Dealing with a fallen pastor?

Seventh of eight articles on pastoral sexual misconduct.

MiroslavM. Kis, Ph.D., professor of ethics at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Editorial Note: This article is the first of a further two that have been added to the six by Miroslav Kis that have appeared in Ministry throughout 2004. The final article will appear in the March issue of Ministry. It is almost redundant, yet it is important, to say that significant discussion and study has been given to the question of dealing effectively with "fallen" pastors and especially to the question of whether or not they should ever again be reinstated to full-fledged ministry. We hope that his series, which Ministry does not present as a final word, and this article particularly will contribute to the dialogue that has again been agitated by recent events that touch all communities of Christian faith, including that of Seventh-day Adventists.

The storm is subsiding. The damage is being assessed, and the two hurting families are now gingerly taking their first steps to recovery. Will the two marriages survive? Are both erring parties remorseful? Are they both willing and able to release their illegitimate claims on each other? Will they realize that they really don't need each other? That the worst thing that can happen now is a relapse?

In some cases such decisions are made quickly, unilaterally; in others the movements are slow and painful. Only wise friendship and truly professional advice can help, because wounds must be properly examined and thoroughly cleaned before healing can commence.

Yet in all this, one more perplexing issue looms large. It rests heavily on the pastor's mind, and dealing with it demands wisdom beyond the human:

What are the professional prospects of the fallen brother?

Should he ever again be entrusted with the pastoral care for the sheep? Will the wounds ever heal sufficiently so that the injured families, the local church, and the local community can trust him fully again?

How can we, fallible human beings, discern these things? Can we ever place ourselves fully in the shoes of the injured? Do we know how it feels when, like a trusting sheep, a woman makes herself vulnerable to her shepherd, and he treats her as a hireling would—for his own exploitative advantage and pleasure, perhaps, in the name of love?

On the other hand, can we identify with a truly repentant pastor, who can do nothing more to regain trust, nothing more than wait and turn to some other professional vocation? No, we may not have a satisfactory answer to all these questions. Yet we must decide. We must act; and if we err, we must err on the side of mercy and that in behalf of the victims before we look at the side of the fallen pastor (John 10:17).

We will first examine and evaluate the reasons that would favor the potential reinstatement of the once fallen pastor. Next we must look courageously at factors that call us to caution, and prudence.

Letting go?

The most painful aspect in the process of healing ministry is when love must let people go (Luke 15:12, 13). There are two such occasions for the erring minister. The first is when his local church begins her care in terms of church discipline.

Removal from membership is the first letting go for which he must be prepared. The very board that assisted him through many issues during his tenure in that congregation must now con front their pastor's behavior as an issue. Yet this letting go must not become a rejection.

Removal from membership places a repentant sinner in a kind of ICU—the intensive care unit of the church. An intentional and methodical healing process must now begin in earnest. This is the instruction of Jesus in Matthew 18:17.

The person is not to be rejected. Not he but his sinful ways must be shunned. It may seem paradoxical, but our Savior paid special attention to "sinners" by associating and eating with them. All the while He was inviting them to a higher standard of moral purity.1

Christ's body must become a channel of forgiving grace as well as an artery of enabling grace, helping the fallen pastor to gain victory over his sin. In ministering to him, the church ministers to her own wounds as well. Her all-encompassing goal is to win back the lost (Matt. 18:15), to achieve sufficient reconciliation between the parties, so that arms of full fellowship may be extended to all.

But there is this other letting go that comes as we face the pastor's fall on the professional/vocational level. This is a singularly painful consideration for his employing organization and his col leagues to make. It contemplates an agonizing step. Only an insensitive legalist cannot feel the emptiness that fills the heart as this step is contemplated.

Fear of self-righteous legalism and the pain of watching a brother walking off become almost unbearable. If only time could be turned back just a few months and, if only we had known what we know now, perhaps we would have risked intervening and, perchance, averted adultery and he could still be with us.

Why does this step of letting go feel so much like it's letting down, like abandoning? Why is it that love must have this harsher side?2 What reasons could we find to bring him back some day?

