When Ministry Leaders Fail…

Dr. Ab AbercrombieSad man praying

The apostle James gave the following caution to leaders in the church:

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment (Jas 3:1).

The calling to church leadership, in whatever role, is a call requiring much study, prayer, and meditation. James is clear that an instructor and overseer must be certain of his calling and diligent in his manner of life. The standards are higher than for others within the church and the leader becomes accountable for not only his walk with Christ and the management of his own household; he now is accountable for the household of God!

Because of this, pastors, elders, deacons, teachers, and others in authority, must avail themselves to years of preparation followed by a rigorous vetting process to determine their spiritual readiness for leadership. This examination however, will rely upon the maturity and knowledge base of existing church leaders, if proper discernment and placement within the Body is to occur.

The specific standards for pastors and elders are well-established in the Bible and demanding in their scope. Paul wrote:

An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil (1 Tim 3:2-7).

This is a daunting list and should be taken with much reverence when considering a call to leadership. To be above reproach is to be beyond accusation. Often used as a legal term, it means that one is not convictable in a court of law. This requirement is to protect the church and to guard the great name of Jesus Christ. A leader, more than anyone else in the church, must recognize that he is a representative of Christ both within the church and throughout the community. As a designated overseer, he will be extremely visible and must show evidence of Christ’s transformative touch. These features of leadership are repeated almost verbatim in the Book of Titus (Titus 1:5-9).

Beyond this overarching call to purity and innocence, Scripture goes on to speak of the specific character one should see in an overseer along with specific abilities. The requirements of deacons are similar and call for great attention to one’s spiritual, family, church, and community life (1 Tim 3:8-13). And while the Bible does not specifically address ministries outside the traditional church, these standards of oversight could well be applied to para-church ministry leaders also. Any ministry that operates under the banner of Jesus Christ must ordain leaders who are devoted to kingdom truth and biblical principles of oversight.

Central to all of these standards is the call for maturity, testing, proven character, stability, knowledge, and godly conduct; demonstrating leadership at home before assuming leadership at church. The Lord has been gracious in defining these requirements and challenging the church to thoroughly examine each candidate. And yet with so many guidelines and instructions in place, spiritual failure within leadership is more common than ever before and its effect is devastating to the church and other ministries.

It is a well-known truth that the spiritual and emotional health of a family with children depends upon the spiritual and emotional health of the parents. While there are exceptions, children generally grow and pursue Christ as they have been taught by their leaders (dad and mom). When there is unbiblical thinking, secular problems solving, and fleshly desires at the headship, these patterns will be evident throughout the home. But when a home is biblical from the top down, it typically will be biblical from the bottom up.

The same is true of any system God designed. He has established authority, order, structure, and guidelines for operation in every relational context we encounter. When this order is forsaken, chaos will likely ensue. Hence, when there is sin and failure in leadership, the entire church becomes vulnerable and its testimony to the community is tarnished. And since many within the congregation are immature and lacking in biblical knowledge (like children in a family), they may not know how to address and resolve the issue.

Many within the church and other ministries, simply do not know how to respond when they see indicators of wrong within leadership. How does a congregant approach a pastor or elder if sin is evident? How does a student address a Bible teacher if something taught appears incorrect? And how can a ministry employee respond to unbiblical leadership seen in the CEO or Board of Directors?

In spite of our confusion, leaders and teachers are not immune to inquiry and even discipline when appropriate. In fact, one important element of leadership is to demonstrate a teachable, humble spirit that is quick to repent and pursue reconciliation. Leaders who are markedly opposed to inquiry may have become prideful and therefore vulnerable to destruction (Prov 16:18). Vertically oriented leaders should gladly answer concerns with their congregation or ministry and transparency should be a trademark of godly order (1 Jn 1:5-7).

That being said, there is a degree of respect and reverence afforded God’s anointed; especially ordained ministers and elders. One must demonstrate appropriate order and manner when addressing potential error within leadership, and this order is fully outlined in Scripture. Paul gave the following warning to Timothy:

The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching (1 Tim 5:17).

This passage obviously pertains to the office of elder and pastor, but should well be applied to anyone in a called position of ministry. Such men, hopefully, are in office because God called, anointed, and equipped them for this specific service. Because they are God’s chosen servants, they are “worthy of double honor”. Their honor is not because of human appointment or selection but God’s. Every church member must then approach God’s leader with consideration of his calling and respect for his authority. Paul continues:

Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses (1 Tim 5:19).

