News Flash: Christian Leaders Fail.
And when they do, boy do they do it big!
Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune published a story alleging sexual misconduct by Bill Hybels of Willow Creek and Global Leadership Summit fame. It’s a stunning story for many reasons. First, Hybels seems as if he’s one of the most high-integrity leaders in the Christian movement. However, those accusing him of wrong doing are just a credible – Nancy Beach, the first female pastor at Willow and mainstay at the GLS events. John and Nancy Ortberg, another former Willow pastor and his wife who are internationally known. And the wife of former Willow Creek Association Director Jim Mellado, Leanne. Jim is now the Executive Director of Compassion International. These accusers are not light weights, know the inner workings of Willow, and have no motive to “conspire” against Hybels as the Willow Creek narrative suggests.
Here in my town, our local daily newspaper just exposed years of unreported inappropriate sexual contact, abuse and even rape that the leaders of the church basically hid from their congregants and the public. Even as mandatory reporters, the senior pastor and church board did not come forward until caught when the victims went to the press.
Unfortunately, reading about failed pastoral leadership has become common place. It both breaks my heart and honestly makes me angry.
It breaks my heart because Satan has successfully manipulated that leader in such a way as to believe their position, money, influence, or importance gives them license to act in ungodly ways. When a Christian leader fails it hurts the whole church body.
It makes me mad because as Christian leaders we know better. Scripture tells us plainly not to seek to be teachers because we are held to a higher standard. Here’s the NIV version from James 3:1, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” I like the KJV better though: “My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.” Those of us who have followed God’s call into ordination to lead His sheep know full well what is expected of us. There are plenty of biblical stories that explain it clearly as well (Saul, David, Samson. Moses et al).
So, what do we do when a Christian leader fails? Let me start by telling you what I don’t think you should do.
1. Don’t leave your church right away. The church is not the building or the leader, it is the fellowship of believers that make up the body. The body should work together to rectify the situation and move on together as family.
2. Don’t hide behind lawyers and employment privacy laws. Not only do you look guilty, but you’re not being honest and transparent, which is what God calls us to do.
3. Don’t shame or blame the victim. There is just too much of this going on even in our churches today.
4. Don’t allow the perpetrator to ask for forgiveness without true repentance. There is a difference between saying the words and being truly convicted by the Holy Spirit of one’s wrong doing so that it elicits change.
5. Don’t gossip. It just doesn’t help.
So, what do we do when a Christian leader fails?
1. Remove the leader and protect the victims immediately. Whether the leader goes on administrative leave or is relieved of duties during the investigation, that leader cannot be involved in the process for obvious reasons. The victims must be believed and an investigation must be thorough.
2. Do not make conclusions about what did or did not happen based on the fact a victim will not speak about it. Willow did the right thing by hiring an outside investigator to interview people about these alleged events. However, several victims refused to speak to him. In the end, the investigator said there was no evidence to support the allegations. That is a wrong conclusion. The people with the evidence would not speak to you which is different.
3. Expect your church to be open and transparent about the issue and if they are not remove them from leadership if you can or find a church that has more integrity. Yes, I did just say stick with your church family. However, there are churches where there are not mechanisms for the congregation to remove bad leaders. In that case, I could not in good conscience support that church.
4. Expect the failed leaders at every level to get on their knees before you and beg your forgiveness. When they do so in true repentance, forgive them! If they will not seek forgiveness with true repentance, “give them to Satan” as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 5:5.
5. Failed leaders must step down. This is the toughest one for me because I believe everyone is redeemable. However, God shows us the seriousness of failed leadership when Moses disobeyed God’s command and God took his leadership role away from him banning him from the Promised Land and instead allowing Joshua to lead the people into their new home. God is very serious about these things and I think leaders need to fall on their swords when they fail. That does not mean they cannot lead or even pastor again, but they must go through a significant rehabilitation process to regain their perspective and honestly prove they have the integrity to lead.
I don’t pastor a church, but I do have a “flock” so to speak of about 150 people I regularly engage in ministry. They see me as a leader – some see me as their leader. It is a heavy burden knowing what God expects from me. But I knew exactly what I was getting into when I decided to follow the call and it means I have to watch myself constantly because I represent Jesus Christ everywhere I go 24/7! And because of that, Satan is trying to make me fall 24/7 as well. There was a reason James warns us not to be eager to be teachers and preachers.
Here’s my last thought and it is to my fellow Christian leaders; Watch yourself. The enemy prowls around like a lion looking for one of us to devour!! Have accountability partners! Be transparent in everything you do. Repent your sins and seek God’s forgiveness. And never forget that those of us who are called to lead God’s people have been given much and thus much is expected.
Please consider praying for your leaders who endure more than you’ll ever know. Pray God’s hand of protection on them against the attacks of Satan, as well as a double portion of discernment in their decision-making. Also, please pray for those leaders who have fallen that they will repent and find redemption. Lastly, please pray for the victims whose lives have been forever changed by a fallen Christian leader. Pray that they understand the action of a fallen leader is not what God intended or wanted. Pray that they know Jesus and can maintain their relationship with Him regardless of what a fallen leader did or how the church treated them.
Blessing to you all.