In the previous post, we discovered that churches come with splash zones. When leaders take a moral dive, the painful effects spray some and soak others. We examined three common and understandable reactions to leadership failures. It was not a happy post. But in the end, the Good News always crushes the bad news.
Over the years I have noticed something remarkable about the church, even when the most scandalous or gut-wrenching trials break like tsunamis against her bow. The church lists, but never sinks. She is supernaturally unsinkable—durable and sturdy, in a startling, incomprehensible, other-worldly manner. I guess that’s a long-term benefit of being built upon a rock (Matt.16:18). Rogue or fallen leaders have been inflicting dangers, toils and snares on the church since her inception. But the church sails forward.
This amazing resilience is linked to the astounding gospel of Jesus Christ, which holds together every atom that makes up every part of her. The gospel is not only “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16), but it “train(s) us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12). Working powerfully to transform, the gospel ultimately prepares and performs “to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard” (Col. 1:22-23).
This means when leaders implode, the gospel is an integral part of the clean-up. It's purpose isn’t necessarily to protect us from the splash zone, but instead to remind us that imploding leaders were a means God used to satisfy his purpose in the gospel. If you’re wondering what that means, just do a head count on the leaders who betrayed or abused their roles to ensure Christ was crucified. From the Pharisees to the disciples, to Caiaphas and Herod and Pilate—failed leaders had a significant role in God’s plan to save sinners. As Joseph told his brothers, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good” (Gen. 50:20).
So what happens when a wounded people, soaked with the sins of another, begin to apply the gospel?
1) There Is an Autopsy
Ever been to an autopsy? I had a job once where I had to see post-autopsy cadavers. At first it was too grim to even take a peek. Eventually that changed and I was at least able to do my job. But it all began by being willing to look.
When leaders implode, something dies. I’m not suggesting it’s the leader himself, nor am I espousing a principle that ministry failure always results in ministry death. But there is a strong impulse not to look, at least at first. When death knocks and casualties pile up, we want to avoid the ‘yuck factor’ that comes with staring at death. There are also urges to fixate, not on understanding the causes of death, but on our own pain. The autopsy can wait; someone’s gotta pay!
Here the gospel speaks. From the cradle of gospel truth we are free to ask hard questions and stare at ugly answers. Before the cross we remember that sin was so despicable and damning, it required God to come from heaven and shed His blood to resolve it. Sure, an imploded leader splattered all over the church is ugly. But so are the sins of people who may judge or slander him in response. When a wounded church grasps the gospel, it reminds them that both sinned against and sinner need the gospel to move forward.
With the gospel intact, the autopsy starts with two questions:
- How were we wronged?
- How are we culpable?
There is both a past and present tense in a post-implosion autopsy. The past tense question forces us to step out of denial and acknowledge what happened. This is significant because the leaders and church must come to terms with the loss they have endured and process through it appropriately. It just won’t work to pretend the impact is irrelevant, or that real pain wasn’t inflicted. The Psalmist has no problem admitting that sin hurts (Ps. 31:9-13; 38:17; 55:1–14; 56:5-8). We shouldn’t either.
But the first question is by far the easier one. The more painful part of their recovery comes with the second question: evaluating our role in the cause of death.
Let’s be honest: It’s really easy to resist an organizational autopsy; some leader fell to earth with a thud and it’s convenient, not to mention expedient, to lay all blame at the feet of the offender. After all it’s a fallen world where, when the bus hits, you’re under it alone. But honestly, it’s unusual for a man to go down with an entirely blameless group of people around him.
I became a lead pastor after our lead guy had some problems and stepped aside. When his weaknesses came to light, it revealed ours as well. Sadly, we were slow to see this. I’m grateful for his forgiveness. It reminds me that a successful autopsy cannot be performed by a coroner unwilling to look at the body.
2) There Is Recalibration
At some point, the autopsy must be over and the corpse laid to rest. If there were lessons learned, apply them. If mistakes were made, own them. But after mourning the past and caring for those affected, the corporate hands needs to reach out and punch the reset button.
Enshrined in most legal systems is the idea of a ‘statute of limitations.’ This means that certain crimes from the past have a shelf life. There is a defined period of time where charges can be brought and a case tried. The law recognizes that it doesn’t serve society for past wrongs to be available indefinitely. Wisdom dictates limitations.
Part of recalibration is observing a statute of limitations. It’s saying, “We will, for a defined period, recognize past wrongs and their effect on our hearts and practice. We’re not robots, or the Tin Man from Oz who assumed he had no heart. But a day is coming when the ‘no fishing’ sign gets posted. After that the fallen leader is no longer the explanation for what’s going on, it’s about us before God!”
This means the elders must hit the reset by writing a new story. We say with Paul, “…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). Resetting means the fallen pastor cannot be the scapegoat for every problem. The environment of culpability and critique must give way to affirmation and forward-looking faith.
After leaders implode, we must resist the temptation to build walls and instead open the borders. The essential recalibration that takes place is moving beyond “this is what he did!” and towards “how can I grow?” This means the passports for entrance into each others lives are out and stamped. Don’t hide behind not feeling safe. No church resets after a leadership dive without everyone trusting God and stepping out. We must have the courage, humility, and honesty to open our hearts, trust God with the past, and “strain forward to what lies ahead.”
3) There Is Redemption
The gallery of faith in Hebrews 11 is stunning for many reasons. But what strikes me most deeply is how the author of Hebrews remembers people for their best moments. Tucked within the chapter are names like Samson, Rahab, and David. Some of them are leaders who rose to great heights and then tumbled into deep, dark places.
Yet there they are, appearing in Hebrews 11 like OT has-beens being offered image repair. For Samson and Rahab, it’s as if they were plucked out of the trash heap of history and buffed clean by the memories of what they did right.
What an amazing gospel grace! So potent that it remembers fallen leaders like Samson for their best moments.
Fallen leaders are not Satan. Most of them are Christians, even though they didn’t act like it. But grace reclaims the past by remembering people’s highlight reel, not simply their outtakes. This means it’s OK to bring up happy memories of the person. It’s OK to acknowledge God used their ministry in a significant way. When we can express honest gratitude for who someone was to us and the role they played in our life, we know the recovery is nearly complete.
But more important than a recovery, this is just a practical way to live as though the gospel were true. If Jesus’ death and resurrection tell us anything, it’s that the worst behavior in Christians is not the final statement of their lives. In the gospel, death results in life. As our church moves forward, we have the opportunity to look at the fallen leader through the very same lenses by which God views us, the lens of grace. It’s what happens when memories are redeemed. We allow the history of God’s grace through others, not their failures, to focus our present conversation and future hopes for them.
A Word of Hope
Leadership failure is never easy and certainly never desirable. It is, however, unendingly redeemable. God is always present in organizational sin because God is always present with his people. This means that, no matter how dire the circumstances, new life can always emerge from the fall. Through the autopsy, recalibration, and redemptive remembering, a path to genuine health is available to us. The past remains where it belongs. The hopeful pull of the gospel reminds us that, be it a fallen leader or our own fallen souls, no failure is too great that the Savior can’t redeem it.
This post was written by Dave Harvey, Pastor of Preaching at Four Oaks Church, and the Executive Director of Sojourn Network. Follow him on Twitter @RevDaveHarvey.