(Photo: Leadership Network)
Any time a moral failure, such as sexual impropriety, occurs among church staff, the congregation should be told immediately. Otherwise, rumors will inevitably spread, say pastors who have gone through the experience.
"Trying to keep the failure quiet for a while is really difficult to do; rumors always start," said Pastor Craig Groeschel of LifeChurch.tv on Thursday during "The Nines" webcast.
Trying to hide a moral failure or failing to disclose the entire truth sometimes leads to rumors that are far more damaging than the truth, he warned.
That sentiment was echoed by other pastors who spoke on the issue of moral failure during the webcast, which was organized by Leadership Network.
Pastors have to communicate to the congregation, said Matt Williams, founding pastor of Grace Church in Greenville, S.C. "They don't need to hear that in the form of rumor. They need to hear it from us first."
Brad Powell, senior pastor at Northridge Church in Plymouth, Mich., also emphasized the need for transparency.
"You can't sweep it under the rug," he stressed. "A lot of pastors think they're protecting the congregation by hiding the truth but in so doing they're actually denying what Jesus said. It's the truth that'll set people free.
"If it's really as Jesus said – by our love that people are going to know we are his followers – how are they ever going to see the expression of Jesus king of love if we always sweep the difficult and the hard under the rug."
So how specific does a pastor need to get when revealing a moral failure to the congregation?
At Northridge, Powell discovered that the wife of the chairman of their elder board was having a sexual affair with a pastoral staff member who had been in a position of influence for 15 years.
After confronting the two, Powell disclosed the information to the congregation.
"We didn't hold anything back. We brought the entire truth out," he said. "The goal wasn't to tear them down, the goal wasn't to protect my image or the image of the church; the goal was to tell the truth."
While he himself felt hurt over the situation, Powell reminded viewers of the webcast that the involved parties are also hurt and that something drove them to that place of impropriety.
"We can never diminish the value of these people as we do lead them through the process of discipline and with the principles of restoration," he said.
The sin, he told his congregation, does not diminish anything the person has done in ministry. But at the same time, the impact the person has had on people's lives doesn't diminish the seriousness of the sin, Powell highlighted.
At LifeChurch.tv, which is one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the country, a worship leader had confessed to an immoral lifestyle to the church leadership.
Groeschel makes it a point to tell his church "the very next weekend." He also names the specific sin when telling the congregation but doesn't go into details.
"Some people don't think you should publicly name the sin. I disagree. I explain that a public leader's failure deserves a public explanation."
He added, "I like to say that everything you say must be true but everything that is true doesn't have to be said ... I believe in naming the specific sin (such as adultery) without giving specific details (such as with who if the other party is not on staff or how)."
Bob Roberts of Northwood Church in Keller, Texas, warned pastors that moral failures among staff are essentially inevitable especially during growth.
"I would love to tell you guys that it's never going to happen to you or maybe just one time but the longer you're in the ministry and frankly the larger your church grows, get ready, the more you're going to have to deal with it. And the best thing you can do is to prepare yourself so you're not caught unaware," he said.
You confronted the staff member and told the congregation. Now what?
If the person who fell morally in a way that disqualifies them from ministry submits him or herself to the care of the church leadership, then restoration is typically the next focus.
This process of counseling, caring for the affected families, keeping the involved parties accountable, and continuously speaking into their lives could take years.
For Peter Briscoe of Bent Tree Bible Fellowship in Carrolton, Texas, the most important aspect to the entire process is grace.
"One of the things I learned a number of years ago is that grace is doing the most loving thing," he said.
It took years for the church's worship leader to be at a good place spiritually after having committed adultery. What helped her in that process was Briscoe's care. During a worship service one Sunday evening, Briscoe had come down to the third row as he noticed that it was hard for her. He put his arm around her during worship time and then went up to preach.
For her, that was a defining moment because the point leader of this church expressed grace to her in a way that meant the world to her, Briscoe said.
While not all staff members reach the point of being recommissioned for ministry after a moral failure, some, including the Bent Tree worship leader, do.
When she was restored, the worship leader sang "Amazing Grace" at the church. "She had sung 'Amazing Grace' hundreds of times and it never sounded like that because here's a woman who experienced it," Briscoe recalled.
"God really does restore."
The theme of this year's "The Nines" two-day conference, which ends Friday, is "Too Hot to Handle: Topics That All Ministry Leaders Are Dealing With But Nobody's Talking About." Some 99 speakers submitted 5-minute videos on topics such as social justice issues, succession, PR nightmares, arrogant staff members, killing a church program, homosexuality, and pastoral obesity, among others.