The fallen clergy: any hope?

Do we need to develop a system of redemptive restoration for pastors who experience a moral fall?

Norman K. Miles, Ph.D., is the president of Lake Region Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Chicago, Illinois.

James Cress's article "A Call to Consistency" (November 1994) addresses a very critical concern in the Adventist community. There has always been some sexual misconduct among the clergy, but the church has traditionally held a high moral standard regarding the conduct of its ministers in this area. The church has a right to expect exemplary moral con duct from its ministers. It therefore insists that violation of the code of acceptable conduct cannot be ignored. Our present policies are the result of such a position, coupled with a belief that stern measures are an effective deterrent to those who might be on the verge of misconduct and an appropriate message to the entire community of faith.

These policies are well-meaning attempts to address a serious issue in a responsible manner. However, those who have the responsibility of implementing the policies see the need for a system of redemption and restoration. Anyone who has served as a pastor knows that no one, no matter how devoted, is beyond the reach of sexual misconduct. Many ministers who are guilty of a moral fall were committed workers who found themselves en tangled in Satan's web because they were either unaware of the danger signs or believed that they were beyond such things. By the time they realized they were snared, it was too late to do any thing about the situation but to confess and accept the consequences, or hide the problem and hope that it would go undiscovered.

Conference presidents, executive committees, and in some cases local churches have been reluctant to discipline a truly repentant worker because no standard redemptive policy is in place. The current policy does not allow for a person guilty of sexual sin ever to serve as a denominational employee again. Since many believe this policy is too severe, they circumvent it by allowing the person to resign and retain credentials, by terminating for reasons other than sexual misconduct, or by any number of other creative methods.

The result is a crazy quilt of practices that in many cases diminishes the seriousness of the problem and lowers the respect of the parishioners for the clergy in general and the conference leadership in particular. Moreover, we become very vulnerable to legal actions when we knowingly shift workers who have committed sexual sins to other places. The church is quietly paying large sums of money to settle such cases. We desperately need a consistent policy, but one that has a provision and procedure for restoration when that is deemed advisable.

Cress quotes a resolution of the Ministerial Association regarding clergy sexual misconduct. The second point of this resolution says that "it is unreasonable to ask members to trust pastors who have engaged in sexual misconduct." I disagree. It is no more unreasonable for members to trust a person who has been guilty of sexual sin than it is to trust people who have been guilty of other sins. If our past sins determined whether we could be trusted to lead, many whom we revere as significant and inspiring leaders would never have had the opportunity to lead, including Moses the murderer, David the adulterer, Peter the betrayer, or Paul the persecutor.

The Bible has notable examples of leaders who were guilty of terrible sins but were rehabilitated. One of the most wonderful aspects of the Christian message is that people who have sinned can be forgiven, cleansed, and completely changed. We teach people that Jesus can redeem and restore people. Whenever possible, restoration should be our goal for fallen pas tors. To do otherwise is not to have compassion at all, no matter what we say.

I wish the church would utilize its energies to help administrators develop a system which could help us salvage some fallen ministers. Such a system could have five stages:

Repentance. The guilty pastor should show significant evidence of repentance and a real effort to correct the wrongs the immoral behavior has caused.

Cessation from public ministry. A minister guilty of a moral fall should be required to cease any public minis try for a definite period of time. This could vary between one and two years. During this period the minister should not be allowed to preach, teach Sabbath School, lead meetings, or other wise engage in public aspects of worship and church leadership.

Counseling. The minister should be required to undergo a specific counseling program that should include an extended period of spiritual counseling with a qualified counselor. This service should also be made available to the minister's family, the other party involved, and his/her family.

Observation and gradual involvement. A fallen minister could be gradually involved in Bible studies and other nonpublic ministerial work under close observation and direction during the time of the minister's censure.

Restoration. When a fallen minister has met all of the previous requirements and is considered rehabilitated, that minister could be recommended for ministerial employment on a probationary basis.

Similar systems are already in place in some denominations. If we had something like this to use, we could have the consistency we need while making provision for those who could and should be restored to denominational service.

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Norman K. Miles, Ph.D., is the president of Lake Region Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Chicago, Illinois.

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