By Aaron Earls
Twice I’ve experienced that disorienting stomach churn, the unmistakable feeling when you watch a Christian leader you love and respect crumble under the weight of previously hidden sin.
Unfortunately, that feeling is becoming all too common for Christians today as numerous leaders succumb to sexual temptations and other moral failings.
But it’s not a new experience. Abraham, Moses, David, and numerous other biblical leaders failed in significant ways, even after walking with God.
So how can Christians process a pastor or mentor suffering a moral failure and come out on the other side with an even stronger faith?
Two pastors who are also teachers of pastors share eight steps for those dealing with the pain of a leader’s failure.
It can seem like a trite answer, but Jim Shaddix, director of the Center for Preaching and Pastoral Leadership at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, says prayer should be our first response.
“The moral failure of a Christian leader is a crisis in the church and one that casts a shadow on the name of Christ,” he says.
“Consequently, we should cry out to the only One who is able to levy righteous conviction, give the gift of repentance, bring about restoration, and protect the reputation of Christ.”
Look to Christ
“Remember that Jesus is the only impeccable, infallible, unimpeachable hero,” says Hershael York, senior pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, and professor of preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“Our faith rests in Christ, not Christians,” he says. “No one else can let us down because they aren’t holding us up.”
In those initial moments of potential despair, York advises Christians to pause for a moment, even then, to “thank the Lord for His faithfulness.”
Return to Scripture
When a pastor or leader falls, people can begin to question not only the character of the person but also the content of the person’s teaching.
“The moral collapse of a spiritual leader is not necessarily evidence of a false teaching, but the occasion merits a closer inspection of what he has taught in the past,” York says.
Yet the moral standing of the teacher is not the criteria on which to judge the teaching. “Both the lives and messages of Christian teachers should be measured by their correspondence to Scripture,” he says.
Taking a moment to process and compare the words of a fallen teacher to Scripture is necessary, says Shaddix.
“Doing so reminds us that it is ultimately God who has ministered His Word to us, and that give us something to hold onto when part of our world is falling apart.”
Be honest and point others to the gospel
With the often very public downfall of Christian leaders, non-Christians may take the opportunity to bring up the disgraced person as a means to discredit the faith or in a genuine moment of concern.
“What we don’t need to do is make excuses for those in our own camp,” says Shaddix. “It’s important to love and support them, but not to excuse away their sin before the world.”
Instead, use it as an opportunity to acknowledge to non-Christians that Christians are not perfect. That’s not what Christianity teaches.
“People understand brokenness,” says York, “even when they might be initially shocked by it.”
He encourages Christians to use all of those instances to point people to Christ.
“They can turn the conversation to the biblical emphasis on sin and condemnation, sacrifice and redemption, repentance and forgiveness by pointing to Christ, our only hope,” York says.
Because of the emphasis on forgiveness within Christianity, many may have an impractical standard about what that looks like in these instances.
“It’s been said that to forgive means to forget. But that’s not true,” says Shaddix.
“Forgiveness is not contingent upon wiping the slate of our memory clean,” he says. “We likely are never going to forget that someone has betrayed us as well as the gospel.”
Instead, he maintains “forgiveness means pressing on in spite of the betrayal, continuing to be there for the fallen heroes and loving them like Jesus loves us.”
Churches and individual Christians often struggle with working through the restoration of a leader. Those can be tricky situations, but York offers some advice.
“Sins of an egregious nature—and the dimensions of that are subjective—compromise a pastor’s effectiveness and make it obvious that a man is not qualified or even able to shepherd for the time being, even if he repents,” York says.
Restoration is going to involve others. A pastor should not assume this can be done individually. “A pastor who has sinned cannot restore himself nor declare himself restored,” he says.
Instead, York believes other churches and pastors should be involved in the process. “Church leaders should enlist another congregation and pastor to receive and shepherd the fallen pastor through the long, hard road of repentance.”
As others walk with the fallen leader, they “need to watch for signs of brokenness, repentance, attempts at restoration and reconciliation, humility, and a fresh desire for Christ—not merely ministry.”
In fact, Shaddix says restoration to the pastoral leadership role is “not usually the best course of action” for the church or the leader.
“Restored leaders can continue to make significant contributions to kingdom advancement and disciple-making, but they don’t have to do it a formal pastoral role,” he says.
“The consequences of sin sometimes cause us to forfeit certain privileges, but they don’t negate our value in the fellowship and mission of Christ’s church.”
When we see a leader fail, we should recognize our own sinful tendencies and the possibility of our own failure.
Shaddix says we must always keep in mind the famous quote: “There—but for the grace of God—go I.” We must maintain a posture of humility.
“When someone we love and respect falls, we can’t afford to forget that we’re susceptible to the same kind of shipwreck,” he says.
Trust in God’s faithfulness
As Christians move through a situation like this, the temptation can be to never trust a pastor or leader again. York says these moments should give us a better perspective on ourselves, others, and Christ.
“It’s only human to be hurt by the sins and failures of leaders we love,” he says, “but if our faith is shaken or our confidence in God eroded, we bear that responsibility ourselves.”
He explains: “The foundation of our faith can only be destroyed if something or someone other than Christ is supporting us.”
We will be hurt again, he says, because others will fall and we can fall as well. “But the Word of God and the faithfulness of Christ are unassailable.”
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AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.