|Series Theme: Forgiveness|
Title: 4. When a Leader Falls
So how does forgiveness work when it comes to a Christian leader falling and failing his flock? It's an area that most of us don't think much about, or we only do when a crisis of failure occurs in a leader, and often then it's an emotional knee-jerk type of reaction. This page is to help us think ahead of the crisis to ward it off, or help clear our thinking when the crisis has occurred.
Because we've seen so little written about this, we venture to make the following comments. We are aware that there is probably much more that could be said, particularly in respect of the women involved. For the moment we will restrict our considerations to the man of God concerned.
1. Let's call sin, Sin
There is no question in what follows, that anything in any way diminishing the terribleness and awfulness of sin, and in this case, the sin of a leader. Our man, for it probably is a man, has fallen, so let's not pretend it's otherwise. Somewhere, somehow, he was tempted – and fell! It was sin and he is answerable to God. Please understand that, in what follows, there is nothing about excusing the failure, but a lot about understanding it.
Let's not be coy, the most common observable failure (sin) among leaders tends to be that of adultery. The world does it all the time, but in the Christian congregation it is still a failure of the seventh and tenth of the Ten Commandments. There is a need for reconciliation to God and to his spouse.
The path for him to be reconciled to God is through repentance. Nothing changes because he is a leader. The path out of sin is always repentance. There is no other way, but before that can happen, sometimes many other things have to happen. In all that follows we will assume that the sin was a one-off and the illicit relationship is not ongoing. If it is, our primary goal in prayer must be that it will be ended quickly and the the following will not be able to apply until that relationship is broken off.
2. Realise the Height from which he's Fallen
With the shock of the on-looking congregation – which may be worldwide – it is easy to point fingers. “Surely he of all people ought to have known better!” When we look at the wife he has left behind, it is so easy for our pity for her to fuel our condemnation of him.
The more we point fingers and the more we condemn, the more we reveal the poverty of our own hearts, and the more we reveal our lack of understanding of the human condition, and indeed our own frailty and vulnerability.
What sort of life did this man live? The answer to that can vary incredibly and, in fact, there are as many answers as there are men in leadership.
The One-Man Ministry
On the one hand there is the man ministering alone in a small local church. He's what we call “a one-man ministry” and the emphasis is on his aloneness. He's possibly put on a pedestal by his congregation and that separates him off from all others. There are few that he can share with and those few are often rarely available. He is expected to be all things to all men – and women – and it is in respect of the latter that he is most vulnerable.
He faithfully soldiers on year by year, carrying the same burdens as any other Christian – and a lot more he's taken from the flock! He has given his life for his flock and sometimes foolish people with little or no understanding, make jibes about him “getting a proper job”. That isolates him even more and he has to make yet more effort to overcome the attacks that seek to further diminish his self esteem. He's misunderstood, parodied and criticised by the media and generally mocked. This man is a saint to keep going!
And then one day a lady in the parish shows understanding and concern for him. Someone at least understands. Understanding brings friendship and friendship brings closeness and closeness brings intimacy – that should only be there between he and his wife – and intimacy is half way to the fall.
The Global Giant
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the global giant, the man with a sort of ministry which creates demands on him that have taken him to all corners of the globe. His Diary, Filofax or Palm-Pilot or iPhione are on overload. His ministry is mightily anointed, and he's constantly on the run.
Some of us owe our lives to men like this, but actually they're still human beings, they still get tired, they still get exhausted, they're still tempted and they're still attacked by the enemy. They are still very human, these global giants.
Back at home they have wives and families who pay the price. We think, I expect the times of reunion between husband and wife are great, on his return from a trip of three weeks ministering abroad. Well they would be if he wasn't so tired. You've got to be something special to be married to a global giant.
These are the men who have stood out the front of the great meetings and poured out the grace and goodness of God to us. These are the men who drive hundreds of miles to come to our local church to speak at an evening meeting and who don't get home until two in the morning. These men know the motorways and freeways as well as long distance drivers. These men clock up more miles of air travel in a year than most of us do in a life-time.
