Ministry is more than numbers. Yet church leaders are, by nature, scorekeepers. We use dashboards to evaluate how well we’re doing at church. We use numbers to get to know one another at conferences. What size church are you in? How many staff do you have? It’s a poor way to get to know one another, but we still do it. So, if it helps, here are my numbers as they relate to our topic. How often have I had to …
- Rebuild trust and comfort as a new pastor because of the previous unhealthy pastor? 5 times
- Finalize a large lawsuit between the church and the previous pastor? 1 time
- Reorganize the culture and structure? 8 times
- Envision and redirect new vision? 8 times
- Work to retire large church debt that was limiting the church’s ministry? 5 times
- Aid the struggles of a current Senior Pastor who was fighting with other leaders? 5 times
- Guide a forced resignation or firing of the current Senior Pastor because of a major failure? 3 times
- Fire the Senior Pastor’s wife from the staff? 1 time
- Release other staff? 15 times
- Lead the hiring of a new Senior Pastor? 4 times
Whatever God’s reasons are for my career, Christ has used me in turnaround and healing leadership in several churches—as you can see from the numbers. Within these numbers, my restorations have often focused on moral and organizational turbulence.
The Senior Pastor in one of my churches hesitantly told me, “I need to tell you something.” He had been caught in adultery with the Business Administrator of our church. When I told my wife later that evening, her first response was, “Again?” It wasn’t because the pastor had done this before—no, he had lived a life of purity before his affair (and by the way, he’s doing so again after counseling and discipleship). My wife’s response was motivated by the fact that this was not the first time we’d walked with a pastor who failed morally. We had walked through this scenario on other times with several leaders.
So, what have I learned from managing moral failures among the leaders of our church teams? My purpose here is to share some survival skills for managing moral failure by members of your church team so that you score a win for the church.
Definition of Terms
Let’s define our terms. First, I’m using the word, moral, in contrast to fit or organization. Some people don’t fit your culture and move on—that’s not a moral failure. Other people don’t get excited about your organization and move on—that’s not a moral failure. We usually think of moral failure as sexual immorality, but I’m using it for any failure of ethics, morals, or good conduct. In that sense, moral failure is usually in the realms of sexual, psychological, relational, or character issues.
Second, I’m using the word, manage, but it’s better to think of stewarding. According to Dictionary.com, to manage means “to take charge, handle, direct, govern, or control actions.” To steward means “to attend to the property or affairs as the agent of another person.” We’re dealing with the church—that’s Jesus’ territory. So, moral failure of church leaders is a spiritual stewardship. You are to steward a moral failure in the church, not just manage it.
Third, our focus is on the church, not the counseling or disciplining of the fallen leader. Many aspects should be considered for the fallen leader—shame, brokenness, admonition, grace, discipleship, and reconciliation. That’s a great topic, but it’s not the focus of this article. Let’s focus on the skills that are helpful for stewarding/managing moral failures in the work of the church.
Finally, I’m using the word, win. Here’s what a win is for me:
Healthy process + Celebration of the gospel + Increased leadership influence
Though Executive Pastors thrive in the world of process, a win is not just a good process. Your church wins if it also celebrates the gospel throughout the process and if your leadership influence increases at the end of the process. What does the gospel look like in each stage of the process? Has Christ increased His values and influence in the lives of the leaders at the end of the process?
It’s not about you. You don’t get the glory at the end of the process. Only Christ does. However, a win includes the realization that people recognize God’s leadership through you, much like Moses, Joshua, David and so many others in the Bible.
Why should all three elements be included in a win? It’s simple—all moral failures have a spiritual reality to them. A leader doesn’t just betray a few people in moral failure. He (or she) betrays God, the church, the community, and the work of the Spirit. Immorality is intimately and intricately associated with idolatry in the Bible; it’s a spiritual issue. There is always a loss of wisdom and maturity in the sinning leader as the Holy Spirit removes blessing after blessing, trying to get the person to act differently.
Therefore, you’re not just managing processes. If you focus on process alone, even if you do the best processes, you’ll fail. Stewarding a moral failure requires a spiritual touch. And that’s why it’s important to develop a set of skills now, before you have to manage a failure.
Two Types of Skills
There are two types of skills in managing moral failures on your team: tangible and intangible. Tangible skills are the organizational decisions and processes. Intangible skills are the emotional, relational, and spiritual that create a win.
NFL quarterbacks have tangible skills—throwing, running, etc. Yet great quarterbacks have the intangibles. Sports commentators refer to these intangibles all the time—decision making, team leadership, confidence, the “it” factor, and others. Intangibles are subtle and intuitive. The same is true for stewarding moral failures in church. You can’t ignore either set; both are important. Yet it’s the intangibles that put the win in the church’s column.
Executive Pastors need a number of skills for our normal activities. Several of those tangible skills add an expertise to managing moral failures among your team.
Be the expert on your staff in crisis management. 1
The first tangible skill in managing moral failure is proficient knowledge in crisis management. Great books and workshops concerning crisis management abound. Find a book or practicum that fits your level of knowledge and then become the expert on your staff. This is the primary tangible skill.
