This month’s Christian Chronicle has a fascinating article about how to deal with a minister caught in sexual sin. Now, until you’ve had to deal with this, you likely don’t appreciate how truly terrible these situations are. And while there are no statistics, I can say with some confidence the rate at which ministers get trapped by sexual sin is astonishingly high.
The article is based on interviews with Thomas Jackson and David Lane, authors of Low Motives in High Places: A Survivor’s Strategy for Wounded Healers. The article (available only to subscribers at the time of this posting at http://www.christianchronicle.org/pdf_archive/2009-06.pdf, pages 3 and 16) states,
The authors — who say they’ve done therapy with numerous individuals and congregations facing this issue — have discovered most churches are not at all prepared to deal with a minister’s affair. Often, the members’ pain and grief drive them to fire the man immediately. They prefer to give him a letter of recommendation — which helps to protect the church’s reputation in the community and allows him to be hired somewhere else — rather than try to restore him. “That kind of behavior is supposed to help people get past those hurt emotions and start healing,” Jackson said. “But it’s dysfunctional, and it doesn’t work. Churches need to heal holistically — the leader, the family, the victim and the church need to heal.”
In my experience, when ministers get caught in sexual sin, they are fired. However, in my experience, there’s no letter of recommendation, even if the minister offers an abject apology and declares profound repentance.
In their book, the authors say pushing a fallen leader along to the next church is no way to handle the problem. Healing for a fallen leader and restoring him to ministry must begin by requiring him to be accountable, thus recognizing and facing his sin. The church needs to help him experience guilt, shame, remorse, repentance and confession.
The authors suggest that the minister must enter into an accountability covenant with a five-person panel for three years. The panel consists of two peers, two senior ministers and a trained therapist. At the end of three years, the panel then issues a clearance letter to his congregation, acknowledging that he has participated in the counseling process and to the best of their knowledge repented and been cleared of any further accusations during that time. The clearance letter becomes the instrument he uses for future job interviews.
Now, this is interesting. I know it sounds more formalistic than the usual Church of Christ style. But there are obvious advantages —
* When the preacher’s sin is discovered, the word normally gets out. We are bad to gossip. Our ministers are bad to gossip about other ministers. (“I heard X was caught in adultery. Tell me all about it so I’ll know how best to pray for him.”)
* How does he get his reputation back?
* How does he overcome whatever problems led to the sin in the first place? Do we send him to a professional counselor and leave it at that? Do we feel confident the counselor understands the temptations of ministry?
* His marriage will be in serious trouble. How does he work through that? If he’s been fired and shamed, will his former elders be available to support him? If he leaves town or changes congregations, will the new church know how to help him and his family through the trauma?
* Who helps the congregation heal? They’ll be wounded by his betrayal of their trust. Worse yet, some in the church may refuse to accept the elders’ finding that the minister sinned sexually. Some will object to the firing, especially if the preacher denies that he committed adultery.
* At what point does the minister become available for hire again? How can a new church know that he’s overcome the sin?
* Who deals with the hurt to the other family — the one that the minister sinned against? It’s likely too much for an eldership to deal with the minister, the hiring of a new man, and helping the sinned against family. Even in a very large church, this will be overwhelming.
I’m not posting this to offer a complete set of answers. I’m not trained in counseling or therapy. I agree with the authors that the worst thing a church can do is sweep the problem under the rug, dumping the man on the next church. But is the suggestion quoted above a good one? I honestly don’t know.
Rather, I just want to introduce the problem, the proposed solution, and ask for input. (And, no, my church is not facing such a problem. But it could happen anywhere, any time.)