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How Should the Church Handle a Pastor’s ‘Falling’?

moral failure

Either the number of pastors buckling under the pressure of ministry and failing morally is increasing, or we are hearing about these headline-worthy stories more. From Frank Page to Paige Patterson to Mark Driscoll, it feels as if we are inundated with news of pastors who committed adultery, swept abuse under the rug, or exercised their influence to manipulate others. The Church is reeling and left, yet again to answer the question: How do we relate to a “fallen” pastor?

“Over the past five years, we have seen more Christian leaders (including ourselves) exposed for their sin and deposed from their positions than at any other time in recent history,” Tullian Tchividjian and Chad Bird write.

Language Is Important When Discussing Moral Failure

Tchividjian and Bird, two pastors who engaged in moral failures while in ministry, naturally have some thoughts on the subject of a pastor “falling from grace”. In “Grace for the Disgraced: Showing Forgiving Mercy to Former Ministers”, they write part of the problem lies in how we speak about a pastor’s failings. Saying a leader has “fallen” is misleading because all of us—the moment we are born into this world—are fallen. They write:

The grace of God is not reserved for the “well-behaved.” Yet that is the message we send every time the word “fall” is used in reference to someone who is by nature already fallen. These people are sinners, just like everybody they ever led. That doesn’t justify destructive behavior, diminish the sting of consequences, or minimize the harming effects of destructive choices. But if we’re only okay with preaching grace in theory, but not when someone—even an esteemed leader—is actually in need of it, then perhaps we should all take a sabbatical. As someone once said, “People love it when preachers say they are broken just like the rest of us, until that preacher does something that the rest of us broken people do.”

Indeed, the language we use when talking about a pastor’s sin is really important. For instance, what does it mean to fail morally? Rick Muchow, the worship pastor at Saddleback Church, lists “gossip, pride, inappropriate emotional relationships, dishonesty, malicious dissension or stirring up trouble, adultery, and major family issues that need to be addressed” as examples of moral failure.

You might look at that list and wonder “Who isn’t committing moral failure?” If everyone is guilty to some of these sins to some extent, when do you tell someone they need to step down from their position? Muchow says there are two biblical reasons to remove someone from ministry over moral failure: “1) the loss of the right to lead due to the failure, and 2) the need to regroup and put a life back together again.”

(It’s important here to make a distinction between moral failure and abuse or criminal activity. The Church is also reeling from report after report of abuse within its walls—sometimes perpetrated by the very people commissioned to protect the flock. The way an abusive person is restored is going to look a lot different than a person who has sinned against himself, God, and the congregation, but not in an abusive way.)

How Does a Church Move Forward After Moral Failure?

After belonging to a congregation whose pastor “fell”, Brian Orme writes it’s hard to know how to help the congregation move on. The reality of the matter is that a pastor leaves behind an entire congregation when a moral failure occurs. That congregation supported him or her, agreed with the vision that leader had for them, and trusted that person. It’s a heavy, heavy thing to grapple with when you are an invested member of the church.

Orme emphasizes it’s important to realize that while the leader has disqualified him or herself from their position, “they don’t disqualify their past ministry.” Meaning the Kingdom work that person has done is still legitimate. “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,” Orme says.

At the same time, Orme says it’s perfectly all right to grieve the loss of a leader and to extend grace to that leader by refusing to gossip about him or her. Tchividjian and Bird express similar sentiments in their post. “While the world drinks itself drunk on outrage of every kind, the church will exercise outrageous grace and scandalous mercy that doggedly refuses to give up on those ensnared by evil.”

This is not to sweep aside the pain and suffering caused by the failing of the leader, but rather to refuse to jump on the outrage train that does little good to help the victims or the one in need of a lot of grace.

What About the Pastor Who Fails Morally?