When a Pastor Falls, What Then?
A question being asked more frequently than at any other time during my many years of leadership is when, or even if, a pastor can be restored after a moral failure. Sadly, the rise in the frequency of the question seems tied to the rise in moral failures. Whether they are simply being made more public through social media or there is an actual increase in pastoral failings, it seems we are being inundated with stories of pastors having affairs, abusing children, misusing church funds, falling prey to pride or anger, abusing power and authority, and more.
When such things surface in ways that force a leader from his or her role, can they be restored? Pastors themselves are unsure. According to Lifeway Research, when asking current pastors how long a pastor found guilty of adultery should step away, only 2% said they didn’t need to. 16% said for one year, 18% for two to 10 years, and 27% said permanently. The most popular answer? 31% saying “I don’t know.”
I would counsel that the answer depends on the nature of the moral failure. So, let’s tease out some scenarios.
When a minor is involved. If there is any type of moral failure with a child, I have long held to a “one strike and you’re out” mentality. Sexual abuse of a child is an immediate forfeiture of any future spiritual leadership.
When it is proven to be serial. A second type of moral failure that I have long held should preclude any restoration would be when there is evidence of someone being a serial adulterer or sexual predator, a consistent abuser of power, or a consistent embezzler of money. Meaning there is a history, a pattern, of immorality that continues to rear its head time and again. This demonstrates a lack of repentance and the church’s need to step in and prevent any further use of their position to abuse, wound, take advantage or destroy.
When the position itself was used. Another type of failure where I would argue against restoration is when the pastoral position itself was used to groom or abuse or take advantage. For example, there is little that is truly consensual when a pastor uses the confines of a counseling session to manipulate an emotionally and spiritually vulnerable person into an affair. This is such a gross abuse of the office that, in my mind, it precludes future restoration.
So, those are at least three situations (I can certainly envision more) where I would counsel against any restoration to vocational ministry. But there are situations when a pastor was justifiably removed from office when, after a time away addressing the issues that led to their removal, they could very well be restored.
For example, cases where:
... the failure was truly an anomaly in someone’s life as a result of a very unique set of vulnerabilities;
... the issues were deeply personal, and they needed time away to get help (think addiction to pornography, a broken marriage);
… they found themselves caught up in another’s manipulation (such as a junior member on staff falling prey to a senior leader’s grooming and advances).
You could also just take the three disqualifying factors and turn them into a litmus test for when restoration might be possible: 1) no minors were involved; 2) it was a one-time event, not part of a pattern or history; and 3) the ministerial office they held was not used to prey or manipulate.
Of course, key to any restoration is true repentance. Not simply regret, or even remorse, but repentance. Don’t confuse the three.
Regret is that you wish, in hindsight, you hadn’t done something. You regret being caught or revealed, and you regret the consequences that now flow into your life as a result.
Remorse is about sorrow. Your heart breaks that you hurt others and that you broke the heart of God. Remorse moves beyond regret as it moves beyond consequences and into true, personal sorrow.
Repentance is the final step as it is the determination to live differently. Repentance is the English translation of metanoia, a rich word in the Greek language that carries the idea of heading in one direction, realizing that it is the wrong way, and then turning your life around toward the right direction. More than regret, beyond even remorse, repentance involves a resolve to turn away from the sin.
How long away before a restoration? That, too, should be determined on a case-by-case basis. The greater the sin’s harm, the deeper the issues, the longer away. But it would be difficult to imagine a case of, for example, adultery resulting in restoration sooner than a year.
All to say, every pastor is a sinner. Ongoing, active, present tense… today. And there are sins that are disqualifying, whether for a season, or permanently for life. This must be acknowledged and embraced. But equally acknowledged and embraced should be the potential of repentance-marked restoration for those who qualify.
And many, if not most, do.
James Emery White
Aaron Earls, “Pastors Split Over Ministry Return Time Frame for Pastors Who Commit Adultery,” Lifeway Research, August 11, 2020, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.