the shape of leadership

What Do I Do With Their Books?

How to respond when a minister you looked up to falls

Chris Colvin on August 16, 2018

Some of them have been public, their faults displayed in headlines above the fold in newspapers from New York to Los Angeles. Others have received little to no attention, just a small space in social media where an apology was mentioned quickly, in passing. I’m talking about ministerial failures.

From large congregations to small churches, no minister is immune to failure. When those mistakes are moral in nature, the ramifications can be devastating. The old adage “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” seems to ring true. In the case of the most well-known ministers who have been forced to resign among controversy, they leave a large wake.

Take a look at your pastoral library. You likely have at least one book from a popular pastor who has fallen. When the dust settles or the newspapers move on to the next story, we’re still left with those books. They sit on our shelves, the names as bright as headlights beaming at us. The titles seem to laugh at us. Now that we know more about the authors’ private lives, the hypocrisy is blatant.

So what do we do with their books? The quick, knee-jerk reaction is to dump them — to grab a Hefty trash bag and fill it up, drag it to the garage and drop it right into the waste bin. But hold on. Is that the right response? Is there any redemption in those pages?

What’s Written Inside

Books are amazing things. They allow us to distill months and months of research, year after year of experience, and decade upon decade of ministry into one tome a few hundred pages thick. What’s written inside may be biblical principles, spiritual truths and leadership advice. But more than that, it’s a mirror into the man or woman who wrote them.

The value of a book is often determined by the worth of the author. When it comes to ministry books, it may also be about the worth of the church, the ministry or the organization. These books represent the best and brightest moments. They’re a distillation of all the author has ever learned. And that’s incredibly valuable.

Those books allow readers to digest years and years of content in a few sittings. Then, through prayerful consideration, they can enact those principles into the real-life situations in front of them. Hundreds of churches, maybe even thousands, have benefited from the books of fallible leaders.

So, when we find that a minister has been less than they portrayed, what’s to become of those books? And how do we weigh what’s written inside? Before we ever heard a whisper of infidelity, impropriety or immorality, we wouldn’t have given it a second thought. We read, evaluated and implemented. No questions asked. Now we have a hundred questions.

The Gory Details

It feels like gossip, reading the accounts of a pastor’s personal failures. Some of you may avoid it at all costs. Others dig in, almost gleeful at the uncovering of these feet of clay. But the truth is, we all sort of want to know the gory details.

Do the personal shortcomings of a minister negate the powerful work of his or her ministry?

In the case of deciding what to do with those books, it may be best to know. The fault they have found themselves in may relate directly to whether we should take their advice to heart any longer.

What if we discover a biblical scholar has plagiarized much of his work? In that case, the presses stop, the publishers pull books from the shelves and may even recall them, pulping the existing volumes so no one can ever read them again. Those are harsh measures, though they are appropriate from the viewpoint of the publisher. But how should you respond as a reader?

What if the book is on a subject in which the author has been lax? For instance, what about a book on marriage written by someone who is later revealed to be a serial adulterer? We must ask the question: Is this advice even valid? If the author was unable to apply it in his or her own life, why should I bother reading it?

The trickier subjects are those books with spiritual principles you’ve personally grown from. You read those books and they changed your life! We all have one or two of them in our bookcases, some of us even more. And when we hear an author was not as moral as hoped, we’re left wondering whether that reading experience was somehow tainted.

A Hard Decision

In that case, we are all left with a hard decision to make. Do the personal shortcomings of a minister negate the powerful work of his or her ministry? We often reach back into the Old Testament account of Balaam’s donkey to say that God can use anyone, even an unrepentant sinner, to deliver His Word. Is that the case here?

Maybe you find yourself coming to that conclusion. After all, whenever a pastor is forced aside after years of ministry due to moral failure, we don’t bring every salvation, every baptism and every discipleship into question. Those people came to know Christ because the Holy Spirit called them, not because of the moral fiber of the speaker. Yes, that’s important. But it’s not the foundation of their faith.

So, take those books off the shelf. Maybe you haven’t cracked them in a while. Start shuffling through the pages, looking for highlighted sections, red underlines or margin notations. What did you get from that book? What did those words do for you? That’s the true measure of a book. Not the writer, but what’s written.

Yes, some of those books may end up in the trashcan. I have to admit, I’ve done my share of tossing recently. But I didn’t toss all of those books, just a couple that I couldn’t bring myself to keep. Others still have a place on my bookshelf. They’re a little marred now because of recent revelations, but the principles hold up.

At the end of my life, I know that my words may be weighed by how I’ve lived my life. I live each day trying to meet that standard. But I’m not perfect. And neither are my words. After I’m gone, my written words will remain. I just hope the words I write come close to the impact of the books I’ve read. And I hope I never give anyone reason to toss any of them away.


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