One 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 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.
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.
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.