When a church leader fails morally—whether sexually, psychologically, relationally, or character—you will not face the leader’s failure alone. God will shine light on other hidden cracks in the leader and church. The immediate problem will not be the only problem to manage. There’s always something deeper (i.e. poor relationships, lack of accountability, cracks in the culture, etc.). Your crisis management skill will prepare you for all onslaughts that accompany the immediate revelation of failure.
Strategize actions to fit the stages of grief and restoration.
The second skill to steward moral failure is familiarity with strategic stages of grief and restoration. Obviously, you should recognize the personal stages of grief:
- Shock and denial
More importantly, you should strategize communiqués and actions to fit the organizational stages of grief and restoration. Never assume that people understand how to handle pain, anger, and disappointment. Help the congregation walk through the following stages as an organization and body:
- Grief—help people go from unhealthy to healthy grief
- Foundation—reconstruct and stabilize the best of your values, culture, and vision—give people a solid place to stand
- Replacement—you’ll have to walk through the replacement of the leader
The number of issues in each stage may differ from one situation to another. I have many examples from my own ministry, but I don’t want to describe those in a public document. You should quickly determine the various issues to tackle as soon as possible in your process.
These stages are progressively ordered. They will obviously overlap among a large congregation. You may spend less time in one stage from one situation to another, but you cannot change the order.
Do not try to skip a stage, even if it’s shorter in length of time. Type A drivers will insist that you just “move on.” But the only way to “move on” is to ignore everything. If you skip a stage, your congregation will either (1) return to it later or (2) diminish in ministry influence if it is ignored. You will require future leaders, who did not break it, to fix it, rather than maturely managing it together as it’s broken in order to prepare for new leaders and new days.
The length of time for each stage is dependent upon things such as:
- Familiarity with the fallen leader
- General trust level with the fallen leader
- Emotional state of the congregation and leadership
- Dysfunctionality of the congregation and leadership
- Readiness and maturity level of the congregation and leadership
By the way, when do you seek to reestablish trust? You should reestablish trust during the grief and foundation stages, not the replacement stage. Don’t make the new leader be the savior of trust. Work on trust in the earlier stages—it will benefit you later.
The third tangible skill for managing moral failures is to clarify expectations for jobs, communiqués, culture, and actions. People slough off any clarity of expectations when emotions are high. You will be surprised that you must do more work to clarify and protect the normal expectations of your culture during moral failures. So, clarify them, then clarify them again, and then clarify them again. Be in front of any new upheavals and insist people act appropriately.
Network with other leaders throughout the process of managing moral failure.
Although communication is foundationally associated with relational leadership as an intangible skill, the strategic habit of connecting and networking with other leaders is the fourth tangible skill.
Two elements of this tangible skill arise in relation to managing moral failures:
- First, help people talk in a healthy way about their feelings and reflections during each stage of the process. The best organizational muscle through which emotion is funneled is the mouth; the best protection from unhealthy conversations in the parking lot is a group communication.
- Second, keep people informed of the church’s actions throughout the process. Keep the congregation in the loop whenever appropriate. Talk to the congregation from the first breath to the last breath. Tell them what you’re going to do; tell them what you’ve done; tell them the dangers that they can watch for in each stage. This does not necessarily refer to announcements in worship services (though they may help in the grief stage), but refers more to other venues of information.
However, please remember the law. Protect your church. You are not discussing details about the fallen leader. You are communicating the major actions that the church is doing (for the church) in its process of grief and restoration.
Most Executive Pastors seem to struggle with the intangibles more than the tangibles. Your level of expertise may be less intuitive than other people, but you cannot afford to ignore them.
The first intangible skill is deep, consistent time in focused prayer. Someone may wonder, “Intangible?” Yes, the wisdom that comes from prayer is dependent upon life in prayer, not attendance at a prayer meeting.
Prayer touches the spiritual heaviness of the moral betrayal (see below for more about betrayal). Prayer soothes weightiness and raises hearts. That’s what you want. In fact, I would suggest that soothing of the weightiness raises the glory of the response (the word, glory, has the idea of weight in its root meaning).
So, based on your own prayer life, create times of prayer for the congregation, leaders, and spouses.
The second intangible skill is personal authenticity, which includes being comfortable in your own skin. Always remember your humanity. If you forget your humanity, you’ll fail to manage moral failures because you’ll lose your platform from which to steward a range of emotions. Even when you talk with the erring leader, only humanity can speak to humanity. One may assume that we learn this from Galatians 6:1-2, “You who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness; keep watch on yourself lest you too be tempted.” Unfortunately, we often forget to protect our self-awareness, humanity, and comfort in our own skin.
One of my past churches, known for its narcissistic culture, drove me nuts for about ten days as I tried to manage the crises and failures. I only became centered again after the counsel of other friends (who happened to be in a doctoral class of Executive Pastors with me at the time) and a helpful vacation in the mountains. Vacation seemed like the last thing to do at the time, but it helped me get my center back.
Authenticity to your own humanity is an intangible skill. It permits you to listen to other people, laugh at yourself, and be comfortable with yourself, not just with crisis.
By the way, authenticity also strengthens you for conflict with other people. Sadly, you may lose one or more friendships as you man