When leaders fall: how soon is too soon for restoration?
How long should a 'fallen' leader wait before returning to ministry? It's a loaded and provocative question, and a very uncomfortable one; the sort of thing that provokes strong feelings and graceless words. Yet there seems to be such great discrepancy in the answer, that I believe it's a question worth asking.
Michael Guglielmucci, the Australian worship leader who wrote the song 'Healer' while receiving fake treatment for a cancer that didn't exist, disappeared from public ministry when the story broke in 2008 and hasn't been seen since. In contrast Todd Bentley, the American revival pastor who admitted to an affair with one of his team in the same year, was pronounced 'restored' by a high-profile pastor in 2010 and resumed his healing crusades. Why the difference? Is one kind of lie worse than another?
When people in leadership positions suffer what we often call a moral fall or failure (loaded term alert), the impact can be cataclysmic – not only on their families and church communities, but in cases where they had a wider ministry, on all those who had been encouraged, inspired or otherwise influenced by them. Their mistake is more serious because their authority over others carries a greater sense of responsibility. As the Bible puts it, 'we who teach will be judged more strictly' (James 3:1).
But of course, there's a dark part of all of us which feels compelled to stick the knife in. For some that's driven by a tendency toward legalism; for others it's exactly the same sense of schadenfreude we feel when a dancer falls over on TV reality show or a once powerful celebrity finds themselves cast out. Whatever else is right or wrong about the consequences or restoration of a pastoral fall, this attitude is deeply unhealthy.
The fact remains however, that leaders who seriously transgress should face the consequences of doing so. In virtually all cases, the person steps down or is removed from their role. Usually there's an apology, and they enter a sort of sackcloth-and-ashes period of repentance. But then the road forks; some disappear quietly into a personal wilderness, and some bounce back. And sometimes that bounce is surprisingly quick. So, how soon is too soon?
It's not for me to judge leaders – those who've made a mistake, and those are yet to do so. I'm a sinner just like the next man, and I don't proclaim to have the authoritative answer on how the Church should process this issue. But I do think it is time to have a proper conversation about it; one that doesn't veer to one of the usual extremes of legalistic damnation or a cheapening emphasis on grace covering all.
As we think through the question of how long a leader should refrain from public ministry, I think there are a few helpful elements to consider.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells a story about two men standing at the temple altar. The first, a Pharisee, thanks God that "I'm not like other people". It's the attitude so many of us take as we look on in these situations from a distance. But the second, a tax collector, can't even look up to heaven – he simply asks God for forgiveness: "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The second man demonstrates contrition. He has a sense of awareness of the gravity of his sin and a truly repentant response to it. Jesus says it is the second man who is right with God.
The first man looks to justify himself and his own actions; the second hopes he can be justified through grace. But it seems to me that it's that deeply held feeling that he's done wrong and is demonstrably sorry, that enables that restoration to happen. So the first question to ask of a leader who has 'fallen' – before we even get to 'how long' – is: are they truly sorry, both for the pain they've caused to others, and to God? After all, if we preach or claim only grace in this kind of situation, then we cheapen the concept of sin; and by implication, what Jesus suffered to deal with it. A leader who tries to justify his or her mistake by excusing themselves or pointing to the harsh judgement of others, hasn't yet overcome this hurdle within themselves.
The second thing I believe we should look for is genuine evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in the person, restoring and changing them. If messing up is evidence that we're still very much human, then the Fruit of the Spirit, "love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5 22-23) are a sign that God is at work in us. Are the leaders who seem to rush back into public ministry characterised by such things? I genuinely don't know. But I think they take time to develop in all of us, and also that they're less likely to be present within someone who is still trying to justify their wrong actions.
Inescapably, this discussion has to lead us to the time question. How long should a leader refrain from public ministry after repenting of a mistake? For some, the answer is a permanent bar, and of course all of this is to some extent dependent on the gravity of the situation. Let's acknowledge that the most common version of this 'leader falling' story involves adultery. What's the right amount of time to stay away from public ministry?
It's not my place to name an arbitrary number, and I think anyone who does that risks falling into legalism. But there is a biblical principle which I think might be helpful. It's no great theological discovery to suggest that the Bible is big on the rhythm of seven. It's present in the very first chapters of the Bible, as God makes the world in six days and rests on the seventh; and even slavery (which, granted, none of us are now very comfortable with as an illustration) was limited to a six-year period with a seventh year release. The Tyndale Bible Dictionary says that "in scripture, seven symbolises completeness or perfection." In Deuteronomy 15:1, God tells Moses that "at the end of every seven years you must cancel debts", and I wonder if this is a helpful principle – rather than a hard-and-fast rule – to help guide our judgement on the question of how soon restoration should take place.
All this stuff matters because when leaders fall, they can often cause devastating pain to people we never see. The wives, husbands and children who've lost a spouse or parent; the silent congregants whose faith takes a battering because the person they trusted turned out not to practise what they preached. It shouldn't just be a matter of self-proclaiming restoration before leaders announce they are ready to return.
It's worth emphasising yet again that this is a highly complex question, where so much is dependent on the nature and circumstances of the mistake. God's grace trumps legalism every time, and I'd always rather be found at the former end of that spectrum. That doesn't mean however that leaders should get a free pass to decide when they get to reclaim our respect and followership. All I'm suggesting is that each of us – and every church, denomination and organisation – needs to think this through for ourselves with an appropriate mix of compassion and seriousness.
Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders