A week ago, I received a message that our church was holding a “special” meeting, and parents were asked not to bring their kids. It was one of those uh-oh-something’s-going-down-and-it’s-not-good emails.
The meeting felt like a funeral… The news? Our founding pastor of 14 years was removed due to long-standing sexual sin.
It was crushing.
It was also confusing. How did the man we loved so much keep this hidden for so long? So many questions, few answers.
Sadly, it happens so often I think we could label it a church epidemic.
As my wife and I wrestled with the news and experienced a wide range of emotions, we started to discover something—no one talks about how the church should respond and heal when its leaders fall. There are tons of online articles about restoring a fallen leader and handling the situation, on a leadership level, but little-to-nothing out there about guiding everyday people through the tragic loss of a key leader.
So, I felt like it could be helpful to share the things we’re learning, both from our elder board and from our church community that might help others who are wrestling with the loss of a leader.
1. You don’t need to know all the details.
I fought this when the news was first announced. The description of the sexual sin was so generic that it was hard to process. I wanted to know more. I felt like I had a relationship with the pastor and I needed more details to work through the loss of the relationship. I mean, if my kid came home from school after getting in trouble—I would want to know the details. A general, “You know, dad, just guy stuff,” wouldn’t cut it. But the truth is, the lead pastor isn’t my kid, but the Heavenly Father’s. More detail doesn’t always help and often isn’t necessary—and it can even hurt at times. I had to learn a tough lesson to stop speculating and trust what God was doing through the leadership.
2. Your leader’s sin doesn’t disqualify past ministry.
When a leader falls due to sexual sin, they disqualify themselves from their position, but they don’t disqualify their past ministry. Through 14 years of leadership, our pastor brought multitudes of people to faith in Christ, performed hundreds of baptisms and weddings, restored marriages through counseling and pointed the church toward Christ every week. That’s not erased. That’s not tainted. Why? Because God can and does work through anyone he wants to accomplish his purposes. God wasn’t surprised or shocked by our pastor’s sin—he knew it all along…and used him anyway.
3. The confession is an act of grace for the pastor and the church.
Our pastor’s confession to sexual sin was an act of grace by God—something our wise elders consistently point out. He is no longer living a secret life of sin and he’s free to receive the forgiveness and restoration that only Christ can give. But this confession was also a grace for our church. We’re no longer moving forward with a leader who’s hiding his sin—and we’re free to receive this amazing grace as well. It stings, but the consequences are a symbol of God’s work in and through us—his pruning work. And his gardening of our church has a much bigger goal than growing our attendance. It’s about the magnificent glory of Jesus.
4. Don’t speculate, chatter or move toward self-righteousness.
It’s so easy to start treating this kind of news with all the speculation of a gossip tabloid—in the name of prayer. The way we talk about our fallen pastor and our church is critical at this time. It’s natural to be inquisitive, but there has to be a point where we cease the inner interrogation, rest in God’s grace and move forward with the mission. We also have to be cautious not to compare our leader’s sin with our own—in a way that elevates us. It’s a dangerous path. And, after all, we’re held to the standard of perfection in our human state—that’s why we need Christ. So, comparison, in human standards of wickedness, serves only a negative consequence and false sense of righteousness that doesn’t come from Christ.
5. It’s OK to grieve—and feel all the other emotions.
Grieving the loss of a leader doesn’t mean you have an unhealthy view of the church. It’s OK to feel the loss. We’re called to follow and imitate our leaders as they follow Christ. When they fall, there’s a real loss. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve elevated our leaders to an unhealthy state. However, it’s also a powerful reminder not to elevate human leaders to a position even close to Christ. We’re all called to abide in Christ as the Vine, not in our leaders. Leaders are just another branch nearby, but they don’t give us life. They don’t produce fruit in us. That can only be done by the power of Jesus. That also means that the loss we’re feeling can only be filled by Christ.
I hope this helps. We’re still working through this journey together as a church, but we’re confident of greater things to come—not due to our human efforts or imperfect leadership, but due to the surpassing greatness of God and his love for the church.