When writing about certain subjects, many people are happy to pick up the phone and be interviewed. Then there are articles like this one, where the opposite is true.

Pastors who have had some kind of 'moral failure' (for want of better words) are often in the newspapers. Thankfully, on the ground in local churches, there are fewer pastors ‘falling from grace’ (for want of better words) than the media attention suggests. But still, Christians seem reluctant to discuss ‘reprobate pastors’ (for want of…), even among themselves, let alone with the press.

It’s a painful subject, which is perhaps the primary reason why we avoid it. Whether the transgression involved money, sex or power, the headlines are embarrassing, and those who know and love the pastor are devastated. For the family and friends of those directly involved, there’s obvious trauma.

When we talk about pastors ‘falling’ we often think of sexual impropriety. But this isn’t always the case. Perry Noble, founding pastor of NewSpring Church, South Carolina, was removed from his position in July after developing an addiction to alcohol. But an even higher-profile example of moral failure in recent years was Mark Driscoll, a poster boy for many of the New Calvinists due to his ‘muscular’ approach to Christianity. Rather than improper bedroom antics, Driscoll faced accusations of ‘domineering, verbally violent, arrogant, and quick-tempered’ behaviour from people who worked with him. In October 2014 he stood down from Mars Hill, the megachurch he had planted 18 years previously. The church itself, which was at one time the fastest-growing in America, closed its doors soon afterwards, forever tainted by the fall of their well-known pastor.

In the UK Mark Bailey resigned from his post at New Wine and Trinity Church in Cheltenham, one of the largest churches in Gloucestershire, after having an affair. Other well-publicised stories of infidelity in recent years have come from American conservative evangelical Tullian Tchividjian and British charismatic Mark Stibbe, author of I Am Your Father: What Every Heart Needs to Know (Monarch) and former vicar of St Andrews Chorleywood.

Drawing the line 

Such stories are obviously sad, but what has become particularly controversial is what happens afterwards. Criminal activity is one thing, and most Christians would see that as a permanent barrier to returning to ministry if the crime took place while pastoring. Where the lines seem to blur is the question of what to do after issues of non-criminal behaviour. Should a leader leave the ministry, or is a quick reinstatement a sign of forgiveness and restoration?

There's only one thing you can do on a pedestal, and that's fall off

On the one hand, Kevin Cone, director of City of Refuge, a US ministry that helps pastors who are burnt out or have experienced failure of some kind, says that he has seen people restored to ministry after many issues. ‘God’s grace is boundless and sufficient,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen God restore men to fruitful ministry after a great fall.’

The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) takes a tougher stance. Richard Underwood, its pastoral ministries director, argues that adultery crosses a line that makes returning to public ministry impossible: ‘The reason we say that is that marriage does have a particular significance in the Bible. It’s a demonstration of the gospel itself. [Adultery] is a breach of covenant faithfulness.’ Since FIEC is not a denomination, it only advises the independent churches who are members rather than enforcing rules.

Most agree that the consequences for a transgression and the way forward for the church and pastor will depend on the particular situation. ‘There is a huge difference between…a one-night act of stupidity and a ten-year life of deception,’ says Underwood. ‘Pastors make mistakes for all sorts of reasons. There is a massive difference between doing something because “I’m tired and emotionally needy”, and covering up a double life with a ministry based on deceit. They need to be treated differently.’

3 things to do when your Christian role model fails  

1. Pray! The person, their family and the congregation need prayer. However devastated you feel, those who are closest to the situation have the most desperate need. But possibly most of all, the ‘other person’ needs prayer, whether they had the affair, were the victim of bullying or otherwise. They may suddenly be without their church family or face ostracism in other forms.  

2. Refresh your relationship with God. You may have found the leader or speaker to be really helpful in your spiritual walk, but have they in any way become a mediator between you and God? Spend time alone with God and renew the relationship between you as his child and him as your Father.  

3. Reread the gospels and meditate on how Jesus managed the temptations in his life. Human beings are fallible and take wrong turns, but Jesus didn’t. We can put our trust in Jesus in a way that we can’t put our trust in people. Meditate on the words of Jeremiah 17:7: ‘But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.’ 

For Steve Clifford, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, who oversaw restoration of fallen leaders during his time in leadership roles at Pioneer Network, the issue is trust. ‘When leaders get into sinful activity, it erodes trust,’ he says. ‘Leadership stands and falls on whether you can trust a person.’  

Rushing back

The question of whether preachers should return to the ministry is often focused on those with fame and notoriety such as Ted Haggard, the conservative preacher who became embroiled in a scandal with a male prostitute. Whether Lakeland Revival pastor Todd Bentley should have been restored to ministry following an ‘emotional affair’ and a divorce was also a huge topic of debate in the Church.

It seems that many high-profile pastors who fall from grace end up back in ministry quickly – especially in the US – and particularly in the past few years. After the disclosure of his first affair, Tchividjian was leading another church within two months, until this year when it was discovered he had had another affair prior to the one disclosed, so his new church dismissed him. Less than two years since resigning from Mars Hill, and following several public apologies, Driscoll has set up a new church in Arizona. Sam Hinn, the brother of controversial healing evangelist Benny Hinn, returned to ministry just eight months after a four-year affair came to light at his previous church, the Gathering Place in Florida.

