When Our Ministry Leaders Fail
…And then the news broke. Just in our own personal circles. It came out in little waves, and then big gushes, and then what felt like a tsunami.
Another brother in ministry fell. A pastor stepping down for the sake of sin. Oh, how my heart just ached within me! I was more saddened than shocked, but the honesty of my emotions begged for transparency of soul. I found myself with a mix of responses, a tedious tightrope of rational thought and affected response.
So, what do we do when our ministry leaders fail? It has happened before, perhaps even in your own circles, in your own wave-pool, like a tsunami of disappointment. What is the right response when the fall happens right in front of us?
Do not be disillusioned. Ministry leadership does not equal sinlessness.
In our rational minds, we know this to be true, but often it doesn’t stop us from projecting unrealistic expectations onto our ministry leaders. I am not disillusioned that ministry equals sinlessness, but I have great hope for those who enter the beloved life-calling of spiritual shepherd. We must remember that there is great weight to the calling of Christ. Consider what Paul writes to Timothy: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:12, NASB). Another translation says, “entrust to reliable people” (2 Tim 2:12, NIV).
James warns us, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (Jms 3:1). Yet, in this same chapter – in the very next sentence – James says, “For we all stumble in many ways” (Jms 3:2). How well the Holy Spirit who inspired these words knew that ministry is shaky ground when placed on a pedestal!
We ought to take sin seriously.
As believers, our faith is built on the understanding of forgiveness from sin. But, we ought to be careful of being too lenient on sin itself. Sin should grieve us. When I heard the news of my fallen brother in spiritual arms, it felt personal to my own faith; not just because I knew him, but because sin had become lamentable in any form. I sat down and cried. Because my heart hurt. Because I hate sin. Because I hate my own sin and I hate others’ sin and I hate what it did to Jesus. My heart breaks because I see sin in ways that only the view from the top of the cross can give. Jesus hung there naked and shameful for crimes that you and I committed. For my sin … and for the sin of the whole world … the same sin that makes my heart break. And so my tears become the confessional. A choked-out liturgy, reverent with sorrows. “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me” (Ps 51:3).
I have found myself outraged by sin in a way that I’ve never been before. My sin and others. I actually hate it! It is the only appropriate use of the word “hate” I can find in my vocabulary. Turning to Scripture there exists the same indignation. “Put to death,” Paul cries out in Colossians 3 “whatever belongs to your earthly nature” (Col 3:5). “Hate what is evil” the Romans were reminded (Rom 12:9). Jesus’ warns “everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (Jn 8:34).
Death…hate…slaves. I’m afraid that in my haste to soften this vocabulary I am quick to build a central theology only around verses that point to forgiveness, justification, mercy, and rescue. But sin cannot be made palatable. It is distastefully disgusting. I cannot side step the filthiness of sin to head straight towards favor with God. And yet…
Enmity with sin doesn’t put us at enmity with people.
As believers in the gospel of Christ, we hold deeply to the cause of reconciliation. Enmity with sin does not put me at enmity with people. Scores of Scripture verses remind us that sin does not have the final say. Forgiveness is the lifeblood of the gospel message. And for Christians who have sinned, 1 John 1:9 still applies: “If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Failure is not final.
“Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently” (Gal 6:1). The English Standard Version uses the phrase “restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1, ESV). A sinful brother and sister is still a brother or sister. In the C.S. Lewis movie adaptation of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe the Pevensie family is moved across the country to live with “The Professor” during a time of war. One night when Lucy is upset, the Professor gently reminds the older children, “You are a family, are you not? You might start acting like one.” We should respond with familial love when our ministry leaders fail.
This is a warning for us.
I must confess that failure of leadership does rock my foundations. I’ve never expected perfection from those in authority, but I have been guilty of placing a greater burden on my leaders than they were meant to bear. “There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” reminds 1 Timothy 2:5. Our pastors, ministers, directors, deacons, and ministry authorities were never meant to play the role of God in our lives. Moments of human failure provide us an opportunity to look deeply into our own attachments and expectations and question our true loyalty.
We are to have “no other gods” according to Exodus 20, which means no higher loyalty and no one in the place of God’s authority in our lives. Our relationship and reliance on leadership should never surpass our loyalty to God Himself. A moment of ministry failure is an excellent time to evaluate harmful dependence on those we love and respect.
There is a solemn personal warning for us as well. If we desire to be used of God in the service of ministry, we must be vigilant against sin. “Be alert,” says 1 Peter 5:8, “your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.” The devil is not looking to maim or injure us. He is looking for a kill shot. Our incapacitation is his temporary victory. In the same breath, I want to beg for reprieve while asking God to keep me mindful that sin is crouching at my door same as it did for Cain (Gen 4:11).
We must be wise women of the Word. We should stave off sin at every cost. When ministry leaders fail, we should be the first on our knees begging God for healing and restoration, and while we are there, pray for protection ourselves.
What about you? What is your response when a ministry leader fails?