire him? Or lying? Or getting parking tickets? Or an outburst of anger?

    If so, why does he have to be flawless and the rest of don't?

    If not, then how do you determine what level of sin should cost him the job? Is he getting paid not to sin?

    –Guy

  3. Guy,

    You have to fire him when his sin puts him in position where he can no longer be effective in his job or where the position subjects him to temptation he can't handle.

    Obviously, not all sin produces this result, but some does. I'm not going to offer an exact line because I don't think there is one.

  4. Maybe so. Just seems like a latent clergy/laity distinction to me. And a tacit assumption that "ministers" (as though only a select few of us are ministers) have to be super-human.

    –Guy

  5. Guy,

    There are many career paths where sexual improprieties will get you fired or even end your career. Professional counselors are one. Lawyers are another. Nowadays, most offices will fire you for having sex with someone you supervise. No one is asking ministers to be superhuman, but they should certainly meet the same standards as other professionals and white collar workers.

  6. And of course as a minister I am suggesting that I have a handle on the sins I am helping others avoid. (not perfect, but not swimming with Satan either) If I blow that I have lost my effectiveness. And remember, if the rules seem unfairly skewed against us many members will be happy to tell you that they find the fact that we get paid for what we expect them to do anyway unfair.

  7. i'm not sure what it means to "have a handle on" my sins. Does a member have to "have a handle on" her sins before she can be of any help to others? If she's busted for drugs and goes to jail, is it useless for her to tell others not to start using? Sounds like the perfect person to tell them to me. i see that i have many "one another" obligations to fellow disciples. i don't see how me sinning somehow absolves me of those responsibilities.

    i know what i felt like i was getting paid for when i did ministry. (And just for the record, no, i didn't leave ministry because of getting caught in any sort of 'heinous' sin.) But i'm still not completely clear on what people in the Bible were getting paid for.

    However much we disavow a clergy/laity distinction, i don't see our practice as being qualitatively different from any other religious group who believes in such a distinction.

    –Guy

  8. Jay,

    Sounds like it's either about image or conforming to the world then.

    (1) *Why* would sexual impropriety get you fired in some of those positions? Granted, not always the same in every case. But seems to me image would play a big role in some or most of the firings. However, i don't see Jesus as an image sort of guy. He spent most of his career acquiring a pretty bad rep from the people in his culture who cared most about "proprieties." And he certainly didn't aim to build a church full of professionals and white-collars. Viewing the position of a "minister" as a white-collar-position doesn't seem to fit the biblical picture whatsoever.

    (2) Jesus let people into his entourage with pretty "questionable" or "less-than-exemplary" histories. i grant you this is different because we're talking about a case where someone isn't initially coming to Christ out of such a past, but it's someone already in Christ who has fallen into sin. Nevertheless, you are the one to emphasize that the CoC is historically wrong for believing that the grace we receive after becoming a Christian is different from the grace we receive in initially coming to Christ. Further, it seems rather odd that Judas gets to be an apostle, glory-hungry James and John get go be apostles, and bowing-to-social-prejudice-to-the-point-of-needing-rebuked-by-Paul Peter gets to retain his work as an apostle, yet a minister who, say, wants to do the right thing deep down in the pit of his gut but who falls into temptation and wants badly to make it right *has* to get fired. Where would the church be if Christ had "fired" Peter?

    Yes, the world would "fire" a lot of people probably. But the church isn't a worldly institution. We don't play by their rules. i don't see why we should think we need to. i do see why it'd be dangerous to start catering to those rules.

    i'm not trying to make this personal. As i said in my previous post, my leaving ministry was nothing of this sort at all. It was all very amicable and peaceable. i was just very compelled to comment on this post because, given all you say on this site about radical grace and unity and acceptance and doing things differently than 20th century CoC-ism, saying that you *have* to fire the guy seems completely unlike what you preach on a regular basis. (It sounds, frankly, like something some conservative who was very driven by matters of reputation and perfectionism would say. I'm not at all saying i think that's where your heart is–i don't know where your heart is. i only say that to exlplain my shock when i read this post.) I've been a part of at least two congregations who had ministers caught in some "heinous" sin. On one occasion, the church actually paid for the minister to get the help he needed and then reinstated him and he went on to be rather effective. In the second situation, the minister joined a celebrate recovery program which (i believe you're aware how CR operates) means CR attendees heard every week what it was he struggled with. Yet he continued to work effectively with the congregation. He stayed with us for several more months and then went on to head a church plant in another state, which, last i heard, was growing like wild fire. The first congregation was definitely "conservative." The second congregation i would style "moderate." Is this really case where a conservative and moderate congregation is able to extend grace and redemption more radically and against-the-grain than your ideology allows you to do?

