I have a confession to make … and it’s very painful indeed.
My name is Shirley. Earlier this year, I said something to a friend that eventually resulted in devastation for our pastor … his family … our church … and my family.
Several months ago, I came home from work early one day, and I passed by the home of my friend Sandi.
Sandi’s car was in the driveway, but her husband’s car was gone, and a Ford truck – belonging to our pastor – was parked in front of Sandi’s house.
My first thought was, “Could something be going on between Sandi and Pastor Joe?”
So I drove by several more times later that afternoon, just to be certain, and sure enough, the pastor’s truck was still there.
By 4:45, Pastor Joe’s truck was gone, and by 5:35, the car of Sandi’s husband was parked in their driveway.
I was suspicious. Years before, I knew someone whose church was devastated when it was discovered that the pastor was having an affair, so I’ve always been on the lookout for such signs.
Of course, I didn’t have any proof that anything was happening between the pastor and Sandi, but if something was happening, I didn’t want to remain silent, either.
So I called Beth, a good friend and the wife of a board member, and told her what I saw. Beth thanked me for my call.
Two weeks later, the conversation at church was dominated by a single topic: Pastor Joe and Sandi were having an affair!
For the next several Sundays, the congregation was full of tension. People stood around in cliques and spoke in hushed tones before and after services. I happened to walk by two groups, and overheard both of them discussing the same topic: the relationship between the pastor and Sandi.
But I didn’t dare tell anyone that I was the person who initially raised the issue.
Beth told me that the board had already held an emergency meeting without Pastor Joe. Then the board called another meeting and met with Pastor Joe alone, who vigorously denied that he was having an affair with Sandi.
But right around that time, I started receiving emails and phone calls from people at church claiming that the pastor was guilty of even more wrongdoing.
He was accused of mishandling church funds … of firing the youth minister out of jealousy … of ignoring the seniors in our church … and of mismanaging his family.
Suddenly, it was open season on Pastor Joe.
There were so many rumors flying around about his character and conduct that the board didn’t know what to do.
Due to their anxiety, some important families threatened to leave the church unless Pastor Joe was fired, so the board asked for Pastor Joe’s resignation.
But the pastor didn’t want to resign. He claimed that he had done nothing wrong, and that all the rumors were really overreactions.
But nobody seemed to hear Pastor Joe’s denials … they only focused on all the new charges.
And then two staff members … several members of the church board … and leaders from the women’s ministry made additional charges against Pastor Joe.
The staff members claimed that he never affirmed them and demanded too much from them.
Several board members stated that the pastor’s marriage must be in shambles because of his affair.
The women’s ministry leaders stated that Pastor Joe didn’t like women and that he always made them feel uncomfortable.
And on and on and on …
It’s been months since Pastor Joe finally left the church. We have an interim pastor now, but we’ve lost one-third of our congregation … including some of my best friends … and the board has sent out three letters begging the congregation to give more money by year’s end or we won’t be able to pay our bills.
In the meantime, I eventually found out the real reason why Pastor Joe was at Sandi’s house that afternoon.
Sandi’s husband Neil was raised by an uncle. The uncle lived across the country, and died suddenly of a heart attack.
The news devastated Neil. He called Pastor Joe and asked him to come to his house right away.
When Pastor Joe went inside Sandi’s house, Neil was there the whole time … and Neil’s car was missing because it was in a repair shop.
If a couple need counseling, they usually go the pastor’s office at church … but if there’s a death in the family, the pastor usually goes to see them in their house.
I should have known that, but for some reason, I forgot.
Right now, I’m wracked with guilt … and I don’t want to tell anybody what I said or who I said it to.
I just pray that someday, Pastor Joe can forgive me.
This story is a composite of stories I’ve heard from pastors and board members, although I do know a situation where a pastor was forced to resign because his car was parked outside a woman’s house.
There are several themes to this sad but increasingly common narrative:
First, Shirley should have checked with either Pastor Joe or Sandi before she shared her suspicions with anyone else at church.
She might have emailed the pastor and said, “Hey, I noticed your truck at Neil and Sandi’s house last week. Is everything okay?”
Or she might have walked up to Sandi at church the next Sunday and said, “I noticed that the pastor’s truck was outside your house last Thursday. I hope things are all right with your family.”
Either way, she would have learned the true situation … since neither party had anything to hide … and that would have been the end of it.
Instead, Shirley failed to speak with either party and went straight to Beth, who talked to her husband, who passed Shirley’s suspicions on to the entire board … needlessly multiplying the number of people involved.
Second, Beth’s husband should have spoken immediately with the pastor and let him share his side of the story.
But he didn’t. Instead, he called the board chairman, who believed that since a board member was making the accusation against the pastor, it must be true.
But Beth’s husband didn’t make an accusation … he just raised a suspicion. But that distinction was lost on the board chairman.
Unfortunately, with many people, a private suspicion is the same thing as a formal accusation because they hear things emotionally, not rationally.
The chairman could have told Beth’s husband, “Why don’t you call the pastor and find out why he was at Sandi’s house?”
