By Jacqueline J. Holness
When I heard recently that the author of one of my favorite Christian dating and marriage books was going through a divorce, I wondered if the relationship advice she dispensed in her book should be considered null and void. Then I started thinking about Christian leaders in general.
In today’s culture, the fall from grace of a minister or other religious leader due to a moral or personal failure has almost become cliché. In many cases, the minister is removed from ministry and the work the leader has cultivated through the years is deemed meaningless. While the leader may need to be removed from the leadership position, I am not convinced the ministry or the wisdom the leader has offered in the past should automatically be declared worthless.
In researching this thorny topic, I stumbled upon the website fallenpastor.com, the blog of Ray Carroll, a former Southern Baptist minister who also wrote the book Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World (Civitas Press, 2011). He began the blog after losing his ministry after committing adultery. In his blog post “Fallen Pastor: The Book, Part 7, The Sinner and the Sermon,” Carroll states, “The mission and work of the church is not about the pastor. God is always in control of all things. When the Word is preached, even from a sinner (always from a sinner), it will do what he desires for it to do. God’s Word is not held powerless because of the ineptitude, hard heartedness, or sin of his people.”
He then offers the example of Jonah and his preaching to the people of Nineveh. In spite of Jonah’s disdain for them, God’s Word—not Jonah’s word—was preached and they responded.
Lisa Whittle, daughter of a former megachurch minister who lost his position following a scandal, offers some advice for those wondering how they should respond after their leader has fallen from grace. In her blog post, “5 Truths to Remember When Your Leader Falls,” she writes, “Your belief in him or her was not necessarily wrong. Often, when a leader falls from their position, those who followed him or her feel duped, setup, or foolish . . . Even the most respected leaders can fall from their position, should they allow power, wealth, or influence to corrupt them.”
Justice and Mercy
And how should we respond to those who serve alongside those who have sinned? In one of my favorite books, Dancing in the Arms of God: Finding Intimacy and Fulfillment by Following His Lead (Zondervan 1997), Connie Neal details the fallout that occurred after her husband’s removal from youth ministry following his confession of adultery.
Although she had not committed the offense, Connie, who served alongside her husband in the ministry, was stunned to learn her services were no longer needed by the church. It was “suggested that since Pat and I were ‘one flesh’ in marriage, his fall invalidated my ministry.” To her further dismay, “the church leaders even refused to let [her] address the board to discuss how they could implement the youth ministry calendar and help the kids through their grief and confusion.”
While to some degree I can understand the church’s response to Neal, this response may have been too harsh considering the fact that she was not the adulterer.
Some suggest that a failure may make a church leader’s ministry more palatable to people who have experienced similar failings. Dr. Charles Stanley, minister of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, says God used his divorce to reach out to people who may have not been receptive to him before. In the CNN.com
article, “Two Preaching Giants and the ‘Betrayal’ That Tore Them Apart,” he says, “Instead of destroying me, it flung the doors open for me. People used to say, ‘I couldn’t watch you. What do you know about hurt, pain, and loneliness? Now I can watch.’”
Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that moral and personal failures should be overlooked and that we should descend into the quicksand of moral relativism; but I am saying that moral and personal failures do not necessarily invalidate a leader’s life work. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and at the same time, not every one should endeavor to call himself or herself a leader because of the higher standard of behavior required. This is a prickly predicament, but one we should not ignore.
Jacqueline J. Holness, a member of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, is a correspondent for Courthouse News Service,
an online, national news service for attorneys. Contact Jacqueline at afterthealtarcall.com.