Sadly stories of abusive leadership in churches is not uncommon. I’m not going to mention any by name because that’s not the point, we will all know of cases (prominent or local) of church leaders who have used their position of authority for evil. The abuse of power can take many forms (control, bullying, silencing others, sexual abuse, etc.). Over the last few years there’s been so many headlines of church leaders resigning over some moral failing. But there’s a problem…
It’s good when things done in the darkness are revealed. It’s good when survivors are given a voice and able to speak up about their abuse and be acknowledged. It’s good when leaders are held accountable for their actions (by the church and by the law where applicable).
But as Christians we can be gullible! We can hear apologies and pleas for forgiveness and think that the perpetrator is genuine and then restored. There may be cases where that is appropriate, but I think it’s fewer than we might like.
In cases of abuse, of any form, the perpetrator needs to show genuine repentance. A simple “I’m sorry“ isn’t enough. Their actions have hurt the Lord’s people and those wounds may take years to heal, therefore a genuine recognition of wrong is a must. Too often apologies from fallen leaders read more like the non-apologies of the political world which sound more like “I’m sorry I’m was caught”.
Once repentance has take place the person must come under the discipline of the church. Now I don’t mean a bunch of the leader’s buddies in a room all deciding that he’s suffered enough and they restore the person back to their former role. The leader needs to take a significant amount of time away from ministry, of all forms, and sit under the authority of a body who are responsible for discipleship and discipline.
I don’t think that this process is quick at all. When this ‘season away’ is quick it can mean that the leader is merely surrounded by a group of peers who are more sympathetic to him than they are to those he hurt and are still feeling the effects of that. I don’t have a plan of what time period is appropriate for each sin, but I would argue for longer periods of time.
If that part wasn’t hard enough, the issue becomes even harder when you think of reconciliation.
Reconciliation does not necessarily mean that the person is restored to their former position or role. That depends very much on the situation that caused their removal from ministry in the first place.
If a leader falls and is genuinely repentant, has been discipled and disciplined, then they should recognise the danger of them going back into ministry. Even if they don’t see it, there need to be an external body or group of people who are able to share wisdom here. If someone wants to quickly repent, rehabilitate and be restored to their old position, I would have serious questions about the process. A leader who truly sees the hurt he has caused and the abuse he’s out people through shouldn’t want to jump back into ministry again.
Reconciliation or restoration doesn’t necessarily mean going back to their old position, but it can mean being reconciled to the church. There are cases where that may not be appropriate.
In some cases where leaders have fallen, a significant of the Christian world can rally around the accused and blindly believe int heir innocence. As with anything else, we need to take the time to see both sides and to listen to the voices of those who have suffered at the hands of the accused leader. Don’t just assume because the person said sorry that they mean it and don’t assume that because the person is repentant that they should be restored.
If someone is falls and leaves ministry because of a misconduct, the process of them even thinking about returning to ministry should be a very long one with external, wise and impartial voices.
Someone once said to me “there are two areas where no pastor can fall and be restored, sex and money, fail in either earlier and your public ministry should be over”.
Sometimes sorry just isn’t enough.