Faithlife
Faithlife

Can fallen pastors be restored?

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After the Barna Research Group in 1997 surveyed 601 Protestant clergy, the researchers reported that 38 percent cited burnout as the greatest danger to them and their families, 80 percent cited isolation,and 37 percent cited marital infidelity.

While adultery might be committed in private, it is a public sin. Every Christian is responsible to be pure and holy, but the onus on the minister is especially demanding. When a minister falls, his/her family, church congregation, and colleagues are all affected. The church does not take adultery lightly, and rightly so.

Congregations may forget that ministers of the gospel are in many respects like everybody else; so when a minister resigns because of burnout or is fired because of a moral fall, members become shocked beyond forgiveness. He or she may be shunned by fellow ministers.

One of the most gut-wrenching experiences I have had recently was listening to a fellow pastor express regret that he had "messed up" and had to leave the ministry. I have known three other pastors who have been defrocked because of infidelity. In the past week I agonized with a pastor who had been out of ministry for more than a decade and had not been permitted to return to the pastorate, even though his case was not one of infidelity. None of these men had had any sustained period of counseling; nor did they have hope of being restored to ministry.

These former colleagues ask me many questions: Are there solid biblical reasons or statements in Ellen White's writings about a defrocked pastor not returning to his vocation? Does God forgive and restore us when we commit adultery? Does the church really understand the meaning of forgiveness? Does the church have a ministry of reconciliation for the people in which it has invested thousands of dollars year after year? Can God use a repentant, restored sinner to win souls? Is "restoration" a dirty word to some church leaders? What help is being given to local congregations or denominations whose pastors experience a moral fall? Does the church have a theology of restoration?

We may not have firm answers to these questions; but I am hoping we will at least think about some solutions, because the problem seems to be on the increase.

There are several books that deal with clergy abuse, the perils of pornography, and clergy misconduct and compulsive sexual behavior; but there is very little on how to restore fallen clergy. Thomas L.Pedigo, a recovering clergy, has started the Winning Edge Ministries in Colorado Springs, Colo. I have found his writings to be very helpful.

When ministers fall into the sin of adultery or sexual indiscretion and it becomes common knowledge, they may be subjected to excruciating pain. In one moment of despair they recognize that their ministry is gone. Their spouse and their children will never be the same. Their church family is now estranged. Their circle of friends disappears. They might ask God for forgiveness and accept that forgiveness, but every time they look in the mirror they see a forgiven adulterer. Like the psalmist David, they will agonize that "my sin is ever before me" (Ps 51:3). It appears that the hardest thing they face is the ability to forgive themselves.

The Christian community is generally very intolerant of ministers who are involved in sexual sins. Women are particularly intolerant, because it seems to send a negative message to their husbands. The church is distraught because the pastor was their leader and role model.

If a marriage manages to survive this crisis,it will never be the same again. The sin of adultery is not only against the man's body but also against his wife's (1 Cor 6:18,7:4). Many women declare to their husbands that one thing they will never forgive is adultery. However, some godly wives manage to forgive their repentant husbands. In the book Adultery and Grace C. Welton Gaddy says: "Adultery invariably results in conflict, hurt,and guilt. Understanding, acceptance, and assistance beneficially address the first two of these consequences. Only forgiveness can eradicate guilt and thus lay the foundation for honest relationships and a healthy future.Forgiveness means letting what was, be gone; what will be, come; what is now, be" (p.194).

This forgiveness is instant in God's dealings with humans but often prolonged or stretched out ad infinitum in the case of the believers and the church. Such forgiveness must begin with our placing value on the people being forgiven. God places inestimable value on people. That is why Jesus died for us "while we were still sinning" (Rom 5:8).

Forgiveness in no way minimizes someone's sin, Gaddy says. Adultery must be treated as the serious wrong that it is, an unchangeable fact. However, forgiveness will happen only if the people involved in the process come to grips with the reality of it all and move on, not minimizing it but moving beyond it. By moving on, they refuse to let it dominate the present and control the future (p.195).