1. In despair we may think of David3 of his fall, his repentance, and forgiveness. David learned wisdom from God's dealings with him and bowed in humility beneath the chastisement of the Most High. The faithful portrayal of his true state by the prophet Nathan acquainted David with his own sins and aided him in putting them away. He accepted counsel meekly and humiliated himself before the Lord.4

After the way Nathan confronted David, David could see what he had not been able to fathom before in the blindness of his passion:

  • He measures just how expensive adultery is. A sexual affair cannot subsist on its own. It needs the props and back drops provided by other sins such as duplicity, injustice, violence, and high handed murder. It engages innocent bystanders as accomplices (2 Sam. 11:2-5,6, 14-27).
  • David realizes now that there is no power, no dignity, no authority on earth that this sin cannot bring to dust. He realizes that anyone can become subject to this sort of behavior, even him.
  • This experience exposes both David's foolishness (Prov. 6:32) and his honesty. It also has a way of unearthing his courage. He listens quietly while one of his subjects, a junior prophet, con fronts him directly; he looks in the mirror and faces his own sin squarely. While his predecessor Saul tore Samuel's robe in an effort to pretend that all is fine (1 Sam.15:24-31), David rends his own heart before God and the prophet and bears his consequences with dignity (Ps. 51). Yet he is not removed from his throne.

2. Or perhaps we should look at Moses (Num. 20:10-13) and Peter5 (Matt. 26:69-75), who, in spite of their sins, did not have to leave their appointed posts of responsibility. They remained where they were professionally, still serving as spiritual leaders, and the results of their ministry following their forgiveness testifies to the power of God's restoring grace.

"Feed my lambs." "Tend my sheep." "Feed my sheep" (John 21:15-17). These were the words Peter needed most.

After all, who really needs this departure of a fallen minister, and for what reason? Can the church afford to waste such talent and experience? Are we realistic about the nature of the ministerial profession? Adultery is not an unpardonable sin, so why not forgive and turn the page? What about pornography? One can be addicted to it, gain the victory over it, and his employment may still remain unquestioned. What is the difference?

Consider David

Let us consider David first.

  •  Can we compare the restoration of David, a fallen public servant, to the reinstating of an erring minister? I can not. God seems to hold firmly to the terms of reference of a king versus those of a priest or prophet. His decisive reaction to King Saul's usurping of Samuel's priestly duty indicates His insistence on guarding that distinction (1 Sam. 15:22, 23). A king's and a priest's identities are not interchangeable, and thus God's treatment of a king's adultery must not be an example for the treatment of a pastor's adultery.
  • David was a monarch, holding an executive power (2 Sam. 8:15). When his authority all but vanished following his adultery with Bathsheba,6 he could still lead, relying on the sheer prerogatives of his office. But pastors do not hold such power. Even if ministers and leaders of the church may covet "kingly power," 7 Jesus placed a veto on such prerogatives for his disciples: "It shall not be so among you" (Matt. 20:26).

The pastor's power is derived from a different source than that of a political leader. Thus, short of royal hegemony, the fallen pastor's reinstatement faces an impossible challenge to his leader ship, due to loss of loyalty and trust.

  • Sin is sin for all believers. There is no distinction. What is distinguished is that God holds the pastor to a more strict accountability than is the case with a lay leader like David (James 3:1 ).8

Thus the two priests, sons of Eli, died (1 Sam. 4:14-18), and adulterous priests of whom Malachi speaks were rejected by God (Mal. 2:1 3, 14). Ellen G. White, in writing to a fallen pastor, says, "Your guilt will be as much greater than that of the common sinner as your advantages of light and influence have been greater."9

When a layperson succumbs to temptation, he automatically breaches both his covenant with his wife and his covenant made with God at baptism. The minister's path to adultery, however, is wrought with additional barriers. As he faces the same temptation, he cannot avoid denying these same covenants as a lay person and, in addition, the covenant of ordination to a holy office, the pledge of responsibility to his flock, and the very real promises to the community at large.

When flirting, he makes a conscious decision to resist the prompting of his Christian conscience, but he also resolves to trifle with his professional identity and divine calling. It is this denial of his pastoral identity, when he engages in actions akin to that of a hireling, that leads naturally to letting him go from his post of duty. In a very real sense the pastor defrocks himself. The church has only to recognize it and act on his choices. Adultery has altered his identity. He is no more who he was before, and that is an enormous tragedy.

In the case of Moses and Peter, the issue centers on the nature of their sins. Moses had an immense problem with anger (Exod. 2:11-15; Num. 20:9-11), and Peter publicly denied his Master (Matt. 6:69-75). These are grievous sins indeed, yet they are not the sins of sexual infidelity, and the difference is not insignificant.

  • The apostle Paul insists that sexual infidelity is unlike any other sin, because it affects the very being, and the person in his/her totality (soma). No other sin produces this kind of impact and consequences (1 Cor. 6:18).10


  • Moses' anger and Peter's denial did not engage other people in their sin, at least not as intimately or as deeply as sexual infidelity does. Jesus teaches that adultery can happen even in the privacy of our minds (Matt. 5:28). Pornographic obsession and a lustful look are private and solitary forms of adultery that offend God, cheapen myself, and undermine my resistance to sexual involvement with my neighbor's wife.

