Leaders make mistakes. Most of the time, our mistakes can be rectified by admitting our fault, confessing our sin, apologizing for our actions, making restitution, and determining to do better next time. But what happens when a leader – particularly a pastor – makes a more serious mistake? What happens when a mistake includes unethical or immoral behavior? And, within those categories, are there gradations of seriousness to the offenses? In all these cases, how should a culpable pastor or other believers respond? In a broader sense, what is the relationship of leadership mistakes to pastoral integrity? And, how do we balance the biblical mandates about forgiveness and restoration with equally important biblical demands for pastoral integrity?
Before we attempt to answer those questions, let me clarify a definition and a focus for this message. Today, I am using the phrase “unethical and immoral” to describe certain types of pastoral conduct. While many behaviors have ethical and moral dimensions, I am using these words to delineate more serious mistakes – sometimes known as ethical or moral failures. In this context, “unethical and immoral” means egregious violations of standards expected of pastors.
In this message, my focus is on pastors – not broadly on all leaders. I have narrowed my focus for four reasons. First, qualifications and standards are specifically articulated in the Bible for pastors. Second, pastoral qualifications and standards are essential for effective church leadership, missional impact, and our public reputation. Third, upholding pastoral standards and qualifications is the responsibility of local churches where pastors are also members. And fourth, pastoral, qualifications and standards are the gold standard – they set the bar – from which standards for other ministry leadership positions are derived.
Let me make some additional comments about this final point – pastoral qualifications and standards set the bar for other ministry leadership positions. Not all ministry leaders are pastors. Some are presidents, missionaries, ministers, directors, and a host of other titles determined by a wide variety of factors. Wisdom is needed to interpret and apply the pastoral gold standard to these other positions. For example, unlike a church – Gateway Seminary has employees and students – not pastors and members. Yet, because we train pastors and other ministry leaders, we need to effectively apply the biblical qualifications and standards for pastors in our context. This must be done within the framework of laws governing employees and students, as well in the context of our multi-cultural community and diverse expectations of the churches in our denomination. While the Bible does not specifically outline leadership standards for seminary employees and students, it does establish a framework for us to create appropriate personnel and student policies related to these matters. The same could be said for any Christian ministry, organization, or mission board.
Now let’s return to some of the introductory questions. What is the relationship of leadership mistakes to pastoral integrity? How can we balance biblical mandates about forgiveness and restoration with equally important demands for pastoral integrity?
Answering these questions is difficult because pastoral mistakes are complicated by several factors. First, the interpersonal nature of pastoral relationships among leaders and followers. Second, the public nature of pastoral leadership. Third, the need for stability in churches and ministry organizations. Fourth, employment laws and other legal obligations. And finally, the vocational nature of pastoral roles – in short, the potential loss of salary and benefits impacting families.
In answering these questions, foundational theological and practical issues like forgiveness, restoration, and pastoral integrity must interweave when determining a path forward. When a pastor behaves in an unethical or immoral way, our response must be biblical, practical, balanced, and measured. In this message, let’s consider these issues and discover important aspects of how to respond when a pastor makes a serious mistake.
The Stakes are High
The stakes are high in considering these issues. Leadership mistakes can impact people in significant ways. In response to my book, The Painful Side of Leadership, a longtime friend wrote, “Someone ought to write a book on the painful side of leadership for the people in the pews. The cost to churches and God’s kingdom because of the moral, financial, relational, and ego failures of church leaders is huge – and in large churches makes headlines in the secular media. I realize leaders suffer a great deal of injury because of what their followers do and say, but God’s Word speaks far more to the cost of failed leaders: false prophets, evil kings, and money-grubbing, power-hungry priests. The blind leaders of the blind caught the bulk of Christ’s condemnation.”
His point is well taken. The biblical condemnations of leaders who misuse authority and abuse followers are potent (for example, Jesus’ blistering rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees in Matt. 23). When we consider the high cost of serious leadership mistakes, we understand the importance of heeding those warnings.