GOD'S HALL OF FAME

In God's hall of fame,Hebrews 11, there are restored people like Moses the murderer, Jacob the liar and cheat, Rahab the prostitute, David the cold-blooded murderer and hot-blooded adulterer, and Samson the hotheaded philanderer. God gave them all a second chance. Look what a difference they made! However,according to the General Conference Working Policy:

It is recognized that a minister who has experienced a moral fall or has apostatized has access to the mercy and pardoning grace of God and may desire to return to the church. Such an individual must be assured of the love and goodwill of his fellow believers. However, for the sake of the good name of the church and the maintaining of moral standards, heshe may plan to devote hisher life to employment other than that of the gospel ministry, the teaching ministry, or denominational leadership (p.379).

It would appear that while God was willing to risk his own name by allowing repentant sinners to work for him, the church is more concerned to protect its "good name." If God gives men and women a second chance, why can't the church? There is no doubt that the moral fall of ministers does damage the church. However, the church can take steps to manage the damage. Once it is evident beyond any reasonable doubt that the minister is guilty, he should be asked to resign. It would be better to spare the church from hearing an emotional public confession, but it might be appropriately done before the church board or the board of elders. The pastor could write out his confession and that could be read to the church. The minister's confession should include an acknowledgment of moral guilt so that no member of the congregation will be in any doubt about the truth of the matter. A financial settlement may be necessary for the minister to be able to take care of his/her family and their immediate needs.

In his book If Ministers Fall Can They Be Restored? Tim LaHaye suggests that after authorities make sure of the facts about the impropriety, ask for the minister's resignation, and make financial settlements, there are other things to be done in trying to bring about restoration. The minister should be asked to leave town. An interim minister should be hired. The church should establish guidelines for leadership in the local congregation so that power-hungry people in the congregation will not move in to fill any leadership vacuum. Above all, a restoration committee should be established, unless the denomination has a procedure for dealing with a fallen pastor (pp.97,98).

The restoration committee should be made up of spiritually minded people who have the interest of the pastor and the church at heart and who have the confidence of the church or the organization. According to LaHaye: "The goal of this committee should be to help rebuild the pastor's life--his spiritual life, his marriage, his family, his relationship with the church body, and his ministry. The end result of this process may be the pastor's restoration to public ministry. But restoration to ministry is by no means the place to start. The first step is helping the pastor rebuild his spiritual life" (p.98).

If the pastor chose to leave town after the initial stages of discipline, the restoration committee should locate and visit himher and family. If the pastor returns to town, she should be encouraged to attend another church but at the same time maintain an accountability relationship with the restoration committee. Some leaders feel it is not advisable for the family to leave town, since that might be too traumatic for the spouse who would have to leave children and/or grandchildren behind.

THE BIBLE AND RESTORATION

There is no specific biblical mandate for or against restoring a fallen minister to public ministry. Some people feel that since God did not allow David to build the temple because he had shed much blood (1 Chron 22:8), no person guilty of a moral sin should be allowed to continue his/her duties. There are others who see no reason why there should be any prohibitions, since Scripture is not specific. While another group believes that every "fall" is serious, each one needs individual consideration to determine whether the minister should be restored to a similar ministry. This means that several factors should be considered: the duration of the affair, the frequency of the sin, whether the pastor repented before being found out, and the number of people involved in the transgression.

The pastor should be encouraged to seek help. The first step of the restoration committee is to help the pastor rebuild his/her spiritual life. The Bible says: "Brothers,if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently." (Gal 6:1). If, according to Romans 11:29, God's gifts and his call are irrevocable, does moral fall always permanently disqualify a minister?

The former prostitute Mary Magdalene was given the unique opportunity of anointing Jesus before his crucifixion. When Simon and Judas sought to condemn Jesus because he allowed this woman of ill repute to use such an expensive perfume, and that such a woman should be so intimate with him, Jesus said, "She loves much because she has been forgiven much." Could there be a lesson in that statement for the church and for those who experience restoration? Does the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32 say something to the church about restoration and grace?

RESTORATION AND GRACE

Restoration and grace are inseparable Siamese twins. The church cannot talk about grace without considering restoration. The goal of grace is restoration. Restoration can take several forms. There is restoration of the one who has fallen but come back to a spiritual connection with God. There is restoration to his/her spouse and family and to the church, colleagues, the congregation, and the community. There is also restoration to a former position. Churches have a bad track record when it comes to forgiveness and restoration. Leaders talk about forgiveness, but they abstain from--sometimes even fight against or oppose--efforts at restoration. It is not uncommon to hear leaders say: "We love him and we forgive him, but we cannot have a person with such a sin on his record working for us. What would the world think of us?" Indeed, what if we do not do what God requires of us? James 4:17 says: "Anyone who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins."

