Cleaning Up Church Mess

Straight Talk

The Question

Our minister confessed to pornography to our board members and they had him and his wife take some intense counseling and a six-week leave. The associate pastor filled in while he was gone. The senior pastor returned but resigned after six more months leaving the congregation with lots of questions.

Our associate took over as interim but many people left the church thinking he had swindled the senior pastor out of his job. A board member told someone outside the church what happened and that person gossiped back inside the church about the pastor and said how the board members sinned in not revealing it all to the congregation. The board states they were trying to restore the pastor by accepting his repentance and giving him leave and counseling.

There are two families pushing for the removal of the associate pastor and the board member over this. These two families have caused problems even before the pastor’s failure took place. The board and associate are willing to come out and state they made a mistake in not having the pastor confess to the congregation. The former pastor, board members and an outside mediator have met with the offended church members to try to stop further malicious gossip until they have a chance to discuss/field questions at the next member meeting.

How do you think the church and board should handle this?

– EB from Colorado

The Answer
Part 1: Plenty of sin to go around
Part 2: Communication

Plenty of sin to go around (Part 1)

The first thing I think is that there is plenty of sin to go around in this situation. I’ll start off by highlighting what, in my view, was done wrong and what was done right because I do think some things were done right.

The pastor sinned involving himself with pornography but he did the right thing by confessing it to the spiritual authority over him (the board) and submitting to their consequence. It should be mentioned that he came forward on his own and that’s also to his credit.

The board did an honorable thing by having restoration in mind once the pastor confessed. They did not gloss over the sin but rightly extended grace by offering a leave and counseling. I don’t believe they should “state they made a mistake by not having the pastor confess to the congregation.” Rather I think they are to be commended for following this scripture command: “Above all, keep fervent in your live for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)

There was wrongdoing by the individual board member who broke confidence and told someone outside the congregation what happened. Every bit of gossip that has occurred since – no matter by whom — is sin also. Speculation targeting the associate pastor by the members who left was dead wrong. They ended up leaving a church for false reasons and really owe the associate and the intact church members an apology. Unfortunately, the associate pastor is a victim of others’ sins – he did nothing but pitch in and try to fill a gap as he was asked to do. As an innocent victim he will probably be working on forgiving his enemies for some time to come.

The troublemaking families who are currently stoking the fires of controversy and disunity are most certainly in the wrong. While they try to hold others guilty they are guilty themselves and probably fit this description: “And he who spreads slander is a fool. When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” (Proverbs 10:18-19)

That pretty much covers what happened up till now but your question was how do I “think this should be handled by the church or board.” Now we are left to clean up this mess. If there is strong leadership and a clear understanding of the right and wrong of all the elements of the mess maybe some good and some maturity can still come out of it.

Communication (Part 2)

Generally speaking, I’m all for open communication within a church setting. In this case though, I think it was right to keep the pastor’s confession a secret since he repented and was seeking restoration. Remember when Noah’s son Ham saw his nakedness (sin) but the other two sons walked backward to cover “the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.” (Genesis 9:23) They were commended while Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan for exposing him.

That incident is a metaphor of covering sin rather than exposing it. Unfortunately, your pastor’s sin didn’t get permanently covered. The pastor ended up resigning anyhow which would require explanation plus a board member broke his confidence. I think the offending board member should be required to resign and he should stand publicly before the congregation and ask forgiveness.

Since the true nature of events is generally known now, the board should stand before the church and tell it like it is. That means saying exactly what happened and when. That also means calling right right and wrong wrong. That means condemning the speculation and gossip and calling on all who participated to repentance. It also means creating a healthy path out of all the “ick” that hangs on.

Once all the dirty laundry is aired and everyone gets to have their say and ask all their questions, MOVE ON. Drop it. Focus on something outward like a mission trip or an outreach project. Invite some dynamic guest speakers who know nothing about this; ask the intercessors of the church to mount a prayer campaign; ask the worship team to accentuate upbeat victorious praise songs.

Most churches have some rough patches at some point in their history but they can either grow more mature and smarter for the future or they can wallow and divide and snipe themselves to death. Which is it to be for your church? That depends on how well things are handled going forward now.