Great Was the Fall Thereof
How to Rebuild People After the Minister Falls
by David Paul Smith
“I am the man who has seen affliction ….”
This is how Jeremiah starts the third chapter of Lamentations. Sitting on the hillside overlooking Jerusalem — the smoking ruins of his home, his family, and the holy city of God — he cries out. We often quote Lamentations 3:22,23, which says God’s mercies are new every morning, without accounting for the struggle and pain that led the prophet to that conclusion.
I was a preacher’s kid, and I learned early on how to spot “that sermon.” You know the one: It starts with a discussion of the legacy the minister hopes to leave. It touches on the love the pastor has for each person in the congregation — then concludes with a goodbye. As a child, the end of that sermon was the end of that place, that part of my childhood. It meant we were moving somewhere else.
I was never able to see what happened after that sermon until I was old enough to be on staff after a minister stepped down. And while I earnestly wished the circumstances were positive, the truth is a good friend of mine fell.
Do I need to tell you how he fell? I’m pretty sure you can guess. Sexual sin is burning through our churches and pulpits, bringing down servants of God, and destroying families — along with our witness as a Church. In Mathew 24:22, Jesus says of the last days: “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.”
We may well be in those days.
The sad reality is more ministers will fall, people will be hurt, and the media will be there to document every stumble by anyone who dares carry the title of pastor. Smite the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter. But what happens after the explosion? Is that where the story ends? It may surprise you to find that even after the cameras stop rolling and the dust has settled, the church itself still stands, tomorrow still comes, and someone is needed to bring healing for those who survive and are wandering around in the wreckage.
When I was a child, I was foolishly playing with firecrackers when one exploded in my hand. For what seemed like forever, the whole world became ringing and pain. I saw people talking but couldn’t hear what they were saying. My only goal was to get my burning hand to water. I had to push past everything else and get to something that would stop the hurting.
Trauma, whether spiritual or physical, is similar. Like wounded animals, we try to distance ourselves from the source of the pain. We aren’t being rational; we’re acting on instinct.
Many pastors entering a new assignment like to preach on Nehemiah. They talk about rebuilding walls and returning to the Promised Land. But it’s a long road from the destruction depicted in Lamentations to the recovery recorded in Nehemiah, and it’s important to assess where your new congregation is in their journey. It’s hard to convince hurting people to get back in ministry and work again when they feel as though they are still sitting in the ashes of expectations left behind by the last ministry — especially if that ministry ended in the fall of the minister.
It’s easy at times like these to avoid the subject. It’s always easier to keep the peace than it is to make peace.1 The danger is that an infected wound doesn’t heal. We need the Holy Spirit’s guidance to search the wounds of the church. In the past, many churches cauterized wounds, thinking it was better to cut off the hand than risk the infection spreading. This left us in a country filled with the “ex-churched,” a generation that stumbled and was left behind. In every age, the Church must grow in the Lord. It must learn to reach a new generation, and one thing every heart touched by sin needs is healing.
If you asked your congregation, how many would say they’ve experienced emotional wounds in church? The number is probably high. The reason? Hurting people hurt people. This is especially true of a church that has been through a trauma. When entering this situation, you must first decide to be intentional in your purpose. You are like the first responders running toward danger, into burning buildings, or into the line of fire. Brace yourself; this is going to get messy.
Church would be easy except for the people, right? People have defense mechanisms.2 They act out. They deny. They complain. They blame. Some of them may even act like jerks. They basically act like people — people God called you to pastor. And like a police negotiator, it’s your job to talk them in off the ledge, and to move them from defense mechanisms into a supernatural healing. So where to begin? How do you engage them?
Sometimes you have to start by letting them complain. Complaining gets a bad rap. There’s a difference between a “complaining spirit” that seeks to accuse and tear down and a “contrite heart” that breaks open before the Lord in lament and complaining. The latter understands that while no one else may care, there is One who hears and is touched by the feelings of our weakness. The strong do not need a savior. And sometimes the most powerful thing you can tell a person is that it’s OK if it hurts. It’s supposed to hurt, and it’s supposed to heal. Physical hurt is the body’s signal that something is wrong — something is broken. Depression, anxiety, anger, and fear can all point toward a spiritual infirmity that needs attention. Anyone who has ever dislocated a joint knows even the healing process often hurts.
The goal is turning complaining into confession. Confession is one of the strongest coping mechanisms available to the body of Christ. Alcoholics Anonymous encourages participants to confess their problem to themselves, to God, and to one other person. Confessed anger calms us, confessed anxiety comforts us, and confessed fear gives us courage. Confession disarms our natural inclination to isolate or lash out. When someone complains to you, find the intention and emotion behind that complaint, and bring it into the light. How? Pray. Don’t just promise to pray at some indeterminate time in the future. Instead say: “Let’s you and I agree in prayer right now that God will do a work in you so that you can be healed and restored as a vessel of honor for His use.”
Call me Pentecostal, but I find that bringing a brother or sister into the throne room of God right then and there is more powerful than a glorified system of well-wishing. Anytime you can bring the situation before God, good things are going to happen.
And confession is far from the only means of bringing water to the wounded. In fact, while the secular world has only recently coined the term “coping mechanisms,” we in the church have known for a long time about a far more powerful set of tools: the fruit of the Spirit. Now my worry is that you will read that last sentence and roll your eyes. After all, we usually relegate Galatians 5:22,23 to the Rainbows class memorization list. But sometimes we miss the power in a passage not because it’s hidden, but because it’s too obvious. One of the more important things to remember about the fruit of the Spirit is that they are all decision-based and not optional.
