If a leader goes through a divorce or some hurtful situation in their lives should they be required to step down for a while to heal before they can be a witness to others?
-B. from the United States
Part 1: Accountability
Part 2: Restoration
Accountability (Part 1)
The answer is: probably yes. I say “probably” because it is hard to give absolute answers. There will always be exceptions and extenuating circumstances to mitigate the answer in a particular case.
The main questions to consider are: If I don’t step down can I still be an effective witness for Jesus Christ? Do I now look like a hypocrite to the church and the world? Can I promote in others what I cannot practice for myself? Am I in too wounded a condition to successfully fulfill my calling?
You ask if they should be required to step down and that raises the question of spiritual accountability and authority. The fact that most churches and denominations have rules governing behavior is a great safeguard to the fallen minister. He or she usually doesn’t have to make the decision on their own. That is good because if the minister is in some kind of personal crisis they may not use good judgment.
I have seen many ministers resist stepping down all together. Or, they agree to step down (mostly for appearances sake) but for too short a time. This is unfortunate for them. They really need to place themselves humbly under strong spiritual covering until all issues are handled to the root. It is also unfortunate for the church.
James says: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1) Why is this the case? It is so because of the damage that can be done by a fallen leader. The church always suffers scandal and mocking by the world when those who are supposed to promote right do wrong.
However, there is a practical side to stepping down that we usually ignore. Ministry may be the only work the person knows and it may be their only source of income. The bank still wants the mortgage payment and the gas and electric companies won’t keep the utilities on just because the customer had to “step down” for a while. Financial survival is often the reason a minister clings to a position they can no longer spiritually fill.
Restoration (Part 2)
I do not agree with those who feel that once a minister has fallen (whether divorce or for whatever reason) he or she can never return to ministry. If that were the case, the Apostle Peter would have been done for when he denied Christ before the crucifixion. Isn’t that a worse sin than divorce?
Also, remember the case of the man talked about in 1 Corinthians who had taken his father’s wife? Paul tells the church not to tolerate the behavior and to remove him. By the time Paul writes his second letter to the Corinthians the man has repented yet they refuse him back into fellowship. No, Paul admonishes them, “you should rather forgive and comfort him, lest somehow such a one be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” (2 Corinthians 2:7)
In both cases the essential element was genuine repentance. We should use the same criteria today. By the way, I do mean genuine repentance, the kind that rejects sin and is willing to fully turn away from it. If the issue is not sin per se but wounded ness or trauma, there must be a planned path of healing before full restoration.
It is the church that can step forth and provide what is needed. It is the church that can admonish and correct a brother or sister in jeopardy. It is the church that should understand the practical issues and help to overcome them so that the minister is not left dangling from a very thin rope. Restoration should always be the goal and stepping aside at first may serve that goal.
How often has it been said that Christians are the only ones who shoot their wounded? That should never be. We need to deal with sin frankly but we also need to deal with it compassionately. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32)