Restoring Pastors to Ministry After Affairs? Possible or Impossible?

In recent weeks there have been sad and public accounts of pastors removed from their positions after being caught having sex with someone not their spouse. These pastors (mostly men) are gifted speakers, writers, and leaders. They are good at what they do. It seems is a shame that they no longer use those gifts to lead God’s people. It is also a shame that God’s good name and the spouse/kids are dragged through the mud.

But can there be redemption? Could the pastor who loses integrity regain it and with it regain a pastoral position again? After all, we are all sinners and no pastor ever is without sin. Indeed, it seems God uses those who are moral and ethical disasters to lead his church. There’s David the rapist and murderer, S/Paul the terrorist, Abraham the liar, and Peter the wishy-washy, self-protective and impulsive “rock” of the church. Certainly, if God uses these people to write huge portions of Scripture and to build the church then why can’t a pastor who strays also be used by God?

No reason…any some possible reasons at the same time.

First, let’s call “affairs” with congregants what they are–pastoral sexual abuse. Now, not all sexual activity between a pastor and a congregant are the same. Having sex with a person you are counseling is not the same as developing a relationship with someone who is a bit more your equal. And yet, both would still not be an affair but an abuse of the position of pastor since the pastor has the obligation and moral responsibility to protect the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep.

Reason 1: The greater the misuse of power, the less likely a power holder should get that power back. An accountant who steals money is less able to return to being an accountant than a painter is returning to another painting job who happened upon some money on a desk and took it.

Stories of redemption in the Bible aren’t road maps for what should happen today. They tell us much about the amazing grace God bestows on sinners, but they don’t tell us what we should do when we encounter a fallen pastor. In fact, if we want to stack up the restored leaders in the Bible against the cursed leaders, I think our few positive examples of restoration would be vastly outnumbered by the stories of permanent removal. And on top of stories, we have some very serious warnings about bad shepherds (Jer 23, Ezek 34, 44, Matthew 23). The Ezekiel 44 passage denies false shepherds from ever speaking for God ever again but does show kindness in allowing them to help out with the sacrifices.

Reason 2: Human gifting does not necessarily lead to spiritual authority and leadership. Value to the kingdom continues even if “ministry” is only that of behind the scenes support services.

Finally, desire for the position is not always evidence of readiness. Recall in Acts 8 that there was a magician name Simon who wanted the ability to cast out demons like the apostles. He must already have had some capacity as he was famous. But he wanted more. He wanted the position of power. When confronted he begs for mercy and help.

Reason 3: Tears, passion, vision, and drive are not enough of a reason to place someone back into public ministry.

Now, none of these reasons are enough to always say no to return to pulpits after sexual infidelity. While a return may not be probable, it can be possible. Every situation is unique. That said, unless the disgraced pastor has evidenced many of the signs of repentance (taking full ownership, accepting consequences, giving up control over recovery process/submitting to the work of therapy, seeking accountability, pursuing utter transparency, and not placing demands to return to the position) for a long season, it is doubtful that a return to leadership is right. Frankly, one of the best signs of repentance is not being so worried about reputation and not seeking a return to a previous level of ministry.


Filed under adultery, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, pastors and pastoring, Uncategorized

10 responses to “Restoring Pastors to Ministry After Affairs? Possible or Impossible?

  1. liztinnea

    This is so good and applicable. Thank you. Also thank you for calling it spiritual abuse. People just don’t understand what abuse of power really is. I so appreciate your ministry!

  2. liztinnea

    Reblogged this on Our Unseen Hope and commented:
    Great post.

  3. Jeff Crippen

    Excellent and wise truth here. Thank you very much.

  4. Scott Fisher

    Excellent and well put. Forgiveness does not always mean that consequences are removed. King David suffered the loss of a child and trouble within his family after he repented. You do a nice job of distinguishing between redemption of a person and return to a specific role of trust in the life of the church.