These men are there for us in a crisis. We scream and they come running. No wonder they get tired, no wonder they suffer from burn out. It's difficult to say no when someone is in a crisis.
But herein is the problem: these are big men and we look up to them, so they have no one to turn to, no one to pour their heart out to, and because that's just how it is, that's how it is for so many of them. So they get over-tired without realising it. God still blesses their ministry and so the demands keep coming. They should take regular times out but the calls are so insistent that time passes without the man realising that another six months have gone without a real rest. Creeping burnout is insidious and most of us don't spot it, or we just think, “Well, God will supply! ”
Then in the midst of tiredness comes the crisis that involves a member of the opposite sex and the great man shows care, compassion, sympathy and understanding and finds she is crying on his shoulder. Before they know where they are, they are where they shouldn't be.
But God doesn't let the sin of leaders remain under the carpet for long. Either they confess it, or someone else finds out about it and tells others, or a prophet reveals it! Soon it is out in the open. This is the phase of disclosure. It is disclosure of his sin and it is disclosure of our hearts, and that brings us right back to our starting place.
3. How will we respond?
Various things have been said about the Church. Somebody said that the Christian Church is the only place where they shoot wounded soldiers. Somebody else has said that Christians can be the cruellest people alive. Why is this so?
Perhaps it comes from that sense that Christians should not sin. Much preaching focuses on holiness or ‘right living' and the implication is always that we should be people who don't do wrong. Unfortunately this preaching doesn't always bring the balance of grace and the understanding of our frailty (If you would like to think through this whole area in detail go to “Creating a Secure Church – Part 1” by clicking on this link).
The way we respond to the news of the fall of a great leader reveals the state of OUR heart.
King David was described by God as a man after His own heart (1 Sam 13:14). When King Saul failed in his role, “Samuel mourned for him. And the Lord was grieved that he had made Saul over Israel ” (1 Sam 15:35 ), yet when the news of Saul & Jonathan's death came to David, he mourned for him (2 Sam 1:11).
The fact that Saul had utterly failed and never got back into a place of rightness with God before he died, devastated David's heart. David knew that Saul, failure or not, had been the Lord's anointed (v.16), and David ended his lament for Saul and Jonathan with those famous words of anguish, “How the mighty have fallen”. That was not a cynical cry of triumph but a cry of anguish.
May I suggest that an appropriate response when a great man of God falls is not to criticise and endlessly discuss his failure, but to weep for him?
Here is a man of God, perhaps a man who had blessed thousands upon thousands, down through the years, a man who has stirred faith in great crowds, a man who has stirred vision in multitudes, a man who has encouraged and strengthened whole hosts of people. Yes, a human man, a man perhaps with feet of clay, yet a man who has helped build and strengthen the church, a man who has been God's channel of blessing to so many. How soon do we forget all that in the face of one awful failure and the ensuing pandemonium?
4. Where will we go?
This is so often the cry of hearts that have been shattered by the great man's fall? Who will look after us now? Who will lead us? Such self-centred cries!
Pause for a moment and think about this fallen man of God. What has led him to this point? What is he going through now? What future has he? Let's consider each of those questions.
What has led him to this point?
How did he get to this point of failure? There may be a variety of answers. Perhaps it was a gradual growth of vulnerability that came, either through growing confidence in his own strength or through a growing weariness of spirit through constant ministry. Whichever it was, where were the confidantes, the people closest to him, who should have seen what was going on and spoken into his need.
The pointing finger will, at this point, say, “But he wouldn't let us!” Really? Would no one spend time and care and perhaps money on this man to bless him and help him face his vulnerability? WE let him down. WE put him on a pedestal where he became a target. WE failed to win his heart with our love and concern. It's not just him who needs to repent.
Does sin just happen, was it just a moment's weakness that brought about the succumbing to the temptation? Think again. If this is a man of God of the ilk that we have been speaking about, he has probably preached many times about the sanctity of marriage, possibly with great anointing. He has so much going for him, both from the past glories, the present challenges and the future possibilities, that it takes a lot to bring about the downfall of such a man.
