When Leaders Implode - Part 1

During my years of working with pastors and churches, I’ve occasionally been called upon to assist a church in crisis. Some situations I’ve handled adequately; others, probably not so much. But success and failure share one remarkable similarity—they can both serve as tutors.

Over the next two posts I will be sharing some of what I’ve learned from my successes and failures. Perhaps my review will help guide you towards the former and away from the latter. This first post seeks to paint a picture of what happens within a church when a leader falls or fails. The second post will explore how a church can rebound from the crisis through the power of the gospel.  

The Splash Zone Is Everywhere

If you’ve ever been to Sea World, you are familiar with the concept of the “splash zone.” It’s the special area of seating which guarantees that, at some point during the show, Shamu is going to dive and you are going to drip. Shamu reminds us that when big things take a dive, people get hosed. Paul reminds Timothy that leadership carries a splash zone too, one that sprays well beyond the first few rows of the sanctuary. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching,” he admonishes. “Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim. 4:16)

Whenever a person enters our church (whether physically or relationally), they pass under an invisible sign that reads “now entering the splash zone.” If the leader does not, in the parlance of Paul, “save himself,” he dives and everyone gets wet. For some it’s just a spritz; for others, a shower. But it always dampens the soul.

I’ve seen 3 common ways the soul gets soaked when a leader’s sin floods the splash zone:

1) Splashed with Suspicion

When cynicism marries skepticism in the church, suspicion is conceived.

When a pastor or leader falls into egregious sin, the church is often left feeling deceived and humiliated. It’s a collective wardrobe malfunction, where God’s people look down to find their pants around the ankles. They feel naked, embarrassed, and ashamed. Cynicism and skepticism replace confidence and trust. And when cynicism marries skepticism in the church, suspicion is conceived. Accusations spring up. “You guys preach community and accountability, you just don’t apply it!” God’s people feel duped, like finding out that the “exciting business opportunity” from your friend was nothing more than a pyramid scheme.

It’s a problem as old as the Bible. When leaders fail, God’s people—the very ones for whom Christ died—feel used, manipulated, humiliated, and destabilized (2 Tim. 2:17-18). Where once they were eager to “love the church and trust the leaders,” they now step to the side angry, afraid, and filled with uncertainty. Why? Because now going to church carries a whiff of danger. “My leader was supposed to be a man I could trust; a man who we could depend on to care for us. If he could do something like this, who else might betray me?” No matter that even the best discernment can’t easily sniff the scent of a determinedly deceptive heart. When a leader implodes, so does trust.  

2) Splashed with Self-Protection

People often deem a leader’s failure to be evidence that close friendships among leaders cannot work. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Pastors are supposed to be teaching their people how to love and serve and admonish—but they often can’t even manage it themselves. The church can assume that staff friendships tow the freight of accommodation and backroom slack-cutting; they imagine that the pastor’s office hosts more business deals than prayer meetings. And if we are honest, there are times when this is painfully accurate.

When policy-based rules become the source of our safety and the guidance for our relationships, the church becomes Siri—a pre-programmed presence, kind and knowledgeable, but possessing no ability or function to convey real empathy and soul care.

Sometimes those around the imploded leader feel particularly burned. Determined to ensure that this will never happen again, there’s a rush to waterproof the staff, eldership and church to ensure no one ever gets doused again. Policies and procedures fly out of committees to protect the church and erect an impenetrable wall against future sin and hurt. But there’s no wall high enough to protect people from the splash zone. And sometimes walls can block our sight from anticipating the next splash.

Don’t get me wrong, every church requires some degree of organizational discipline to guard the vulnerable, organize the chaos, comply with the law, and apply principles of wisdom. But laws, be it God’s or mans, have proven to be hopelessly ineffective at solving the heart issues that cause the splash. When policy-based rules become the source of our safety and the guidance for our relationships, the church becomes Siri—a pre-programmed presence, kind and knowledgeable, but possessing no ability or function to convey real empathy and soul care.

3) Splashed with Escape

In the overwhelming flood of church trauma, finding a lifeboat for escape feels essential to survival. As the ground dampens from flooding, the other leaders can have difficulty standing steady. A posture of community slides towards a posture of comfort. Leaders withdraw into their families, escape to entertainment, or hide by simply clocking in to collect a paycheck. Team relationships become functional, built chiefly on accomplishing tasks and maintaining appearances. Everyone is wearing an emotional helmet, trying not to get concussed. As the leaders turn inward, the mission embers grow cold.

The church suffers too. Godly friendships fostering personal growth seem less important, more expendable. Mutual, participatory ministry is replaced by a “coast-where-you-can” mentality. Ministries silo off and become less apt to consider the interests of other ministries in the church. When a leader’s dive soaks the splash zone, the church retreats to the safety of dry ground. Risk becomes anathema to the church as the rising tide establishes escape as the most pressing need.

Fast and Slow Effects

We can’t deny it or avoid it. Whenever leaders fail, the entire culture of the church is soaked. The damage is both explicit and implicit. The explicit costs—those easiest to identify and fastest to surface—are typically born by those closest to the crisis. Other leaders around the one diving into sin are often the first to be splashed and the ones most saturated. It’s helpful to remember that when we pray for our leaders. This is not to imply that members of the church are less profoundly affected by a leader’s implosion. Certainly not! But the leaders across the church typically occupy the front row of the splash zone. The early waves from this tsunami hits them first, with substantial force and explicit damage.

Only the gospel is sturdy enough to push back the torrent of consequences splashed over the church.

Sadly, there are also implicit results, subtle and nuanced impacts that surface over time. Just as the daily pounding of waves reshapes even the strongest coral, the implicit consequences can, over time, reshape the culture of the church. Members drenched with suspicion and looking for safety are hardly thinking about the church’s mission to the world. Remaining at the church to see where the latest wave delivers them is mission enough for the moment. After all, it’s difficult to give your raincoat to your neighbor when you’re just trying to keep yourself dry.

It all seems so dark, so bleak, so desperate! How does a church ever rebound? Only the gospel is sturdy enough to push back the torrent of consequences splashed over the church. And the good news about the Good News is that it arrives with more power than we can possibly comprehend (Rom. 1:16; 16:25; 1 Cor.15:1-2; Col. 1:5-7). But where does it start? And how do we take the steps to see gospel beauty arise from the ashes of a leader’s failure?  

Coming Up Next...

In the next post, we will consider these questions, and enjoy the exhilarating answers supplied through the gospel.


This post was written by Dave Harvey, Pastor of Preaching at Four Oaks Church, and the Executive Director of Sojourn Network. Follow him @RevDaveHarvey.