Last week, a former youth minister at a prominent church in New Orleans (who had been terminated and then arrested in February) was rearrested on felony charges of sexual battery involving an underage girl. As I read the various articles, I hold back a desire to scream at the top of my lungs. There are too many good, if not GREAT, youth ministers out there so how does this happen!?! With my wife as my witness, my knuckles are white in frustration as I type and I am reciting the warning to Cain in Genesis in my head over and over again…
“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, SIN is crouching at the door. Its DESIRE is for you, but you must rule over it.”
You MUST…. MUST…. MUST…. rule over it! You MUST!! It is not an option and it is not an opinion! YOU MUST RULE OVER IT!!! But…in this case, it is too late. Sin has won, so what now? How does a church, a family, and a teenage girl come back after this kind of moral failure? This is obviously a time when ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t enough….As I combed the pages of google, I find that there are many articles writing on how a church or ministry avoids “moral failure”. Unfortunately, I struggled to easily find an article on returning from it, so how does one return?
1. Be Transparent (Ephesians 4:25, 2 Corinthians 1:12)
Transparency! Honesty! Authenticity! To many, this story in New Orleans is a distant air of “you just never know,” but to those being affected it is destroying their lives. No matter what blog or study you read the general consensus maintains that transparency, honesty, and authenticity are the traits that the Millennial Generation admire most. As Christians, we know that humanity is frail. In fact, it is even part of our theology. Think…Adam + Eve + the Serpent then BAM…the Fall of Humanity. We know that failures happen to the members but we often deduce that because a pastor is, “above reproach” that he is exempt from the same shortcomings that befall the rest of us. We must unveil this false masquerade. I’m not trying to justify this man’s iniquitous practices, but when a pastor or elder are caught in moral failure the first way to recover is transparency. When we are busy asking the “Hows” and “Whys” the parents and families are asking themselves a far more perilous question that WILL be a harder pill for the church to swallow in the future. It is “can I trust?”. The “can I trust” demon has the power to turn a thriving ministry into a dead one. So the last thing a church needs on their hands during a pitfall like this is to fight this “can I trust” fear system. Paul writes in Ephesians, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them (5:11)” Followed quickly by, “But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible (5:13) “. This is not the time to leave any questions unaddressed, and this is not the time to leave any stones unturned. Put away the broom, roll up the rug, because it is time to sweep every corner of the house to find the coin containing God’s wisdom and word (Luke 15:8-10).
First Baptist New Orleans, I beg and plea for you to be transparent. I love and trust your pastor as a great man of faith and wisdom. I know his leadership and clout will resonate in this situation far further than mine or the words of this blog. Even still, I beg that you all remain transparent. Now is the time to cast all demons of the dark into the light of God. Transparency is not cheap; it will come at a great expense. It may come at the expense of long time faithful members deciding to fellowship elsewhere, and it may come at the expense of great embarrassment or humiliation, but I encourage you all to remain steadfast and strong. In addition, transparency is not comfortable. Eyes that have adjusted in the darkness are pained by the power of a fresh invasive light. We should not be fooled to believe that the cries of a newly born child are evidences of pain when they are actually evidences of new life and health. So if you are a church ministry or just a lay christian who has committed moral failure it is time to be real and be transparent and let the truth set you free from the darkness. (John 8:32)
2. Be Accountable (Galatians 6:1-5, James 5:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:7)
It shames me to say that Biblical accountability is one of the most primitive strategies of the modern church, but I fear it to be the truth. I don’t for one second believe that healthy accountability would prevent every problem in the church, but I do believe that we wouldn’t have as many. When our theology teaches that we fail, accountability is our failsafe for “containing” and “controlling” the situation. Think about it from this “what if” Genesis 3 lens…’What if Adam had held Eve accountable during the garden temptation narrative?’ Or more compelling, ‘what if David’s court had held him accountable that fateful night upon the roof’? The pages of scripture are graffitied with story after story of moral remorse that could have been prevented with healthy accountability. Think Noah’s Ark – 2 by 2. We aren’t to be weathering the storms of life alone. Although there can be tranquility in having a private life (especially pertaining to prayer) the errors of spiritual solitariness far outweigh any benefits of it when we are made to be in community. In “Creating Community” Andy Stanley polarizes a diet of Twinkies vs a diet of broccoli. Between the two options, even a child can tell you which is healthier, but many would choose the deadlier if forced to make the choice. However, Stanley goes on to introduce a new facet to the discussion by adding the variable of eating alone vs eating in community. We all know that loneliness can send a person down a path toward bad health, but what we don’t know is that science now just about says that a healthy diet with an over dose of loneliness can actually be worse than an unhealthy diet with an over dose of friendly community. In essence, a diet of twinkies among friends will bring a healthier, more fulfilling life than a diet of broccoli home alone. God knew this, that is why there was no suitable partner in the Garden for Adam except she that would become flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone in holy matrimony. The most intimate accountability partner an individual will have will be their spouse, however the spouse should not be the only one. We need community and we need accountability. When a member or a ministry arm of your church has fallen into an immoral stronghold, transparency can save your dignity, but accountability is how you will repair the wound. For so many people, accountability is a scary thing. It’s the fearful idea of having to first be transparent with someone or your church, and then to intently call out the ungodly behavior in them as they, in love, return the favor. Accountability has been ill defined in modern Christianity under the title of “Judge Not” from Matthew 7 out of fear. How have we distorted what was to be such a beautifully simple concept? Sin…crouching….its desire is for you…. So Be Transparent!
The problem is, we don’t truly practice “accountability” but we practice “prevention”. Accountability is personal and one-on-one, while prevention is systematic and autonomous. I believe a very fine line separates the two, but it is totally possible to have one without the other. I also believe that a healthy equilibrium is achieved when both are reached in harmony. The reason accountability is such a big deal is because Satan’s gameplay for life is “steal”, “kill”, “destroy” (John 10:10). He has set his gaze to tamper every aspect about the believer’s life (their purpose, desire, vision, gifts, marriage, family, calling, potential, life, career, reputation, future) Satan wants it all. With a strong accountability system, a church community can save not only the credibility of their church staff from grim revelations such as that which happened in New Orleans, but from other problems as well. The first step towards healthy accountability is admitting we could do better about accountability. The second step is doing more than we were doing before. When we deceive ourselves into thinking our ministry is completely under OUR control, we are never closer to losing control. Every church will affirm that they have accountability systems in check, but those are mostly centered upon a defensive mind set where our church is saved from threats rooted in a fear of losing a job or reputation, instead of the offense of pursuing true ministry. We have fooled our ministries into believing accountability is like the sports cliche, “A good offense is a good defense”. Sure, this may work for the corporate business model or football, but this philosophy doesn’t hold weight in baseball or church work. In baseball, points can only be awarded when your team is at the plate. As in baseball, success is having a defense but progressing in offense (Think aim for and not hide from). Pastors, you don’t hold your staff accountable by firing them if they open up about sin problems or undesirable situations; you hold someone accountable by always being the first person to ask them about their marriage in the morning and by being invested in praying with/for them multiple times a week. Pastors, you MUST disciple your staff as your “Peters, James, and Johns”. Ask them about their ministries on Wednesday nights, sit in on some if you can. Ask them about retreats, attend some if you can. Pastors, be host homes during disciple now so your youth pastor knows you love him and his ministry. Pastors, ask your youth minster the hard questions such as: “How do you communicate with youth outside of church?”, “Do you and your wife need to spend a couple weeks in a regular Sunday School class being fed instead of teaching?”, “Can the church buy you a hotel ticket (in a neighboring city) for a Thursday-Saturday so that you and your wife can get away to prevent burnout?”. Ask him about internet accountability and install programs on church systems (don’t ask them if you should, just tell them you are). I’m not saying micro-manage your staff by collecting phone records and requiring staff to sign out every time they leave the church offices. I’m just saying love them as if they are your grown children. A youth minister or other minister doesn’t wake up one day with the desire to have an affair or inappropriate relationship with an underage church member. Typically, these issues begin in the marriage or dating relationships of the minister. However, the outward expression usually begins with other ‘innocent’ issues that went unaddressed (regular text messages about service times or camp deposits or sitting next to them on mission trips or retreats). Good accountability can and will definitely be an invasion of privacy but when the evil one comes to destroy, you will be glad you are progressing for a better situation and not just preventing from a bad one. …So Be Transparent, and also Be Accountable!
