Survival Skills for Managing Moral Failures Among Your Leaders

Survival Skills for Managing Moral Failures Among Your Leaders

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, 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.

Tangible Skills

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
  • Pain
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Reconstruction
  • Acceptance

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
  • Celebration

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.

Clarify expectations.

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.

Intangible Skills

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.

Personal authenticity

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 manage moral failures among your team. Unfortunately, it has happened to me on several occasions as I have stewarded moral failures. People may never agree with your conclusions. They get caught in their own emotions, unable to step into the next stage. They support the fallen leader according to their own personal vows or issues. They do not understand how to handle conflict in healthy ways—and you are left wondering what happened to your friendship. It’s your personal authenticity that provides strength. You are accountable to Christ for your leadership, not a group of friends. Authenticity helps.

Intuitive expertise in betrayal

All moral failures involve betrayal. Dan Allender, author and counselor, described betrayal as any disregard or harm done to the dignity of another person as a result of one’s commitment to find life apart from God. The breadth and depth of this description is convicting. Betrayal is an act of evil against people. The third intangible skill is an intuitive expertise in betrayal.

Two types of betrayal exist: (1) personal or relational betrayal and (2) positional or organizational betrayal. Personal betrayal refers to betrayal between one or more individuals. Positional betrayal refers to betrayal of the organization’s values and calling. One example arises from a church that experienced the fall of their Senior Pastor from adultery—unfortunately this is a common experience for many churches. They realized that four levels of betrayal were felt by the congregation: (1) the adultery itself; (2) the hiding and deception that were involved in the affair; (3) the abuse of spiritual authority; and (4) the seduction of leadership in which charm, personality strengths, and persuasion skills were used to achieve self-goals and desires in all of life. These betrayals were both personal and organizational.

Since this intangible skill appears quite mysterious to many executives, understand a few things about betrayal. Each observation explains the reason that I called the skill, intuitive expertise.

  • Betrayal strikes old wounds, so people behave according to old behaviors when they are betrayed in a fresh way. Intuitive expertise considers these old behaviors when a congregation surprisingly behaves in an unhealthy way.
  • Betrayal leads to distrust. Intuitive expertise is always aware of this reality—and ready to steward the strengthening of trust.
  • People run to the illusions of autonomy and relief when they experience another person’s betrayal. They use isolation or control as defenses against the feelings of betrayal. Intuitive expertise senses these internal defenses and counsels against them.
  • Our sense of betrayal by another person often leads to further behaviors that are betrayals of our own. If not careful, betrayal leads to other cascading betrayals—the leader’s own betrayal of a different nature. When people act poorly, they create more betrayals in the organization. Intuitive expertise carefully watches for such temptations. Intuitive expertise is self-aware of these temptations.

One example of the above intuitions is the steward’s decision to manage alone. If you fail to involve other people in the restorative process, you yourself betray your leaders. You compound the original betrayal because you’re trying to maintain the fantasy that one man or woman can fix both the original betrayal and the contextual betrayal. You fill the leadership vacuum with a further dysfunction. You therefore subtly betray the church by prolonging the fantasy of independent leaders. The original betrayal is followed up with your betrayal. You put yourself in Satan’s targets even more, because he loves to deal with just one man rather than a group of believers; he loves to jump into subtle betrayals so that he can stir up other things. He’s in his element when you add betrayal to betrayal. So, involve other leaders into the healing process with you. Don’t try to lead the process yourself. You need sojourners, companions, and mentors.

Intuitive expertise in betrayal leads to several tangible actions:

  • Help people understand their feelings of betrayal.
  • Help people pursue connection with God and one another. Embrace the prayer of Ephesians 3:16-19.
  • Help people understand how to relate to the betrayer as a church.
  • Help selected people understand how to relate to a betrayee (if they know the person).

Understanding of shame and healing

The fourth intangible skill is understanding shame and healing. I list this skill as intangible because you can learn about shame and healing, but your ability to manage shame is intangible. Both shame and healing are group experiences, as well as individual experiences.

Relational leadership

The fifth skill is intangible because it refers to the relational side of leadership. As Solomon said (Ecc. 12:12), “Of the making of many books, there is no end.” Books on leadership—vision, strategy, etc.—abound. However, relational leadership is learned through experience and giftedness. It is a rare skill. Unfortunately, it’s missing in far too many pastors, including Executive Pastors and Business Administrators. It can, however, be learned, though some will instinctively be better at it than others. Do everything to become a better relational leader.

