EDITOR’S NOTE: We are proud to share Geoff Surratt’s (of Ministry Together) valuable advice on how to handle moral failure. Every ministry should address this issue: We hope it’s never necessary to address such a problem, but preparation and honest discussion is a big part of effective leadership.
The text said, “Call as soon as you can, I have to talk to you today.” I knew my friend wasn’t texting because he had awesome news to share. Two hours later we were sitting outside a Starbucks as he confessed that the addiction he had assured me was in his past was no longer in his past. He had relapsed and the consequences would be devastating. Within a month I stepped in as interim pastor of his struggling church plant to try to help the congregation cope with the situation, and to help my friend find his way to health.
A few months later I got a similar text from a different source, “I know you’re in England, but I need to talk with you today.” This time it was the lead elder at the megachurch where I worked telling me the senior pastor had been caught in a moral failure. I now needed to step away from leading the church plant to focus on the second crisis. Within weeks I was asked to be the interim pastor of the second church in less than a year.
The eventual outcome for these two churches has been very different. The church plant has recovered its footing and the original pastor is back in his role leading the church to impact their community. The second church is still reeling from the crisis. In each case I’ve learned some painful lessons from things that were done well and things that were done poorly. I will share eight of these lessons over the next three posts. Hopefully these lessons will help your church if and when you face a leadership crisis.
Before I share the lessons I have several caveats:
- I am a sinner saved by grace and am just as likely to fail as any other man.
- I made many mistakes in navigating the situations mentioned above. Hopefully I have learned from my mistakes. Those lessons inform what I share below.
- My advice will not necessarily match what you read or hear from professional PR people. My advice may also clash with that of HR managers, businessmen, other pastors and attenders.
- What I share is not focused on the easiest route for the pastor or for the church. The reality is sin has consequences and those consequences can be delayed but seldom eliminated. These guidelines are not based on what will keep attendance and giving from dropping. My goal is a balance of truth and grace, which can ultimately lead to health for everyone impacted by the sin.
Eight guiding principles when a leader has a moral failure
Make a plan before the crisis
Almost every church leader I’ve talked to after a pastor’s moral failure says they were completely unprepared for the crisis, so when the crisis came they had no plan for what to do next. Without a plan the loudest voice in the room takes charge, but that person seldom has the wisdom or experience to navigate the crisis. What follows can be chaos and panic, fueled by poor decisions based on mistrust. You need a plan BEFORE the crisis hits.
This is why every airline flight begins with instructions of what to do in case of emergency. “In case of a water landing life jackets are available under your seat…”
I’m pretty sure a water landing between Denver and Kansas City is unlikely, but the flight crew has a very specific set of steps to follow if something does go wrong during the flight. Not once in the hundreds of flights I’ve taken have they had to use these emergency procedures, but I’m very glad they exist.
Your leadership teams need step-by-step instructions of what they will do when a crisis occurs.
They need to answer questions like:
- Who will we call on to help us through the crisis?
- Who will take over leading the staff and congregation if the senior pastor is involved?
- How will we communicate with the staff and congregation during the crisis? Who will lead this process?
- Who will manage budget and personnel questions during the crisis?
- How will we make decisions about the future status of the leader in question?
- How will we select new leadership if necessary?
Discover the truth
The truth is seldom what it seems in the first few days of a crisis. When someone says, “I’ve told you everything,” what they mean is, “I’ve told you everything I feel is relevant and discoverable. There are things I’m not telling you because I’m scared of the consequences, or I’m in denial about them myself.” In every situation I’ve been involved in the full extent of the situation comes out in pieces. We’ve seen this play out tragically at Willow Creek Community Church over the past several months as the truth about the pastor’s actions have come out a piece at a time.
The other challenge of discovering the truth is we often hear what we want to hear. If the failed leader is someone we love deeply, we want to believe their version of the truth. The story they tell is bad enough, we don’t want to face the reality that there might be more. On the flip side there are times when because of our own weakness and sin we secretly want the story to be as salacious as possible. The biggest challenge is we are not aware of these biases, they are blindspots that we can’t see by just trying harder.
I have to come to believe that in most circumstances of moral failure a disinterested third party is needed to really discover the truth.
Someone who the church leaders know and trust, but someone without an axe to grind or a friend to protect. Ideally this unbiased third party will be identified ahead of time in the crisis plan. Regardless of whether you bring in a third party, it is essential early in the process to do the hard work of discovering “the truth and nothing but the truth”.
3. Tell the truth
After time spent discovering the truth it is important to tell the truth. The question here is always, “Who should we tell and how much should we share?”
If an administrative assistant is caught skimming a few hundred dollars, the entire congregation doesn’t have a legitimate need to know. If, however, the senior pastor gets caught in an affair the people in the congregation need to know the truth.
Protect innocent parties, and don’t reveal details that don’t help people process the situation, but don’t spin the truth. The more you nuance the circumstances the more you will have to explain and answer later. Eventually the truth will get out, so the best thing to do is tell it all right up front. Rumors and gossip will fly no matter what you do, but if you tell the truth you can continually go back to the original statement and say, “What we said is the truth. No more, no less.”
Telling the truth will be raw, painful and controversial. There will be leaders who insist that it isn’t helpful to put everything out there, that it is important to craft the message. I can tell you from experience they are wrong. As Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” You will also have attenders who don’t understand why it is important to share what happened with the congregation. This is a teaching moment on the responsibilities and consequences of leadership.