The Murky Waters of Ministerial Restoration

I chose not to name names here, but as the stories/charges from my former school have multiplied since I first wrote this narrow somewhat even-handed post, I invite you to read more on your own… https://rightingamerica.net/rape-sexual-harassment-and-more-the-cedarville-stories-are-multiplying/?fbclid=IwAR3w4PvmDPtu5fcnddvHU_EtiR1P534Vdd3PsOu0NVUvx5ZfJlSsFNt5CUQ

A Christian college I attended years ago has been in the news lately. It recently fired a professor (I will call him “Dr. Smith”) for sexual misbehavior. Technically speaking, it wasn’t for sexual misbehavior— there had been no documented sexual misbehavior during his time as professor. Rather, it was discovered that some of his sexual misbehavior that was known from the past had been covered up. The college had accepted Dr. Smith as having made “one mistake” when later it was discovered that he had actually had a pattern of misbehavior, at least in the past. Essentially, he was accepted “warts and all.” However, he intentionally allowed things to be kept undisclosed during the hiring process, so such a cover-up can suffice as a basis for being let go.

The professor is a married man but had videotaped one of his assistant (male) ministers taking a shower in the nude. The school had accepted this as an admitted area of struggle for Dr. Smith and something he was repentant of and seeking to grow beyond. The school gave him a list of probationary limitations, as well as disciplinary and accountability actions, towards restoration. However, when the school found out that the problem was much bigger with past actions closer to stalking and coercing over a long period of time, the school felt they could not accept this and let him go.

I can understand the school’s position. If someone (we can call him Tom) told an employer that he once stole $10 dollars from a neighbor when he was in college, that employer can accept this information and address it. But if it was later discovered that Tom had been a habitual thief for years, the employer may be perfectly justified to let him go, even if he hasn’t been found to have stolen during his employment there. The justification would not be because of theft, but because of lying/deception.

There are so many issues that come up in this tiny little story.

First… Many people have called for the resignation of the president of the school— we can call him “Pres. Jones.” I personally can’t call myself a supporter of the president. He is a Complementarian and I am not, so I must admit that I don’t like his actions that have continued to move my former school more in that Complementarian direction. However, it seems like the school was already well along moving in that direction without the help of Pres. Jones, so I am not too motivated to hold that strongly against him. I do, personally, respect a leader who supports forgiveness and restoration (with appropriate discipline and accountability measures inplace). I don’t think ministerial roles should only be given to people with zero marks against them from the past (either because of no major moral failings, or because the failings have been well-hidden). Paul and David were given second chances ministerially after sinful activities that most everyone would have trouble ignoring. Peter denied Christ (much in line with the activity decried during the Donatist controversy. Two disciples of Christ wanted to ask God to call down fire on people who refused to show them hospitality.

I like the fact that President Jones was willing to give Dr.Smith a chance. I also like the fact that there were disciplinary limitations put in place. Of course, there are still reasons for concern.

  • Concern #1 was that it sounds like the issue wasn’t well-researched. It even sounds like the school did not speak to the victim. If that is the case, it is hard to say that Dr. Jones applied due diligence to the matter. If this is true, then the situation is, indeed, partly his fault.
  • Concern #2 was that there was some suggestion that the decision of Pres. Jones to hire Dr. Smith was because of Smith’s connection to “Pres.. Johnson” the former boss of Pres. Jones. Pres. Johnson has a bit of a spotty record known by many for an attitude that could be described as “Boys will be boys, and girls should just keep quiet about it.” Was the decision to hire based on old boys network or based on genuine concern for restoration. I have no idea.
  • Concern #3. If one reads all of the things the school set in place to provide disciplinary support and accountability for Dr. Smith… well, they sound a bit fake. When I say fake, I am not saying the list was not actually drawn up. It might have existed. However, I have seen this sort of list made before, and rarely if ever are they actually carried out. Often the list is little more than a cynical way to “cover one’s own back side.” I would prefer to be wrong on this concern (as well as the others). I want to think the accountability/disciplinary structure was set up to EQUALLY protect the student body, and help the professor. But that might not be the case.

The Second issue is about whether one should hire a person who has sexually acted out in the past at all. For some, sexually acting out is a greater sin than other sins. As such, it can’t be overlooked. Others may see sexual sin as pointing to problems that simply do not go away. Recidivism is so high that one cannot take the risk on the person ever again.

I don’t really see sexual abuse as greater than other forms of abuse. Many bosses and teachers abuse emotionally, or maintain abusive power dynamics in their leadership. Or they cheat, or are unforgiving, or are corrupt. Churches and schools often give these a pass while see sexually acting out as being beyond restoration ministerially.