“In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26) is a principle that tells us that we will be subject to the same emotions post-salvation, but now the Lord expects more of us. And you should cultivate spiritual fruit in your congregation, because often someone will use the fact that a minister fell as justification for their own sins.
I experienced this once while talking with a dear friend who was reeling from the fall of a minister. He and his wife were both young in the Lord and took the fall very hard. In fact, his statement about that minister was, “He deserves hell, and I wouldn’t mind sending him there.”
I wish I could say I found the right words in the right moment to bring him to a place of forgiveness, but it doesn’t always work that way. I used the physical distance between us to ignore the problem and hoped it would heal itself in time. We moved away from each other, and he fell into alcoholism, using the hurt the church had inflicted on him to justify his descent. Then one night as he was driving home drunk, with his pregnant wife in the car, he lost control and flipped their vehicle into a ditch. When he came to, he turned and shook his wife, who was sleeping and wouldn’t wake up. She was in a coma from her injuries. I don’t have space here to describe all the absolute miracles of God that it took to heal her body (and the miracle that paid their medical bills as well), but the end result was a man broken enough to forgive the preacher he despised. He ultimately found that forgiveness comes to those who forgive. It’s a hard lesson to share, but your confrontation of sin may be the only thing standing between someone you know and the wages of that sin.
If your church doesn’t offer something more effective than alcohol for getting a person through hard times, it is unable to compete in the cultural marketplace.
This brings us to the most vicious hurdle you will face.
You will encounter blame at every corner when people are trying to recover. But the first and only rule of blame is, “Don’t do it.”
You generally have two camps in this area. The first group uses blame as a “get out of jail free” card. They insist the pastor was always a monster. They never did anything about it, but they supposedly knew the whole time. If only their discernment had kicked in earlier, perhaps the church could have avoided all the trouble. Yet these same people are sometimes involved in the sin or guilty of similar sins. Their eagerness to put all the blame on one person gives them a cover behind which to hide. Be cautious of people who fling bitter accusations. If they will throw one person under the bus, what is another to them?
The second extreme is just as wrong, but in a different way. Just as children internalize blame to justify their parents’ actions and behaviors, so at times members blame themselves for the actions of others. They wonder whether they could have stepped in and prevented the problem — if only they had been more diligent, more loving, or more alert. Assure them of two things. First, the person made that decision of their own accord, and they will stand before God for it. Second, God most certainly sent that person many warnings before the fall occurred.
To properly assign blame, you must possess all the facts of the incident and know the hearts of those involved. If that sounds impossible, there is a reason. It’s why Christ told us that sometimes the tares grow with the wheat, and sifting may not come until the harvest is taken in. But it will come. Never be led into the trap of blaming the man or woman before you for all that is wrong — fall or no fall. It’s easy, but it’s wrong. One day you too may leave for another place of ministry, and you will want the same grace to follow in your steps.
Hang in there. The finish line is in sight.
Forgiveness is the great slayer of blame and the great salve of wounds. It is the goal of every minister stepping into a wounded church — no matter how grievous the sin or how far the fall. It’s not going to be easy. It is going to hurt.
Loving God means that sometimes you have to forgive a monster.
Two years ago I sat in a restaurant across from someone I had known for a long, long time. It was a conversation I wanted to end. Every word of it was a dagger to my heart. I remember looking at the doors and wondering how long it would take me to get to the exit, into my car, and far away from this place. But there was no escaping the harsh reality that was before me: The man across the table had not just committed a sin, he had also committed a crime. He had taken foster children into his home. Over the course of time, he had developed an inappropriate relationship with one of them, a young girl.
I had talked to fallen men before, but this person was different, and it wasn’t just the cold detachment with which he recalled the relationship. It wasn’t that he spent as much time in the conversation blaming those around him as he did defending his actions. It was that this was a man I loved. When I was young in the Lord and struggling with the infilling of the Holy Spirit, hearing this man pray in tongues convinced me the gift is real and I should seek it. Before I was saved, when I was running from the Lord and leaving a trail of destruction in my wake, this man cried out in great sobs and groaning for my soul, for my calling. This man was my father.
The sad fact is I have had more than one close friend and minister forced out of ministry due to a moral failure. A common feeling is that of wanting to help the ones they left behind, and knowing that because of the broken trust, they can’t. The more lives they touched, the more brutal the fall is — especially to those closest, who often had no idea of what was going on behind the scenes. And as with any family matter, it is the youngest members of the family who suffer the most. Remember that the same person who fell was also the one who dedicated their children, cried with them at the altar, and perhaps spent many sleepless nights in prayer for them.
I’m reminded of a story of an atomic bomb survivor who still goes every day to the graves of people she knew who died in the blast. She brings them water because many of them begged her for cool refreshment as they breathed their last words.
In the aftermath of an explosive event in the church, you can bring healing water to the survivors. Many of them may not even know how to ask. Follow as the Holy Spirit leads you to the ones who need help the most. Remember that God chose you for the job. He will provide everything you need to get it done.
1. For more information on this subject, I highly recommend the book: Van Yperen, Jim. Making Peace: A Guide to Overcoming Church Conflict. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2002.
2. Modern psychology is useful for diagnosing natural human issues, as long as we approach it with the knowledge that we serve a supernatural God. For a quick reference on various types of natural defense mechanisms, see J. Grohol’s list at http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-defense-mechanisms/0001251.