When a pastor is accused of misconduct, church leaders must be both swift and cautious.
By Bob Smietana
Steve (not his real name) had been attending a downtown church in a Bible belt city for more than a decade, and something was off.
No major crisis. Just little signs of tension—especially from the pastor, whose sermons had acquired a sharp edge.
He’d say things to rile people up, says Steve, and seemed on the edge of burnout. That worried Steve and other leaders. They were trying to attract new people to the small congregation while dealing with all the joys and headaches of keeping a church running.
They loved their pastor and wanted him to be part of the future. But it wasn’t working.
“We needed him to be a quarterback on Sundays, and complete a few passes,” he says. “Instead, he kept fumbling the ball.”
Church members were trying to sort out the best way to respond when someone dropped a bomb, in the form of an email copied to the whole congregation. The email claimed the pastor had a series of inappropriate interactions with women in the church.
The church was soon in crisis. Eventually, church officials intervened. The pastor was allowed to resign with a generous severance, and the church tried to move on.
Still, the episode left a bitter taste in Steve’s mouth. He’d considered the pastor a friend and understands pastors are human and make mistakes.
But the pastor’s departure left him with unanswered questions and a sense the congregation had been betrayed.
Steve’s church is not alone. The past few years have seen a series of high-profile incidents involving pastors accused of misconduct.
- A megachurch pastor who resigned after having affairs.
- A popular New York pastor who embezzled millions from his congregation.
- A youth pastor arrested for inappropriate contact with a member of the youth group.
- A church leader arrested for drunk driving after a fatal accident.
While serious pastoral misconduct remains uncommon, it does happen. And church members are left to clean up the mess.
Few know what to do when the pastor goes astray. No one wants to believe a beloved pastor could betray their congregation. And no one wants to falsely accuse a pastor of wrongdoing. One wrong step can haunt a church for years.
How do you handle the situation?
For their part, pastors want their church’s leadership to handle any accusations with care, according to a new Lifeway Research survey.
Most say accusations should be kept in confidence until proven, though half say a pastor should step away from the pulpit while being investigated. And few think pastors who commit adultery should be permanently banned from ministry.
“Pastors have a high regard for the office,” says Scott McConnell, vice president of Lifeway Research, “but they also want any investigation to treat the pastor fairly.”
Lifeway Research asked pastors about how to handle allegations of misconduct. Researchers asked whether a pastor should step down during a church investigation; when, how, and whether the congregation should be informed about allegations of misconduct; and whether a pastor who commits adultery can return to the pulpit.
The survey found disagreement over whether a pastor should step aside when accused of misconduct.
Forty-seven percent say a pastor should step aside while church leaders investigate the allegations. About a third (31 percent) say the church should leave the pastor in the pulpit. One in 5 (21 percent) is not sure.
Whom do you tell?
Most pastors seem cautious about sharing details of alleged misconduct with the congregation.
Few (13 percent) say allegations should be shared with all church members. Most (73 percent) say church leaders should keep allegations in confidence during an investigation. Fourteen percent are not sure.
McConnell says pastors likely have good reason to be concerned about keeping allegations confidential. Sharing the allegations could lead church members to assume the worst about the pastor. “Most pastors and church leaders have not seen transparency modeled in a way that will avoid gossip and assumptions of guilt,” he says.
Churches need to be mindful of legal concerns and the privacy of potential victims. A false allegation could lead to a lawsuit for slander, says Frank Sommerville, a Houston-based attorney who specializes in legal issues facing churches.
“You are walking a tightrope in those early days,” says Sommerville. “It’s easy if the pastor says, ‘Yes, I had an affair.’ But if the pastor denies the allegation, you need some kind of investigation to figure out who is most likely telling the truth.”
Get outside help
Experts say churches should not handle allegations against a pastor on their own.
In cases involving abuse, child pornography, or embezzlement, call the police, say experts. If the pastor has broken a law, the police can best handle the investigation.
Steve Joiner, director of the Institute for Conflict Management at Lipscomb University in Nashville, suggests churches also seek outside help to address accusations of moral or ethical failings.
Sometimes a denominational leader will have a process for investigating the accusations and can set up interim pastoral care for the church.
In other cases, another pastor or mediation expert can help. An outside party can focus on what’s best for the church without taking sides, either for or against the pastor.
It’s hard for church leaders to handle emotionally charged accusations on their own.
“You have to bring in a third party who has at least some neutrality,” says Joiner.
The outside expert can guide the church through a process for addressing the accusations and any potential discipline.
Having a clearly defined process will help everyone involved: church leaders, the pastor, and the congregation, says Joiner.
“Churches do best when there is immediate action by the people or structures that have responsibility for pastoral oversight,” says Ross Peterson, director of Chicago-based Midwest Ministry Development, which often works with pastors who have been disciplined for misconduct.