  5. Andrew J. Schmutzer

    Refreshing nuance and depth, Phil. It appears that the omni-acceptance “fog” that has swept over our society has also made its presence felt here, too, in spiritual qualifications. What God CAN do is not what God MUST always do. Further, because everybody is a “victim” today, it makes this kind of discussion another flash point for discrimination. It’s not that some aren’t sinners, it’s that not all kinds of sin are equally devastating–your observation about abuse of power has needed to be said for several generations! Finally, the standards we find for spiritual leaders in Scripture (e.g. 1&2 Timothy) really need to be held up, at least as much as the latest Barna research. Oh, and why wasn’t Moses allowed to enter the Promised Land?…because God holds his leaders to higher standards.

    God, be merciful to us all! Yet, he remains committed to using human agents. Always has.

  6. Ronda oprean

    Its silly..’.position’ should be guarded because we are at WAR IN THE SPIRIT!! The new ‘Pastor should use his testimony of repentance like any other powerful repentance! …Because of the Power of The Blood of Jesus!!!

  7. Armando D'Angelo

    All of your points are valid and having sat at the feet some of the most dedicated teachers and pastors of the Gospel alive today, my experience has been in alignment with those points. Like politicians, the role of Pastor is such that anyone who wants it is suspect. We have to question whether or not today’s church even understands the role that many of these good but flawed men and women are being cast in. Part of the responsibility falls on our shoulders and yet as is our nature to do, we are all to ready to blame others. In the beginning the priest was the representative of the people before a Holy God and it was the Prophet who was God’s representative to the people. The priestly role was bestowed by birth rite and the prophets role by divine appointment. Technically David was neither as is evidenced by his submission to both during his reign.
    With Christ came the new role of teacher/pastor as Christ himself full filled the role of high priest for all eternity. Everything these men and women did was to point to Christ through oral written and experiential teaching.
    As is the case through out most of man’s relationship with GOD, we get into trouble when we morph the divine by our desire to control it. Today, many pastors are asked to be God’s representative, agent or worse God’s surrogate to a congregation who just does not want to take responsibility for their failures. This creates a position that is rife with temptation and designed to fail. They are asked to discover new insights into scriptural truth every Sunday and present it in an entertaining way, they are asked to counsel members of the flock when many have little training in this area and when those they are counseling have little intention of making a change but really just want to be told that they are forgiven with out having to repent.
    I believe that the only true path to redemption for a fallen pastor is for them to do the work with out the title or recognition. To serve another who bears the burden of the post and to do all in their power to safeguard the integrity of that person. In short, if the calling is divine then it will not require human anointing. This is not meant to be punitive merely an act of faith. The apostles earned their own keep augmented by gifts but not what is considered paid ministry by today’s standards.
    As always Phil, thanks for keep our faith walk top of mind.

  8. Stacy Potter

    Calling David a rapist goes beyond how scripture categorizes it, especially since it does clearly state that his son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. And while a pastor having sex with a congregant is inappropriate misconduct, to blanketly state it is all sexual abuse does a disservice to victims of sexual abuse. If every encounter is sexual abuse, then nothing is sexual abuse.

    • Hi Stacey,
      Thanks for your comment. Would you agree that David’s sin with/against Bathsheba was an abuse of power? He the king, she a soldier’s wife? What capacity did she really have to choose? He calls her, she has to come.

      Now, we don’t know, maybe she was happy to come and to participate. But even so, given his position, it is an abuse of power, at least that is the way I see it. Abuse of power = abuse. But of course, not every abuse is the same.

      In some states in the US, a pastor having sex with an adult parishioner is by definition “pastoral sexual abuse.” Surely it is not the same as an adult abusing a child, that I agree.

  9. Pingback: Council of Counselors: Fallen Pastors / Abusive Husbands / Hurting Counselors / Subtle Gossip / Emotional Intelligence | Brad Hambrick

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