Again in consideration of one’s called position, church members must not even listen to an accusation against an elder on the basis of one, single report. In fact, when invited to participate in such communication, one should reprove the individual bringing a charge and require the presence of additional, credible witnesses, before hearing such a complaint. But when the accusation is appropriately supported by other witnesses, it should be addressed with the church leader, in private, with all witnesses present. The minister/leader should have the right to address his accusers face-to-face.

To confront an ordained man is a “tender thing” according to the commentator Matthew Henry. Great effort must be taken to assure the facts of the matter before injuring the reputation of a called man. However, should the testimony of “two or three witnesses” prove convincing, the elder/leader must give evidence of repentance and reconciliation.

When possible, such matters should be resolved in private for the sake of Christ. Some moral failings may disqualify the minister/leader from continued service even when repentance comes. The scope and impact of the sin may then require communication with the church and/or ministry in such circumstances.

Regrettably, there will be times when a leader will not repent or turn from his sinful conduct. Others will deny their sin altogether. When an overseer does not surrender himself to repentance and thereby continues in the sin for which he has been charged, Paul gives the following instruction:

Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality (1 Tim 5:20-21).

Paul leaves little doubt about how the process is to continue should the minister/elder refuse to acknowledge his sin and repent. If the elder continues to sin, he is to be rebuked “in the presence of all”. When the effort to deal with the sin privately has failed, the leader’s sin, as with all congregants and ministry staff, must be illuminated before the Body as an example to all. Paul cautions us to “maintain these principles without bias…” This order applies to all within the church because “…there is no partiality with God” (Rom 2:11).

Notice this biblical process gives appropriate consideration of a minister’s status as a called, ordained man of God. It assumes a proper examination and vetting of the minister to hold his leadership position. Consequently, the initial approach and accusation of sin, must involve multiple, credible witnesses rather than the one-to-one confrontation given as a general instruction in Matthew 18:15-18. Every care should be exercised to protect the reputation of Christ by making a careful and spiritual examination of the ordained individual knowing that, the besmirching of his character will impact the reputation of the church or ministry.

However, once sin and wrongdoing is established through the plethora of witnesses, the matter must be dealt with by applying the same zeal by which the church or ministry deals with others in its congregation. The rooting out of sin, through proper church intervention (discipline), is necessary to preserve the health and order of God’s church and to exalt the magnificent name of Christ. To this end, leadership cannot be excluded from inquiry and discipline since they are appointed as overseers, under-shepherds, teachers, and examples. The leadership of every church must be able to replicate Paul’s impassioned plea: “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).

In closing this section of Scripture, Paul gives insight into what may be at the foundation of failed leadership. To this he gives the following instruction:

Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin (1 Tim 5:22).

Here Paul reminds Timothy of the importance of leadership to the health and welfare of the church and stresses the examination of those considered candidates for ordained service. As the discourse concerning overseers and elders instructs (1 Tim 3:1-7, 1 Tim 3:8-13, Titus 1:5-9), a leader must be mature, tested, and above reproach. Time is necessary to examine such qualities; they cannot be discerned in the course of an interview. Rather they must be demonstrated in the character of a man, revealed over time, in multiple circumstances.

To advance a leader too quickly, ahead of his spiritual preparation, is to “share responsibility for the sin of others”. Leaders influence everyone in the church/ministry and their failure is to the injury of all. Every church or ministry should have lengthy walk and examination with anyone considered to be a candidate for leadership, making certain God’s hand anoints and not our own.

Leaders are called to a lofty standard. According to the requirements, a man above reproach cannot take refuge in his frailties nor hide in the universality of sin. Pastors, elders, deacons, and teachers are accountable for every aspect of their spiritual life, their families, and their church. The order of those dependent upon their spiritual leadership will depend upon their internal order and their devotion to obedience, humility, transparency, and authority under submission. As James wrote, leaders “…incur a stricter judgment” (Jas 3:1).

Church members and ministry staff should love and submit to leadership and strive to follow their example. But every Christian is first responsible to Christ and must be obedient to His Word. In this sense we must not judge our leaders with emotion, opinion, or selfish intent, but rather any complaint or concern must be shaped biblically, presented in proper reverence, respect, and order, and carried through with earnest faith. Speaking truth can be hard with people in authority, but it is central to our responsibility as believers. We must honor our Lord and Savior and seek after excellence in His church. James encourages us:

My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (Jas 5:19-20).

Copyright © 2015, W.P. “Ab” Abercrombie and The Biblical Counseling Institute

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