When Church Leaders Fall

I read an article from Relevant Magazine this week titled, “5 Lies I Used to Believe About Being a Christian,” in which the author lists misconceptions that they had, and that many Christians often have, about Christianity. They note that, while many outside the church tend to believe things about Christianity that are not true, it is common for those who have spent their entire lives in church or Christian communities to also have some misconstrued notions about God and the Bible and what it means to be a Christian.

Each and every point the author makes resonated with me in one way or another. My faith has changed so much from what it was when I was growing up, and that has so much to do with the church family I found as an adult. I respected this author’s willingness to boldly point out what they felt were common, but hurtful beliefs.

While I found each of the “lies” to be relevant, this one in particular stood out to me:

Church Leadership is Only For the Super-Spiritual.

“Sometimes, those of us sitting in church pews each week can start thinking of our pastors and elders as spiritually superior, “better” Christians and almost infallible. This is part of why we are so surprised and shattered when church leaders fall—we forget that they are sinful human beings, just as in need of grace and accountability as the rest of us.”

They go on to say that church leadership does not require us “to be some sort of spiritual superman,” and that God can use even those who may not feel worthy enough to be used by Him. I completely agree.

But I am going to focus on this first bit, if I may.

As someone who’s childhood pastor fell very short of what was expected of him and hurt many people along the way, this stung.

My Experience With a “Fallen” Church Leader

As a kid, my parents were very involved in church. We were there ALL the time. And we loved it. It was so much a part of our lives that doing anything else on a Sunday morning or Wednesday evening would have seemed foreign, even wrong. All of our friends were there. All of the adults that we looked up to were there. All of the things we learned about God, were there.

I don’t remember how old I was when the whole church fell apart. Somewhere around 8 or 9 I would guess. Old enough to notice that something was wrong, young enough to feel like it didn’t really effect me much.

It was found out that our pastor had committed a very serious sin that broke up two families and hurt many others. From my understanding he was either let go or resigned before being let go, and our family left the church along with many others who had been there since before I could remember.

I never saw our pastor as “infallible,” because my independent opinions of him didn’t start developing until after the hurt became clearer and more personal. And the opinions I formed were in no way kind. I felt very strongly that he was a bad man, a liar and a hypocrite, and nothing he said had any truth to it.

This bothered me. Because if nothing he said were true, what could that mean of everything I had, to that point, learned about God? About salvation? About my purpose on earth? If he could deceive so many under his leadership into thinking he was “godly” for so long, what else were we being deceived about? Most of what I had learned at church came from my Sunday school teachers, since we usually had a separate class apart from the grown-up’s “big church” service, and from our parents at home. But I knew that the adults must be learning from him, and that terrified me.

What if it was all a lie?

It wasn’t until we began attending other churches that I realized others were saying (relatively) the same things about God. And that settled my mind, some. That one pastor from a small church couldn’t possible have taught everyone in the metropolitan area to preach the same message, and he certainly didn’t write the Bible, no matter how ancient I thought he was. I decided not to give up on the only beliefs I had ever known just because a man who helped shaped them was a bad apple.

But I struggled, for many years, to trust church leaders again.

Resolution (if you can call it that)

I imagine there are many who have witnessed such things and have been unable to reconcile what they know (or thought they knew) with what they feel (or think they should feel).

I wish that I had answers.

It took me years to un-feel the contempt I had for this man. And years more to actually speak the words of forgiveness to myself in my own head. I’m not even sure if I’ve ever yet spoken them out loud. They still don’t feel entirely sincere.

My point is that I understand all too well the consequences of deifying church leaders. I was still very young and had not had the chance to put our pastor on a pedestal, but I knew many who had. And as the years have passed and I’ve heard more stories from people I knew back then, and even from people who I’ve met later in life that experienced something similar in their own journey, it has become clear to me how damaging a mindset like this can be.

When-church-leaders-fall

When I really sit down and think about it, I feel fortunate to still believe in God at all.

That sounds dramatic, but it’s true. And the reason relates directly and indirectly back to that one pastor’s actions. How terrible for those who maybe were not as fortunate. For those who maybe were putting their last attempt at trusting the church into this man; for those who maybe had only ever heard of God through him; for those who maybe assumed he had no faults, and endearingly chuckled when he mentioned his minor transgressions from the pulpit each week in an attempt to seem more relatable.

I’ve been told that he did many great things and led many to God in his time as a pastor. There was a time when I refused to believe that. Now that I’m older, I believe it was possible. I believe that he was a man, like any other man, in a position of leadership where few (or no one) held him accountable. And that kind of power can tempt even the strongest among us.

Going back to the original author’s words about church leaders, it is important to remember “that they are sinful human beings, just as in need of grace and accountability as the rest of us.” And maybe knowing that from the start can make all the difference.

I’m not saying that pastors and elders and leaders all throughout the church do not deserve our respect. On the contrary. But I believe that respecting them includes holding them accountable the same way we would our closest friends, instead of seeing them as unapproachable sources of power and wisdom that we could never question in any way.

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