By Lisa Whittle
We are wives who watch as our husbands struggle with hidden addictions and private sin, often years in the making.
We are children with purehearted devotion, asked to shoulder the complication of becoming our parent’s public defender: a confusing job at best.
When pastors or church leaders fall, in some way, we who loved them face the fallout. Families fall the hardest, and for many, the recovery is deep and long.
The loved ones of pastors who have fallen hard in the public eye aren’t nameless and faceless: we are people with feelings who hurt, cry, and fall down, too.
The ramifications of my own pastor father’s fall in the early 1990s was far-reaching for each of his three kids. All of us struggled in different ways to find our way back to a faith that held beautiful and painful memories alike.
It would take years for me to unravel all the ways this affected my own call to ministry and how the fear of going down the same road kept me from obeying God. My family stayed together through the court proceedings, the public scrutiny, and the near bankruptcy and prison, but it was only by the grace of God and the faith of my steadfast mother.
Many church leaders’ families do not fare as well. The pressure of having sin exposed so publicly—along with the weight of how it has affected the lives of other people—can be a burden too big for relationships to endure.
If we take Galatians 6:2,“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” to heart, then we understand this is not a gentle suggestion but a radical call of taking on one another’s deep needs to honor God.
In the aftermath of a church leader’s fall, the families affected have pain that must be acknowledged, addressed, and ministered to. As the body of Christ, may this be the moment we discern the needs to answer the call.
We are hurting. Leaders’ families are notorious for fiercely protecting our privacy, due to trust issues from previously being burned. Self-protection is a go-to response of a leader’s family, resulting in deep loneliness and isolation.
We know how to put on a smile and say we are OK. We know how to be what other people need us to be.
We aren’t as good at letting down and letting people in.
As normal people with normal feelings, please assume the leader’s family members are hurting after going through something so hard—even when we give off signals that say, “I’m fine.”
We want to know you care. It touches our hearts to know you care about us in the aftermath of painful public scrutiny. After weeks of gossip, bad news, and cruel judgment, caring words are like marrow to the bones.
Good, old-fashioned cards, a warm text with Scripture, a meal—without expectation of conversation, finding out “the story,” or anything in return—are beautiful ways of bearing the burden of a leader’s hurting family.
We need you to stay. One of the biggest fears of a fallen leader’s family is being abandoned. We have watched people love us and leave us, often contingent upon performance factors. Our appeal seems to wear off when the leader’s light grows dim.
Sticking around tells the family you loved them for the right reasons—that all along they were enough, and it was never about the leader’s role or prominence. Tell the family you will stay, and then follow through with your actions. It will be a healing balm to their soul when many others leave.
We want to know your heart has room for forgiveness. People are brutal on leaders who fall, and due to the positions they hold (and depending on how egregious their failures have been), the anger is understandable.
But all of us are sinners and qualify for forgiveness. Families love our fallen leaders even when they hurt us deeply, and where we often feel judgment coming their way, we long to feel kindness, non-judgment, and love. We need you to hold your tongue about our loved one, even if we vent some honest—and even harsh—feelings.
We want to know you don’t come from a place of piety, but you are tender to the sin struggle inside us all. At the end of the day we long to know you’ll forgive our loved one and eventually move on.
We need you most to pray. It’s in our nature to want to do the tangible more. But prayer is the greatest gift we give another believer, as it is the gift of radical life change. Only Jesus has the power to heal the wounds, silence the shame critics in our head, and undo the resentment in our hearts that dares to ruin the rest of our lives.
Taking us to Him in prayer is the truest form of bearing our burdens, and we need prayer most of all.
The ripple effect of a public scandal is real and is often felt for years. Families are left to journey through it with the help of God and fellow believers He uses to be His hands and feet through the process.
There might be no greater ministry than the one we get to do for a leader’s family in the face of hard times. If you find yourself in this place one day, remember Galatians 6:2 and know that when you bear the burdens of the family, you are being used by God to help heal a hurting soul.
LISA WHITTLE (@LisaRWhittle) is the founder of Ministry Strong, a ministry for leaders to help equip to preach the gospel with integrity, prioritize family relationships, and learn proper soul care to serve Jesus with strength for the long haul. She’s also a speaker, has authored six books and hosts the “5 Word Prayers Daily” podcast.