A few years ago, I was apart of a large multi-campus church that was very well connected and whose pastor was often in the public spotlight. When rumors began surfacing about potential scandals, almost every Christian news outlet and magazine went hunting for skeletons. They unearthed a number of things that were seen as unethical, unwise, and unloving, yet nothing that would be atypical of a normal businessman or uncommon with many Christians. The main argument from those calling for this “celebrity” pastor’s resignation and apology was that he had demonstrated a repeated pattern of arrogance, quick temper, and domineering style of leadership that was disqualifying for a pastor. This pastor eventually stepped down from the church he started almost 20 years prior and was essentially blacklisted in the Christian community.
However, only a few years before, this same church that was led by the same pastor was opening multiple churches and adding thousands of people to its membership. This pastor was very instrumental in the lives of so many people and had seemed to be a catalyst for a revival in the millennial generation. Yet, the pressure of being a subject in investigative journalism for six long months and the headline of too many uncharitable blog posts to count forced this pastor to step down from leadership and finally resign from the church. What exactly happened?
Those who are in leadership often experience a type of “celebrity” status. They can do no wrong, and everyone believes in them. In essence, the majority of people have crafted the persona of this person into an ideal of their liking. A normal guy has now become elevated to a status of perfection. When people find out that I am related to a certain pastor, they often ask me how it has been growing up with this pastor in my life. “It must be such an honor to be related to him!” Honestly, it has been super normal. I see him at Christmas, and that is about it. Nevertheless, for so many people, these pastors become something much greater than who they actually are: people in need of grace.
When these pastors eventually become crushed by unrealistic expectations or fail in some moral way, their congregations can often become a major source of hurt. The same people who praised the pastor for everything they have accomplished now become their biggest critics. They call for his resignation and interpret everything he does as disingenuous or as a sad attempt to protect his status. Others, in an equally poor way, may even attempt to defend a pastor’s unwise or sinful actions. They call for others to forgive, often minimizing the sin and neglecting to require repentance.
James 3:1 explains, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Now the context of this verse speaks of controlling our tongue, but it also explains how we “stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). I do not necessarily think that the application of this verse has only to do with a warning of God’s judgement. I think that this passage speaks to the danger of the tongue, the ways in which it can destroy both the church member and the pastor. Not many should be teachers because they will inevitably be placed on a pedestal, and judged with unreasonable expectations.
With this understanding of leaders, we must now ask ourselves, “Does character matter?” If we are all sinful and prone to failure, then should it matter who we have as our pastor? Should we care more about his character or his proficiency and qualifications for the job than the “normal” congregant? Paul explains the qualifications for Pastors or Elders in a few of his letters. At the time of his writing to Titus and Timothy, he had left them in particular locations to oversee the ordering of the church that he had planted. He tasks them with appointing elders with the following qualifications:
“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7 ESV)
Paul does not ask for a resume, a successful business track record, or professional references. Instead, he asks the children and the neighbors what kind of person this candidate is. To Paul, character is actually more important than ability. Scripture puts a firm emphasis on the moral integrity of those who are in leadership, and thus, Pastors ought to be held to a higher standard. Not only does their job pragmatically require this as people rightfully expect them to act a certain way, but this higher standard is biblically required.
Yet, nowhere on this list does Paul require perfection. Pastors will not be perfect; they will fail often. It is how they handle this failure that disqualifies them. Do they cover it up? Lie about it? Blame others? Or do they humbly submit themselves to correction, apologize, repent, and pursue righteousness? I think that there are some situations that require the resignation of a pastor, yet I think that more often than not, a pastor who is serving in a healthy church community should be able to be restored.
I expect that many of you are more likely the part of a church body that has to respond to a pastor’s imperfections. Here are three ways you can support your pastor, leaders, and church community.
We must show empathy and understand that the pastor is just like us, a person in need of grace. They are not some indestructible bible-interpreting, sermon-preaching, soul-counseling machine. They are fragile people, often pulled in a hundreds of different ways, and whose personal life is almost non-existent. Showing empathy means displaying a love that seeks understanding, a posture that seeks to understand what is going on in the leader’s life that may have contributed to their failure. After understanding, we can show grace, realizing that we most likely struggle with the same things. This grace does not necessarily forgo a pastor’s resignation but it does mean that we show compassion on them as a fellow Christian. Their vocation as a Pastor does not define the core of who they are, and we should not treat them as if it does.
Leaders who have stepped down due to some failure often face isolation and discouragement. They may hear or read things about themselves that come off as hateful. Yet, these comments are rarely communicated to the leaders directly which creates disunity. We can support our fallen brothers and sisters by seeking them out and communicating with them in a loving way. We do not have to condone their actions, but we should express our love for them. We can also communicate our frustrations and our hurts to them in a loving and respectful way. This open communication (when appropriate) can heal many wounds.
The path to reconciliation is a long one, and only traversed by prayer. We must resist the temptation to run from the hurt and move onto another church community. Though it’s difficult, perseverance in most situations is preferable. By sticking around, you can support your community by loving others in encouragement and deeds. We must also learn to pray for community, including those who have hurt and failed us. It can be very difficult, but the Lord will encourage us and grow in us a deep love for our community.