They also inhibit my "one flesh" unity with my spouse. Yet, as long as they remain in the privacy of my mind, my neighbor's wife is safe. In such a private exercise, I am both the perpetrator and the primary victim of my fantasy. But once it involves another free-willed human being (somo) who trusts me because of my professional power, vocational covenant, and commitments, and I take advantage of this trust by engaging her at this most intimate level, my sin becomes uniquely destructive. It cheapens the identity of Christian ministry and spoils my self concept and that of my neighbor's wife, of our spouses, and so on.

  • Peter's example must not be taken by itself as the standard for dealing with ministers who commit adultery. While Peter's experience does present us with insights into the possibility of repentance, forgiveness, and the inestimable blessings of divine compassion and a forgiving community, Peter's sin was not hypocritical or done in secret, as is the case with most ministers who sin sexual ly. They usually attempt to hide their sin and admit to it only after their behavior is exposed.

In these days of compromise and moral laxity, it is preeminently important for us to view sexual sin as something very serious, especially when it involves a Christian minister and someone under his care. A ministry with high visibility bears a much greater responsibility, and this must be taken into account in the administration of discipline.

Lingering by

In my view, the pastor who loses his credentials due to adultery remains a former pastor for the rest of his life. During the time he may be involved in a therapy process, and assuming his involvement in helping all who hurt, the former pastor assists his own healing. As time passes and wounds are mended, these very painful trials may equip him to reach out to others who are tempted or overcome by temptation. He may remember the care that he and his family, as well as the family of the other woman, received from the local church and the church's administrative office. Such a former pastor may also recall what was lacking and work to improve the healing ministry for the fallen.

In the next few lines, former pastors share their insights from their firsthand experience with adultery. Their identities must remain anonymous. We also must listen to the voice of experienced leaders and experts.

1. Pastoral position is not a right, it is a privilege. This is one stunning realization. The pastoral office holds no entitlement. When adultery is discovered, you will be quietly relieved of your duties, and, gently but firmly, you may be urged to get legal counsel. It may be suggested that you vacate your office, and you may be referred to a treatment program for sexual addiction. That is when it dawns on you that you are not untouchable.

"I was falling off a cliff in slow motion," remembers a Lutheran pastor.11 "Name recognition, years of service, degrees, sense of a call, or talents are no guarantee for employment or reinstatement.

2. Sexual addiction? Upon referral for treatment of your sexual addiction, your initial reaction will most likely be that of irritation. "Is an affair necessarily an issue of addiction?" It was during the two years of therapy away from his family, following the 12-step process of recovery, that this pastor was led to see that adultery is a result of one of many forms of sexual addiction. "I was confronted until I could identify sexual abuse as something I wanted to excuse as 'errors in judgment' or 'misunderstood innocent gestures of love and care.' I was forced to keep looking at my motives until I could see my behavior as full of deliberate acts of violence motivated by selfishness and the desire to control and hurt and to get back collectively at all those who had hurt me." 12 In this light an indefinite loss of pastoral employment looked more defensible.

3. A call to ministry and pastoral position are not the same. A sense of shame and guilt may cripple any desire for involvement in the life of the church for years. But in time, and after healing has revived the sense of mission, nothing should interfere with a former pastor's assisting in serving those who are in need, even if a pastorate is not an option.

4. Magnitude of the loss of power, trust, and privacy. Few of us can appreciate the extent of credit, trust, and power that our parishioners grant us upon our arrival in a congregation. Unfortunately, it is only when we lose that credibility and trust that we can see the true dimensions of our loss.

In the truest sense, the confrontations, hearings, confession, repentance, therapy; the strained relationship with the spouse; and indefinite loss of employment, excruciating though these may be, are the only way back to sanity. You feel like there is no shred of privacy left in you. But another former pastor explains, "Not even time can heal that which is kept from the light of day." 13

5. An affair is but the "tip of an ice berg of deep unresolved emotional and interpersonal issues of anger, loneliness, performance pressures and power hunger." 14 In the case of clergy adultery, we are never dealing only with a sexual misconduct. We are responding to con sequences, as much as to causes. So much more is hidden behind, and we must not take the risk of leaving any aspect of recovery to chance.

6. The minister's emotional and inter personal issues must be fully restored before he can engage in any form of helping service. "To these must be added a genuine renewal of genuine biblical spirituality, irrefutable evidence of an improved marital relationship (if he is married and his wife agrees to stay with him), and a construction of a long-term accountability and support system." 15

7. The Seventh-day Adventist Ministerial Handbook distinguishes clearly the forgiveness of sin and re-employment in pastoral ministry. "While violation of the seventh commandment makes pastors ineligible for employment in pastoral ministry, they need and can experience God's forgiving grace and love. The church should seek to restore and nurture their spiritual and family relation ships." 16

8. At the time when a minister's credentials are withdrawn and the pastor departs his post of duty, it is not wise to make any indication about the pastor's possible return to any form of church work. 17 There are several reasons for this:

(a) No one can be certain how much damage has been or is being done, nor how long and how complete the recovery will be.

