4. Accept responsibility
I have a friend who had a staff member arrested at the church offices for having had sex with a minor at a church where he previously worked. My friend knew there had been a previous inappropriate relationship with a young lady, but the staff member had lied about the extent of the relationship and the age of the young lady. Before hiring him my friend checked references, called the pastor at the previous church, asked a counselor to meet with the young man and sought input from several people who also did interviews. After receiving a thumbs up from everyone he went forward with the hire, and then the police showed up.
As he prepared to meet with the congregation to share the story an advisor told him not to accept responsibility for the mess. He said, “You did your due diligence and you brought other leaders into the process. There is no need for you to fall on the sword.” When he stood in front of the congregation he shared everything he knew about the young man’s transgression and the decision making process that went into hiring him, and then he said, “At the end of the day I made a mistake. I should not have hired this man, and the responsibility is mine.” Following the meeting several people thanked him personally and told him how much it meant to them that someone was willing to stand up and take responsibility.
We do not need to take responsibility for another’s sin, but we do need to take responsibility for our part. In every story we have a role, and healing begins when we own up to our own shortcomings.
5. Communicate often and clearly
One of the biggest mistakes churches make after a crisis is fumbling the communication. A lot of thought is put into the first communication with a promise to give regular updates. After that almost every church falls into the trap of not communicating unless they feel like there is something they want to communicate.
What people want is to be treated like adults. Don’t wordsmith every phrase, and don’t hesitate to say, We’re working hard trying to determine next steps, but we don’t have anything new to share.” Set up a schedule and forum for regular, honest communication and stick to it.
One of the most important things in communicating with the staff and congregation is to continue to tell the truth. If more information comes to light, let them know. If you make mistakes along the way, admit it. This is a challenging season for the church and for the leaders, people understand that no one involved is perfect. As I said before, people want to be treated like adults.
Remember, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, you can’t please all the people all the time. There will be people upset with how the situation is handled no matter what you do. Some people will quit the church, some may start petitions, and some will definitely air all of their opinions on Facebook. Trying to play to the crowd or control response is futile. The keys to effective communication in a leadership crisis is candor and consistency.
6. Balance grace and truth
There are two camps that tend to form when dealing with a moral failure. The truth camp says, “The consequences of the sin mean the end of employment and severing of relationship. It’s time to move one. How can we stay true to the Bible if do not deal with sin in the camp?” The grace camp says, “Restoration is the goal. Grace means we forgive, we offer help and we restore the leader to their position in time. Where would any of us be without grace?”
The reality is that both camps are right. Truth without grace is harsh and hypocritical, while grace without truth diminishes the seriousness of sin and the obligations of leadership. Finding the balance between extremes is the biggest challenge when dealing with moral failure. Factors to consider include:
- Did the leader come forward or did they get caught? An environment where leaders know that if they confess sin in their lives they will immediately lose their jobs leads to more secrecy and less accountability. The pendulum should swing more toward grace in a case where the leader confessed before he was caught.
- Is this a first time offense or part of a pattern of transgressions?
- Is there a humble spirit focused on repentance, restitution and reconciliation?
Another factor at play is that grace doesn’t always mean restoration to a position of leadership in the church. There are times when, because of the seriousness of the offense, the leader loses the moral authority to lead. There is a difference between having people in the congregation who have had affairs and asking an entire congregation to follow a leader who has a pattern of sexual sin.
An additional priority to consider is the pain caused to third parties. When a pastor fails morally it is like dropping a rock into a pond; the ripples go out in all directions long after the rock has settled to the bottom. Moving too quickly without proper regard or care for innocent people who have been wounded in the process is incredibly harmful. Grace isn’t just for the pastor, it also extends to the people his actions have impacted.
7. Lean into outside help
Regardless your theology around the autonomy of the local church, every congregation needs help in a time of crisis. There are leaders who’ve walked through similar challenges and they can bring insight and wisdom. Outside eyes can help discover systems and structures that need to change in light of the crisis. And it is helpful for the congregation to know that you are seeking and receiving wisdom from more seasoned leaders.
As we discussed in the first guideline, long before a moral crisis arises church leaders should put together a list of who they’ll call on in a crisis. Ideally, however, they won’t wait for a crisis to ask for help. I can’t imagine why any church wouldn’t want input and perspective from leaders outside of the congregation. These leaders don’t have to have authority over the local elder board, but they certainly should be invited in as outside consultants. (Paid or unpaid)
If we’ve established a relationship with a group of outside leaders before we face crisis we won’t have to call on strangers when a crisis arises.
8. Learn before hiring the next leader
If there is a change in leadership because of a moral failure it is important to learn vital lessons before hiring someone new.
- What led to the moral failure?
- What signs did we miss?
- What about the leadership role as it is currently constituted contributed to the crisis?
- What systems and structure changes do we need to make before looking for a new leader?
I see churches make two mistakes at this point. The first is to overcorrect. The elders decide they need to take a much more active role in leading the church, new codes of conduct are enacted, and staff structure and reporting is completely revamped. The other mistake is to decide that all of the problems were unique to the former leader, so few changes are needed in the role of pastor or organizational structure.
Hopefully as church leaders you are investing in the physical, relational and spiritual health of your pastors. You are asking the right questions and coming alongside leaders who are struggling. You have guardrails in place and you are making sure no one is on a leadership island alone. Unfortunately, even if you are doing all the right things, some leaders will still make very poor decisions and you’ll find yourselves in a moral crisis. My prayer is these guidelines will help your navigate the storm, and the church and leader will find health on the other side. And, as always, let me know if I can help.
This article originally appeared here.