And you know what? I get it. I long felt that way. One of the articles I read included the comments of a sex abuse expert in Christian ministry. I will call her Dr. Wilson. Dr. Wilson seemed to hold the view that once a sexual predator, always a sexual predator. As such, there should be no restoration ever. I can understand this opinion, and can even give anecdotes that support this. I have a colleague who had done counseling with a minister who had sexually acted out (I won’t share details here for many reasons) with a number of women in his youth group. The church decided to cover it up (the usually response, frankly). The women decided to cover it up as well either due to pressure from family, or because of fear of public shaming. My colleague did counseling with him, but because of the church’s unwillingness to act, the counseling could be no more than advice listened to voluntarily. There were no teeth in the discipline. That minister went to work in a Christian school (one that did not background check). The minister, now serving as a teacher, sexually acted out. Then he left and went to another school, also with no background check done, and repeated the same behavior. I don’t know where he is now.

From stories like this and Donn Ketcham scandal (you can look that one up if you want), it is easy to see why some would say, “Never do restoration…. it traumatizes the victims and gives the minister a new opportunity to start acting out again.” Since many people who have failed sexually (or in other ways in the past) do not in fact repeat their actions, I am guessing the views is really “They could act out again, and we can’t take that risk.”

But what failings are so bad that one cannot be restored ministerially? Abuse involving Sex? Money? Power? It is hard to draw the line.

I rather like the standards in the Missions Community that have circulated in recent years. It applies a ZERO TOLERANCE policy to sexual misbehavior, and a REAL referencing policy for new work. That is, if a person applies for a new job, the former employer will give a real report of why that applicant was let go. This seems reasonable. In the end the new potential employer has the freedom to decide what to do about this. The new employer should make an informed decision… but ultimately it should be their own decision.

In the end, as to this second concern, I can respect two different views. If a Christian ministry says, “We can’t risk our membership or students by hiring this person,” I can actually respect that. If a Christian ministry says, “We have researched the applicant’s past fully, and we have decided to bring them in but under well-controlled circumstances,” I can respect that as well. I can’t respect the middle ground that ends up making decisions based on how one “feels” about the situation, based on rumors rather than on what is merciful AND just, and based on good research.

My Third concern was something that was said by Dr. Wilson. She said something to the effect that even if Dr.Smith did not act out again, it would be based on the external limitations placed upon him rather than internal controls. I am not sure one can say that definitively, but I hardly see why guilt should be the only social motivator that is found acceptable, not valuing shame or fear. Frankly, pretty much everyone has areas in their lives in which they don’t do what is wrong because of fear (of punishment) or shame (reduction of social capital). It seems to me to be bad Evangelical theology to see guilt as the only one that should be considered valid.

I have dealt with a number of ministers who have struggled with sin (sometimes sexual and sometimes not). They can be separated loosely into three broad categories.

  • Category #1. This group feels great remorse/guilt over what they have done as well as shame for what they have done. They express openly what they have done and desire to live out a full repentance. This is a very small group. It is possible that this group does not actually exist. This type of person is exactly the type of person who should be restored. Sadly, they can be hard to identify. Geneerally, however, they don’t miimize their own role. They don’t try to shift blame. They tend to accept discipline and want to have accountability. They want to change, or be changed.
  • Category #2. This group feels great shame that they have been caught. They want the situation to go away. In some cases, they do want to not return to their past sin. Ultimately, however, they don’t want to make any major changes to bring this about. In other cases, any statements on repentance are just words to get people off their backs. These people are often (but not always) easy to identify. They tend to minimize their role and shift blame. They will agree to a lot of steps for restoration but then find ways to get out of doing them.
  • Category #3. This group is like Category #1. This group feels great remores/guilt over what they have done as well as shame for what they have done. They express openly what they have done and desire to live out a full repentance. In all of this, the group sounds like Category #1. The difference is that there are seeds of destruction in them. It is like an alcoholic who really really really wants to step away from his addiction— but then a trigger comes along and the person falls again into the addictive cycle. This category of person can be restored, but needs outside help. This person needs external accountability support and rules to keep from falling back into past mistakes. This category is a large number of people. It is hard to say whether Category #2 or #3 are larger. In my experience, they are close to the same size.

So if category #2 should not be in ministry, what about #1 and #3? #1 and #3 should be treated the same. Unless the individual tells us, we cannot know for sure which one has triggers or situations in which they cannot help backslide into. In fact, the individual may not know either.