(b) God desires that His ministers lead not by executive power, clever methods, or impressive charisma but much rather by example "in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity" (1 Tim. 4:12, RSV).

(c) The former pastor must put all his energies to work on recovery and healing for no other reason, and from no other motive, than a sense of justice that demands restitution for damages, repair of relationships, and rehabilitation of reputations. Often, promises and eagerness to turn the page create a pressure, and encourage impatience, that discourage the thoroughness and conscientious care so much needed for deep treatment of wounds and for restoration of damaged identities.

From colleague to colleague

If only I could learn the fundamental lessons from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

First is the lesson about sin. Ever since it entered humanity, sin has never ceased to put on an appearance of goodness, which inevitably proves to have a hidden hook of evil imbedded deep within it. Yet I keep being duped by its promises to the point where I feel that sin is a natural part of me.

So I keep acting as if it is normal to sin, and I give it not only a visa or a place of residence in me and in my behavior but citizenship. It must not be so. Sin is an intruder, a life-sapping par asite. My sinfulness is not my true identity. It is but a tragic caricature of God's image in me.

Christ at His death on the cross took with Him my sin and left it there in the tomb on the morning of the resurrection. "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts" (Rom. 6:12, NASB).

In fact, I have found that sin has nothing good to offer. There is no peace in it when I'm restless, no wisdom when I need counsel, no boldness when I'm discouraged. Adultery is no solution to the problem when my marriage does not answer my needs.

My female congregant does not need to hear about my marital issues in order to encourage her to open her heart. Sin is perfectly impotent for good.

The second lesson is about the devil. A long time ago I read somewhere that the devil has 99 blankets. He tempts you, but you resist. He does not give up until he convinces you that he will cover your sin hermetically so that no one will be able to see it; it's just between him (the father of lies) and you.

And so in time you may give in. You come home, your spouse is cheerful and loving. You stand to preach; eloquence and insights at maximum. Everything seems to continue to go well. You feel you are well covered, but your resistance is weaker for every next temptation. After 40 blankets you feel a weight, but by now the habit has conquered your will. At 80 or 90 blankets you seek for temptation yourself. Then comes the 100th sin.

At this point, the devil comes and very compassionately informs you that not only does he not have any more blankets, but he unfortunately has to take off 99 from your history, because he needs to go to the neighboring district where your colleague "needs" his help. Thus in one instant you are dis covered naked, under the floodlights, and in full view of your wife, your children, your church, your fellow pastors, and your community. Not even a fig leaf to cover you!

Except for the Father's voice: "Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him. . . ." God has but one robe, and no sins are hidden beneath it as there are under the devil's blanket. Under His robe, sins and sinful habits are revealed and extracted, however painful that process may be.

At times it might even feel like an amputation without the benefit of anesthesia. But the benefits of being justified in God's sight and brought to live a sanctified life are eternal.

And there you stand. No rights, no expectations, just grace—at the thresh old of healing, back at home.


1 See Marlin Jeschke, Disdplmg m the Church (Scottsdale, Pa.' Herald Press, 1988), 74-89.

2 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 5:683

3 Tim LaHaye, If Ministers Fall, Can They Be Restored? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 107, 116-118.

4 White, 683.

5 LaHaye, 115, 119.

6 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, Idaho. Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1958), 727-745.

7 , Life Sketches (Nampa, Idaho. Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1915), 386; Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 232, 233.

8 Dr Jimmy Draper quoted by LaHaye, 134.

9 Ellen G. White, Letter written in 1886, see also LaHaye, 128.

10 See a more extensive discussion in Ministry, 76, No 3: 10-12, 19.

11 Anonymous, "A Lutheran Pastor," Pastoral Psychology journal, 39, No. 4 (1991): 259-264.

12 Pastoral Psychology journal, ibid.

13 Anonymous, "Sexual Addiction" Pastoral Psychology journal, 39, No. 4 (1991) 265-268.

14 Judith Karman, "Healing the Wounded Pastor in a Dysfunctional World," Fuller Focus, 11, (Winter 1993): 23.

15 Stanley J Grenz and Roy D. Bell, Betrayal of Trust (Downer's Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 172.

16 Seventh-day Adventist Minister's Handbook (Silver Spring, Md. The Ministerial Association: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists,1997), 56,

17 Grenz, 172



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MiroslavM. Kis, Ph.D., professor of ethics at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

January 2005

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