the shape of leadership

When a Minister Friend Fails

How to respond when a church scandal involves someone close to you

Chris Colvin on March 7, 2019

What do you do with those tough biblical passages? It’s easy to ignore them, skip over them and keep on reading. There are times when I love to go deep on the difficult ones, though. I roll up my sleeves and get to work.

For texts that are challenging to interpret, that means doubling down on research and finding out what the scholars think or how others have translated them over time. But there are other texts that aren’t tough to interpret, just hard to live out. I know what God’s Word is asking me to do; I’m just not sure whether I’m ready for it.

One such passage is in the letter of James. It’s convicting. It’s difficult. But it’s pretty clear. “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).

What a wonderful promise. When someone commits a horrible sin, there is hope for reconciliation. We can help turn that person back to God. The reason this is so tough for me is I’m not sure how best to do that. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I come off as overly judgmental? What if I break a friendship?

The other reason this is so hard is that I don’t really know what to do after the fact — especially with ministers. What do we do when a fellow minister commits an error that is so damaging he or she must step away from ministry — maybe for a time, maybe forever?

When It’s Too Late

Think about this problem through the lens of friendship. Recently, it seems there has been a rash of high-profile ministers who have had to leave their positions because of inappropriate behavior, unrepentant sin or uncovered misdeeds. We can sometimes read about them with detachment. We chalk it up as a morality tale, an example of what not to do. It doesn’t affect us directly. Not really.

When those stories are about close friends, however, the situation is much different. There is an emotional and relational involvement. Your immediate reaction is usually anger, sadness or disbelief. But what about your long-term response? How should you respond to a friend in ministry who has failed to live up to godly standards?

Some failures in ministry are disqualifying. Sexual sins and financial infidelity are two that usually come to mind, but certain forms of addiction may also require a pastor to step aside. While full restoration is a noble goal, we need to be wary of how quickly we put pastors back into their previous positions of authority after a fall. And that takes being honest about a few things.

Below are some things to be honest about as you sort through your emotional response to a friend who has failed in ministry.

The ripple effects of sin are often wider and reach farther than we’re willing to admit.

Be honest about your feelings. Even if you are not directly affected by the sin, your friend’s failure will have an effect on you. Lean into this rather than pushing it down. Find healthy ways to express your hurt. It may even take going to a counselor for help.

I recall one time when a close friend in ministry was forced out due to infidelity. I couldn’t help feeling sad for days on end. When I reached out to a counselor, he explained that what I was going through was a form of loss. I had to work through the full grieving process to get over it. I had to be honest about my pain.

Be honest about the extent of damage and harm the person has caused. No one can claim responsibility for all the growth of his or her church. Paul was wise enough to acknowledge that (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). Likewise, no one person can undo all the good work God has accomplished.

Nevertheless, one individual’s poor behavior, bad example or sinful action can cause damage — and a lot of it. A lying pastor can damage the reputation of the message of truth before nonbelievers. When there is a sexual affair, marriages are scarred and trust is broken. The ripple effects of sin are often wider and reach farther than we’re willing to admit.

Don’t ignore or cover up that damage. Seek to find those who are suffering, and offer help. Don’t minimize your friend’s self-inflicted wounds either. It’s never healthy to ignore the truth.

Be honest about your relationship. This sin will affect you and how you view your friend. Immediately, it may break a working relationship. But personally, it can have long-lasting results. It will tarnish your perceptions. It will leave a wound between you that needs healing.

The best way to approach reconciliation is with grace and patience. Don’t rush into restoration. It’s tempting to cover up the past and quickly move on to what’s next. But healing takes time. On the other hand, don’t carry a burden of unforgiveness. Lead with love. After all, it’s ultimately love that covers over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).

Another friend of mine also had to leave the ministry after his sins came to light. I remember finding him in his office, packing his things. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and was only able to utter the words, “I’m sorry.” There was just one thing I could do in that moment. I hugged him and told him I forgave him.

I wish I could say the wound healed instantly. It didn’t. In fact, there are scars I carry to this day in the forms of cynicism and doubt and a distrust I have about certain situations. Grace and patience with myself in the years since have helped me greatly.

The words of James go both ways, really. Sometimes we are on the giving end of grace. Other times, we’re on the receiving end. How we respond to those who have stumbled often helps determine how others react to us when we need extra grace.

I hope no one has to go through the tragedy of seeing a friend fail in ministry. But more than that, I pray that our pastors are strong enough to ask for help, to reach out when they’re weak, and to respond when they’re turned back from the brink.


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