What happens when someone in leadership has a moral failure?
Moral failures are not just crossing sexual boundaries; they include patterns of deceit, theft, harassment, assault and more. Each situation is unique, but here are some common questions to guide leaders as they make decisions.
1. How Bad Is It? Misusing a church credit card for a personal expense one time deserves a reprimand, a second chance, and keeping a close eye on expenditures. Charging $5,000 on a church credit card over multiple shopping trips deserves dismissal and possible criminal charges. That’s why you need a team to analyze the impact of the offense.
2. What message are you sending? A student intern crossed a line with student of the opposite sex. The Student Pastor saw great potential in the intern for ministry and pleaded for the intern to be kept in his position. The pastor wisely saw the student involved would feel devalued and unsafe if the intern were left in the position. Both the student and the intern needed to understand the matter was serious, even if it happened one time.
3. Does the leader with the failure own it? Listen closely to the leader’s statements. Do they attempt to blame someone else for their choices? Do they minimize their conduct and its impact? Listen for something like this: “I made a terrible mistake. I sinned. I’m sorry.” The person is dealing in the truth. God can heal and redeem when people deal in the truth.
4. What story do church leaders need to tell? I get that churches need to be legally smart. I also know that absent good information, people will connect the dots in the most pathological way possible. To me, it’s devastating to the church’s reputation and to the reputation of the Kingdom of God for the story in the paper to be: “The church, citing legal counsel, refused to comment.” The smartest thing legally may be to say nothing, but church and organizational health matter as well. There is a way to tell the story and protect yourself legally. For example, in the case of an employee who physically threatened another employee, you need to share that employee failed to uphold the values of the church, and thus had to be dismissed.
5. Who are the innocent? The innocent may be the family of the leader, who had no idea there was an issue. The innocent may include those impacted by the moral failure. I do think churches should provide for families when the church leader has failed. However, I think the assistance needs to be structured in such a way so the family is helped and the church leader is not enabled.
6. What is the right help to provide? In church world, it is appropriate to surround a failed leader with prayer (not a bad strategy for all other organizations as well). Provide counseling from a third-party provider for victims. If the leader with the moral failure is truly repentant, offer third-party counseling for the leader also. Church leaders greatly overestimate their ability to offer helpful counseling when a leader’s failure impacts their own organization or congregation.
7. Are you the prophet? I’ve found myself in this role more often that I wanted. Prophets don’t just tell the future; prophets declare the truth to people who are in denial. Change doesn’t happen until a person faces the truth. Often it means they must hit bottom first. When a leader with a moral failure off loads responsibility, shifts blame, or minimizes what has occurred, church leaders have no choice but to be the hard edge of the truth. That may mean letting someone go without a severance package. It means refusing to give a good reference when it can’t be done authentically (also known as “lying”). It’s a hard calling, but sometimes God wants you to be truth that accelerates the impact of reality.
I know no one wants to deal with the moral failure of a leader. Chances are you will, and you need some good questions in your back pocket to get your started.