When Pastors Fall: 5 Steps to Repair the Wreckage
Whenever a pastor falls into public and scandalous sin, it leaves a trail of desolating damage in many lives.
First and foremost is the pastor’s own wife and children. What devastation, to see one they loved and trusted over many years, one who ministered God’s Word to them, not just in public but in private, end up doing exactly the opposite of all that he stood for.
Then, there’s the damage done to the Christians in the pastor’s congregation, especially those who were converted and blessed under his ministry. They have so many debilitating questions: Was my conversion through his ministry real or just imagined? Were the blessings under his preaching genuine or was I deceived? Many will be angry—rightfully so—at the pastor’s sinful selfishness.
What wreckage this leaves in the lives of children in the congregation. The man they looked up to and regarded as a holy man is proven to be a fraud. How many doubts this sows, not just about the man but about his message. What painful conversations are provoked between Christian parents and their children. The wounds are multiplied if the pastor has also been a regular speaker at local school assemblies, with hundreds of unchurched children knowing him as the only pastor in their lives.
There are mass casualties among non-Christians in the church and the community. It hardens some in unbelief as they use the hypocrisy of the pastor to justify their continued resistance. It deters seekers as they think, “Well if he can’t make it work, what hope do I have?” It weakens doubters who already have serious questions about Christianity. It strengthens skeptics who openly mock the church, pastors and Christians for their double standards.
The ministry in general is contaminated as people wonder “Are they all like that.” Pastors in the community feel ashamed, wondering if people are wondering about them. The marriages of Christian pastors are undermined as their wives worry if their own husband is also at it. Suspicion grows and trust weakens. The congregation’s replacement pastor is going to have to wait a long time to regain the confidence of the congregation.
Depending on how well-known the pastor was, the damage may not just be local but national. When megachurch pastors fall, the mega-scandal weakens the church and its witness all over the nation.
Repairing the Damage
So, what can be done to repair the damage? Here are some essential steps to take.
1. Tell the whole truth. The remaining church leaders must level with the congregation and with the public. The least hint of a cover-up or of spin will be found out and will only end up making the situation even worse. No matter how damaging the truth about a pastor’s fall, it is even more damaging to tell lies about it, or admit to the truth only as it is discovered from other sources. Instead of letting the facts dribble out bit by bit, better to get it all out at once and then move on. Otherwise, as fallen politicians can tell us, death by a thousand leaks only prolongs and worsens the agony.
2. Minister to the damage. Difficult though it is to bring up all the painful trauma of these events, it’s far better to deal with it than ignore it, minimize it and “move on.” Sermons should be preached with a clear focus on addressing the damage, “Question and Answer” sessions should be organized, resources should be supplied, homes should be visited and conversations initiated about the specific problems that have resulted from the situation. Yes, it’s going to be a stressful time for the remaining church leadership, but better to be honest and open about the wounds in order to heal them. Otherwise, they will continue to fester and become a source of infection in the church for years to come. Tomorrow I’ll make some suggestions about what people need to hear in these situations.
3. Prioritize the wife and children. Each of the groups above need pastoring but none more so than the wife and the children of the fallen man. Bizarrely, the wife is sometimes a target of blame when a pastor falls. This can even come from the fallen pastor, as was the case a few years ago when a megachurch pastor who had committed adultery went to a national newspaper and said, “Well she did it first.” But even where there is no blaming of the wife, she needs massive support and comfort from the Christian community. Let her be in no doubt about their love and commitment to her. Special care should also be taken to shepherd the children through this dark valley.
4. Pastor the ex-pastor. This is not the priority—the casualties he’s caused are—but the ex-pastor also needs care. Sadly, many pastors who commit adultery and are removed from the ministry tend to become resentful toward the church, harden their hearts and refuse all attempts to shepherd them to repentance. However, if the pastor is humble, truly repents and wants spiritual (and marital) restoration, then much time will have to be spent in guiding him through this process, and encouraging him to find alternative work to provide for his family.
5. Prayer and patience. Recovery is going to take a long time for all concerned. The damage can be generational, taking 15-20 years before its effects eventually fade. It’s not just the faith of Christians that’s shaken; their mental health will be also. I remember talking to a Christian psychiatrist in Scotland a couple of years after a horrendous church division. He said he continued to be inundated with Christians from both sides of the divide. Huge supplies of prayer (public and private) and patience are going to be required before all the devastation of this tsunami is cleaned up.