Another friend was a successful businessman with an executive position in a large corporation, plus a rental property company he privately owned. He was an active deacon in a large church and chairman of the church’s personnel committee. Personally, and professionally, he was accustomed to dealing with stressful situations. One night he was summoned to a special meeting of the personnel committee in which he learned their youth pastor was in an adulterous relationship with a church member. The committee developed a strategy to dismiss the offender, inform the church, manage the legalities, and handle the fallout in the church and community. They were shocked, but somehow stumbled through the process of planning to move forward.
My friend left the meeting to drive home. As the full impact of what had happened settled into his soul – he felt sick. More than felt sick, he was sick. He pulled over, opened his car door, and vomited in the street.
Today’s convocation message is more than an academic treatise or a theoretical exercise. It’s an acknowledgement of the painful, destructive, divisive results of leadership mistakes and how failing to respond to them appropriately compounds the problem. The stakes are high in resolving these issues – for a pastor, his family, impacted followers, victims or survivors, for churches, communities, and even the larger kingdom of God.
Sin Must Be Forgiven
We begin with this affirmation, sin can be and must be forgiven. When a pastor makes a mistake involving unethical or immoral behavior, he has sinned against God and other believers. These sins can be forgiven. The Christian doctrine of forgiveness is rich in content, radical in application, and comprehensive in reach.
In the moment of conversion, God forgives sin. The Bibles says, “In him, we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses…” (Eph. 1:7) and “In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins” (Col. 1:14). When a person is converted, pre-conversion sins are forgiven. Churches are comprised of people who formerly behaved in sinful ways and now live differently. The Corinthian believers were reminded, “No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or males who have sex with males, no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom. And some of you used to be like this” (1 Cor. 6:9b-11a). When sinners are converted, they are forgiven. Forgiven converts then live differently, changing their behavior to reflect their newfound faith.
This point is important because it removes Paul as an example of a restored leader. Paul was not restored. His pre-conversion behavior was forgiven and he then spent several years establishing Christian credibility and preparing for public leadership. Once introduced as an itinerant ministry leader, his subsequent life patterns met the standards which were later enshrined as timeless standards for pastors (1 Tim. 3:1-7).
Despite the radical changes produced by conversion, all believers – including pastors – still make sinful choices and need continued forgiveness. So, after conversion, God forgives all Christians when they confess sinful acts to him. The Bible promises, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). God’s forgiveness is comprehensive and complete. No sin, no matter how nasty or disgusting or public, is beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness.
Not only does God forgive sinners, he also expects his followers to forgive fellow believers – including pastors. His direction is clear, “Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive others” (Col. 3:13b). God expects us to lavish forgiveness on others. When Peter asked, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? As many as seven times?” Jesus replied, “I tell you, not as many as seven, … but seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:21-22).
We reach these conclusions, then, about the sins of pastors. When a future pastor is converted, their pre-conversion sins are forgiven. Once a man becomes a pastor, when he repents of subsequent sins and confesses them to God, they are forgiven. When a pastor repents of his sin, confesses it to God, and confesses it to other believers, they too must forgive. We begin with this conviction – all sin is forgive-able by God and fellow believers, including any sins of any pastor.
Restoration Must Be Attempted
Now let’s move to a second idea, which emerges out of this understanding of forgiveness. Restoration of forgiven believers, including forgiven pastors, must be attempted. When sin shatters Christian fellowship, we must make every effort to restore healthy relationships and preserve our connection with each other. Church fellowship is an important part of sound ecclesiology. By fellowship, we mean more than social gatherings. True fellowship is rooted in mutual accountability and care – loving one another enough to sacrifice to maintain meaningful relationships. In the context of responding to a pastor’s mistakes, two aspects of this stand out.