But when you think about it, everyone of us is in one of these three categories as well. We all sin in one way or another. The wall of separation between “us” and “them” is porous, separated only in terms of seriousness, scope of, or type of sin. We all need accountability and social restraints.

That is my problem with Dr. Wilson. Fallen pastors are not a unique category of person that cannot be restored. They are like us— that is a good thing and a bad thing. If they need outside social motivators to keep them doing what is right and not doing what is wrong… that is not a valid condemnation.

Ft it was a valid condemnation, pretty much all of us will have to join in being condemned.

…..

So should Dr. Smith have been fired. Well, by now it has long since shifted from being an ethical issue to being a political issue. Politically, he had to be let go. If it is true that Dr. Smith covered up and minimized much of the wrongdoing, this may well point to the fact that he is racked by public shame more than embracing his own responsibility and need to change. Those that cover up tend to repeat the same thing later. But that is a lot of guesswork on my part. Obviously, I am not privy to the what on behind closed doors… and even less what is going on in different people’s hearts and minds.

Pastoral Recovery- Knowing What’s Good For You…

I deal with a lot of missionaries andrecovery pastors who are suffering with burnout, with traumatization, with moral failure, with relationship break-down. There can be many reasons for this. Within classic ‘Biblical Counseling’ the answers tend to be along the line of:

  • “You need to ‘get right’ with God”
  • “You need to confess and repent”
  • “You need to work on your ‘quiet time,’ and other spiritual disciplines”

And really, all of these are true… to a point. The problem is that this system of thought commonly identifies a symptom and then guesses at a root cause. The symptom is any problem in the personal life, relational life, or ministerial life of the individual. The associated root cause is then seen as personal sin. While often a pretty good guess, there are important caveats.

 First:  While many problems are associated with personal sin… there are other sin-related causes. Two obvious ones: (a) The consequences of sin are often commonly experienced not only by the perpretrator of the sin, but by the victim of sin done unto him or her by another  Most people would cringe at the thought of blaming the rape victim in being raped, but doing exactly that, blaming the sufferer and playing Job’s ‘friends,’ is often Christians’ default mode. (b) The consequences of living in a generally sinful (fallen) world. Even here, Christians often try to find meaning (blame) for victims of natural disasters or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Second: Even when sin is personal, there often are root factors as to why the minister sinned. We often simplify things to the idea that the one who committed the sin is immature… or ‘given over to Satan.’ But essentially that is little more than washing our hands of the problem— a quick answer, a Procrustean Bed, that allows for a simple non-personalized response. But while sin may be inevitable, the specific temptation that a minister falls to is tied to very personal character or temperament issues, specific personal history, and unique circumstances. Why does a pastor burst into a rage during staff meetings? Why does a counselor gossip about patients he/she talked with in confidence? Why does a missionary act out sexually with those being discipled? To deny that these activities are sinful is simply denying the truth. On the other hand, to simply say that each needs to confess and repent, without addressing their unique personhood and situation is pastoral malpractice.

Third: Problems often occur when there is a “bad fit” in ministry. This is not really an issue of sin. Not everyone is molded for a specific ministry… and not every ministry is molded for a person.  We can talk about SHAPE in this (from Saddleback):