3. Be Intentional (Isaiah 61:1)
A few years ago when I was searching for a full-time position in youth ministry, a small church flew me in to interview for the full-time position at their church. Long story short, I got the position. It wasn’t until a few weeks after I had moved there that the chairman of the search committee informed me that the main reason he had a peace about the church calling me to serve there was because I kept using the word “intentional” during the interview process. He didn’t want a youth pastor who was doing a job, but he wanted a youth pastor who was “intentional” about investing in the lives of youth and the church family at large. Being “intentional” is something I’m passionate about. It is something that I feel is missing from modern church orthodoxy and doxology. God was “intentional” when he created the world in 7 days. Christ was “intentional” in his incarnation and then again in his ministry and sacrifice. The Holy Spirit is “intentional” in his conviction of our sin. Evangelism, Discipleship, Missions, are all active intentions of a healthy church directive. Intentionality is the act of being deliberate and purposeful in one’s thoughts, beliefs, desires or hopes, and from a church staff position, it makes sense why a congregation would want ministers who practiced intentional ministry. Do we place that expectation upon our church and ourselves as well? A ministry or individual who has fallen into a moral graveyard can return from such a pernicious situation, but they have to be intentional. Whether you feel better using the word “systematic” or “calculated” it all follows the spirit of intentionality. I personally choose intentional because it sounds more human and less automated. So how does “intentionality” help us return from moral graveyards? I’m gonna be baptist and give 3 short points: A) We have to change our perspectives, B) We have to change our positions, C) We have to change our pursuits.
A) Perspectives- When Cain began falling into sin, God acknowledged that the source of evil was not Cain. Remember how sin was crouching at the door? Sin was taking the action of tempting and pursuing Cain. Cain just responded to the temptation and took possession of the sinful act but he was not the original source of “evil”. At this point in Theology, we start to break into discussions of “original sin”, or trying to define when temptation becomes sin, and defining “evil”. However, that’s not the intent of this point. What God wanted Cain to recognize was that he had to make the conscious decision to partake in sin. God wanted Cain to study himself and know that he had the willful choice. I think this is an important idea to grasp, because we jump to place humanity as the source of evil. Just as humanity is the instrument God uses to institute his will, humanity is many times the instrument that the devil and his demons manipulate into doing their malicious will as well. We have to first make the intentional decision to look at ourselves under a different light. For some of us, we need to forgive ourselves. For others, we need to pay a penance by seeking forgiveness from God or others. Many times in scripture we see a change in perspective as the forefront of healing and restoration. The woman with the issue of blood and the healing of various lepers in the NT (Mark 5:25-34, Matt 8:1-4) all give testimony to individuals who first changed how they viewed themselves. They were desperate, yes; they were broken, yes; they were “unclean”, yes…but they had faith and felt that they were deserving of God’s grace through Jesus’ mercy. If their perspectives had not changed, they would have felt deserving of the damage that had been done to them and remained in it. Instead, they changed how they looked at themselves long enough in order to have the courage to return from the graveyard so they could change their position and pursuits in life. We can also draw out the story of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32) where the younger son changed his perspective of his father’s provision and then changed his position and pursuit in life. Perhaps you are that lost son who is living in the penalty of one bad mistake after another, or maybe your return is hindered due to a wound or relationship that needs healing or restoration. Change your perspective and forgive your view of yourself and your situation. A side, yet primary, note to remember is that their healing and restoration was done through Christ. It was an act of undeserved mercy and grace. You and your church will need his help in this.
