Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

How to Respond When Your Pastor Falls

How to Respond When Your Pastor Falls

My heart broke as I read the news about Perry Noble, his struggle with alcoholism, and his subsequent removal as senior pastor of NewSpring Church in South Carolina. But it’s not the first time my heart has broken over the last few years; it seems it’s happened enough to count on two hands and each one more than I would have liked to have heard.

Why do the seemingly mightiest fall? How come those we look to as the spiritual giants tumble so far? These questions rattle our minds when we hear stories like these. There was a time I wondered how it was even possible, but then I became one of those stories.

I became a Christian at 16 years old and dived head first into ministry upon graduating high school. I was optimistic and bright eyed about ministry, fully convinced I would always be above reproach. As I served with passion and commitment whenever and wherever, it wasn’t long before I was a leader in the the mega-church I worked at.

At 25 years old I began what was my first serious relationship and had the firm rule of no sex before marriage. But all the good intentions in the world were not enough for what came next. Not long into the relationship my boyfriend and I let temptation rule over us and we did the very thing we said we’d never do. I’ve transparently shared this story many times on my personal website so I won’t go into it here, but the aftermath and next five years were the darkest and most challenging of my life. The confession, church correction, shame, disappointment of letting those I cared about down, and much more seemed too much to bare at times. My boyfriend and I broke up, I went through a season of restoration, and I began to watch God weave together the broken pieces of my life into a beautiful redemptive story.

For a long time, I thought God would not want to use me in ministry again; I had failed horribly the first time so why would He want to use me again? Although I struggled with these thoughts for a while I’m so thankful that He was, and is, so much more than I thought.

I share this because having gone through a moral failure--not to the degree of some you can think of--I don’t judge as I once did. In fact, I know it happens easier than we would like to believe and it’s those “spiritual giants” (as we call them) that are most vulnerable. The long hours, emotional outpouring, constant attention to others, and so on begin to weigh on a soul. But what I believe to be the biggest contributing factor is what I call the untouchable myth.

Much like Peter in his story of betraying Jesus before the crucifixion, we convince ourselves that we will never do a list of sins; acts so beneath or unlike us that we completely put them out of mind. It’s because we avoid accepting that they are even a possibility we become vulnerable to the very things we said we’d never do. No pastor goes into ministry believing they will steal from their congregation, or turn to alcohol, or fall into an affair. It’s that they don’t accept it as a possibility at all and don’t put the proper guardrails in place.

As much as I want to continue to dig deeper into this idea, it’s not what this article is about. Because what I felt second to my sympathy for Noble, his family, and the church was an overwhelming concern for the coming generations into ministry. What are we doing to prepare them for the weight that comes with shepherding people?

What I absolutely loved about the church I grew up in as it relates to vocational ministry is that they were all about equipping the next generation the best they could. Along with the college-aged discipleship and education they provided, what perhaps was the greatest lesson imparted was servant leadership. We didn’t start out preaching to hundreds or leading worship in the main service. We started out cleaning toilets, stuffing envelopes, and even massaging ladies feet at a women’s event! Even then, it took years of doing what nobody else wanted to do, without ever being noticed, to even get to the place our dreams envisioned we would be.

It wasn’t perfect because no program or organization is. I still fell but it was because I hadn’t learned to properly guard myself. This was perhaps a lesson I could have used.

No matter where you are in ministry--perhaps new to working in a church, a pastor overseeing a team, or someone who feels like you’ve been in ministry so long you have it figured out--know that we are all vulnerable to falling. What we need to do is one of two things:

1. For Yourself

First accept that you are not untouchable and that in your own strength you are vulnerable. Then, learn where you need to establish guardrails. Even if you think you’ll never have an affair, put up guardrails that will help protect you regardless, such as including an assistant or spouse as a bcc on all emails or never being alone with someone of the opposite sex. Whatever your vice may be, learn how to establish boundaries in order to protect your relationship with God, your family, and your ministry.

2. For Those You Lead

This is the part I am most passionate about. As a seasoned leader ushering in the next generation into vocational ministry, you have a responsibility to steward these opportunities well. I love that churches across the world are embracing discipleship programs, leadership colleges, and internships for those passionate about building the Church--it was this that changed so much of the trajectory of my life! However, I can’t help but be a bit nervous.

Noble expressed that it was the weight of growing the church that contributed to his alcoholism. He had been in ministry at NewSpring for 20 years and he still wasn’t prepared for what came his way. Yet, we open up a platform to hundreds or thousands of people to our late-teen and early-twenty something students.

How does this compare to what we see in the Bible? Moses needed 40 years in the wilderness for God to remove the 40 years of the world in him. Elisha served for years as a servant to Elijah before taking his place as a prophet in Israel. The disciples were taught with great emphasis to serve others with priority as they followed Jesus for 3 years. Jesus himself lived in obscurity for 30 years before starting his public ministry, and he is the Son of God!

My hope as a leader of leaders would be for you to carefully shepherd these next generation leaders well. May keeping focus and reliance on Jesus be your greatest wisdom imparted to them. Let the aim be for servant leadership rather than platform. Instead of passing over the microphone too early, teach them the importance of guardrails and how to establish them.

What if this had been shared early on in the ministry of these fallen pastors and instead of an aim for numbers or notoriety, they had focused on relying on God and maintaining health in all areas.

My hope is that we’ll stop glorifying a platform and elevating those who use it to celebrity status, focusing on numbers and approval instead of health and obedience. Maybe, just maybe if we start doing this we will see less leaders falling and more influence given to them for the sake of the Gospel.

Jesus said to be first one must be last.

Brittany Rust is a writer, speaker, and has the privilege of serving on staff at Red Rocks Church in Denver, CO. She and her husband Ryan make their home in the Rocky Mountains, pursuing outdoor adventures, great food, and memorable stories together. Her website aims to supply encouraging resources for the world-wearied believer.

Publication date: July 13, 2016