First, church leaders and church members must be willing to confront inappropriate behavior. When a believer – including a pastor – behaves in an immoral or unethical way, church leaders and members must confront the behavior and demand change (see examples, 1 Cor. 5:9-13, Acts 5:1-11, Tit. 3:9-11). Second, church leaders and church members must be willing to support repentant behavior, including relational, emotional, and spiritual recovery. When a pastor repents of his sin and seeks restoration, fellow believers are mandated to encourage him as he recovers. The Bible counsels, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is overtaken in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual, restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so that you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-2).
A key question about restoration, however, is “restored to what?” For many, the assumption is restoration to a pastoral role. But that is not a biblical mandate. The passage cited above calls for restoring fallen brothers and sisters to Christian fellowship, not pastoral leadership. This is an important distinction.
God forgives sin and expects his people to do the same. God then expects his followers to restore relationships and support one another as fellow church members. There is no corresponding biblical obligation to restore a person to pastoral leadership. Fellowship and leadership are not the same thing. While repentant pastors should be welcomed into fellowship and supported as they establish new life patterns, there is no obligation to return them to any leadership role.
The pressure to restore pastors comes from many of the factors mentioned earlier in this message. First, the interpersonal nature of ministry relationships can lead to faulty judgments as we compromise standards for popular people we like. Second, the public nature of pastoral leadership can lead to misplaced urgency about restoration. Third, an overarching desire for stability in a church can truncate our judgment about restoration processes. Fourth, employment laws and other legal obligations may be ignored or overlooked in a desire to “put this all behind us.” Fifth, the vocational nature of pastoral roles – including the potential loss of salary and benefits impacting families – may lead to premature restoration. Finally, the scarcity of quality pastors can lead to a rushed restoration to avoid losing a gifted person from our ranks.
These pressure points must be resisted. While restoration of a repentant person to church fellowship is a biblical mandate, restoration to a pastoral role is not. Two reasons for this are the high standards expected of pastors and the sanctity of the office they hold.
Standards and Sanctity Must be Upheld
Biblical standards for pastors are high. Pastors are to be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not an excessive drinker, not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy. He must manage his own household competently…. He must not be a new convert, or he may become conceited…. He must have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he does not fall into disgrace….” (1 Tim. 3:2-7).
Pastors are held to higher standards than political, athletic, entertainment, and corporate leaders. While a womanizer can be an American president, an abuser can be a professional athlete, adulterers can be entertainment icons, and drunkards serve as corporate executives, these behaviors are unacceptable for pastors. Unlike secular leaders, pastors are measured first by their character – then by their competencies. When the former is found lacking, capacity in the latter does not overcome those deficiencies.
Even when using biblical examples, care must be taken to recognize these distinctions. David is often inappropriately cited as a model for a flawed person serving in or being restored to pastoral leadership. David was not a pastor. He was a political and military leader – not a pastor. The standards for a pastor of a local church are higher than anything we expect of political/military office holders – even those in the Bible.
Given these high standards, does this mean any character flaw or behavioral mistake disqualifies a person from pastoral leadership? Of course not. But it does mean churches must err on the side of caution when selecting pastors – and even more so when considering restoration of a fallen person to the pastorate. While restoration may be possible, it must never include compromising the high standards expected of pastors.
Part of maintaining this standard is separating the office from the person. The pastorate is different than – and larger than – any particular pastor. When a pastor acts unethically or immorally, they not only compromise themselves, but also besmirch the sanctity of the office in which they are serving. When a pastor sins, those actions diminish other people who serve in that role because it damages the status of the office – not just the personal reputation of the individual leader.
All this leads us now to a final question. Is restoration possible for pastors who commit ethical or moral sins? My answer is a qualified yes, but with four cautions which are often not adequately considered today. Each of these four cautions requires disciplined discernment and collective wisdom when addressing any potential pastoral restoration.
Caution 1: Sins must be addressed
When a pastor behaves in an unethical or immoral manner, the obvious need is for repentance from and confession of the presenting sin. For example, a pastor might repent of and confess the sin of misusing church finances or sending inappropriate text messages. Those are the presenting sins, but they are not the reason the behavior is egregious for a pastor and limits or disqualifies them for the future.