That includes an initial investigation to see whether the accusations have merit.
Sommerville suggests the pastor step down with pay during the investigation. The pastor should also turn in work computers, cell phones, and passwords for work email. The investigation should include interviews with those making the accusation, church staff, and other key stakeholders.
The process should take about 10 days, says Sommerville. “You don’t want this thing dragging out. It’s easy to explain the pastor is unavailable for one week. It’s harder to explain if it takes three months.”
He suggested church leaders keep the allegations confidential until the investigation is complete. After a decision is made, they can give the congregation some details.
On this point, pastors seem to agree.
Pastors are more comfortable sharing details with the congregation if a pastor has been disciplined for misconduct, according to Lifeway Research. Most (86 percent) say it is essential for church leaders to let the congregation know in such cases.
When a pastor is accused of misconduct, chances are more than a few people in the congregation already know about it, Joiner says. Don’t let the rumor mill get started.
Instead, if the pastor has to step down for a few weeks, provide some general information.
In the beginning, details aren’t necessary. Instead, church leaders can tell the congregation some family issues have come up and the pastor needs time off, says Joiner.
“Give the pastor a couple of weeks of vacation and just say the pastor is taking some sabbatical time and will be back on this date,” he says. “That raises anxiety and people get upset, but you can manage that.”
Above all, says Joiner, don’t lie. That kills trust.
If pressed for details by a congregation member, church leaders have to be cautious but as truthful as possible. Putting off a discussion of details is better than a denial, especially when the congregation member might be close to the truth. Misleading the congregation makes it difficult for people to trust church leaders.
“It’s amazing how many church leaders will lie to cover and justify that as, ‘We are trying to save the church,’” he says. “You have to have some principles that guide how you engage with people.”
With accusations of serious misconduct, it’s best to get the pastor out of the pulpit. That step may seem harsh, says Joiner, but it is best for everyone involved.
The church can’t function properly when a pastor is under a cloud of suspicion, and the pastor can’t focus on preaching and leading the church, says Joiner.
While suspended, the pastor should have limited contact with church members.
“Although it is often painful, churches do best when there is a firm boundary in place between the suspended/removed pastor and the congregation,” says Peterson. “Ongoing connections and conversation between the pastor and their friends/supporters in the church creates all kinds of problems. It can be very hard on the pastoral family as well, but it seems to be better to have a firm, clear line on this, rather than ambiguity.”
No consensus about adulterous pastors
There’s much less consensus about what to do with pastors who commit adultery. Almost all say such pastors should leave public ministry for a time. Only 3 percent say an adulterous pastor does not need to step down.
However, pastors are split over how long a preacher should refrain from public ministry after an affair.
One in 4 (24 percent) supports a permanent withdrawal from public ministry. A similar number (25 percent) is unsure. About a third (31 percent) says a pastor should step down between three months and a year.
“Paul taught Timothy that pastors must be above reproach, so some pastors believe there is no return to the pulpit after adultery,” says McConnell. “Yet Scripture also teaches forgiveness and encourages repentance. Many want adulterous pastors to have a chance at restoration.”
What to do next
In a case of alleged pastoral misconduct, the goal is to restore the church and the pastor to health. Peterson says this means asking questions like:
- Is this pastor safe in ministry?
- What would it take for the pastor to be safe again?
- What do church members need to do to healthily process their likely conflicted feelings?
- How can genuine healing happen in the church and among the affected individuals?
Peterson says church leaders should provide care for everyone involved in the crisis—church members, potential victims, the pastor, and the pastor’s family.
“Churches do best when they can trust that help is being provided, or at least offered, to everyone involved,” says Peterson. “This might include paying for counseling or offering someone who can serve as a spiritual friend or confidante to a person.”
After allegations are proved or disproved and a decision is made about discipline, a church may need to do some soul-searching, Peterson says.
Did church members or leaders unwittingly contribute to unhealthy ministry patterns? Did they encourage behavior that led to abuse?
“This helps a church begin to move past the blaming phase and toward a healthy kind of responsibility,” he says.
Looking back, Steve wishes his church had received more pastoral care during its crisis. Church members felt left out of the process and often felt saving the church’s reputation—and smoothing over the crisis—was the first priority for some leaders.
Bringing healing to the congregation was an afterthought.
“The pastor was going to quietly disappear,” he says. “We were left paying the bill.”
- Pastors Split Over Consequences for Adulterous Ministers
- Research Finds Few Pastors Give up on Ministry
- Former Pastors: Here’s Why We Quit
- A Pastor’s Greatest Regret After a Lifetime of Ministry
BOB SMIETANA (Bob.Smietana@Lifeway.com) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.