Seven Questions to Ask When Dealing With a Moral Failure


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.

Us, Too…

Harvey Weinstein.jpeg

Harvey Weinstein, the Broadway and Hollywood producer has been accused by more than a dozen women of sexual assault and rape.  While I believe a person is innocent until proven guilty, the accusations against Weinstein have unleashed a wave of courageous women stepping forward to say, “Me, too.”

I’d like to pretend such things don’t happen in church world, but they do.  Kay Warren (wife of Rick Warren) and Beth Moore have stepped forward to describe their own encounters with predators.  My acquaintance, Molly Marshall, shared that her married Elementary Greek instructor at seminary hit on her in the seminary library.  When she did not respond to his advances, her grade was lowered from a “A” to an “A-.”

I remember interviewing a Children’s Pastor candidate who told me she was on her knees, working in a supply closet, when her pastor came by and remarked, “I like to see a woman on her knees.”  His tone made it clear he was not talking about prayer.

Jesus told us lust is the same as committing adultery.  The word Jesus used means to crave something intensely.  Lusting is not noticing a woman is a woman, or that a woman is attractive (or, for that matter, that man is a man or a man is attractive).  Lust is seeing a person as an object.  Lust is craving a person to merely satisfy your own appetite.  Jesus told us we are more than our appetites (as opposed to Freud).

Every one of us has given in to our appetites.  Almost every man I know, including myself, has objectified woman at some point in time.  I feel ashamed of my juvenile attitudes.  I have sought to make amends as appropriate for actions of the past.  I think every man should.  I know women can lust as well, but I am not able to address that point of view.

When we read stories about Harvey Weinstein, we must say, “Me, too.  There have been points in my life when I let my sexual appetite take control.”  When our sexual appetites take control, we make people like a candy bar we crave.  God made us to be more than objects – that’s the belief of Jesus followers.

As Jesus followers, we should not expect non-Jesus followers to live by Jesus’s values.  I don’t think we should delight when Hollywood gets caught in a contradiction of its own values.  We must confess there is a sexual assault issue in the church we cannot ignore.  We have no room for self-righteousness.

We declare courageously Jesus offers a different way of seeing a person’s worth.  A person is valued not because of their sexuality, but because they are created in the image of God.

But more than this, the church must ruthlessly confront any effort to exploit a person sexually.  There must be no double standard for male or female.  No one in church should ever fear sexual assault or suggestiveness. 

We may say something we think is funny, but it is harmful.  When we realize we’ve caused offense in Jesus’s church, we must apologize at once and seek forgiveness.  We must call out those whose “hugs” are pathetic attempts at sexual gratification, and tell them such behavior is not tolerated.  We must speak truth that suggestive sexual comments have no place in the body of Christ.  All people need to feel safe in Jesus’s church.

When a pastor or a church leader is guilt of sexual assault (verbal or physical), that person needs to step away from church leadership.  No matter how gifted they are as a leader or a preacher, we cannot allow them to stay in a position “for the sake of the ministry.”  There are hills worth dying on and this is one.

Years ago, I was teaching on lust on a Wednesday night.  One of our more conservative members spoke up to declare the problem was not men, but what women were wearing.  If only they wore more clothes, he said, lust would not be a problem for him. 

I thought a moment, then replied there was a flaw in his argument.  No one can make you lust, just as no one can make you sin.  Sin is your choice.

His response, “Preacher, when a woman takes off all her clothes in front of you, I have no choice but to lust.” 

I didn’t want to explore what that statement meant.  But God gave me the words I needed at just the moment.  Before I knew what was coming out of my mouth, I said, “It’s her choice to take off her clothes.  It’s my choice to close my eyes.”

Make the choice that honors Jesus.