When a pastor sins, there are two other issues which compound their actions. These are the silent destroyers of pastoral integrity and why certain behaviors are more detrimental for pastors compared to other professions. The first of these sins is the misuse or abuse of power. Pastors are given significant power by the people who follow them. They are empowered by followers to provide spiritual direction, know their deepest secrets, share their most profound experiences, hold their confidences as a sacred trust, and manage the resources entrusted to them. When a pastor behaves unethically or immorally, they also abuse the inherent power in those leadership relationships. When a pastor then presumes forgiveness and demands restoration, it is further evidence of abuse of power. When a pastor sins, repentance and confession must extend beyond the presenting problem of the sinful act and acknowledge the abuse or misuse of power as well.
The second issue which must be addressed is the impact of a pastor’s sin on a church, broader Christian community, secular community, and on other Christian leaders. When a pastor makes a serious mistake, the fallout impacts many people, including other leaders. Sadly, when a pastor sins all pastors – as well as other ministry leaders – are broad-brushed with the negative spillover. Because of this breadth of impact, a sinful pastor must also repent of the sin of damaging other leaders.
God forgives sin, but pastors must repent and confess the totality of their sinful choices. The unethical or immoral act must be confessed, but also the abuse of power and the dereliction of duty in the context of Christian leadership. If a leader is unwilling to admit the totality of their sin and acknowledge its broad impact, confession and forgiveness are incomplete. In this state, they are not ready for restoration to church fellowship and definitely not a candidate for restoration to any leadership role.
Caution 2: Gradation of sins must be considered
Even though sinful acts by leaders may be unethical or immoral, not all sinful acts are the same. There is gradation among sins, with some being worse than others. This means the responses by other leaders and church members must be proportional to the acts. For example, sending a few inappropriate text messages is not the same as a months-long adulterous affair. Wasting money on a single business expense is not the same as embezzling offerings from a church. If we recognize all sins are not the same, then we must also conclude a range of responses to those acts is both required and appropriate. For example, a pastor who sends inappropriate text messages might be suspended for a few months, required to take remedial training on appropriate communication, have their devices and accounts monitored for a while, and then returned to a pastoral role. On the other hand, a person who has an adulterous affair would be terminated immediately. In that case, repentance, confession, and restoration to fellowship might be possible, but restoration to leadership is rarely part of the equation.
It is impossible to create a comprehensive list of pastoral sins and their appropriate responses. The challenge is considering the nature and scope of sinful acts and their consequences in determining the appropriate response. For example, sinful acts by pastors that include criminal conviction would likely disqualify them from future pastoral roles. Similarly, any immoral or unethical act that continued over time, involved scheming or secrecy, and victimized others in a church or community would demand a similar strenuous response. In contrast, a lesser offense like mismanaging an expense account might result in sanctions, disciplinary action, and increased supervision – but not termination from a leadership role.
At this point, it is important to remember earlier conclusions in this message which apply to serious offenses. All sin can be forgiven. Restoration to fellowship, not leadership, is the desired outcome. Pastoral standards must be upheld; therefore, some forgiven and restored former pastors must find a new identity serving as church members, not church leaders. Proportional responses will produce different conclusions to these matters, based on some of the factors we have identified here. Wisdom, maturity, discernment, and oftentimes objective counsel from people not emotionally or relationally engaged in the situation may be needed to sort out these issues.
Caution 3: Impacted persons must be involved
Sadly, the focus of many so-called restoration processes is primarily on the pastor who has behaved badly. They are challenged to repentance and confession and placed on a recovery plan – with their individual response evaluated as their potential restoration to a leadership role is considered. The person or persons often missing in this equation are those impacted by the pastor’s sins – either complicit persons or victims and survivors. In any case, their participation in any consideration of restoration is essential.
