So this past week a Pastor admitted to an “indiscretion” (his word, not mine) with a 17-year-old girl when he was a youth minister 20 years ago, and his congregation responded with a standing ovation. (I guess it was for his honesty or forthrightness or something. That seems like a low threshold for the old standing O, but maybe honesty is in just that short of supply.) Not to give anywhere near the amount of details that I read in different news sources, but essentially this 17-year-old girl was left at youth group (happened to me all the time.) The Youth Minister was the only one left around and so volunteered to drive her home (happened to me occasionally.) He instead went down a vacant road, propositioned her for a sexual act, and then touched her inappropriately (never, ever, ever even almost happened to me.) Just to wrap up the story, the Youth Minister immediately realized his horrible sin, stopped what he was doing and begged this girl to never tell anyone ever. I’m not sure exactly what was told to whom but the youth leader was asked to leave with a going away party and all. 20 years later the girl shared her story, the pastor is now in a mega-church and an author of several books with one more on the way (now canceled.) Once the story hit the news, he decided to tell his present church. The Lead Pastor at his church claimed to be aware of the incident (but I can’t believe that personally.)
Now that you are caught up I just want to say that I, for one, am disgusted by this (for so many reasons.) I hate when men force or pressure women for sex. I really hate when men and especially men in authority roles prey on teenage girls. And I fail to have the proper vocabulary to express the hate for when a pastor or minister engages in such activity. I totally reject this concept that something like this could be an “accident,” “mistake,” or “indiscretion.” There are so many lines that need to be crossed, so many barriers that must be leapt over, so many promises that must be betrayed, and so many sins that must be committed to even get close to this sort of “indiscretion.” I also can’t believe the people that cover for them. A Youth Pastor that will molest one of his kids in youth group is capable of any kind of evil. This is not a “boys will be boys” sort of behavior or whatever Jedi mind trick people try to pull on themselves. Pastors are supposed to be the ultimate position of trust. This is happening far too often. I was a youth pastor for 6 years and have been a lead pastor for 7 years, and during that time I have personally met 3 youth pastors who have slept with one of their students and 2 pastors who have had affairs. I have obviously heard of dozens more but I’m talking about people I have personally met in my area. This is insane. Why is this happening? To answer my own question, we are a porn drenched society, and our pastoral leadership is more interested in authenticity than holiness. Pastors know they too have been involved in sexual sins, and thus they don’t judge when a younger pastor in their care does something similar. I have more advice on how to hopefully curb this, but I want to speak to something more specific today. Are there sins in which a pastor must step down and never be a pastor again? My answer is, yes. Oh definitely YES!!!
I don’t have the time to go through every sin. Obviously, pastors struggle with a variety of sins that should be dealt with in a variety of ways; so I will focus on specifically sexual sins. Here are my caveats, conditions, and consequences:
~Sexual sins that were committed as an unbeliever hold no consequence once a person is truly saved.
Honestly, even a rapist can trust Jesus as their Savior and repent and I would personally not limit their future role in ministry. I would obviously want to see years of spiritual fruit and discipline as evidence that they are truly changed and totally new creatures; but if it was there, I would say they could be a pastor one day. So any sexual sin committee before salvation should not be held against them.
~An exception to this rule would be if there was any abuse to children.
There are some scars that simply do not heal. A child molester can certainly be saved and truly changed. However, they have lost the right to ever work with or even around children ever again. There are a TON of ministry opportunities that they can be involved with, it just shouldn’t be pastoral ministry in a church.
~Sexual Sins while they were a professing Christian but before they were in vocational ministry
The Bible is pretty clear when it comes to sin, and pretty clear when it comes to the character of those in the role of overseer or pastor. What isn’t as clear is can there be a serious sin committed that is truly repented of and then years of proof that the repentance was genuine to then allow for pastoral ministry? For instance, if a Christian engaged in premarital sex could they eventually become a Pastor? Yeah, I would tend to say so. I wouldn’t want to say that something someone did when they were a teenager or in college would prevent them from being a Pastor decades later. What about an affair? That one’s tougher. It could be violating the “one woman man” clause in 1 Timothy 3, but I guess there could be a rare case where it’s hypothetically possible.
~Sexual Sin committed while a pastor, minister, or other church leader.
This is where the most amount of implicit trust is given. If there is any kind of improper sexual conduct from a pastor, my vote is that they are done with pastoral ministry for a lifetime. Yes, they can receive forgiveness from God. Yes, they can receive forgiveness from those involved, their family, and their church; but that doesn’t mean they can ever be involved in pastoral ministry again. They broke a sacred trust. They violated a commitment before both God and men. They can be involved in ministry again for that is just a vague term for helping people. Gifts can still be used in a variety of settings. No sin can end our ministry with people on this earth, but the role and the responsibility of a Pastor has been lost. They should never be a Pastor in any capacity in a church again. Now I wouldn’t necessarily view sexual sins such as pornography or the like with the same outcome. Although still a sin and extremely problematic in marriage and ministry; I think a temporary stepping down, sabbatical, or other lesser consequence is warranted. Yes it is serious and should be treated as such, but there is not a leading of another person into sin and so I think there is the potential to be fully restored to ministry at a future time.
~Sexual Crimes committed while a pastor, minister, or other church leader.
There are no special circumstances here. Pastors should go to jail if they committed a crime. Many states have laws that teachers can still be prosecuted for sleeping with students even if the student is a legal adults. There’s a relationship that should never be unbalanced. I would voluntarily place all pastors under those laws when dealing with students in youth ministry. Certainly the younger the child is the crime is more heinous on several levels, but depending on the situation I think a crime could still be committed even with an “older” student. The unwanted sexual advances committed by the pastor in the opening news story I think warranted criminal prosecution despite “17” being a legal age of consent in his state and him technically not forcibly raping her by any legal definition. The power imbalance is just too great.
Honestly, here’s the key to all this. Some of this has to be self-imposed. Church members are usually suckers for an apology and a few tears. They don’t want to be judgmental and they know they’ve committed sins so they don’t want to condemn too harshly. This is an instance in which a board of elders can help make sure the right decision was made. However, I have far too often seen church leaders just try to protect the “reputation” of the church and just keep everything quiet. This is wrong for everyone involved. It is wrong when the sinner is not held accountable, it is wrong when a victim is not protected, and it is wrong when the church is not able to healthily work through it all. At the end of the day, we all know that a pastor can just up and move to a new community and act like nothing has happened. Unless the police actually handle it, a future church might never know what occurred. A surprising number of churches never background check their pastors anyway. It’s all too easy to hide something on your resume and just get recommendations from close friends who will hide “indiscretions.” Besides, pastors can just plant their own churches without any accountability. Pastors need to choose to step down, and recognize that they forfeited this particular vocation. Pastors need to set examples that other pastors can follow. We are at epidemic conditions when it comes to sexual abuses in our culture. I wish churches and pastors weren’t right in the center of this, but we must lead the way in the proper responses. I’m thankful this pastor after 20 years is publically admitting his wrongdoing. I think he could have used harsher language concerning his actions, but the gist was there. The problem was in his actions. He needed to immediately step-down. He needs to follow whatever procedures are legally required of him. I’m sure after 20 years we are well-past any statute of limitations, but imagine if the incident was handled properly 20 years ago. Is there any way he would have stayed in vocational ministry? Is there any way he’d be hired in his present position? I highly doubt it. The past cannot be changed, but moving forward, we must do better. We must do better than this.
Any other thoughts? Feel free to comment.