Secular employers often feel the same way as church employers and paint the worst-case scenario when giving a reference for a former employee who has had an adulterous affair. Grace requires that the truth be spoken, but it also begs for mercy. Grace should encourage the adulterers to remain in therapy as long as required, in order to get their emotions better balanced and their lives moving in the right direction. In cases where the persons have lost their jobs, it would only be grace in action if the restoration process includes helping them to find employment. There should be no limit to grace.

RESTORATION PROGRAM NEEDED

In my search for a program of restoration of clergy, I have found very little in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I have received some information about a program that is being put together in the Southern California Conference. The Southeastern California Conference is developing a five-year restoration plan. During that period the minister agrees to undergo professional marriage and family counseling and therapy. She is also assigned to mentors, who conduct evaluations from time to time. They make reports quarterly and annually. By this means they seek to restore the minister and prepare himher for future employment.

I have read several books dealing with clergy misconduct and clergy sexual abuse, and there are numerous suggestions from authors about the need for restoration. However, I have been able to find only one restoration manual that outlines steps to be taken to heal wounded clergy, their families, their colleagues, their congregations, and their communities. This is the Restoration Manual: A Workbook for Restoring Fallen Ministers and Religious Leaders, by Thomas L. Pedigo, Winning Edge Ministries, Colorado Springs, Colo., 2000.

MODEL RESTORATION PLAN

The mission statement of Winning Edge Ministries declares that it is "dedicated to helping take back what sin and satan has [sic] taken from the church!" Pedigo, himself a pastor in recovery, has outlined 27 "check points" for the restoration team working with fallen clergy. His manual is written from the perspective of a clergyperson who knows that the laity are not prepared to deal with ministerial indiscretion. For each of these checkpoints he has six sections, dealing with the nature and reason for each procedure, the biblical bases, questions to be explored, and helpful quotations from knowledgeable people.

Pedigo's 27 checkpoints are intended to keep the repentant minister and the restoration team focused on significant aspects of the process of recovery. They deal with such things as proper procedures; scriptural guidance; professionalism in conduct; recognition of tendencies for people to deny unpleasant realities; spiritual regeneration; restoration of integrity and credibility; mental, emotional, and volitional qualities; rebuilding of marriage ties; restoration of self-esteem; new patterns for social interaction; restoration of the family unit; vocational assistance; financial needs; decision-making skills; stress and possible medical and legal interventions; and time needed for deep thought before planning to reenter the ministry. Other checkpoints deal with the restoration of the repentant minister's credibility; and the search for a church that will be loving, forgiving, and nurturing. And an especially strong checkpoint has to do with deliverance from the devil's grasp by developing spiritual strongholds and the honesty required for avoidance of sexual sins. The author gives a checkpoint rating scale to be filled out at regular intervals.

CHURCH GUIDELINES FOR RESTORATION

There are few guidelines for fallen religious leaders within the Adventist church. With regard to counseling and career guidance, the North American Division/General Conference Working Policy simply states: "Where practical, the organization shall provide a professional program for counseling and career guidance for the minister and family to assist them in transition." (NAD Working Policy 1999-2000, p.462)

The policy clearly states that while the church forgives a minister who has had a moral fall, "for the sake of the good name of the church and the maintaining of moral standards, heshe must plan to devote hisher life to employment other than that of the gospel ministry, the teaching ministry, or denominational leadership." (NAD Working Policy 1999-2000, p.462). This clearly says that there is no restoration to one's leadership position after a moral fall. Where then is the grace?

The Southeastern California Conference's ministerial restoration program sounds hopeful for salvaging men and women who have potential for the church.

Does restoration mean reemployment? Is five years too long to wait? Pedigo quotes Gordon McDonald, who states: "The restorative team can ensure that, to the best of their ability, no soldier is ever lost to the fight; no gifts ever wasted; no call, if possible, ever terminated" (Rebuilding Your Broken World, in Pedigo, p.69).

I believe it is time for the church to stop being "religious" and start being practical.


Errol Lawrence is an associate professor and chair of the department of religious studies at Canadian University College in Lacombe, Alberta. Errol has over 25 years of pastoral and administrative experience. The Lawrences have pastored in London, England and have been missionaries in Liberia West Africa. Before taking up his assignment at CUC Dr. Lawrence pastored an 800 member congregation.

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