When a church is working toward restoring a pastor, they must also strive to restore the people impacted by the pastor’s sins. In some cases, this may mean disciplining persons who were complicit in those actions. In other instances, the focus may be on providing care and support for victims and survivors. Either way, a church has a responsibility to prioritize ministry to all persons involved in the situation. This requires wisdom and discernment to understand the role another person played in the situation. In determining this, careful attention must be given to the power dynamics previously described in this message. It is wrong to side with a pastor and blame others when a relationship includes manipulation, coercion, or unhealthy influence.
Restoring a pastor includes reestablishing trust and gaining the support of persons impacted negatively by their actions. This may be an arduous, time-consuming process. When sins are particularly serious, it may be impossible – which may be a good indicator a former pastor should not be restored to leadership after committing such egregious acts. The collateral damage of some leadership mistakes is so serious it precludes any hope of restoring a fallen pastor to their previous position. Considering the impact of a leader’s mistakes on others in a church or community is one barometer for determining if and when restoration to a pastoral role is possible.
Caution 4: Restoration takes time
By now, you may be worn out just thinking about the challenges of this process. Confronting behavior leading to repentance and confession is draining. Facilitating restoration to church fellowship – including healing broken relationships, maintaining new lines of accountability, reorganizing to replace missing leaders, helping former pastors find their place as church members, and assisting former pastors as they make family, career, and personal adjustments to their new lifestyle is demanding. On top of this, taking the next step to perhaps restore a marred person to a leadership role is even more challenging.
All of this takes time – seemingly a lot more time than is expected in many so-called leadership restorations. It is disheartening when a fallen pastor returns to his pulpit only a few weeks after a moral or ethical failure. When this happens, there is no possible way a full restoration process – including restoring the persons impacted by their actions – has taken place. This kind of pseudo-restoration demeans the pastoral office and communicates a powerful message about the church’s willingness to tolerate abuse of power in ministerial relationships. It’s a disgrace to the biblical standards for pastoral leadership, demeaning to the people impacted by the pastor’s actions, and discouraging for other ministry leaders embarrassed by their colleague’s impertinence.
True restoration, when it is possible, takes time. How long? There is no fixed formula but it is safe to say months or years, not day and weeks. Restoration is a serious process that requires enough time for a fallen leader to prove their repentance is genuine, their confession of sin was thorough, the mandated lifestyle changes are fixed patterns, and persons impacted by their sin are restored as well. Jesus advised us to “produce fruit consistent with repentance” (Lk. 3:8). In addition, disciplinary practices are supposed to yield “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:11). Fruit-bearing takes time – months and years, not days and weeks. Restoration cannot be rushed. When done properly, it requires significant time for healing relationships, rebuilding trust, and proving capable of the privilege and responsibility of being a pastor.
Forgiveness, restoration, and pastoral integrity are pressing issues in our generation – as they have been throughout history and will be in the future. Considering these issues is challenging. Living through them in real-time situations is messy. Yet, as believers, our commitment to robust church fellowship demands we do this hard work. As leaders, we must also apply these biblical standards of pastoral integrity in other ministry organizations outside the local church. Doing this is complicated by many factors, but is essential as we meet the expectations for Christian leaders in any setting.
But perhaps the most personal – and most difficult – aspect of hearing this message is internalizing its content and making sure we are not the cause of one of these catastrophic situations. Every one of us is vulnerable to making serious leadership mistakes. May God give us grace and humility as we consider these issues – and the determination to live “above reproach.” May we strive to meet the standard God expects of pastors and demonstrate leadership integrity in whatever role or position God allows us to serve. Thank you for hearing this message and heeding its counsel. God bless you and keep you as you serve him with integrity!
This paper was presented on January 19, 2023, in Ontario, CA as part of President’s Convocation.
One Gateway initiative which often remains behind-the-scenes is our partnerships with international seminaries. We have several of these with schools around the world – mainly focused on the Pacific Rim but also including schools in Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
Churches swapping members does not enlarge God’s kingdom. A church reaching lost people does.