B) Position – One of my favorite elements in the Old Testament are the positions of response. In today’s culture the response to a revelation or an encounter with God is mediocre at best. When King David began his return from his sins with Bathsheba he didn’t just have changes in perspectives, but he had very literal changes in his position throughout. Check out David’s position here in 2 Samuel 12:16-17 “David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them.” Followed immediately by his position in verse 20 “Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate.” From a psychological standpoint, I think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs fits in here very well. Before we can reach self-actualization (morality, acceptance of facts, lack of prejudice, problem solving, and belonging) we have to change the physical positions we are in pertaining our basic needs. If you or your ministry directive need a change in position due to infractions in morality, change your positions first and build on new foundations. Have staff meetings outside the church office, get away from arenas that invoke bad memories. Paint and restructure the youth room, have a staff retreat, have a youth families banquet at a local restaurant or neutral location to address a lingering problem. Remember, we start by meeting the basic needs of those hurting, then let the Holy Spirit begin to lead them into spiritual self-actualization.
C) Pursuits – Change doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In a moral graveyard it’s a necessity, but even in just minor squabbles it can be therapeutic for a church family. I served at a church once who had a minister whose ministry was tainted with questionable ethical practices. The biggest problem we had in trying to rebuild from that era was the vast influence this individual had on the lives of people in the church as well as the vast influence he had in the ministries of the church. We made a point not to defame his name to the church as a whole because some were baptized by him, some were saved under his ministry, and some were related to him. Those he had hurt, those who knew the ethical battle behind his ministry, all knew that we had to move past him. Our ministry pursuits, our mission pursuits, and our ministry practices (especially those that were spearheaded by him) had to change completely. After this individual left, we changed everything. We renamed ministries that he had started up (we wanted no ties to him, not out of disrespect to him but out of respect to the true victims), we restructured programs he organized, and closed mission fields he planted. For each church this will be a unique system. Perhaps your church is experiencing issues with a failed youth pastor: You can rename the youth directive. Instead of the traditional Wednesday nights, try in home small groups for high school and do in church small groups for junior high students. Instead of traditional Sunday School, set up a youth lead church service for Sunday Mornings. This is a chance to be creative and try a WHOLE new system that does not bear the name of the former guy. Change camp locations, establish new retreat schedules, experiment with new fundraisers. Instead of mission trips to Mexico try mission trips to Canada. Instead of beach retreats in August, try ski retreats in February. Psychology is huge in youth ministry, and you don’t want your ministry defined by moral failure even after the individual has left. Perhaps your church is experiencing issues with a failed music minister: Instead of a traditional choral led service, have a local worship band come in for a month. Change up choir tour dates, change up ensemble groups, instead of wearing choral robes wear a uniform color or purchase custom embroidered polos. Having a new identity in your ministry is the ultimate goal after moral failure and that is evidenced to the people in your church by new pursuits and directions. Psychology is very important in ministry, so perhaps a small leadership could employ the services of a psychologist or counselor to come in as a consultant. These practices are not just things that could be employed by ministries but by individuals as well. When looking at personal moral failure, you may need to change your professional pursuits by resigning from a position or changing jobs. You may need to change your relational pursuits by ending damaging friendships or ungodly relationships (I’m not promoting divorce, but ending ungodly dating relationships). Psalms 34:14 says “Depart from evil and do good; Seek peace and pursue it.“….Be Transparent, and Be Accountable, and Be Intentional!!
So What Now?
The answer is up to you…
What will you do?
Will you return, or will you let moral failure bury in you defeat? Think about it this way, Jesus has a habit of not letting graveyards and death prevent him from bringing life and bringing it in abundance!
– Marshall Pace