    –Guy

  9. Guy,

    Do we have a clergy/laity distinction? Some … but mainly we have a leader/follower distinction. You see, elders who sleep around get fired, too. So do Bible teachers. It's just that their livelihood doesn't generally depend on it.

    Now, I also know of cases where preachers and other leaders have been lovingly rehabilitated by their leadership. I know of cases where a fired minister remained a member of the same church, because that's where he and his family could best heal. And I know of ministers who sinned repeatedly, repented, and returned to the pulpit to be very effective.

    I can't think of a single elder who had to step down due to such sin and was ever re-appointed. It's probably happened, but I'm not familiar with such a case.

    Of course, the church has to forgive a penitent man. But the church has to also decide whether he has overcome whatever demons drove him to sin in the first place. In every case I'm familiar with, the sexual sin was evidence of a deeply seated drive that was very difficult for the man to overcome. Sexual addiction, for example, isn't cured by repentance. Rather, repentance is just the first of many steps.

    So, yes, grace, forgiveness, loving support … absolutely. Firing can never be an act of vengeance or punishment. That's not our job. But the firing may still be necessary because he can no longer do his job, because he's a sexual predator who hasn't yet overcome his tendencies, because ministry gives him more temptation than he can handle, because he isn't really remorseful, etc.

  10. Guy,

    None of my examples is about image. They are all about abuse of power or confidential relationships. A lawyer who sleeps with a client going through a divorce loses his license because it's too easy to take advantage of a woman who trusts you and relies on you.

    The ethics of lawyers, counselors, etc. aren't about the wickedness of the world. The world would generally say have sex if you want. They get fired because experience has shown that sex in such relationships often takes unfair advantage of the other person — and even the world has come to see this as immoral and even repugnant. High school teachers get fired if they sleep with a student, even if they are both single and both consenting and even if the student is "of age." It's an abuse of a confidential relationship and of power.

    There may be cases where the preacher doesn't have to be fired, but in every case I have personal knowledge of, the firing was appropriate, with one exception that I can't discuss without giving away confidences. The peculiar facts of that case don't bear on our discussion.

    And if I'm ever guilty of adultery, I should be removed from the eldership. I should certainly be able to repent and be forgiven by the church, but I shouldn't hold this position of trust if I can't control myself better than that.

  11. Jay,

    My original concern was with the absoluteness of the conclusion: the man simply *must* be fired. But now you seemed to have qualified it a bit. i certainly agree that given certain circumstances (more the state of the man’s heart than anything), the preacher has to be fired. But i think given certain circumstances, there are cases where he shouldn’t be, or at least he should be given a chance.

    What also concerns me is this “better than that” talk. It’s as though some sins are worse than others and some people are better than others. If we’re talking about a group of penitent, faithful disciples, one of whom is a minister, can anyone in that group gossip and remain a “penitent, faithful disciple”? Can anyone in that group look at pornography and remain a “penitent, faithful disciple”? It’s as though we’re saying particularly for preachers, some sins are fine and others are inexcusable.

    i don’t mean to belabor anything–i really think several issues are conflated here. i just have many remaining hesitancies. Perhaps i should think for a while about what qualities are peculiar to the clergy/laity distinction which are absent from biblical “offices.”

    –Guy

  12. Guy,

    Actually, some sins are worse than others — especially those sins that get other people involved in sin. Any sin is sufficient to damn, but some are much more harmful than others.

    And some people are better than others — at being a minister or an elder or a Bible class teacher. In God's eyes, all people are worth dying for, but God teaches that not all people have the same talents as others. And for all church leaders, one essential talent is the ability to be sexually pure. If you don't have that gift, you can't have that position of trust.

    I mean, if a preacher keeps forgetting to prepare his sermon, we're glad to forgive him, but he's not qualified for the ministry until he overcome his lack his lack of preparation. He'll be deservedly fired. He has to be able to do his job. And if sleeps around, we'll forgive that, too. But he's not qualified for ministry until he defeats this temptation.

  13. Yes, but he is getting paid to prepare and deliver sermons. Is he particularly getting paid not to sin?

    But again, i think issues are too conflated in this discussion. There are at least these:
    (1) What constitutes a clergly/laity distinction?
    (2) Do we (CoC) practice such?)
    (3) Should we?
    (4) What is the biblical model for paid ministers?
    (5) Are we obligated to restore that model or not?
    (6) What exactly are our ministers getting paid to do?
    (7) What should they be getting paid to do?
    ((*) Some might even ask, should we have any paid ministers? Sometimes i honestly have my doubts.)
    (8) How should sin/temptation/faithful discipleship effect the role of the minister?

    i'm not at all saying i have a clear position worked out about the matter of a preacher's job. In modern times, different hired-ministers have different job descriptions and some can "get away" with more than others. What bothers me is the notion of handing someone money in exchange for doing what they ought to do as a matter of discipleship anyway.

    –Guy