However, a more measured response came from the Church of England in the case of Mark Bailey. According to a statement, he had personally approached his bishop, the Rt Rev Rachel Treweek, to inform her of an extramarital affair that had just ended. After an investigation, her decision was to suspend him from ordained ministry for two years ‘to acknowledge God’s grace whilst also taking into account the importance of living with consequences – and the need for deep inner reflection with a commitment to address the underlying issues of personal behaviour’.

Taking it slow

So what should be done when a pastor has strayed? There is a unanimous call from those quoted in this article who oversee and minister to pastors to take any kind of ‘restoration plan’ very slowly. ‘The issue is not “How can I get back into ministry?” but how to get back into relationship with Jesus and my brothers and sisters,’ says Underwood.

Whether or not a pastor should eventually come back to ministry depends on a number of factors, Clifford says. One would be whether the person brought their indiscretion to light themselves, or if they were ‘caught’.

Pastoring can be a lonely job

‘Restoration starts with repentance,’ said Clifford. ‘For me, it’s about [hearing] no excuses. When I’m in a conversation with a leader…I want to see an attitude of repentance at heart. It’s taking the blame for what has happened. There might be all kinds of extenuating circumstances; it might be their childhood, all the excuses in the world. But what I’m looking for is no excuses, but repentance. Their saying: “I’m deeply sorry for what I’ve done. I’m laying it all out there, there are no secrets.”’

The attitude of the person is what counts. ‘I’m often nervous when pastors say – and they do – “How quickly can I get back?”’ says Underwood. ‘I would much rather hear “I don’t think I can ever get back. What can I do?” That means they’re willing to listen [and] submit.’

But should we even assume that a pastor can return to ministry? Natalie Collins, a gender justice specialist at Spark, argues that the default position should be ‘no’. She says that while it’s often the pastor who is the centre of attention, those who have been hurt should be the priority.

‘The narrative is almost exclusively about the offender,’ she said. ‘It is the leader…whose voice we hear, whose needs we consider, whose pain we are most considerate of, when they are the agent of the pain. Surely our compassion and care should be firstly and most significantly directed at those who have been wounded by that person’s choices?

‘Where the offended parties are those who have been in close relationship with the leader, they should also be credited as potentially the most capable of assessing whether change has taken place.’

Advice for pastors

Be part of an accountability group with other pastors or a spiritual director, where you can openly discuss your struggles and daily life.  

Be totally honest with at least one person, whether it’s your elders or a prayer partner. Ask your denomination or a trusted, experienced pastor for advice on staying accountable, deepening your relationship with God and for support in your ministry.  

Seek help if you find yourself unable to resist temptation. Whether it’s porn, a tendency to bully others, or the attention of a third party, other people have been there before you and can offer advice and support.  

Beware of isolation. Make and maintain friends outside your church and ministry circles.

Resist being hoisted onto a pedestal and treated differently. Talk openly about (at least some of) your struggles from the pulpit.

Supermen or sinners?

But should we even be surprised that there are casualties in a raging spiritual war? ‘All pastors are regular people who are subject to the same temptations as anyone else,’ says Cone. ‘The great majority of pastors serve faithfully and finish well, but only the fallen get headlines.’

Perhaps we are expecting our pastors to be superhuman. ‘Instead of expecting one another not to fall, we [should be] aware that we all can, so we are not surprised [when it happens],’ says Underwood.

In fact, the tendency to idolise pastors may contribute to the problem. ‘There’s only one thing you can do on a pedestal, and that’s fall off,’ says Underwood. ‘It’s a wretched place to be. We should avoid idealising, lionising, deifying our pastors, because they are human beings like the rest of us. I want our pastors to know and remember that they are human; not to see their identity as pastors, but to see their identity as human beings, as sons of the living God.’ Certainly it seems that the bigger the church and the more famous the pastor, the more wobbly the pedestal is and the further there is to fall.  

Reducing the burden

How can we prevent such failures? Clifford suggests that, as the Church, we have tended to focus on the gifting of pastors in deciding who is being called to ministry. However, he points out that the New Testament emphasises the character of leaders rather than gifts. ‘There is this really strong emphasis about character and the way people live. In the pastoral epistles, it’s around relationship with your husband, relationship with the children, with the wider community. Our Bible colleges emphasise being able to interpret scripture…how much emphasis goes into character?’

This concern about character also reflects a vital aspect of ministry: community. ‘It would be a major step in the right direction for church leaders to encourage their pastors to cultivate authentic relationships with others,’ says Cone. ‘Pastoring can be a lonely job and isolation is the breeding ground for bad choices.’

Perhaps rather than idolising our pastors and putting them on pedestals, we need to be relating to them in community and recognising that they’re in the same position we all are. And perhaps, as a Church, we need to talk about this subject rather than cringing at the headlines. 

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