S – Spiritual Gifts – What has God supernaturally gifted me to do?
H – Heart – What do I have passion for and love to do?
A – Abilities – What natural talents and skills do I have?
P – Personality – Where does my personality best suit me to serve?
E – Experiences – What spiritual experiences have I had? What painful experiences
have I had? What educational experiences have I had? What ministry experiences
have I had?
Personally, I would also like to add another “S,” Sphere of Influence, making SHAPES. Often a minister has the wrong SHAPE (or SHAPES) for the ministry they serve in. This stressor will commonly create problems down the road.
I had a friend who was pastoring a church… and fighting developed and he left, went to another church and the same situation repeated two more times. Eventually he came to the conclusion that he did not fit the role of a pastor. What a nice realization! He could have confessed, repented, and gone on a spiritual retreat, and repeated the same problems in more churches… 4, 5, 6, 7…, but instead (drawing from the title of this blog) he decided that pastoring wasn’t good for him… and he does much better in lay ministry.
Unfortunately, Christians have close to 2000 years of history in developing a theology of “ministerial calling.” Very little of it has any discernible relationship to the Word of God. Often there is the belief that stepping out of professional ministry is rejecting God, or changing ministry is giving up. One could argue that the opposite is true. If God made us to be dynamic, growing, living beings involved in a walk with Christ (whether in green pastures, by still waters, or through the valley of the shadow of death), a failure to learn, change, and grow is much more a rejection of God. To not learn and repeat the same mistakes over and over again is truly giving up.  I think it is really a good time for Christians to seriously reevaluate the idea of ministerial calling.
But even if one stays in professional ministry, one does have to change at times. It is my personal belief that the Apostle John, when he got too old to go out and around and planting churches, became John the Elder (a person mentioned in early church history), at the church of Ephesus. Frankly, that only makes sense, and almost certainly other apostles would have done similarly if they weren’t directed into martyrdom.
My first several years in the Philippines, my wife and I worked in a ministry of medical mission events. It was a pretty good ministry and we got to be fairly competent at organizing them. The team we were part of, Dakilang Pag-Ibig DIADEM Ministries, did around 70 medical mission events in 5 years treating around 30,000 people. Not bad for a small group of volunteers with spotty funding. We did about one mission point a month. We eventually decided to step away from it for several reasons:
  • Our passions were different. We were more passionate for pastoral care (especially my wife) and training ministers (especially myself).
  • Our training got us good at doing medical missions, but it also got us more competent for other ministries that were not really possible for us to do when we started.
  • The stress got to us. Some might find this silly, as medical missions can be fairly relaxing for a few weeks… but then there is the stress of organizing the medicine, transportation, volunteers… and then the craziness of the actual event. During the 3-4 days before a medical event, my heart would jump with dread every time my phone would ring, and I feared that a doctor or dentist  or nurse was backing out, or a vehicle was suddenly not available. Some thrive on adrenaline and the craziness that much of international missions entails, but for my wife and I, we do better with ministry that still holds variety, but with more steadiness and reliability of work load.

Some ministries take one away from one’s family a lot. This is typically not good for the family… but the removal of support and accountability may not be good for minister either. Some jobs have set hours, while others challenge personal boundaries, especially in terms of personal time and space. Some jobs really need the right people or problems will occur. Some jobs, on the other hand, may need to change so they do not become “meat grinders” where ministers are run through, destroyed, and replaced.

A person who works with youth may become good with working with youth, but as he or she gets older, needs to transition from the apparent safety of doing what he or she is good at, and move towards multiplying self by training others.

A person may be placed in a position of counseling a lot of individuals of the opposite sex. Many struggle with this… but instead of establishing environmental or procedural safeguards, or perhaps limiting who the person counsels, he or she attempts to resist temptation, without doing anything to limit temptation. This is a recipe for disaster.
Essentially, when a minister fails, one can give the same answers that everyone gives, and help the failure not be dealt with, or recognize him or her as an individual who needs to be dealt with lovingly and uniquely. The minister needs to be helped to know what is good for himself/herself and others.
I have been involved with a lot of responses to ministers who have failed, sinned, or burned out. Some were handled well, some poorly. But some mistakes include:
  • Simply kicking the person out. That passes the problem somewhere else, and often leaves the minister in a worse position than before to grow, mature, and minister.
  • Simply do counseling. Counseling helps… but by itself is completely inadequate.
  • Simply calling for confession and repentance. Most often, the person did wrong or in some way failed, because they needed help and did not ask, or needed help, asked for help and did not get it. If no help is given, the problem is almost certain to recur.

The term “simply” is important, because a failed response is “simple.” Human beings are not simple. Human beings are holistic. As such, it needs a multiple level response. The response would vary depending on the circumstances… but common elements may include:

  • One-on-one counseling, perhaps along with family counseling, and counseling of direct and indirect victims.
  • Spiritual/ministerial mentor. Telling a minister to read the Bible more, pray more, or perhaps go on a spiritual retreat, is lazy. The minister needs to grow spiritually, and to do so in balance with ministry. This requires help from a mature mentor.
  • Accountability partners. Preferably several that care for the minister, and are willing to ask the tough questions while also being supportive.
  • Limited ministerial involvement (where power is limited, and time is limited to avoid temptations for abuse, or of burn-out)
  • Involvement in a nurturing church family. If a minister sinned in a public way in a church, it is likely that that church won’t be capable of being nurturing. (It might be nice if that fact was not true, but we have to deal with reality here.) Even going to another church may not make this work. Only some churches, sadly, are nurturing. Far to many are sources of stress and chaos.
  • Education/training/retooling. Often the minister needs to change. As such, he or she needs to be empowered to do so.
A multi-faceted response is important. Simple impersonal answers?  Not if you know what is good for you… or others.