Thursday, November 4, 2010

When Things Go Wrong in Church

As a pastor there are some letters you never want to write: a letter of resignation, the sad news of a moral failure, the embarrassing report of a deep financial crisis, the apology for a costly misjudgment, or the release of a well-loved staff member, to name a few.

Those type of situations are painful for everyone.

Every church and every pastor has to deal with these “bad news” situations at some point in their ministry. If you haven’t had to deal with them yet, you will. And when the come they are emotionally charged with potential landmines. If handled incorrectly, they can destroy a leader’s credibility. If allowed to spin out of control they can tear a leadership team apart and split a church. But if handled correctly, they can actually strengthen a leadership team as well as the church. It all depends on what we do, what we say, and how we say it in the heat and pressure of the moment.

Moral Failure or Unrepentant Sin of a Leader

I’m not sure if anything is more disheartening than discovering a trusted spiritual leader has had a moral failure or has committed a series of other sins and remains unrepentant. The sense of betrayal that one feels stems from more than the sin itself; it also stems from all the lies, cover-ups, hypocrisy, and manipulation that accompanied it. You want to believe the best. But in almost every case, the deeper you dig, the uglier it gets.

The first response is usually shock, followed by anger. It’s hard to imagine things getting much worse. But they often do, especially when it comes time to figure out how to respond and communicate what has happened.

Most surprising is how quickly people will polarize into two separate camps. Whether it’s an elder board, deacon board, presbytery, board of directors, or an executive staff, most people will instinctively lean towards one of two responses: mercy or justice.

Those in the mercy camp will want to keep the leader’s moral failure under wraps as much as possible, mitigate the circumstances, and provide a severance package and free counseling. In some instances they will even overlook the sin and let him continue in his role.

They will say things like, “We’re a family. We can’t shoot our wounded. If we can’t model grace and mercy in times like these, then we are not setting a good example for our congregation.”

Those who view the situation through the lens of justice will see things quite differently. They want to expose as much of the sin as is legally possible. They have very little tolerance for a severance package or anything else that feels like whitewashing the incident. They’ll quote Bible verses about teachers coming under stricter judgment and publically disciplining leaders so that all who see will fear.

They’ll say things like, “Severance? What do you mean, severance? He’s been robbing us for months, taking a salary while living a lie. He’s given the devil a foothold in our church! If we’re going to pay for anything, it should be to have him tarred and feathered, not counseling!”

NOW HERE IS THE REALLY BAD NEWS: Under the intense pressure of making a decision and how to respond, most leaders (as well as the people in the church) will quickly adopt one position or the other, and they won’t change their mind no matter how late into the night the meeting goes. And once a decision has been reached, it will almost always be unsatisfactory to one side or the other.

I remember a very bad meeting. A key leader in our church had to be removed because of certain grevious violations. I called together all our staff, key lay leaders, and board members (about 15-18 people I think). As I informed them of the situation and the circumstances surrounding the incident with all the sordid details, everyone began to split into the two predictable camps.

Unfortunately, we had to decide something that night. It wasn’t as if we could table the matter for a season of prayer and fasting and come back next month to address the issue. The clock was ticking. As the meeting progressed, there were more raised voices, angry accusations, and hurtful comments than in any previous meeting we’d ever had. Some were openly crying when they learned of the depth of the betrayal. Others sat there silently staring into space. Bewilderment and disbelief filled the room. I can safely say that all of us were stunned and in a state of shock that night. It was incredible.

At one point, it dawned on me that our church would likely lose some of the people in the room no matter which side won. It was a nightmare. As I watched it unfold, I became profoundly angry at the man who caused this to happen. His actions had not only compromised his own ministry; now it was tearing apart our team and ministry as well.

I was reminded of an important lesson that night. You have to decide ahead of time how you are going to respond when church discipline needs to be exercised. In the heat of the moment, no one thinks straight. No one compromises either.

Fortunately for us we already had a mechanism in place that helped us navigate our way through this emotionally charged situation. I was able to plainly say, “This is what the Bible says… and this is what our staff guidelines say.” That helped us to take a clear stance, make an informed decision, and formulate a response plan. It kept a very bad situation from spiraling out of control and getting much worse. In the end, it was handled correctly and our church was actually strengthened through the ordeal. Even so, not everyone was pleased with the outcome.

As to whether we should err on the mercy side, the justice side, or somewhere in the middle, it’s a call that has to be made when a decision is required. The key is to decide beforehand so that you don’t have a long, drawn out fight later.

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