Pastoral shepherding

The final intangible skill for managing moral failure is pastoral shepherding. The XPastor ministry calls this the minister function (one of five functions of an Executive Pastor—overseer, administrator, catalyst, mentor, and minister). The intangible skill of pastoral shepherding is the people-side of leadership.

We’re called “Executive Pastors.” The noun is pastor; the adjective is executive. Sadly, many people experience us the opposite way; they experience the executive alone. Yet we’re pastors, no matter your designation. Your pastoral character and relations—practiced at all times like good habits—provide the relational foundation to steward crises. The pastoral side invests trust that will be spent in crises.

This is, of course, a topic in itself. So, for now note one aspect of pastoral shepherding—Executive Pastors should be experts in grace. It will bide you well while stewarding moral failures among your team.


Four simple summaries suffice:

  1. Stewarding moral failures is a spiritual pilgrimage, not an administrative task.
  2. Tangible skills are foundational, but intangible skills create a win for the church.
  3. You win if you diligently pursue healthy processes, help the congregation celebrate the gospel, and discover that Christ has increased your leadership influence at the end.
  4. Your willingness to swim in the deepest currents of crisis fuels your leadership and, more importantly, your life.

So, steward well.


1 This skill begs the question, “When do you go public about the moral failure?” According to Jesus’ standards in the Sermon on the Mount, we are all murderers, adulterers, scoundrels, traitors, liars, and cheats; we do not throw stones as if we were perfect (Gal. 6:1). However, the Bible never intimates that all our sins should be publicly treated. When Peter asked about John’s future, Jesus responded, “What’s that to you? You follow me.” Howard Hendricks, late professor at Dallas Seminary, liked to say: “We’re not self-appointed fruit inspectors, picking up everyone’s leaves and inspecting what’s underneath.” Yet the moral failures of leaders often require that we go public. So, when do you go public?

I’ve learned several lessons over the years:

  • Determine your approach before you have to manage a moral failure. Discuss it with your church’s executive leaders when you’re not facing the failure of someone’s beloved pastor or friend.
  • Do not cover up the failure. Cover-up will come back to haunt you—count on it. No matter who it is, no matter how popular the person is, go public. People will appreciate and respect you for it. One common argument for covertly rebuking the leader and then letting him/her return without fanfare is the continuation of King David in his role. I’ve heard that argument, but it doesn’t fly. No one on your staff or board is in David’s position. No eternal covenant has been given anyone in your church—that role has been taken by Christ. Besides, David’s leadership never returned to its height after he failed.
  • Tell the truth right away. But note the next lesson …
  • Please remember the law. You are not discussing employment or personal details about the fallen leader. You are communicating the major actions that the church is doing—for the church itself—in its process of grief and restoration.
  • Tell what’s only appropriate for people to understand that a failure has actually occurred, but do not go into the rest of the details. Most details are unnecessary for public consumption, even harmful from a legal and ethical perspective. It’s not necessary for the healing of your congregation to tell all the details, even though many will ask about them as they wrestle with the grief or denial. Such details should be legally relegated to the appropriate leaders. One exception exists—if the failure puts many people at danger, tell only what is necessary and legal for people to understand the danger. Work with your attorney for wisdom.
  • Protect the second party by not identifying them; do not even hint at identifying factors. Insist that you will protect the second party by not talking about them, even if you think people already know. Church discipline is a different topic at a different time; we are only discussing here communiqués about a failure that has impacted the public nature of a ministry.


This article was written for the February 2016 XP-Seminar.

2017-05-24T13:06:08+00:00By |Leadership, Pastoral Care|

About the Author:

Paul Utnage
Paul joined the staff of Catalina Foothills Church in Tucson, Arizona in June 2016 as the Executive Pastor. During his career, he has served as Youth Pastor, Senior Pastor, and Executive Pastor in churches of all sizes—small to megachurch—in several states. His areas of expertise have focused upon organizational change and healthy leadership cultures in each situation. His current ministry focuses once again on leading change after church turmoil. He also serves as a leadership coach with Transformational Leadership, as well as mentoring others with the ProScan PDPWorks evaluative tool. Paul and his wife, Brenda, share a common passion for activities like skiing, camping, kayaking, biking, and reading.