The scriptures refer to elders as shepherds and as overseers. The idea of a “shepherd” carries certain connotations that we often overlook.
I think the foremost idea behind “shepherd” is not that the elder must take on pastoral duties (although I agree that he should), but that an elder’s foremost responsibility is to protect the flock. After all, in the ancient world, the role of the shepherd was, among many other things, protection of the sheep against predators.
When David is introduced to Saul as a shepherd-boy, his protective role is made very clear —
(1 Sam. 17:34-35 ESV) 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him.”
Paul describes the duties of a shepherd/elder in similar terms —
(Acts 20:28-31 ESV) 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
And Jesus declares,
(Jn. 10:7-15 ESV) 7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
Jesus describes the “good shepherd” as one who sleeps in the gate of the sheepfold and so prevents thieves from stealing the sheep and keeps the sheep in the pen. More importantly, a truly good shepherd puts himself at personal risk for the sheep.
Now, in the modern church, who are the “wolves” and “robbers” that the shepherd is charged to protect the flock from? Well —
- Sexual predators. I hate having to start here, but I’d be dishonest and naive to do otherwise. In the modern world, the most likely predator in any church is a sexual predator. Sometimes it’s a staff member — even the preacher. Sometimes it’s an elder. Sometimes it’s another beloved church member. The duty of the elders is always — first and foremost — to protect the flock from the predator. Rehabilitating the predator may be a great thing — but it’s always secondary to protecting the flock. ALWAYS!
I’ve counseled elders who’ve had preachers, youth ministers, campus ministers, and even fellow elders preying on church members for their sexual gratification. Here’s the rule: fire that person. They can repent, confess, apologize, and even change, but anyone who has been a sexual predator is not qualified to be in a position of trust — not until they’ve proved themselves worthy of a second chance. And that requires more than “I’m sorry.” It takes time and counseling. It requires confession and genuine remorse. And it requires dealing with whatever drove that behavior in the first place.
When the victim is a child, there are no second chances. The odds of rehabilitation have been shown to be very, very low, and the church cannot take the risk. No parent should ever have to wonder whether the elders care enough to protect their children from sexual predators.
Here are two helpful articles by Jimmy Hinton, a preacher who consults with churches across the country on these issues — and he gets called nearly every week. This is real and serious —
Let me lay this out plainly:
1. Never, ever place a known or suspected predator in a position of trust in the church. Do not let a child be abused.
Preying on adults is a very different thing. I know many very good men who once used their office as minister to prey on women — and who’ve repented, dealt with the problem, and are once again employed in the ministry and are doing great work for the Lord. But they must (a) go through counseling and learn what drove their behavior and (b) take enough time out of the ministry to demonstrate fruits of repentance. It takes more than an apology — but good men can come back from sexual sin with other consenting adults.
2. If a registered sex offender, or anyone else who is a known or suspected predator, asks to attend your church — if this person preys on children, he may not ever be allowed to be around children. He may not ever be in the children’s wing. He may not attend children or teen events. He can’t volunteer in those ministries.
Remember: being forgiven of a sin doesn’t mean no longer being tempted by that sin. Being forgiven of a sin does not make someone qualified for a job or position where that sin is a disqualifying personality flaw. The risk tolerance for the sake of children is zero. Adults with a history of sexual abuse have to accept that fact — but they made choices that led to that result. The children are innocent.
We once had a man attending church who was a registered sex offender — and the congregation was well aware of his history. He had long ago repented and clearly was not a pedophile. And the elders before me (and continuing during my term) decided he could not be around children at church for any reason ever. And he understood and was very cooperative. And when parents asked about him, the elders could explain the limits and the background, and the parents were fine. None of this was kept secret from the church.
Had he been a pedophile, more drastic measures might have been appropriate, as described in the linked articles.
3. When someone suggests keeping a predator’s background secret from the church, especially from the parents, object and object loudly. The parents are ENTITLED to know the risks you are asking them to take with their children. There is no balancing, weighing, or choosing. You always protect the child.
4. Every church, no matter the size, needs to adopt two written policies: a child abuse prevention policy and a sexual accountability policy for staff and volunteers.
Here are some articles that offer more detail on ministerial sexual accountability:
Bottom line: be sure you have an employee handbook, that the handbook has sensible but strict guidelines for sexual accountability, and enforce the rules. Perhaps one warning (but no one is entitled to a free violation) and then the preacher is fired. You cannot allow routine violations of the policy or else you have no policy.
Talk straight up to the staff and let them know how this works. Warn them plainly. Don’t let them argue their way out of it.
Regarding child abuse protection —
Legal liability issues
Now, in the child abuse realm, there are very serious state legal issues involved. Moreover, your liability insurance carrier may require a child abuse policy. Consult a lawyer who knows something about these things. And get a good social worker to help. They generally know the laws and the system much better than the lawyers.
Remember these points:
- Most states have “Good Samaritan” statutes that protect volunteers from liability for their work for a charity. Most of these laws do not protect an elder from willful or “wanton” (or reckless) behavior. If you’re aware that a person is a pedophile risk (“risk” — not certainty), you may well be outside the protections of this law. Get ready to lose your house and file bankruptcy. Seriously.
- Church leaders will be held to the “standard of care” appropriate to a church of your size and sophistication. The kinds of rules I’ve suggested are increasingly becoming the legal standard of care — as more seminars are taught and more articles are written and more children are abused, juries are getting tougher. Churches get sued every day.
- Work with your liability insurance carrier. Many have sample abuse-prevention policies that can help. Many will not insure you unless you have a formal policy.
- HONOR THE POLICY. It becomes the standard for your own conduct. You may not ignore it except at great legal peril. If you don’t like it, disagree with it, or find it unworkable, change it. Do not ignore it. Ever. And don’t change it without consulting someone who understands this area of the law — especially a social worker working with a good lawyer.
Avoiding liability is easy. Adopt a good policy. Follow the policy. Don’t put known or suspected predators in positions of trust. Don’t keep secrets about predator risks from your members. Care so much about the children in your care that you never, ever balance their safety against anything else. The children always come first.