No, this was creeping burnout that may not have been recognised that weakened him and made him vulnerable. This was why he didn't share because in a growing state of burnout you start losing perspective and don't realise the dangers until it is too late.
What is he going through now?
Quite possibly a cold numbness is all he can feel. Maybe there has been the guilt, maybe there has been a defensive justification of all that happened, for sin is deceptive and few sins seem to produce greater deception than adultery. Maybe he feels isolated. He has blown it and his Christian world is against him. Maybe he's in turmoil wondering how he can dig himself out of this mess. Maybe there is shame and weeping. Maybe there is an inability to believe that any good can come through this. Maybe there is an inability to even want to consider the possibility of reconciliation with his wife. His mind is in confusion, if for no other reason than the fact that he has stepped over a line he has preached about for years and led others to believe in. His emotions are all over the place.
How do we know this is true? Because if it wasn't, he would come into the congregation of his people and say, “I have sinned against you and against God, and I desperately need your help.” Some, by the grace of God, do that quickly. Others take time to come to that place. Some others never come to it. But until our man does that, how will we be thinking of him?
What future has he?
What will happen to him? That will certainly depend upon God, but it may also depend, in a measure, upon us. If you struggle with this, just remember what this man has given you in the past – his life.
The world is good at talking about goals and objectives. What should our goal be?
It MUST be to seek his restoration (Gal 6:1). How can we help this man be restored to God? How can we help him, be restored to his wife (and there is a massive area of help needed probably)? How can we help him be restored to his congregation?
Perhaps, initially, he may not actually want any of these things; he's just too shot to pieces to want to achieve anything at the moment. Perhaps in the hurt, pain or confusion of the present, even repentance is a bridge too far.
God is not in a rush. He knows His son. Maybe there are other things on God's agenda first. Maybe this child of God has got to find loving, caring and accepting friendship of his friends before anything else can happen. Maybe they've just got to “be there” for him. Not trying to fix anything, not trying to do anything, but just being there for him.
Perhaps the best thing we can do for this man is to offer to send he and his wife to Bermuda for three months (yes three months!) with the offer of a caring mentor to pop in regularly to check them out, just to see how they are.
You are now spluttering over this? Is your legalism surfacing? Do I hear, “You're suggesting we REWARD this sinner?????” No, I'm suggesting we give him time to recuperate, for if you haven't realised it yet, he's a severe casualty of war.
This is a man of God we're talking about. A man who has spent hours and hours and hours in prayer, studying the word, encouraging people, counselling the distressed, being there for others! This man gave up his life for others!
So, do we want to see this ministry vanish off the face of the earth, or do we want to see it blessing the world again, bringing even greater glory to the King of Kings, and joy and blessing to the people of God?
5. So where does forgiveness come in?
Why have we placed these notes in the section of this site that has been considering the whole subject of forgiveness? Because one of these days our leader, this fallen man of God, is going to come seeking it, and you might need to get ready.
Alternatively you may be in a position of closeness to this man, and so you may be part of God's plan in bringing him back to a good place where he can seek forgiveness and receive it but, as we said earlier, it may need a number of things to happen before that can be possible, and you might be a player in all of that.
In the previous notes on forgiveness we spoke about the need to hold a right attitude towards your offender, seeking his welfare even when you confront him. If our man is a man of God and a casualty of war, confronting is not what he needs at the moment – God will do that in His time. Perhaps all he needs at the present is the total love and understanding of the people of God, especially those who were close to him, who are utterly committed to his restoration. Not approval of what he has done, but understanding of it at the very least.
6. To Conclude
Weep for this man. Pray for him. Consider how you can bless him. He needs our love, our care, our concern. If you haven't understood this page, ask God for wisdom (Jas 1:5). There is a staggering opportunity for the grace of God to be seen in action through the people of God, a grace that is unique and which will be seen nowhere else on the earth. May it be to His glory!