Some of you reading this right now will walk into church on Sunday morning to a scene of devastation. Pastors, elders, deacons and staff from across the country will be resigning from their positions after being outed as members of Ashley Madison.
Professor and statistician Ed Stetzer estimates that about 400 church leaders will be stepping down from leadership roles after joining adultery website Ashley Madison in pursuit of extramarital affairs. As he points out in the Christianity Today blog “My Pastor is on the Ashley Madison List,” this is a painful and embarrassing time for the church.
There are many people that will need healing as these affairs come to light. The pastor’s spouse and children will need care and understanding, as trust they previously had in the betrayer just crumbled away. But the congregation itself has been injured by the betrayal and will need to undergo a healing process as well.
Stetzer urges churches to resist the temptation to quietly dismiss the church leader and quickly find a replacement.
“This is not the time to act as if everything is fine, rush together a pastor search team, while ignoring the hurt and bleeding flock,” he writes.
Instead, focus on the spiritual health of the church as the process unfolds.
First, the church needs to focus on God, the Unfailing One who will not lead His sheep into disappointment or pain. Stetzer writes, “God reigns and His authority is not threatened when His children fail.” Though your pastor stumbled, his or her sin does not change the authority of God.
Second, you must reach out to those who struggle the most. Recognize those in the church who have been burned most severely by the sin of the leader. Find those who are struggling to find meaning in church because of the apparent hypocrisy and guide them. Stetzer says now is the time to put Galatians 6:2 into practice. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Third, take care of the church leader’s family. As previously mentioned, the pastor’s immediate family will be in the most pain. They will require your love and support. Provide counseling and serve their needs.
Fourth, love the leader with grace and truth. Though the leader has sinned, you must still grant grace. From Stetzer, “Remember the grace you have been given in Christ, and do not forget your broken pastor has been afforded that same grace.” You may be angry, and that is warranted. You may believe the pastor’s wound was self-inflicted, and that is true. But he or she deserves the same grace that God gave you.
As part of the recovery process, the church leader should publicly repent. Stetzer explains that for small churches, this means announcing to sin to the congregation. For heads of global ministries, public repentance requires confessing to the sin on a global scale.
The repentance needs to be thorough for it to be freeing. Leaders should name the sin specifically, not simply allude to it. Details, however, are unnecessary. Stetzer encourages church leaders to confess it all at the beginning. “The alternative is to be trapped in a cycle of waiting until more evidence comes forward and then trying to spin it to salvage our reputation.”
Repentance is what will lead to restoration. It will not be instantaneous, but restoration will come in time. There may be a day when a church leader will be ready lead again, under the church’s discretion.
If you are reading this now as the victim of an affair, lost in a spiral of hurt and shame, I would encourage you to read, “How to Overcome an Affair,” by Dena Johnson. Though it seems impossible now, your pain can lead to peace if you put your trust in God.
“You may be wondering how this pain can work for your good. I promise that if you surrender to the journey, God will do an amazing work of transformation in your life. Your faith will be deeper than you ever imagined. Your relationship with your Savior will be sweeter than you ever dreamed possible. You will walk in the peace that surpasses all understanding guarding your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Your every need will be met.”
Publication date: August 28, 2015