Or the chairman could have suggested, “How would you feel if I called the pastor and got his side of the story?”
Instead, the chairman called a meeting of the entire board … escalating matters … and again, involving way too many people.
Third, the board didn’t keep a lid on their emergency meeting nor its purpose.
How many gossiping board members does it take to bring down a pastor?
And how many gossiping board member’s wives does it take to bring down a pastor?
There are a few people in every church who can be trusted to keep important matters confidential.
However, there are many more people who can’t be trusted with anything important.
But some church leaders want to make themselves look significant. They long to tell people, “I know something you don’t know about our pastor.”
But when they do that … especially when they’re passing on false or incomplete information … the results can be deadly.
When certain people inside a church hear either a board member or a board member’s wife make a serious charge against their pastor, they focus on who is making the charge just as much as the charge itself.
In other words, they take the charge as the gospel truth without any independent verification.
Although those leaders could be completely wrong, their office and status in the church makes them automatically believable to many individuals.
Fourth, when a pastor denies accusations made against him, some people will ignore his protests and bury him with even more accusations.
I can’t get my head around this reality, but it happens all the time.
Because they’re public and influential figures, pastors are frequently accused of wrongdoing.
Sometimes the accusations are made in a restaurant after a Sunday service … or in a car driving home … or after a small group meeting … or via email or texting.
Let’s say a pastor is accused by various churchgoers of doing 100 things wrong in a church one year.
And let’s say that 93 of the accusations are made in private and never circulate inside the congregation, so they just disappear.
Then let’s say that four accusations are brought directly to the pastor’s attention, and he refutes them with ease.
And let’s say that two accusations are brought to the board, and they check with their pastor, who again debunks them.
But let’s say one accusation takes on a life of its own, and that key leaders believe it … and spread it … without ever checking with the pastor first.
That single unproven, unverified accusation has the potential to end the pastor’s tenure in that church.
Because when an accusation circulates long enough … and is passed around to enough people … it takes on a life of its own even if it’s untrue … because the pastor doesn’t know anything about it.
Paul’s caution to Timothy must be among the least-obeyed verses in the entire New Testament:
Do not entertain an accusation against an elder [includes pastors; see verses 17-18] unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. 1 Timothy 5:19
Did you catch that? The elders/board and the congregation should not even entertain an accusation against a pastor unless two or three witnesses are willing to go on the record.
And going on the record means that when they make their accusations, the pastor is allowed to face his accusers and respond to them.
In our little story, Shirley saw the pastor’s truck. Beth didn’t … her husband didn’t … and the board chairman didn’t … but none of them possessed the wisdom or the courage to speak with the pastor directly.
Devastation all around.
Fifth, when one serious allegation about a pastor circulates around the church, people often add their own grievances to the mix.
I hear this story all the time.
Let’s say that a board member is telling people that the pastor has mishandled his expense account … and that the news is getting around the church.
When some people sense that the pastor is in trouble, it’s common for them to throw their own complaints about him into the hopper.
Rather than praying for the pastor and their church … or assuming a confident stance that the pastor will be exonerated … or waiting for an investigation to determine the truth … these individuals “pile on” the pastor with their own bitter feelings about him.
And when those allegations reach critical mass, the pastor can’t answer them all, and because those charges hang over him unresolved, he usually has to resign.
Finally, God’s people are all too quick to believe the worst about their pastors.
Becoming a credentialed pastor requires a lot of work.
I was a pastor for 36 years. To become a pastor:
*I attended a Christian liberal arts college for four years before graduating.
*I attended seminary for five years to earn a Master of Divinity degree.
*I was ordained in my home church, which required that I share my conversion testimony, call to ministry, and a written statement of faith before several dozen Christian leaders, mostly pastors.
*I borrowed funds to complete my education (some prospective pastors borrow tens of thousands of dollars).
*I spent seven more years earning a Doctor of Ministry degree.
I wanted to be the best pastor I could be … and thousands of my colleagues have walked a similar path to gain their credentials.
But in today’s climate, one false allegation … one unsubstantiated rumor … can end not only a pastor’s tenure in a particular church, but also his entire career.
If a pastor is guilty of heresy, sexual immorality, or criminal behavior, he should resign voluntarily, and if he doesn’t, a church board has every right to dismiss him from office while still treating him with dignity and compassion.
But so often, a pastor is forced to resign, not because he did anything wrong, but because church leaders … usually those on the official board … let church politics determine their pastor’s future rather than devising and implementing a biblical, fair, and just process to evaluate any accusations made against him.
The pastor ends up leaving the church because church leaders let the accusations against him get out of hand.
Earlier I mentioned that I know a pastor who was forced to resign because his car was parked outside the home of a woman in his congregation.
Years later, a new pastor came to that church, and asked the previous pastor to return so the congregation could ask the pastor to forgive them for the way they mistreated him.
Maybe Shirley will repent, too, for the way she started the rumor mill grinding about her pastor.
But she shouldn’t be the only one to repent.
There’s more than enough blame to go around.
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